WinDirStat – Still useful after all these years

Credit when credit is due. When you have an app you keep on using after more than a decade, it’s really time to write a small post to give the app a tiny bit of the massive credit it deserves.

It’s funny, I thought that eventually needing to find free disk space would be a thing of the past. With single hard drives reaching sizes well beyond 10TB, I thought trying to clean up hard drives would be the last thing I would have to do. Well that did not account for the rise of the SSD drive, where free space is once again something that is hard to keep. Even though I thought my 1TB SSD would be sufficient, I ended up running out of space after a few too many game installs and game play recordings.

Enter WinDirStat, the best way to visualize where your disk space is allocated and the best way to identify what to delete or more to a less expensive storage system.

I really don’t recall when I started using WinDirStat, but I’m sure it was a long time ago. And I still go and download it when I get out of disk space. Which is more frequent than a Iike. Thanks Bernhard!

My computer ate my class notes!

This column was previously published in January 2009 in the Quid Novi, the newsletter for law students at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. Some of the information might be outdated and some might be targeted specifically at McGill law students.

We rely so much on our computers and laptop these days that taking good care of our computer files is a smart strategy. You laptop could be stolen, your hard drive could crash, or you can simply erase the document containing your notes. This article will go over some of the different ways you can backup your data, and give you some of the pros and cons of some of those methods.

The “do nothing” backing up method

This is by far the most popular and easiest to implement method. You don’t do anything. The only problem is that once something goes wrong, it really goes wrong. If your laptop is stolen, there is little you can do, besides going to the police. If you still have access to your hardware but have trouble finding your files, there might be some solutions. For example, Ontrack Data Recovery makes a product that allows you to recover files from corrupted hard drives (assuming the hard drive is still working). Another tool I used in the past is called WinHex: it’s a program that allows you to look at the raw content on your hard drive. You could use it to search for text you remember as being part of your document and try to extract it from the hard drive.

Anyways, I hope you read the rest of the article and never have to refer to this section when disaster strikes. While post-disaster solutions exist, they are never perfect.

WHERE: Trial of ontrack data recovery – http://www.ontrackdatarecovery.com/data-recovery-downloads/.
Trial of WinHex – http://www.x-ways.net/winhex/
PROS: Least amount of effort – before disaster strikes.
CONS: No real plan for the aftermath.

Backing up to your local hard drive

This is one option which, if setup right, gives you some protection around accidental file removals. The problem with this option is that it’s like putting all your eggs in the same basket. If you lose your hard drive, you lose your backup. Since this isn’t really a solution, I won’t discuss it much further.

PROS: Can help with accidental file removals.
CONS: No redundancy.

Backing up to a USB key

I know many law students are quite fond of their USB keys. We can even get a whole collection at the upcoming career days. Personally, while this is better than the first option, I find it to be one of the worst forms of backups. Why?

Read More…

Oldie but goodie… SpaceMonger 1.4

Sometimes, I wonder where my gigabytes and gigabytes of storage have disappeared. In those cases, I often go back to Google (or Bing!) and search for SpaceMonger version 1.4. This utility is amazing. Not only is it free, but it really gives a great visual representation of disk allocation. You can see where disk space is disappearing.

Essentially, SpaceMonger is a bit like a million dollar homepage. The bigger the file or folder, the more space it takes in the view. So you can visually see where you disk space is going. Sometimes, it’s an eye opener: folders that you never realize existed contain huge file. In my case, this happened once recently. I had been using Windows Movie Maker to create a DVD, and didn’t realize it was creating temporary video files from my MPEG-2 sources. SpaceMonger found those for me, and I reclaimed over a gig of disk space.

Anyways, sometimes the best utilities are often the least flashy or least humongous. (Xtree Gold anyone?)

GoToMyPC and more…

GoToMyPC and friends

A user has asked me to comment about the services like gotomypc and the privacy implications that come along with those tools.

First, the technology works generally as follows: you install an application on your machine that will send some “data” from your machine to “you”. Let’s define data a bit more precisely.

When you are trying to access your computer, you can look at the data on your computer through different angles. The most simplistic one is the one coming out of your video card. Imagine that your screen was like a digital camera, and that ever fraction of a second you would send an image of what is on your screen to some remote machine. This would send ‘”data” (the image displayed by your computer) to some remote computer.

Tools like VNC work along those lines. They take a very simple approach to this problem. They send your keystrokes and mouse movements to your machine and send you back the results. The problem though is that the output is rarely smooth and not necessarily very optimal.

The next approach to sending data is the gotomypc approach. Instead of just taking a copy of what is your screen, they hook in to your operating system and try to understand what is it you are about to display. For example, if I want to tell you to write all the numbers from 1 to 100, is it easier to say: “write 1,2,3,4,5,… 100” or is it easier and shorter to say "write all numbers between 1 to 100”? Clearly the second approach is smarter, but it requires more effort. You know have to understand what is really going on under the hood of the computer and have to relay this information to the other side which also has to be intelligent enough to decode it right. For example, in my problem, do you know if 100 is in or out? If I give you the whole list, it’s clear it’s in, but if I saw “between 1 to 100”, you might think we start at 2 and finish at 99.

Programs like gotomypc include also Remote Desktop, which comes for free with Windows. One of my favorite is Microsoft Live Mesh, which allows you to do that and much more.

The third type of program that I want to mention are pure network services. Your machine can share, through file sharing or printer sharing, access to some of your content. Or, you can use a program like Orb to access specialized content like music or video. The point is that there might not be a need to be on your machine to access your data, especially if you have another computer handy.

But, if remote desktop is free, why pay for a tool like gotomypc?

Two big reasons, convenience and practicality. First, tools like gotomypc can be run from many different places, namely:

When you connect to your PC, the Viewer window launches automatically, allowing you to view and control your PC from another Microsoft® Windows®, Microsoft® Windows® CE, Macintosh®, Linux, Unix® or Solaris® computer. No pre-loaded software required.

Also, for practicality, you don’t have to worry about firewall settings and dynamic DNS settings. Gotomypc does that for you (among the reason, because it will act as a middle man between your home and your remote machine.

But before you pay for such a tool, you should check out some of the free alternatives and see if they can do a good job for you.

Employer / Privacy Angle

So having said all that, what do I think of the risk to employers? In reality, I think tools like GoToMyPC are actually safer than the alternatives. By using a tool like GoToMyPC, you are typically putting a wall between your network and the remote network. Contrast this with the alternative. If a person likes to download illegal music, where would you rather see that person do that? On his local machine or on his home machine with GoToMyPC acting as a middle man? Or, the employee might bring his personal laptop and hook it up to the corporate network. Or worse, might use a VPN connection and potentially create a bridge between the corporate network and some other unsafe network.

Now it’s true that an employer could try to lock down all the avenues, but the reality is that when confronted with this situation, it’s possible employees will do worse things to circumvent this situation. For example, wireless usb keys (that connect to cellular service) are becoming more prevalent. All it will take is an employee connecting such a key in his laptop to circumvent some network limitation, and voila, you potentially have opened up the door to all sorts of malware transiting through that laptop when it’s connected both to the corporate network and the wireless network.

So for all these reason, a tool like GoToMyPC might actually be better for a corporation than a number of those alternatives.

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