Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Silicon Mechanics

After some hilariously frightening reactions from Dell support to simple problems, and HP becoming aggressively competitive on price, we’ve been using HP servers for a few years now. The hardware is good, and the support, while reasonable, always… pauses… when I mention that we’re running Debian. I try not to let it slip if I don’t have to.

We put in some HP blades a couple of years ago, and I was annoyed to discover that they have discontinued that enclosure and all the blades in it. I decided this was a good time to look at their newer options, as well as at other companies.

Back in July, I had noticed a Silicon Mechanics booth at OSCon. I noticed their slogan “experts included.” That sounds great; we’ve got software experts here, but not hardware experts, and I’d enjoy dealing with a company that knows more about their hardware than I do. I went up to their booth and asked what they’d say about us running Debian on their hardware. “That would be just fine.” “So you’d fully support it when I’m running Debian?” “Sure.” “What about management software – do you have any of that which I’d find annoying to port to Debian?” “Our servers don’t need any management software other than what comes with your kernel.” Good answers.

So, when it came time for us to decide what to do about getting a new server in here, I figured I’d call up Silicon Mechanics and see what they’d recommend. They put me on a conference call with a sales rep and an IT engineer, and wound up recommending a 1U server for us to start with, and an iSCSI storage device to address some of the storage needs we have (both for that server and others). I had heard of iSCSI only vaguely, and asked how it worked, and what the performance would be like compared to our 2Gb FC SAN. I got back intelligent (and correct) answers.

They probably spent 2 hours with me on the phone before we placed an order. I was incredibly happy with their service, level of expertise, and helpfulness. They even did a webinar to demo the management interface on the storage unit for me.

Today, the 1U server arrived. I unboxed it and set it on my desk to configure. First item: set an IP address for the IPMI card. That’s the device that lets me connect to it over a web browser and interact with the console, power cycle it, etc. as if I was there. I set an IP, but somehow couldn’t seem to figure out the username and password for the web interface.

So I called Silicon Mechanics support at the number that was included on the fridge magnet (!) that came with the shipment. Phone rang once. Then a live, capable American answered. No menus, no fuss. I asked my question. He apologized, saying, “I should know that, but I’ll have to look it up… hold on just a bit.” I had my answer about 90 seconds later. He offered to send me the full docs for the IPMI card if I wanted as well.

So I’ve been very impressed with them so far. From what I’ve heard, their iSCSI enclosure ought to be quite something as well. They even helped us spec out a switch that supports trunking for use with it.

I’ll give them a “highly recommended”.

The Best Photo Printing Services

When I first got a digital SLR camera a few years ago, I spent some time evaluating photo printing options. I sent a set of test prints to several different companies, and wound up deciding to use Shutterfly for my photo printing.

It’s been some time since then, so I figured it was about time to re-evaluate options.

There are three main things to consider when obtaining prints of photos: cost of prints, quality of prints at delivery, and longevity of prints. Many people look only at cost, and those that look past cost rarely look past quality at longevity. Longevity (or permanence) is, in my opinion, the most important factor to consider. But let’s look at all of them.


All color photo print technologies fade or otherwise degrade over time. There are several main things that can cause this: exposure to light, exposure to gases (especially ozone), and exposure to humidity. The impact of these different items varies by print technology, paper, and process.

Longevity: Traditional Photo Paper

Most services such as Shutterfly, Snapfish, Ofoto, as well as retailers such as Walmart, Target, and Walgreens print on traditional photo paper.

Historically, traditional photo paper has had terrible fading characteristics. Typically, old photos exposed to light — for instance, hanging on a wall underneath a light bulb or in the sun — will exhibit severe fade towards yellow or magenta. Modern papers are much better, but you will still not want to leave them directly in the sun or under lights.

Over at TPR, you can find several papers analyzing this. Perhaps the most interesting are test of digital prints and image permanence: comparing the technologies.

To attempt to summarize, what you see is that of the two common consumer-grade photo papers, Kodak Royal and Fuji Crystal Archive, the Fuji paper has better permanence. However, the pro-quality Kodak Professional Supra Endura is better than either of them by a significant margin. The photo papers didn’t really have a problem with humidity, and not much of a problem with ozone.

Longevity: Inkjet

So what about inkjets and laser processes? The main thing I learned from my research is that there is a tremendous amount of variance here. When looking solely at top-quality inkjet papers and inks, they ranged everywhere from having little bits of them flake off after a few months to doing better than any of the photo papers. This variance occurred even with similar papers from the same manufacturer.

As far as light exposure is concerned, every inkjet paper tested by TPR did better than Kodak Royal. Some fared about the same as Fuji Crystal Archive. And some even beat out Kodak Supra Endura.

But look at the ozone exposure test and you see a far different picture. All of the photo papers did really well, though suprisingly Supra Endura was the worst of them (though the scale is so small here that the difference is pretty minimal).

Not one of the inkjet papers came even close to that, and some faded so fast that they couldn’t even make it halfway through the test.

As far as humidity is concerned, it barely impacted the photo paper prints at all. Inkjet impacts were still mostly small, but also were mostly more impacted than the photo paper.

Longevity: Laser

And finally, how about laser prints. There was huge variety here. An HP printer they tested faded so fast it couldn’t complete the light exposure test, while a Konica-Minolta fared better than Kodak Supra Endura in one test. In another light exposure test, they performed about the same as the photo papers. Ozone had little effect on the laser papers, except for the Dell test, which faded so fast they had to abort the test early. Humidity also had little effect on the laser prints.

