Wiping of hard drives with Linux

More than a decade of computer upgrades and rebuilds can leave obsolete kit in your hands and the arrival of legislation controlling the dumping of electronic goods during this time can leave one wondering how anyone can dispose of them. Thankfully, I discovered that the local council refuse site only a few miles away from me accepts such things for recycling and saw me a good few times over the last summer with obsolete and non-working gadgets that has stayed with me far too long. Some were as bulky as a computer monitor and a printer but others were relatively diminutive.

Disposing of non-working and utterly obsolete equipment is an easy choice but I find this is harder when a device still works as intended and even might have a use yet. When you realise that computer motherboards still come with PS/2, floppy and IDE ports, things get trickier. My Gigabyte Z87-HD3 mainboard just has one PS/2 when predecessors would have had two and the same applies to IDE sockets and there still is a floppy drive socket on there too, a surprising sight for anyone used to thinking that such things are utterly outmoded these days. So, PC technology isn’t relinquishing backwards compatibility just yet since that mainboard is part of a system with an Intel Core i5-4670K CPU and 24 GB of RAM on there.

Even with that presence of an IDE port, I was not tempted to use leftover 10 GB and 20GB hard drives that I have had for just over a decade. Ten years ago, that sort of capacity would been respectable were it not for our voracious appetite for data storage thanks to photography, video and music. Apart from the size constraints, the speed of those drives cannot compare well with what we have today either and I quickly saw that when I replaced a Samsung 160 HD of a similar age with a Samsung SSD.

The result of this line of thought was that I was minded to recycle the drives so I started to think about wiping and Linux has a good tool for this in the form of the dd command. It can overwrite data on the disks so as to render the information virtually irretrievable. Also, Linux has a number of dummy devices that can supply junk data for overwriting purposes. They are like /dev/null which is used to suppress the issuing of output to the command. The first is /dev/zero which supplies octal zeros and I have used this. However, there also is /dev/random and /dev/urandom for those wanting a more random element to the overwriting.

To overwrite data on a disk with zeroes while having feedback on progress, the following command achieves the required result:

sudo dd if=/dev/zero | pv | sudo dd of=/dev/sdd bs=16M

The whole operation needs to be executed with root privileges and the if parameter of dd specifies the input data and this is sent to a pv command that shows a progress bar that dd would not produce by itself while sending the output on to another dd command with the disk to be overwritten specified using the of parameter. The bs parameter in that second dd command specifies the block size for the disk writing job. Unfortunately, pv is not installed by default so you need to add it yourself. On a Debian, Ubuntu or Linux Mint system, the command is the following:

sudo apt-get install pv

That pv sandwich also is invaluable for those times when dd is needed to copy partitions between different physical or virtual (in a virtual machine) disks. Without it, you might wonder what exactly is happening in the silence and that especially is concerning when you are retrying an operation that failed previously and it takes a while to complete each time.

A reappraisal of Windows 8 and 8.1 licensing

With the release of Windows 8 around this time last year, I thought that the full retail version that some of us got for fresh installations on PC’s, real or virtual, had become a thing of the past. In fact, it did seem that every respecting technology news website and magazine was saying just that. The release that you would buy from Microsft or from mainstream computer stores was labelled as an upgrade. That made it look as if you needed the OEM or System Builder edition for those PC’s that needed a new Windows installation and that the licence that you bought was then attached to the machine from when it got installed on there.

As is usual with Microsoft, the situation is less clear cut than that. For instance, there was some back-pedalling to allow OEM editions of Windows to be licensed for personal use on real or virtual PC’s. With Windows & and its predecessors, it even was possible to be able to install afresh on a PC without Windows by first installing on inactivated copy on there and then upgrading that as if it was a previous version of Windows. Of course, an actual licence was of the previous version of Windows was needed for full compliance if not the actual installation. At times, Microsoft muddies waters so as to keep its support costs down.

