Monthly Archives: January 2008

Introducing DataPlex FillerBot, a document fill-in application for Microsoft Word and Excel

Introducing DataPlex FillerBot

Would you like a better way to produce form letters, labels, contracts, legal documents, data lists, quality control documentation, and invoices? Tired of trying to slug through the complexity of Microsoft Word mail merge? Then we may have the right solution for you.

FillerBot can help you with these data fill-in tasks and with many others. You see, FillerBot is a simple Windows application lets you create and fill documents by using data from many formats including Access, Excel, text files, and SQL database files. FillerBot’s user interface helps you easily access, select, and sort data retrieved from your data sources. It then appropriately inserts the data in Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel documents. FillerBot runs on computers using Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel with Windows XP or Windows Vista.

You will appreciate FillerBot’s efficiency, flexibility and ease of use. Download and start using FillerBot today to reduce costs and improve the accuracy of the documents you use.

Features:

  • supports all Microsoft Word formatting features
  • supports all Microsoft Excel formatting features
  • guided use, better than a wizard
  • easier to use than Microsoft Word Mail Merge
  • taps into simple lists and also SQL databases
  • small size, does not hog disk space

Go to the FillerBot product page.

Free Internet Node, Part 3 – First Free Internet Service: A Website

The first service we will install is a web server because it is typically the main purpose for an Internet node. It is your “HTTP service” that establishes the network presence of a website and responds to browser requests. Fortunately, this is one of the easier services to set up.

You have many choices for HTTP servers ranging from free software to expensive software from reputable companies. Since we are doing this project on the cheap, let’s check out the free software.

Of all of the free software, the one with the greatest traction (almost two thirds of all websites) and ongoing support is the open source HTTP server project from Apache Software Foundation. Some readers may wonder – isn’t Apache’s server for Unix and Linux systems? Not quite. Historically, Apache’s best running version has been the one for Unix/Linux with the Windows version somewhat of an experimental poor cousin. However, years of development have yielded a fine Windows-based Server every bit as good as the original.

Go to the Apache’s website and read about their HTTP Server Project. You will see that there are essentially three versions of their HTTP server for Windows, versions 1 and 2.0 and 2.2 (ignore the notes for Linux and Unix as those are different operating systems). Apache HTTP Server 1.3.xx (‘xx’ is some number representing the current release) is an older release that is only now supported for bug fixes and security plugs. Apache HTTP Server 2.0.xx is a newer, more feature rich version, and Apache HTTP Server 2.2.x is a major new release with many added features.

While some techies might jump right into 2.2.x, I was a bit more conservative. 2.0 is a serious improvement over 1.3, and it has several years of stability and security bulletproofing, therefore, version 2.0 is the one that I recommend today. Besides, my notes that follow are all based on version 2.0, so if you decide to go with 2.2, you’ll have to translate my notes accordingly, and hopefully you won’t run into any serious conflicts.

At this point, I feel that I should add a **Warning**: This project is educational and is direct towards amateurs wanting to set up their own Internet node and learn the details about web and email servers and the like. If you are really concerned about reliability, uptime, providing services to clients, security, etc., then you might consider having your service hosted by a mission critical ISP, you know, the one with a data center with 24 x 7 support? Hey, don’t complain later that your site went down while you were vacationing in Jamaica! (Actually, there are tools for that — I will try and make a “vacation support” post at some point.)

Okay, we are at the point where we download and install the Apache 2.0.xx HTTP server. Go ahead and do that, run the install and check back here.

Once you have installed the server, you should have an entry in you Start Programs folder for activate the Apache HTTP server. You might also have an icon on your desktop. Either way, start the service. That’s it! You now have you own web server running! To try it out, go to your browser on your Internet node PC and type in “http://localhost” and see the Apache server’s default home page.

