Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sharing a single XP Pro computer among several users

Multiple remote desktops have been a standard in Unix almost since its inception (think terminals), but Windows always seemed to be a desktop operating system usable by one person at a time. Not so, I say! Our friends at SalaSource have created a free, easy patch to enable multiple concurrent remote desktops on a single XP Pro (NOT Home Edition!) computer that is not part of a domain.

So what if you're part of a domain? Most of my business customers fit into this category, and as much as I hate to say it, it'll cost you some money to do it right ($550.00). Doing it wrong is indeed free - XP Unlimited offers the Enterprise version of the software, which has a free demo that is not crippled and never expires.

Using either of these tools allows two or more people to simultaneously use the same computer under different usernames, with one local user, and an unknown number of remote users - I've had as many as two remote and one local working at once with no serious degradation to performance on a fairly new Dell with a Celeron 2.8G CPU and 512MB of RAM.

This is extremely useful for organizations that can only afford one XP machine and would like to keep on using their clunkers like Windows 95 and 98 (which is unsafe at best due to viruses). Even more useful is using old computers with an open source desktop OS like OpenSUSE or another flavor of Linux and the rdesktop command - then a user on a crummy old computer that used to run Windows 9x can now use a reasonably secure, modern OS on their desktop and still have access to an XP computer to work in their preferred environment or to use applications that only work on Windows.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Geek Speak: Networking

Network Port - Also known as a socket. When visualizing TCP/IP network connectivity, it is helpful to think of the computers as having banks of plugs like the old-timey telephone operators used. Just as different residences may be hooked together with the plugs on the operators board, the various programs you have running on your computer are addressed through their numbered sockets - for example, E-Mail is often sent to your e-mail server's port 25, which is always listening for connections. Programs seldom, if ever, share ports, and some programs can use multiple ports. Click here, click "Proceed," then click "All Ports" to find out which ports you have listening.

The first 1024 ports have been reserved for "well-known services." The rest are generally up for grabs, although most popular programs use well-known upper port numbers - for instance, Windows Remote Desktop typically uses port 3389, but can be told to use any port through a simple registry hack.

"Listening" ports (open ports) indicate that a computer is providing a service on the network - thus "listening" for a connection. While not all network services are bad, and many are required for the proper operation of home and business networks, having a port listening on the Internet is really bad if it is unintentional - the services listening on the open ports may be exploited by worms or malicious hackers.

Server - Any computer offering services on a network is called a server by us geeks. However, a server to you office pros is the central computer that holds all your goodies while you're not working on them. For my typical customer, an office server not only stores and backs up files, but also serves the "Intranet" e-mail, calendar, and other, more essential services like authorization, authentication, and event logging.

TCP/IP - Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol is a suite of networking protocols (languages) upon which the Internet, and more recently our office networks, heavily rely. It doesn't matter if you're running Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X, if you use the Internet, you use TCP/IP. When you "ping" someone, you are using the most basic parts of the TCP/IP protocol.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Medicare Part A Submission (EDI)

Illinois and Indiana Nursing Homes that are reimbursed for Medicare Part A used to submit their claims to the government on paper. Those days ended a over a decade ago, and electronic submissions became the norm. These submissions went through clearing-houses (Intermediaries) like the Florida Shared System and The Mutual of Medicare (a popular choice that is still in use today) via direct data entry (DDE) using a terminal through a dial-up connection.

Today, most of the work is done by entities like Adminastar Federal, who are contracted with the CMS to provide service to a specific region - Administar, for instance, is in charge of the Midwest, particularly Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

There are two ways that nursing homes typically submit their claims - either via batch, or via DDE (direct data entry). Most typically the people that handle the claims dial into a regional point-of-presence (POP) using theAT&T Global Dialer and use a terminal program like Microsoft's Hyperterminal, orMedacomm. Batch submittals and real-time benefits verification are typically obtained from the CMS using PC Ace Pro32 (the IVANS software for Medicare Part A verification and submission) or Passport IP - AT&T Global Dialer and Passport IP can be found at

Signing up for these services is simple, and the necessary forms can be found on the CMS's web site .

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Geek Speek Primer Series - Hard Disk Fragmentation

Okay, some of you are having difficulty understanding precisely what I'm talking about, both here on my 'blog and on my invoices. This is not due to a failure on either persons part; rather, it is a failure in communications.

So for the next few entries, I will try to bring some of the more technical terms I may use to the table and discuss them in more detail.

Here Goes!

defrag - DOS and Windows command that invokes the process of defragmentation.

defragmentation -
(or defragging) is a process that reduces the amount of fragmentation in file systems. It does this by physically reorganizing the contents of the disk in order to store the pieces of each file close together and in order (contiguously). It also attempts to create larger regions of free space using compaction to impede the return of fragmentation. (from Wikipedia)

file system fragmentation, sometimes called file system aging, is the inability of a file system to lay out related data sequentially (contiguously), an inherent phenomenon in storage-backed file systems that allow in-place modification of their contents. It is a special case of data fragmentation. File system fragmentation introduces disk head seeks, which are known to hinder throughput. (from Wikipedia)

malware -
malicious software is software designed to infiltrate or damage a computer system without the owner's informed consent. It is a portmanteau of the words "malicious" and "software". The expression is a general term used by computer professionals to mean a variety of forms of hostile, intrusive, or annoying software or program code. (from Wikipedia)

page file - a file on your hard drive that emulates your computers random access memory (RAM - often the smallest of the vertical chips sticking up from the main computer board inside your tower or CPU). Items in memory that aren't used very often are written to the page file in order to free up space in the much faster RAM. The page file can also act as additional RAM once all of your physical RAM is in use. Since the page file is on the hard disk, transfer into and out of the page file is limited by the speed at which your hard disk operates. Hard disks rely on relatively slow mechanical systems to read and write information, dealing with memory paged to the hard disk is substantially slower than working with memory in the RAM chips. This is why the computer slows down when it is out of physical memory - it must instead perform tremendous amounts of reads and writes on the hard drive that it uses for its memory.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Defragment your Page File (and other Amazing Windows Feats!)

Astounding! Amazing! These are the things I was muttering to myself as I dug into the these archives on the msdn site. Apparantly, there are a lot of great tools available to us for free, direct from Microsoft that others will gladly sell to you in a fancy box.

Take PageDefrag for instance - this tool lets you defragment your page file, your event logs, and your registry. While this isn't necessary in Windows XP (the built-in defrag program does this well), Windows 2000 didn't include this functionality.

Also useful is Diskmon - this tool monitors access to the hard drive, either giving detailed info, or, in the case you don't have a working hard drive light, this will put a hard drive light in the task tray.

This page
has an excellent array of utilities for managing system processes and threads - including apps to list processes, and a program to KILL windows applications - good against stubborn viruses.

Autoruns is an application that lists all of the programs that start up automatically when you turn on your computer. This is handy in removing spyware or other undesirable startup programs.