Even with Microsoft’s track record in mind, it still did surprise me when I noticed that Amazon was selling what appeared to be full versions of both Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Pro. Having set up a 64-bit VirtualBox virtual machine for Windows 8.1, I got to discovering the same for software purchased from the Microsoft web site. However, unlike the DVD versions, you do need an active Windows installation if you fancy a same day installation of the downloaded software. For those without Windows on a machine, this can be as simple as downloading either the 32-bit or the 64-bit 90 day evaluation editions of Windows 8.1 Enterprise and using that as a springboard for the next steps. This not only be an actual in-situ installation but there options to create an ISO or USB image of the installation disk for later installation.

In my case, I created a 64-bit ISO image and used that to reboot the virtual machine that had Windows 8.1 Enterprise on there before continuing with the installation. By all appearances, there seemed to be little need for a pre-existing Windows instance for it to work so it looks as if upgrades have fallen by the wayside and only full editions of Windows 8.1 are available now. The OEM version saves money so long as you are happy to stick with just one machine and most users probably will do that. As for the portability of the full retail version, that is not something that I have tested and I am unsure that I will go beyond what I have done already.

My main machine has seen a change of motherboard, CPU and memory so it could have de-activated a pre-existing Windows licence. However, I run Linux as my main operating system and, apart possibly from one surmountable hiccup, this proves surprisingly resilient in the face of such major system changes. For running Windows, I turn to virtual machines and there were no messages about licence activation during the changeover either. Microsoft is anything but confiding when it comes to declaring what hardware changes inactivate a licence. Changing a virtual machine from VirtualBox to VMware or vice versa definitely so does it so I tend to avoid doing that. One item that is fundamental to either a virtual or a real PC is the mainboard and I have seen suggestions that this is the critical component for Windows licence activation and it would make sense if that was the case.

However, this rule is not hard and fast either since there appears to be room for manoeuvre should your PC break. It might be worth calling Microsoft after a motherboard replacement to see if they can help you and I have seen that it is. All in all, Microsoft often makes what appear to be simple rules only to override them when faced with what happens in the real world. Is that why they can be unclear about some matters at times? Do they still hanker after how they want things to be even when they are impossible to keep like that?

A look at Ubuntu GNOME 13.10

With its final release being near at hand, I decided to have a look at the beta release of Ubuntu GNOME 13.10 to get a sense of what might be coming. A misstep along the way had me inadvertently download and install the 64-bit edition of 13.04 into a VirtualBox virtual machine. The intention to update that to its soon to be released successor was scuppered by instability so I never did get to try out an in situ upgrade to 13.10. What I had in mind was to issue the following command:

gksu update-manager -d

However, I found another one when considering how Ubuntu Server might be upgraded without the GUI application that is the Update Manager. To update to a development version, the following command is what you need:

sudo do-release-upgrade -d

To upgrade to a final release of of a new version of Ubuntu, drop the -d switch from the above to use the following:

sudo do-release-upgrade

There is one further option that isn’t recommended for moving between Ubuntu versions but I use it to get updates such as new kernel subversions that are released:

sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

Rather than trying out the above, I downloaded the latest ISO image for the beta release of Ubuntu GNOME 13.10 and installed onto a VM that instead. Though it is the 32 bit version of the distro that is installed on my main home PC, it has been the 64 bit version that I have been trying. So far, that seems to be behaving itself even if it feels a little sluggish but that could be down to the four year old PC that hosts the virtual machine. For a while, I have been playing with the possibility of an upgrade involving an Intel Core i5 4670K CPU and 16 GB of RAM (useful for running multiple virtual machines at a time) along with any motherboard that supports those so looking at a 64 bit operating system has its uses.