Longevity: Other Examples

Brett Wilson did some interesting experiments with photos hung in front of a window as well. Wilhelm Imaging also has done some research in this area, though they are done using fluorescent lights only, which is prejudicial in favor of inkjet papers and against photo papers.

For the ultimate in longevity, true black and white photo paper is well-regarded.

TPR also has a report covering different lacquer and other finishes often applied to prints to improve their longevity.

Longevity: Conclusions

With the exact right combination of inkjet paper and ink, you can get a print that will last exceptionally long. Some inkjet paper and ink combinations have really poor longevity characteristics, however, as do the laser papers.

Photo papers, especially Kodak Supra Endura, but even Fuji Crystal Archive, will last quite awhile as well, and are probably the best storage if kept in dark conditions such as an album.

Print Quality

When looking at print quality, I’m concerned with correct color balance, saturation, cropping, consistency, sharpness, contract, and detail in both dark and light areas — the typical things you’d look for.

Printing inkjet prints at home leaves all this up to your printer, inks, papers, and you, so we can’t really compare meaningfully.

Back when I looked at it, Shutterfly and Ofoto did the best. Walmart, Walgreens, dotPhoto, and many of the other online sites were really too poor to even bother with. Ofoto had a bit of a yellow tint to it, while Shutterfly did pretty well.

Most of the reviews of the major sites I’ve seen lately rank Shutterfly or Snapfish at the top in terms of quality. Many also rank Ofoto/Kodak near the top.

Walmart and Walgreens produce consistently bad results, and I only use them if all that matters is speed. If you ever read a review where somebody says that they get good results from one of those places, find a review where somebody has a better idea what they’re talking about.

Besides your mass-market sites like Shutterfly and Ofoto, there are also some slightly more expensive sites. The two best-known are and Mpix is a division of Miller’s Professional Imaging, a pro lab. Mpix is basically a website where you can submit photos in the way you would to one of these other sites, and they can do their thing. Their standard rate includes human color correction on every print, but they offer a cheaper rate if you don’t need that. Their standard paper is Kodak Pro Supra Endura (the one that ranked highest in longevity tests), and the options go up from there. They also offer printing on true black and white paper, as well as wrap-around canvas and other such options.

I’ve sent some work their way and have been exceptionally happy with the result. Everything from the color of the prints down to the packaging shows extreme care and attention to detail. Among the reviews that cover mpix — many don’t — it almost always comes out at the top of the pack, easily beating out Shutterfly and Snapfish. It can be more pricy (though sometimes actually cheaper, since shipping is flat-rate with them), though not significantly.

Adorama is also sometimes mentioned. Most people seem to prefer mpix over adorama, but some prefer adorama. It’s a bit cheaper when you don’t need color correction for some prints, but sometimes — right now, for instance — closes for weeks at a time to observe Jewish holidays. It didn’t seem to be enough for me to bother.


Perhaps the easiest to figure out is cost, since websites typically list it right there for you.

High-quality inkjet prints are by far the most expensive option. I looked at 4×6 prints. Using the high-quality paper/ink combinations that did well in the TPR tests, and when buying supplies in bulk to get the best possible discount, it’s still 25 cents or more for a single 4×6 print. That’s with doing all the color work yourself, and not even figuring in the cost of the inevitable experimenting with getting the software set up right and the wasted prints when ink gets low. It also doesn’t figure in the cost of the printer.

At mpix, if you do your own color correction, it’s 19 cents per print, plus shipping. Prints are on Kodak Professional Supra Endura Shipping is a flat rate of $3 for 50 or fewer 4×6 or smaller prints, or a flat rate of $5.95 for USPS Priority Mail for anything else. They offer FedEx at an additional cost, which maxes out at a flat rate of $12.75 for overnight shipping. Some items such as framed canvas prints are more expensive.

Other options at an additional cost include color correction by a human, metallic paper, Ilford B&W paper, etc. There are also some more typical pro-lab options: red-eye removal by a human, custom retouching, etc.

At Shutterfly, a 4×6 print goes for 15 cents. You can get them as low as 10 cents if you buy a pre-paid plan of 600 prints for $60. Shipping varies based on the number of prints, starting at $1.79 for up to 10 prints, ranging up to $21 for 500 prints, with 3 cents per print after that. Priority and express mail is available at an additional charge. Shutterfly’s standard paper is Fuji Crystal Archive.

At Snapfish, a 4×6 print goes for 9 cents. You can get them as low as 8 cents if you buy a pre-paid plan of 250 prints. Shipping at Snapfish follows a complicated formula, but is generally approximately the same as Shutterfly. Though if you print more than 595 prints, watch out for the 10 cents per print overage fee. They don’t state what paper they use. Recent reports seem to suggest that it’s Fuji Crystal Archive, but some reports claim it’s Kodak Royal.

My Conclusions

I’m planning to switch most of my prints to mpix — their higher quality and cheaper shipping offset their higher per-print cost for me. Also, I plan to try out Snapfish and see what sort of quality I get from them for things where quality isn’t really that critical.

Towards Better Bookmark Syncing: and diigo

I use Firefox (well, Iceweasel) from several machines. On a daily basis, at least three: my workstation at home, my workstation at work, and my laptop. I have wanted to have my bookmarks synced between all three of them for some time. I’ve been using unison to sync them, which mostly works. But firefox likes to store a last-visited timestamp in bookmarks.html, so if I have a browser open at more than one place, I get frequent unison conflicts.

