September, 1999 - NT Internet Goodies
by Andy Bruce
A Critical Alert
As I write these lines, my computer is busy downloading self-proclaimed "critical updates" from the Microsoft Web site. A couple of articles ago, I went over the Microsoft site looking for the free software available there (mostly Internet Explorer). As part of that download, I also downloaded the "Critical Updates" application. Since that time, I get notified periodically about new Windows features without having to scan any Web sites. I recommend this to anyone wanting to stay current on their Windows installation without having to remember to go to the Web. You can get everything you need from http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com/. (My only complaint is that often times I can't connect to the site; perhaps they're using Microsoft Web Server on NT?)
Can That Spam
Before we look at free TCP/IP software, I've got to point out a neat (and relatively cheap) application that I use. It's called AtGuard (http://www.atguard.com/, $30, 30-day free trial) and its primary claim to fame is in suppressing ad content from your HTML pages. This is more valuable than you might think--apart from the irritation of seeing a bunch of unrequested information, you also pay a time cost for downloading the GIFs associated with the ads. After I downloaded the software (and went through a painless installation), it started filtering ads immediately. I assume (since it's all done via TCP/IP) that the software updates itself automatically as the advertisers themselves change their tactics. In this sense, ads are much like viruses!
However, I was most impressed by a different set of features. It turns out that you can look at your active TCP/IP connections (and which applications own these connections) and see all your network traffic! Since I write network and OS performance monitors, I got some much-needed inspiration about how to track this data. And the statistics display itself I found to be most enlightening.
Whisper in Your Ear...
I've got so many passwords and user names that I can't keep up with all of them. I was writing them in a little document (and that worked fine), but I found a nice program that keeps up with them for me! It's called Whisper32 and you can find it (along with a number of other free password management programs) at http://www.pcwin.com/freeware/prod/pwdorganizer.asp. Whisper32 is a freeware program that allows me to organize all my critical stuff easily. A cool feature is the ability to store additional comments along with the user names and passwords. Thus, for my dial-ups I can keep track of the allowed numbers and their related NT domains. And for my licensed software I can keep track of all the other information--serial numbers, product codes, and so on. Definitely a worthwhile download.
Speeding Up The Web
One thing we've all got in common is the search for a faster Web experience, regardless of the connection speed! Even for corporate users going over a T1 line, the vagaries inherent in the Internet and the Web make extraneous site lookups costly and unnecessary.
FastNet99 (http://www.tsnsoftware.com/entries/00001318.sml) is a Visual Basic program that stores IP addresses locally on your machine. This speeds up your Web browser since it looks in the locally stored file for IP addresses before doing a DNS (Domain Name Services) lookup to resolve a host name such as www.yahoo.com into an IP address. Since doing a single DNS lookup can actually result in many network transactions, this can save a measurable amount of time for you.
The download was a little larger than I like (2.2 MB), but that (apparently) includes the Visual Basic 6.0 run-time files you need for the application. Installation was painless, and the application started automatically.
The application consists of a single dialog with different tabs. I clicked on the Edit tab and immediately noticed a problem. The application parses your local HOSTS file (in the Windows directory for Win95/98 and in the <WINNT>/system32/drivers/etc directory for NT) and loads these values into the listbox displayed on the Edit tab. For one of my IP addresses, I used a <TAB> to separate the IP address from the host name--and FastNet99 couldn't parse it! I replaced the <TAB> with spaces, and everything was fine.
FastNet99 simply updates your local HOSTS file with IP addresses you add or edit using the program. Additionally, the Options tab contains some useful functions for verifying the IP addresses in your HOSTS file. As such, it's a nice utility that's worth the download--it beats keeping up with your HOSTS file yourself.
Finally, since the HOSTS file itself is an ASCII text file, you can use FastNet99 to set it up on one computer, and then copy the HOSTS file to other computers (including UN*X boxes).
Dipstick (http://www.klever.net/kin/dipstick.html) allows you to determine which "mirror" FTP site is fastest. This can be useful when you have a choice of FTP sites (such as 20 different sites) that have the software you want to download.
It's obvious a programmer designed the Web pages for this application. The download page gives you six different download options--each with its own cute name. (Keep in mind that you probably already have MFC 4.2 installed on your machine, since a huge number of applications use the Microsoft Foundation Classes.) I chose the smallest download possible (dipstick.zip without MFC 4.2) at 111 KB.
This is a strange program. It consists of a single, small window that stays on your screen forever. You drag selected URLs onto the window, drop them, and Dipstick pings each one (it starts "raining" in the Dipstick window until the application finishes). Then, you single-click the Dipstick window, and a list appears with the results of trying each URL.
I decided to try out the application with a WinGate 3.0.2 upgrade I needed, since the WinGate download site gave me five FTP sites to choose from. I loaded the WinGate download page into Internet Explorer, left-clicked the first download site, dragged it to the Dipstick window, and released the mouse. Nothing happened. I tried again, by right-clicking the URL for the first FTP download site, selecting Copy, and then Pasting the site onto Dipstick. This worked. I repeated the process for the other four URLs. Funny thing--Dipstick reported that all of them were unusable. When I actually clicked on one of the sites, it worked fine.