The Linux kernel may be 3.11 but that is not my biggest concern. Neither is the fact that LibreOffice 4.1.2.3 was included and GIMP wasn’t, especially when that could be added easily anyway and it is version 2.8.6 that you get. The move to GNOME Shell 3.8 was what drew me to seeing what was coming because I have been depending on a number extensions. As with WordPress and plugins, GNOME Shell seems to have a tempestuous relationship with some of its extensions and I wanted to see which ones still worked. There also has been a change to the backstage application view in that you either get all installed applications displayed when you browse them or you have to start typing the name of the one you want to select it. Losing the categorical view that has been there until GNOME Shell 3.6 is a step backwards and I hope that version 3.10 has seen some sort of a reinstatement. There is a way to add these categories and the result is not as it once was either; also, it shouldn’t be necessary for anyone to dive into a systems innards to address things like this. With all the constant change, it is little wonder that Cinnamon has become a standalone entity with the release of its version 2.0 and that Debian’s toyed with not going with GNOME for its latest version (7.1 at the time of writing and it picked a good GNOME Shell version in 3.4).

Having had a look at other distribution that already have GNOME Shell 3.8, I knew that a few of my extensions worked with it. The list includes Frippery Bottom Panel, Frippery Move Clock, Places Status Indicator, Removable Drive Menu, Remove Rounded Corners (not really needed with the GNOME Shell theme that I use, Elementary Luna 3.4, but I retain it anyway), Show Desktop Button, User Themes and Ignore_Request_Hide_Titlebar. Because of the changes to the backstage view, I added Frippery Applications Menu in preference to Applications Menu because I have found that to be unstable. Useful new discoveries have included Curtains Up and GNOME Shell Open Terminal while Shell Restart User Menu Entry has made a return and found a use this time around too.

There have been some extensions that were not updated to work with GNOME Shell 3.8 that I have got working. In some cases, it was as simple as updating the metadata.json file for an extension with new version numbers of 3.8 and 3.84 to the list associated with the shell version property. All extensions are to be found in the .local/share/gnome-shell/extensions location in your home directory and each has a dedicated file containing the aforementioned file.

With others, it was a matter of looking in the Looking Glass (execute lg in the box that ALT + F2 brings up on your screen to access this) and seeing what error messages were to be found in there before attempting to correct these in either the extensions’ extension.js files or whatever JavaScript (*.js) file was causing the problem. With either or both of these remedies, I managed to port the four extensions below to GNOME Shell 3.8. In fact, you can download these zip files and install them yourself to see how you get on with them.

Advanced Settings in User Menu

Antisocial Menu

Remove App Menu

Restart Shell Entry

There is a Remove Panel App Menu that works with GNOME Shell 3.8 but I found that it got rid of the Places menu instead of the panel’s App Menu so I tried porting the older extension to see if it behaved itself and it does. With these in place, I have bent Ubuntu GNOME 13.10 to my will ahead of its final release next week and that includes customising Nautilus too. Other than a new version of GNOME Shell, it looks as if it will come with less in the way of drama and a breather like that is no bad thing given that personal computing continues to remain in a state of flux these days.

A need to update graphics hardware

Not being a gaming enthusiast, having to upgrade graphics cards in PC’s is not something that I do very often or even rate as a priority. However, two PC’s in my possession have had that very piece of hardware upgraded on them and it’s not because anything was broken either. My backup machine has seen quite a few Linux distros on there since I built it nearly four years ago. The motherboard is an ASRock K10N78 that sourced from MicroDirect and it has onboard an NVIDIA graphics chip that has performed well if not spectacularly. One glitch that always existed was a less than optimal text rendering in web browsers but that never was enough to get me to add a graphics card to the machine.

More recently, I ran into trouble with Sabayon 13.04 with only the 2D variant of the Cinnamon desktop environment working on it and things getting totally non-functional when a full re-installation of the GNOME edition was attempted. Everything went fine until I added the latest updates to the system when a reboot revealed that it was impossible to boot into a desktop environment. Some will relish this as a challenge but I need to admit that I am not one of those. In fact, I tried out two Arch-based distros on the same PC and got the same results following a system update on each. So, my explorations of Antergos and Manjaro have to continue in virtual machines instead.