I started searching for better alternatives again, and noticed that the new alternative plugin for Firefox supports a version of the traditional Firefox Bookmarks Toolbar. I use that toolbar a lot, and anything I use in place of standard Firefox bookmarks absolutely must support something like it.

I imported my Firefox bookmarks (about 900 or so) into They arrived OK, but flattened, as doesn’t have a hierarchical structure like Firefox does. After a good deal of experimentation, I have mostly gotten it working how I want. I’m using the bundles mode of the extension toolbar in Firefox, and simulating subfolders by using certain tags. It works fine; not quite what I’d want out of it ideally, but everything else is so much better that I’m happy with it.

The social bookmarking aspects of sound interesting, too, but I haven’t started trying to look at that stuff very much yet. Delicious also has a new “Firefox 3” extension that also is documented to work fine in Firefox 2. It has a few new features but nothing I care all that much about.

My main gripe at this point is that the Firefox extension doesn’t allow me to set things as private by default. It also doesn’t propogate my changes to the site immediately, which led to a considerable amount of confusion initially. On the plus side, it does do a synchronization and store a local cache, so I can still use it offline to load up file:/// links.

Some things about bug me. There are very limited features for editing things in bulk (though Greasemonkey scripts help here). It has a published API, but seems quite limited (I couldn’t find out how, in their documentation, to add a tag to an existing bookmark, for instance.) lets you export all your bookmarks, so you have freedom to leave. Also, if you poke around on, you can find Free Software alternatives that actually emulate APIs and sites.

I also looked at alternatives, and it seems that the most plausible one is Diigo. But I’m going to refuse to use it right now for two reasons: 1) its Firefox plugin has nothing like the Firefox bookmarks toolbar, and 2) its hideous Terms of Service. If you go to their ToS and scroll down to “Content/Activity Prohibited”, you’ll see these gems:

6. provides any telephone numbers, street addresses, last names, URLs or email addresses;

7. promotes information that you know is false or misleading or promotes illegal activities or conduct that is abusive, threatening, obscene, defamatory or libelous;

11. furthers or promotes any criminal activity or enterprise or provides instructional information about illegal activities including, but not limited to making or buying illegal weapons, violating someone’s privacy, or providing or creating computer viruses;

So, in other words, they can delete me account if I bookmark the contact page, or if I bookmark the opinions of someone I disagree with. Good thing the Vietnam War protesters in the 70s didn’t use Diigo, because they’d be kicked off if they wrote about their sit-ins at Berkeley. Also, I didn’t even quote the other section that says they get to remove anything you post that they think is offensive, in their sole judgment. Goodbye, links to EFF’s articles about RIAA.

Since we can’t use last names, I guess it’s just “Hillary” and “John” instead of “Clinton” and “McCain”. Oh, and don’t get me started about the folly of operating a social bookmarking site where you aren’t allowed to post URLs. That’s right up there with Apple releasing a Windows version of Safari that you aren’t allowed to install on PCs.

Compare that to the terms and privacy policy and the contrast is stark indeed.

LinuxCertified Laptop LC2100S

As you might know from reading my blog, at my workplace, we have largely standardized on Linux on the desktop and laptop.

We use systemimager to maintain a standard desktop image and a separate standard laptop image. These images differ because there are different assumptions. The desktop machines mount /home over NFS, authenticate to LDAP, etc. This doesn’t work on laptops. Moreover, desktops don’t use network-manager or wifi, but laptops do.

Our desktop image uses Debian’s hardware autodetection — plus a little hacking in /etc/init.d/gdm — to automatically adjust to a wide range of hardware. So far this has worked well.

Laptops are much more picky. Our standard laptop model had been the HP nc4400 — a small and light 12″ model that people here loved. HP discontinued that model. Their replacement was the 2510p. We ordered one in here for evaluation. Try as we might, we couldn’t get it to suspend and resume properly in Linux.

So I went out scouring the field of Linux laptops. Companies such as Emperor Linux buy retail laptops from people like Lenovo, test them for Linux, and sell them — at a premium. These were too expensive to justify at the quantities we need them.

Then I stumbled across Linux Certified. I’d never heard of them before. I called them up and asked a few questions. They don’t buy retail laptops, but instead have OEMs in Taiwan build laptops to their spec. They happen to use the same OEM that Fujitsu does, I believe. (No big company builds laptops in the USA these days). I asked them about wifi chipsets, video chipsets, whether they use stock kernels. I got clueful answers to all of these.

So we ordered one of their LC2100s models. They didn’t offer Debian preinstalled, but did offer Ubuntu, so I selected that. The laptop arrived a couple of days (!!) later, configured with the particular CPU, etc. that I selected.

I was surprised at the thrill I felt at taking a brand new laptop out of its box, turning it on, and watching Grub appear before my eyes. Ubuntu proceeded to boot. I then of course installed our regular Debian image on the thing to check it out.

It needed a kernel and xserver-xorg-video-intel from lenny, as well as the ipw3945 driver for wifi, but otherwise worked with the exact same software as our HP nc4400 image. (In fact, it wasn’t hard to support both laptops with that image, since both use a lot of Intel hardware.) The one trick was making hibernate call /etc/init.d/ipw3945d stop so that the ipw3945 module could be unloaded before suspend. (Why this particular chipset needs a daemon is beyond me, but oh well.)

The hardware is great. As far as I know, the ipw3945 was the only component that wasn’t directly and automatically supported by DFSG-free software in lenny main. The screen is sharp and high-contrast (it’s glossy, which I personally don’t like, but I bet our users will). The device itself feels sturdy. It’s small and dense. I haven’t opened it up, but it looks like all you need is a screwdriver to do so.