I'm using an Internet proxy, since I have three computers and a single Internet connection. I suspect that this is the problem (I have to set things like "Passive Transfer Mode" in my FTP programs). While this is an interesting program (and you may have no problems using it), I'd say that our friend Mr. Klever has a little more work to do.
The iSpeed application (http://www.hms.com/ispeed.htm) analyzes your computer configuration to determine whether you have optimal settings for your modem connection. Obviously, such an application isn't useful in the typical corporate environment (single ISDN Web server for the corporate intranet), but you may find it handy for your home, remote office, or even when you take your laptop on the road and have to dial in to connect to the Internet.
After a painless setup process, I ran the application and was rewarded with an easy-to-use GUI that let me pick preconfigured options (standard, point-to-point protocol, defaults, custom settings) with the click of a button. I discovered many nice features of iSpeed, including:
I couldn't wait to try this out--more speed without updating my phone line sounded great! My first task was to pick an FTP site for downloading a test file. This was easy--I simply downloaded a 500-KB file from a Solaris box at work. A downside to this whole process was restarting my computer to test each configuration. But I'm always willing to spend a little time now to save a lot of time later! And this way I can compare iSpeed against MTU-Speed Pro (below).
I clicked the PPP button to configure my machine for optimal dial-up throughput, and rebooted my machine (an NT 4, Service Pack 5 box with a 56-KB modem). I restarted the program, entered the FTP information in the FTP Test Settings panel under the Testings tab, and clicked Start. I must point out that the Start button doesn't look like a button (it's on the left in the Transfer Progress panel). You have to fly the mouse over the button for the border to appear. Tsk, tsk.
Now the bad news: Prior to installing iSpeed, my throughput was about 2.5 KB per second. And I didn't see any improvement during the test. I tried the "Optimal" configuration, and after another reboot I was rewarded with a download throughput of 1.2 KB per second. That wasn't very helpful! And, the connection kept failing. Ah well, on to MTU-Speed Pro...
MTU-Speed (http://www.mjs.u-net.com/mtuspeed.htm) is a very small (376 KB) download with an impressive list of credentials. It can list many awards (includes five cows from Tucows) as well as the ability to improve performance on network cards and modems! This means that you can use MTU-Speed Pro on your box within a corporate intranet to improve throughput between your box and the rest of the network! A definite plus, eh?
The first thing to note about MTU-Speed Pro is that it's written for technical folks. There is no installation program--the application unzips to the directory of your choice, and you manually run the program from Explorer (or set up your own shortcut). Secondly, the program author really wants you to understand what he's doing. To this end, he provides a very detailed overview of how various settings in the system registry affect network performance. And for NT, he isn't convinced that he's really adding anything of value, since NT has good auto-configuration algorithms for network settings.
I decided to try the application on NT anyway, just to see what would happen. I clicked the Optimise (he's from Scotland) button and did a reboot. I then used the connection test from iSpeed to check out the performance. It was better than the "Optimal" iSpeed settings (which didn't work at all), but still not as good as the "PPP" settings from iSpeed (1.8KB vs. 2.5KB).
Speed is for 95
I must point out that both of the above programs were written primarily for Win95/98. Win95 has a significantly poor value in the system registry for the "MTU" value (1500), which causes network packets to be broken apart and reassembled. Both these programs modify the MTU value to minimize this packet processing (576 is generally the optimal value). So just because I had poor results on my NT box doesn't mean you'll have poor results on your own configuration.
All in Good Time...
One nice thing about the Internet is the ability to synchronize your PC's clock time with various servers. These are so common and easy to use that I'm not going to try and review them in any detail here--I'll just list some URLs and a quick blurb. All I verify is that the links work!
Those of you who want to set up a central time server for an intranet should keep in mind that at least two of the following (NTPC and AboutTime) provide time server support. That means you have one copy of the time synchronization program, and other client computers can get automatically synchronized without requiring a network connection to the SNTP server.
GenWareT TimeCheckT 1.99.02.16
http://www.genware.com/timecheck/gwtimecheck.html. Uses the NIST atomic clock.
http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Lakes/7206/TimeRC.html. Gets system time using the ultra-precise SNTP time protocol from a list of known NTP time servers. Also shows you really cool things like expected meteor showers and moon phases!
http://home.hawaii.rr.com/lost/NTPC.zip. This nice little program weighs in at just 28 KB for the download, but you need the VB5 runtime to make it work. Simply unzip to a directory and run. Assuming you have the VB5 runtime, your system clock is immediately updated after you click Start.
http://www.arachnoid.com/abouttime/. Way big (598 KB), but this package has a nice install program.
The Telnet Server Saga Continues...
As I mentioned in my last column, I was running into problems with my Java-only Telnet server. First, none of my spawned programs under Solaris actually worked (less important, since I'm writing this primarily for NT). Second, even on NT I couldn't spawn any type of program (such as vi) and get the output sent back to my Telnet server. So, I decided to write the program spawning portion in C, which I could eventually port to any platform I wanted.
Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to go beyond spec'ing out the C program and writing a few modules (there's more to reliably spawning a full-screen program like, say, vi than I thought). The real problem is that I actually have to write real programs for people (darn customers--always getting in the way).
Coming up next time...
For next time, I'll present a topic near and dear to the hearts of anyone trying to manage a Web server on NT. Namely, what backing database should you use? We'll look at some popular and free choices so you can make your own decision. And in the meantime, surf safely!