To get a working system, I gave Linux Mint 15 Cinnamon a go and that worked a treat. However, I couldn’t ignore that the cutting edge distros that I tried before it all took exception to the onboard NVIDIA graphics. systemd has been implemented in all of these and it seems reasonable to think that it is coming to Linux Mint at some stage in the future so I went about getting a graphics card to add into the machine. Having had good experiences with ATi’s Radeon in the past, I stuck with it even though it now is in the hands of AMD. Not being that fussed so long there was Linux driver support, I picked up a Radeon HD 6450 card from PC World. Adding it into the PC was a simpler of switching off the machine, slotting in the card, closing it up and powering it on again. Only later on did I set the BIOS to look for PCI Express graphics before anything else and I could have got away without doing that. Then, I made use of the Linux Mint Additional Driver applet in its setting panel to add in the proprietary driver before restarting the machine to see if there were any visual benefits. To sort out the web browser font rendering, I used the Fonts applet in the same settings panel and selected full RGBA hinting. The improvement was unmissable if not still like the appearance of fonts on my main machine. Overall, there had been an improvement and a spot of future proofing too.

That tinkering with the standby machine got me wondering about what I had on my main PC. As well as onboard Radeon graphics, it also gained a Radeon 4650 card for which 3D support wasn’t being made available by Ubuntu GNOME 12.10 or 13.04 to VMware Player and it wasn’t happy about this when a virtual machine was set to have 3D support. Adding the latest fglrx driver only ensured that I got a command line instead of a graphical interface. Issuing one of the following commands and rebooting was the only remedy:

sudo apt-get remove fglrx

sudo apt-get remove fglrx-updates

Looking at the AMD website revealed that they no longer support 2000, 3000 or 4000 series Radeon cards with their latest Catalyst driver the last version that did not install on my machine since it was built for version 3.4.x of the Linux kernel. A new graphics card then was in order if I wanted 3D graphics in VWware VM’s and both GNOME and Cinnamon appear to need this capability. Another ASUS card, a Radeon HD 6670, duly was acquired and installed in a manner similar to the Radeon HD 6450 on the standby PC. Apart from not needing to alter the font rendering (there is a Font tab on Gnome Tweak Tool where this can be set), the only real exception was to add the Jockey software to my main PC for installation of the proprietary Radeon driver. The following command does this:

sudo apt-get install jockey-kde

When that was done I issue the jockey-kde command and selected the first entry on the list. The machine worked as it should on restarting apart from an AMD message at the bottom right hand corner bemoaning unrecognised hardware. There had been two entries on that Jockey list with exactly the same name so it was time to select the second of these and see how it went. On restarting, the incompatibility message had gone and all was well. VMware even started virtual machines with 3D support without any messages so the upgrade did the needful there.

Hearing of someone doing two PC graphics card upgrades in a weekend may make you see them as an enthusiast but my disinterest in computer gaming belies this. Maybe it highlights that Linux operating systems need 3D more than might be expected. The Cinnamon desktop environment now issues messages if it is operating in 2D mode with software 3D rendering and GNOME always had the tendency to fall back to classic mode, as it had been doing when Sabayon was installed on my standby PC. However, there remain cases where Linux can rejuvenate older hardware and I installed Lubuntu onto a machine with 10 year old technology on there (an 1100 MHz Athlon CPU, 1GB of RAM and 60GB of hard drive space in case dating from 1998) and it works surprisingly well too.

It seems that having fancier desktop environments like GNOME Shell and Cinnamon means having the hardware on which it could run. For a while, I have been tempted by the possibility of a new PC since even my main machine is not far from four years old either. However, I also spied a CPU, motherboard and RAM bundle featuring an Intel Core i5-4670 CPU, 8GB of Corsair Vengence Pro Blue memory and a Gigabyte Z87-HD3 ATX motherboard included as part of a pre-built bundle (with a heatsink and fan for the CPU) for around £420. Even for someone who has used AMD CPU’s since 1998, that does look tempting but I’ll hold off before making any such upgrade decisions. Apart from exercising sensible spending restraint, waiting for Linux UEFI support to mature a little more may be no bad idea either.