The only downside is that they don’t sell docking stations for it. Their standard answer on that is to buy a USB docking station. That’s a partial answer, but can’t handle power or video like a standard docking station will.

Also, the LC2100s is much cheaper than the HP laptop, even when configured when nicer specs in every way. That is no doubt partially due to the lack of the Windows tax.

I’m sending off an order for 4 more today, I believe.

Review: Terk TV38 Antenna

Last year, as we were planning our move, I knew we would need to buy a new TV antenna. According to AntennaWeb (a very useful site), we are in the violet (or “fat chance”) zone for several TV stations. Add to that the fact that we have a tin-covered building pretty much in the direct path to several of the transmitter. Metal buildings often cause “multipathing”, where a signal bounces off buildings and arrives multiple times at the antenna. This causes ghosting on analog signals and can cause problems getting a signal lock on digital ones. We also have a fairly long run from the antenna to the receiver (a MythTV box) and are wanting to receive digital signals. Not only that, but the TV transmitters are in different areas about 40 degrees apart, and most high-gain antennas are also highly directional. So it’s a difficult situation.

So in our situation, an outdoor antenna is a must. At our old place, we had used the best outdoor antenna Radio Shack sold. Despite having more friendly reception conditions, it didn’t work well.

After a good deal of research, I bought a Terk TV38 outdoor antenna from Amazon. It comes with:

  • The antenna, at a large 12.5 feet long, 9.25 feet wide, 2.6 feet high (though packaged in a much smaller carton)
  • A 5-foot mast
  • Chimney mount
  • Wall mount
  • Transformer (for direct connection to coax cabling)
  • Various mounting hardware

It comes with the hardware you need to mount it in an attic or attach it to an exterior wall or chimney in most situations. However, we wanted to attach it to the roof directly, so we purchased a tripod mount from RadioShack for that purpose. I had also purchased some quad-shield RG6 coax from Cat5ECableGuy.Com.

I assembled the antenna on the ground. That took some time, but wasn’t difficult. But this was in winter, a fairly wet winter, and I knew that weather wouldn’t cooperate well enough for us to get the antenna up on our roof safely some Saturday for a few weeks. So I thought I’d just leave the antenna on the ground for a little while, hook it up, and see if we get anything. I put it on the ground, aimed it about in the middle of the TV transmitters, and went to set up the MythTV.

I was shocked to discover that, even with the antenna on the ground, I got a perfect digital picture on all channels but one. Once we got the antenna mounted on the roof, reception has been perfect. I’ve had no need for actuators (to rotate the antenna) or amplifiers. Just the antenna itself, even with the long coax run, has performed quite well.

For anyone that needs an outdoor antenna, I highly recommend the Terk TV38.

Review of Flickr

Those of you that look at photos on my blog may have noticed that I recently switched from a self-hosted Gallery2 installation to the popular photo-sharing site Flickr.

I initially decided to try Flickr for a simple reason: digikam’s image upload to Gallery2 has never worked for me, and I hoped that its Flickr upload would work (it did).

I had heard good things about Flickr from friends and colleagues, so I gave it a try.

First Impressions

Almost the first thing I noticed about Flickr was that there are people there that are interested in the same things I’m interested in. I discovered the Anabaptist History group. I’ve been contacted by a person in North Dakota that is interested German-speaking Russians, as my ancestors were. There are groups about Debian, classic-style black & white photography on digital cameras, and really just about any topic. These groups contain both discussions and a photo “pool” to which any group member can post.

In one sense, Flickr is social networking via photography.

Flickr also seems to be a company with a clue. It has tons of open APIs, permitting everything from flickrfs (mount flickr as a FUSE filesystem) to countless uploaders, mashups, scripts, etc. Despite a couple of recent high-publicity controversies, they seem to be laid back overall and haven’t been turned into a corporate drone by Yahoo. There’s an RSS feed for just about everything, too.

What is Flickr?

Depends on what you want it to be. It could be that place where you post your cell phone’s snapshots, or a place to share photos with family in private, or just a place to find other’s work.

I found sharing and talking with others to be infectious. I went from never getting comments on photos on my Gallery2 site to wondering what people will think — and looking at their photos too.

Let’s look at its different aspects in more detail.

Uploading Photos

You can upload photos manually with a HTTP form, or you can use any of the numerous uploading tools. Most of these will let you scale down your images on the fly, should you wish to. Most will also let you assign tags and write descriptions as they’re being posted, as well as define who can view the photos. Uploaders are available for every common platform.

Flickr has a AJAX tool called the Organizr that helps you assign tags, add photos to groups, put them in sets, etc. It’s fairly nice.

Sharing Photos

Making photos available to the public is easy. You can just them them a link to your photostream. You can also tag photos and give people a link to photos with a specific tag. And you can create sets — photos around a specific theme.


Each photo can be made visible to: just you, just your contacts marked “family”, just your contacts marked “friend”, any of your contacts, or anyone at all. This can be defined per photo.

On a global basis, you can define whether you make EXIF information visible on the site, default security for new uploads, who can post comments, who can post photo notes or add tags, and who can use the “all sizes” button.

You can also control how much of your profile to make public. Settings range from making everything public to concealing even your email address.

For sets, you can also send out a “Guest Pass” (GP). A GP lets someone that is not a Flickr member see non-public photos. I use GPs to share family photos, so that family doesn’t have to create a Flickr account to see them. GPs can be tied only to sets.


Flickr groups appear to have been designed for discussions, but I find them most attractive because each group has its own dedicated photo pool. Members of the group can add their photos to the pool. Some groups have tens of thousands of photos, and others a few dozen. It’s an interesting way to find images. There are a lot of group management tools as well.

Free vs. Paid Accounts

Free account holders can upload up to 100MB of photos per month. There is no cap on bandwidth consumed by views of photos or management of them. Free users can create up to 3 sets and put photos in up to 10 groups.

The photostream for free account holders will show only their 200 most recent photos. Additionally, the “All Sizes” button will max out at the Large size, which generally will be 1024 pixels along the longest side.

Paid accounts are $25/year and include unlimited upload bandwidth (10MB max per photo though), unlimited photostream size, unlimited sets, and removal of all ads on the site. Additionally, the original upload is made available to you. If you have enabled the All Sizes button, it’s also made available to the public. One nice thing is that with a free account, all that data is saved, even if it isn’t available. So if you later upgrade to Pro, it’s all there.


Flickr sells prints of your photos for $0.15 each. As with viewing, you can designate who can purchase prints of your photos. I ordered a test batch and they turned out very nice — approximately the same quality as Shutterfly, which is one of the better consumer-quality labs. They are a bit pricier than Shutterfly when buying in bulk, though the convenience of all the Flickr uploaders may make up for that.


There are a few things that bug me.

One is that the “All Sizes” button is either on or off. Once I upgraded to pro, suddenly my original size images were available. There is no way with a pro account to limit image availability to the 1024xwhatever size like there is with free — either you give people the medium size only (500xwhatever) or you give them everything. Those that want to have the originals on Flickr generally upload twice: once in original size, kept private; and another resized to 1024xwhatever, made public.

It is also complex for some people to join Flickr. Several of our family and friends had trouble with the signup process, since you first have to create a Yahoo account, then a Flickr one, which can use a different username. It’s a nice flexibility, but overly complex for people that just want to sign up quickly. Guest Passes have received rave reviews however — with the one caveat that the guest pass URLs aren’t bookmarkable (they set a cookie and then redirect to the real target).

There is also no built-in way to see all the new photos in the groups you’re a member of. However, each group’s pool has an RSS feed so I have just subscribed to them with bloglines.


Overall I am happy with Flickr. I will be migrating my Gallery2 install to it, and will not miss having to maintain Yet Another PHP Script on my server. The best part about Flickr is the community, which has already taught me about, which I’ll write about tomorrow.

Online Internet Bank Review

Back in mid-2000, I set up my first Internet bank account. I have been
using the same bank ever since. The whole notion of Internet banks has
changed a lot since then, since virtually every bank offers varying degrees
of online access these days. Lately I checked on banks to see if I was
still using the best one. Here are my reviews of
the two banks.

Internet Banks

Let’s first talk about what makes a bank an “Internet bank” or “online
bank”. So many banks let you manage your account online now, that the
distinction is blurry. But generally, I would say that unique features of
Internet banks are:

  • Significantly higher interest rates than traditional banks
  • Ability to open an account online or by mail, and perform all banking
    functions without visiting the bank in person
  • Free bill payment services
  • Free self-initiated electronic transfers from your other bank
  • Immediate, real-time posting of transactions
  • Your own bank never imposes a fee for using an ATM card at another
    bank’s ATM
  • Web access to account info, history, canceled check images, and
  • Toll-free number for account basics (balance, transfer between your
    accounts at the bank, etc) over the phone
  • Great telephone customer support
  • An absence of outlandish fees

There are a few to highlight.

Real-time transaction posting is a great thing to have. If you go
to the website and transfer money from your savings to your checking
account, you can go to the ATM *now* and withdraw it, and when you get back
to your desk, the ATM transaction shows up. There are none of these
confusing “business day” rules with cutoff times that traditional banks
seem to love. And none of this annoying “process all withdrawals first”
business that large traditional banks (hello, Bank of America) love to do
in order to screw with customers.

High interest rates. Don’t even bother with an online bank if the
savings interest rate is less than 3% (or checking less than 1%, in my
opinion). It is almost impossible to find a traditional bank with these

Note: if you’re reading this after April, 2007, these guidelines may no
longer apply due to interest rate changes.

Electronic transfers from other banks. Another great feature. A
number of banks let you set up, and then initiate, electronic transfers to
and from your accounts at other banks. This is usually free if you are
using the feature to transfer money into your account, and with a flat
per-transaction fee (usually about the same as a foreign ATM fee) for
transferring money out.

Ability to do all business without visiting a branch. Not only
should this be possible, but routine business (such as making deposits)
should be easy to do without visiting a branch. You should be able
to order new checks online.

Now let’s look at the individual banks.

First Internet Bank of Indiana

FirstIB (they provide nationwide
service, despite the name) is the bank I signed up with in 2000. I had
found a bank in Dallas that I really liked, but when I moved to
Indianapolis, I tried two and liked neither. They all seemed to have
really poor interest rates, offer few useful services, and fees for so many
conditions that it was hard to avoid them. (More on that in the
traditional banks section below)

I looked at the online banking scene at the time, and wound up opening a
checking and savings account with FirstIB. FirstIB started as an
online-only bank, but recently acquired a bricks-and-mortar bank as well.