Update 2013-06-23: The new graphics card in my main machine is working as it should and has reduced the number of system error report messages turning up too; maybe Ubuntu GNOME 13.04 didn’t fancy the old graphics card all that much. A rogue .fonts.conf file was found in my home area on the standby machine and removing it has improved how fonts are displayed on there immeasurably. If you find one on your system, it’s worth doing the same or renaming it to see if it helps. Otherwise, tinkering with the font rendering settings is another beneficial act and it even helps on Debian 6 too and that uses GNOME 2! Seeing what happens on Debian 7.1 could be something that I go testing sometime.

Best left until later in the year?

In the middle of last year, my home computing experience was one of feeling displaced. A combination of a stupid accident and a power outage had rendered my main PC unusable. What followed was an enforced upgrade that use combination that was familiar to me: Gigabyte motherboard, AMD CPU and Crucial memory. However, assembling that lot and attaching components from the old system from the old system resulted in the sound of whirring fans but nothing appearing on-screen. Not having useful beeps to guide me meant that it was a case of undertaking educated guesswork until the motherboard was found to be at fault. In a situation like this, a deeper knowledge of electronics would have been handy and might have saved me money too. As for the motherboard, it is hard to say whether it was a faulty set from the outset or whether there was a mishap along the way, either due ineptitude with static or incompatibility with a power supply. What really tells the tale on the mainboard was the fact that all of the other components are working well in other circumstances, even that old power supply.

A few years back, I had another experience with a problematic motherboard, an Asus this time, that ate CPU’s and damaged a hard drive before I stabilised things. That was another upgrade attempted in the first half of the year. My first round of PC building was in the third quarter of 1998 and that went smoothly once I realised that a new case was needed. Similarly, another PC rebuild around the same time of year in 2005 was equally painless. Based on these experiences, I should not be blamed for waiting until later in the year before doing another rebuild, preferably a planned one rather than an emergency.

Of course, there may be another factor involved too. The hint was a non-working Sony DVD writer that was acquired early last year when it really was obvious that we were in the middle of a downturn. Could older unsold inventory be a contributor? Well, it fits in with seeing poor results twice, In addition, it would certainly tally with a problematical PC rebuild in 2002 following the end of the Dot Com bubble and after the deadly Al Qaeda attack on New York’s World Trade Centre. An IBM hard drive that was acquired may not have been the best example of the bunch and the same comment could apply to the Asus motherboard. The resulting construction may have been limping but it was working and I tolerated.

In contrast, last year’s episode had me launched into using a Toshiba laptop and a spare older PC for my needs with an external hard drive enclosure used to extract my data onto other external hard drives to keep me going. It felt a precarious arrangement but it was a useful experience in ways too. There was cause for making acquaintance with nearby PC component stores that I hadn’t visited before and I got to learning about things that otherwise wouldn’t have come my way. Using an external hard drive enclosure for accessing data on hard drives from a non-functioning PC is one of these. Discovering that it is possible to boot from external optical and hard disk drives came as a surprise too and will work so long as there is motherboard support for it. Another experience came from a crisis of confidence that had me acquiring a bare-bones system from Novatech and populating it with optical and hard disk drives. Then, I discovered that I have no need for power supplies rated more than 300 watts (around 200 W suffices). Turning my PC off more often became a habit friendly both to the planet and to household running costs too. Then, there’s the beneficial practice of shopping locally and it can suffice even if what PC magazines stick on their hot lists but shopping online for those pieces doesn’t guarantee success either. All of these were useful lessons and, while I’d rather not throw away good money after bad, it goes to show that even unsuccessful acquisitions had something to offer in the form of learning opportunities. Whether you consider that is worthwhile is up to you.