I found FirstIB’s customer service
at the time to be top-notch; I would dial their toll-free number, select
*one* option from a menu, and a rep would answer *immediately*. (Take
that, Bank of America, with your 45-minute hold times…) Since FirstIB
was based in Indianapolis, I actually visited their offices a couple of
times. They had a locked lobby. You picked up a phone, pressed 0, and
went into the same queue that callers to the 800 number did, then just
asked them to come to the lobby and transact your business. (They would
not give out cash there, but could take new account paperwork and deposits
and the like)

Their interest rates have consistently outperformed traditional banks, and
they offer all the online banking amenities listed above. They did not
offer online statements at first, but these days online statements are the
norm (there is a fee if you want paper statements). Check ordering is
accomplished using a linking with the Deluxe check printers. The web
interface uses Digital Insight, and the ACH transfer
interface uses CashEdge.

FirstIB will actually reimburse you, at the end of the month, for ATM fees
that other banks charge you, up to $6/mo. They also provide an
unlimited supply of free postage-paid deposit envelopes, and have a PDF of
deposit slips that you can print out should you run out.

FirstIB’s customer service has slipped in recent times. I know of some
people that have been impacted by some errors that FirstIB has made (simply
not processing paperwork that they should have processed). Wait times have
gone up for the phone line, and a lot of the great “small bank” feel (where
they actually knew their customers, and you might actually know the reps)
is gone.

Presidential Bank, FSB

Presidential Bank is the bank I’m looking at now. I was initially drawn to them by their extraordinarly
high interest rates (5.25% for savings!), but some other things have
convinced me to use them.

Initially, I was suspicious. Presidential is a bricks-and-mortar operation
that has been around for awhile, and was one of the very first Internet
banks. Their website says that they started offering Internet accounts in
1995, and very much looks like it hasn’t been updated since. (Thankfully,
the account management interface is more modern). I almost thought the
site was a fraud up front, a “too good to be true” deal with the high
interest rates and bad-looking website. But after doing some research,
realized that it is quite real.

Before setting up accounts with them, I had a few questions (such as
whether or not transactions post in real time). Presidential has a simple
email address for people that want to send in questions (unlike FirstIB’s
obvious queue system). I sent an email, and got a response an hour or two
later, from a real person with a first and last name, and a personal e-mail
address I could use to follow up. Nice. I also had occasion to talk to
people on the phone. They were polite, speedy, and helpful.

So I set up my accounts with them. I activated the online access, bill
payment, and money transfer features. All worked as expected. I did have
a couple more occasions to call them after the account was set up (a more
crucial test than the pre-account calls), and they remained helpful.
Strangely, this bank, which seems to be a much larger operation than
FirstIB, had a more small bank feel. Several times, as I started talking
to a rep, he or she would say something like “Oh, I remember processing the
setup paperwork on this account last week” or “I think I talked to you
about this before?”

Customer service is one of those things you rarely need after the first
month or so of an account. But with your bank, it is vital that the reps
know what they are doing and are willing to help you when you call — which
Presidential is doing better than FirstIB these days.

Presidential does not rebate ATM fees like FirstIB does. They do provide a
few deposit envelopes with your initial account setup packet, but they are
not postage paid or unlimited. However, because Presidential’s interest
rates are so much better than FirstIB’s, it doesn’t take much in your
account to more than balance out that difference. Plus, with so many
retail stores offering “cash back” when you use an ATM or debit card, it
isn’t too bad to get cash for free with Presidential. (And, most employers
offer direct deposit, so we rarely use deposit-by-mail) One other trick is
to find some local bank and open a no-minimum free checking account with
them. You can deposit checks there and withdraw cash from their ATM, and
use Presidential’s free incoming ACH to electronically transfer the funds
to Presidential when you get too much in the local account. (Chances are
that these local accounts will not pay any interest)

Presidential offers a few features FirstIB does not. First, they scan all
your deposits (not just your canceled checks) and offer to let you view
them online. Secondly, they automatically send you an email when they’ve
received a bank-by-mail deposit (you can opt out of that, of course).
Third, they let you view *all* of your old statements online
(FirstIB only lets you view the last 6 months worth, though both have the
complete history available in the web interface).

Like FirstIB, Presidential uses DigitalInsight for the web
interface and CashEdge for the ACH feature.

Internet Bank Comparison
Both banks offer two primary checking and two primary savings accounts. This
table compares all four accounts.

Feature Checking Savings
FirstIB Presidential FirstIB Presidential
Account Interest Free Internet Plus Internet Money Mkt Reg Premier Internet
APY 1.26% 0% 4.50% 1.25% 3.90% 2.75% 5.25% 1.50-2.50%
Min Balance $500 $0 $1000 $500 $4000 $1000 $0 $100
Min Method Avg Daily Daily Avg Daily Daily
Min to Open $100 $25 $1500 $500 $100 $100 $5000 $100
Online Bill Pay $0 $4.95/mo $0 $5.95/mo (up to 10 payments) Not available
ATM surchage rebate $6 $0 $0 $0
Online Canceled Check Images Free N/A
Online Deposit Images No Free No Free
Email Deposit Notifications No Free No Free
Email Balance Alerts Free
ACH policy Free when initiated at other end; free for deposits when initiated at the bank’s website; small fee for withdrawals when initiated at bank’s website

Online options at traditional banks

As I mentioned, Presidential is a traditional bank that has offered
Internet accounts for some time now. Some other traditional banks do that
as well, but look carefully at them, especially if they’re a big nationwide

I looked at options from Bank of America, Citibank, HSBC USA, ETrade Bank,
and some other large national banks. In general, these were just regular
bank accounts with a web interface (HSBC and ETrade being somewhat of
exceptions). Read the fine print and you’ll find poor interest rates and
traditional banking hassles (lack of immediacy in transactions, predatory
posting practices, fees for just about everything).

Plus I can tell from
personal experience that Bank of America customer service is downright
awful. One example: they used to pressure me to open a credit card with
them every time I visited a branch. I declined every time, and had to be
forceful about it sometimes. Then one day, not long after a visit with a
particularly annoying employee, I got a Bank of America credit card —
which I had specifically refused — in the mail. Hmmmmmm.

They also, unlike any other bank I’ve ever used, charged a fee to
receive wire transfers. Which they had not disclosed. Then, of
course, they apply withdrawals before deposits, and caused an overdraft
from the undisclosed fee, even though the wire transfer was a *deposit* that
would have very easily covered it. That was the last straw for me. After
nearly an hour on the phone with them, I got them to agree to reverse both
the fee and the overdraft charge. THEN I said I wanted to close my

When traditional banks are better

There are a few situations where Internet banks don’t work out so well:

Living paycheck to paycheck. If you are constantly running out of
money, and it is vital that any deposits get posted *NOW*, you probably
don’t want an Internet bank (and wouldn’t benefit from their higher
interest anyway). When you mail in a check, it can take some time before
you have access to the money; the postal service has to deliver it, and
then most of your checks will be subject to the “non-local” availability
policy and held for about a week (though interest will start to accrue

Not being able to meet minimum balances. Internet banks do tend to
offer a variety of accounts, but if you aren’t able to regularly maintain
$500 to $1000 in your checking account or $2000 to $5000 in your savings,
you will likely fall into a category with lower interest and fewer free
benefits. These accounts may not have many benefits over traditional
banks, and may in fact be worse in some ways. The interest rate gap won’t
make that much of a difference either. There are several online banks that
offer savings accounts only, with high interest rates and low minimums,
that you may want to investigate — though you will have availability into
your checking account measured in days, not seconds. Presidential’s
savings has no minimum, but requires $5000 to open. (They do have
lower-interest savings accounts without that requirement) Watch out for FirstIB’s accounts; you can open an account with less than the monthly minimum balance, and will run into fees unless you deposit enough to meet the minimums.

Review of VPSLink

Back in June, I wrote about my switch to VPSLink for my virtual private server (VPS) host.

Now it’s 6 months later, my initial contract is up, and it’s time to consider whether to renew it.

Overall, VPSLink has worked out reasonably well. I have their Link-4 plan, which provides 512MB RAM, 20GB of disk storage, and 500GB of bandwidth for $40/mo (or down to $33/mo if you pay for 12 months in advance).

Reliability and Uptime

VPSLink has been reasonably reliable. I wouldn’t say that they have been exceptionally reliable, though.

Some outages:

  • Back in July, the server was down for more than 8 hours. vpslink support blamed it on filesystem corruption; they rebooted, the system came up, FS went into readonly mode, so they went back down for fsck. I don’t know what FS they use.
  • In October, an outage of about 30-60 minutes that apparently was due to load problems on the host. The control panel also was broken during this time. Apparently there is a reboot queue, and the system can only reboot one customer’s VPS at a time, and everybody wanted to reboot. But the UI was not really designed for this situation and presented very confusing status messages.
  • In November, a kernel panic caused an outage of about 60 minutes.
  • Various other outages that were resolved fast enough that I never emailed them about it.

They have generally responded to support requests in a reasonable amount of time, and support has been approximately as helpful as I’d expect.

Overall, there’ve been a few issues but, aside from that 8-hour outage in July, nothing especially remarkable.

Automated Tools

VPSLink has a “control panel” where you can reboot, start, or stop your virtual machine. You can see how much bandwidth you’ve used in a month, your IPs, and billing information.

You can also create support requests and view the status of support requests there. You can also view all correspondence on a given ticket, and add new correspondence to it — a nice touch that’s useful if your email is down because your VPS is down.

The reboot/start/stop facility didn’t work during one outage, though.


The 20GB of disk space is nice to have, though I never used it all. No complaints there.

But the memory setup is rather strange. This may be because VPSLink is using OpenVZ instead of its more popular (and featureful) commercial counterpart Virtuozzo, or something such as Xen.

Those that have used OpenVZ/Virtuozzo know there is a /proc/user_beancounters file in the virtual environment that reports on the limits of resources allocated to your virtual server. VZ lets the server admins regulate the amount of resident RAM, swap, inodes, pending IP connections, amount of virtual RAM, etc, etc. About 3 dozen items in total.

Unlike some companies like JohnCompanies, VPSLink was not willing to make any adjustments to this file for me. For instance, my mail server may need more simultaneous open files than they have by default, but they wouldn’t work with me to make reasonable adjustments.

But the larger problem was with regard to RAM. This was particularly annoying. VPSLink does not permit any access to swap, so the 512MB is what you get. But tools like top show the entire memory allocation on the host, and are mostly useless in tracking down your own usage.

You can look at the privvmpages entry in /proc/user_beancounters to get an idea of your current usage, but that’s it. There is a script on their wiki that will turn this into a more useful number, but again, it’s not the most helpful.

The minute you try to allocate anything past 512MB, your processes start getting killed. According to /proc/user_beancounters, even though my system normally hovers around 70% of that 512MB allocated, I’ve had 290,567 instances where a process has been refused its request to allocate memory since the last reboot. Such instances usually cause a process to crash.

Other Virtuozzo companies like JohnCompanies will give you “burstable RAM”, so if others aren’t using their full RAM allocation at the moment that your machine goes over your regular limit, you can go over it to a certain extent. That was very effective at preventing crashes during times of higher than usual memory usage, and I never had trouble with this at JohnCompanies.

I’ve had a lot of trouble with VPSLink because of these hard, no-exceptions limits. Getting hit by the Google bot at the same time as the MSN bot could raise memory usage enough that processes would start getting killed. Depending on which process it is, it could take down cron, apache, the mail server, whatever. And there is no log of which processes die because of this.

In normal circumstances, this wouldn’t pose even a noticeable impact to a server; inactive bits could be swapped out, etc.

I am also suspicious of exactly how OpenVZ calculates memory usage. Since moving to a physical Linux box, my memory usage seems to be much lower than the privvmpages would seem to indicate, even though it’s running the exact same code.

So I had some outages on my server that were caused by OpenVZ memory limits, which didn’t get listed in the overall outages above.

This problem is the #1 reason I’m leaving VPSLink.


Overall performance has been acceptable. The CPU speed appears to be reasonable and about as expected.

The disk performance has been more problematic, however. It tends to be rather slow. There have been times when I can type “ls” in a directory with about 10 files and it takes 5-10 seconds to respond. And I wasn’t even using “-l”.

Now that sort of thing is certainly the exception. But it makes databases — and websites that rely on databases — very slow.

The performance measurements over at RealMetrics also show VPSLink as being at the bottom of the pack for disk performance.


VPSLink is a reasonable value, and if monthly cost is important to you, probably a good choice. Don’t expect it to be spotless, though. I would call the overall experience pretty average. Nothing too spectacular in either direction in any respect.

Two Stores I Like

There are a lot of places to buy stuff from online. Two favorites are cat5ecablguy and B&H Photo & Video.

First, cat5ecableguy. Well, despite the name, he sells cat3, cat5e, cat6, cable — both patch cables and bulk — as well as other things like speaker wire, jacks, coaxial cable, etc. He’s got quality products and almost always the cheapest around. It’s not unusual to see him selling things at about half the normal price.

I bought a lot of stuff from when we remodeled one room in our current house — bulk cable, keystone jacks, and keystone plates, mostly. We also buy from him at work — mostly patch cables there. He has prompt shipping and is great to work with. He’s even been helping me track down black CAT6 keystone jacks for our remodel project.

Second, B&H Photo. It seems like if you use a service like or froogle to find good prices on things like cameras, TVs, etc., that there are a whole bunch of companies that advertise good prices but then call you to “confirm” an order, only to use high-pressure tactics to sell you way overpriced accessories. Some of them even go so far as to cancel orders for people that don’t purchase the accessories. Others just have bad prices or sell “grey market” merchandise (stuff intended for a non-US market that doesn’t have a valid US warranty) without mentioning it.

This is not B&H. B&H has a bunch of high-quality stuff, good prices (often not the absolute lowest, but certainly among the lowest, and usually the lowest trustworthy store), and good service. They have some large print catalogs you can request as well.

I was surprised to see recently that they’ve added pro audio to their lineup, so when I got a digitial audio recorder, I got it from them. It was a $500 item or so. They called me to confirm the order — on a *Sunday* morning no less — but with them, that really is all it is. “Did you place an order for xyz from us?” “Yes.” “OK, I’ve released it for shipping. Do you have any questions for us?” “No.” “OK, thanks for using B&H.”

I’m not quite sure why they call to confirm some orders, but I think it’s a fraud protection measure.

So anyway, I haven’t been paid to write these comments, and neither place even knows I’m doing this. I just wanted to pass along my experiences with two very nice, clueful, and honest retailers.

New hosting provider: VPSLink

Thanks to all of the helpful comments people left in response to my last post about hosting. I got some really helpful hints from them — including the one I eventually followed, to VPSLink.

I wound up going with VPSLink. Their prices are amazing and the performance is good, too.

I have to admit — I shot myself in the foot not once, not twice, but three times. The shorewall config I was using on my old VPS (which was hosted under UML) apparently doesn’t work well under OpenVZ (used at VPSLink). By “doesn’t work well”, I mean “blocks all traffic to or from the host on startup”.

So, I had rsynced over everything from my old host to the new, and rebooted the new. But it didn’t come back up. I was pretty sure this was why. I dropped off a ticket to the VPSLink folks asking them to please rm /etc/init.d/shorewall for me.

60 minutes later, they had done it. (And it looks like a bug in their ticket system prevented it from being flagged as “emergency” — they said they would have done it faster otherwise.)

I then tried to fix shorewall, and it looked like it was working, so I put the init script back and rebooted. Same problem! They fixed it again in about 60 minutes. (The ticket still had normal priority)

Finally, I deleted shorewall entirely, then rsynced my old host to the new one. Things looked good, so I rebooted…. and yes, guess what, that rsync brought back shorewall so it got hosed YET AGAIN. ARGH. This was now well into the overnight hours, but they still helped me out.

All in all, I am so far VERY impressed with VPSLink. I heartily recommend them. I’ll be sure to post updates as time goes by.

Regarding Memset, my current provider: Really great company. I heartily recommend them, too. My needs for RAM just wouldn’t be ecnomical under their current plans, but they are usually competitive. I also have experience with JohnCompanies. I used them way back when they only did FreeBSD VPSs, on through the Linux days, and we currently use their services at work. These are also great folks and I would recommend them to anyone. Like Mako’s suggestion of Rimuhost, both memset and JohnCompanies are “quality first” providers — not necessarily cheapest, but their systems work as advertised and are almost never down, and they support you with experienced Unix admins. BTW, Memset’s current plans use Xen and JohnCompanies uses Virtuozzo.