Of course, you will want to change the contents of that home page. So, let’s do that now but creating a simple HTML web page. Open up wordpad or some other Windows-based text editor and type in the following:

<html>
<title>My First Free Web Page!</title>
<body>
<p>This is my <em>very first web page</em> for this website.</p>
<p>Click <a href=”http://www.google.com/”>here</a> to go to Google.</p>
</body>
<html>

Hopefully I am not going overboard by throwing in some html language elements. If you already know HTML, then that is a good thing, and you will recognize the above example as being a crude minimum page where I define a header with a title which will appear in the title bar of a browser’s window and a body which contains some simple text and a hypertext link to the search engine Google. Knowing HTML at this point isn’t that important if you already have a website and are just going to port in over, or if you have a friend or employee who takes care of your HTML. Still, if you would like to learn more about HTML, there are numerous HTML references and resources on the web.

Save this file as “index.html” in the apache’s default folder located in the folder:

C:\Program Files\Apache Group\Apache2\htdocs

Now, when you type in “http://localhost/” into your browser window, you should get your new web page or an error if you typed it in wrong. By editing this file or by using a variety of HTML editing tools, you can transform this web page into a spiffy looking home page for yourself. In the next part, we will show you how to port over existing website files you may already have.

Okay, remember your IP address? If you go to another PC attached with access to the Internet and in a browser you type in your IP address in the format “http://209.175.22.103″ (where you substitute your four numbers), you should also get your sample website home page.

If you recently set up a domain and it has been 1 or 2 days, you can try entering the domain name into the browser (e.g. “http://www.yourdomain.com”) and see what you get back. If the domain name has not rippled through the DNS system yet or if your DNS record has been incorrectly set up, then you will get an error. Otherwise, you may get your sample website page. If so, then congratulations are in order! You have successfully set up a domain name and its corresponding website.

Let me point out a few rough edges here. First off, we are using the default Apache folder which is okay but not great in terms of organization and security. Also, we haven’t fine-tuned the server’s parameters for our site as we just left them at the defaults so certain server abilities are not available to us (yet). In the next several parts, I address these issues and show you how they can be resolved.

Next Up: Free Internet Node, Part 4 – Porting my Existing Website and DNS

Free Internet Node, Part 2 – Setting up the Internet Node PC

If the PC you have selected to be your “Internet Node” is not already hooked to the Internet, you should take the steps many other people have to get it permanently attached with a static IP address. Because of their reasonably high speed and low-cost, I recommend interfacing through either cable or DSL with either a cable modem or DSL modem, respectively.

I recommend Windows XP as your operating system since older versions of Windows simply do not have the reliability or the security, especially with the release of SP2 for Windows XP. Windows Vista is too new, and many experts suggest waiting until late 2008 before using a Windows Vista machine as a reliable server. The last thing you want is to have your Internet node compromised and shut down because a hacker used a vulnerability in your PC.

Some experts suggest running Internet services on Linux boxes (computers) which they consider more streamlined and less prone to attack, and that is okay if you have the experience and expertise. However, my purpose here is to show how to transform an “ugly duckling PC” into an “Internet node swan,” and Windows is what most PC users are familiar with.

I leave it up to you to decide if you need Windows XP Professional over XP Home. I use both, and they both seem to operate equivalently for our Internet purposes here. XP Pro is more tweakable and has additional features, but none of that is necessary for a typical low-bandwidth node.

The absolute best way to set up Windows XP is to restore the factory image of your PC harddrive from the Restore CDs that can with your PC. If you lean more towards being a PC expert, then you can clean up your PC, but please be thorough.

To clean up your PC, first remove any software you don’t want compromised, any financial spreadsheets, documents, etc. Then eliminate all extraneous software that you won’t be using through their Uninstall procedure or Add or Remove Programs in your PC’s Control Panel. Run ScanDisk, Defrag, and scan all of your drives with your antivirus software after making sure it’s virus list is up to date. You should also run anti-spyware software to make sure that your PC hasn’t already been compromised by hackers.

Once you have your Internet Node PC cleaned-up, you can verify your Internet speed to see if it is going to be able to handle the bandwidth you will require. A good rule of thumb is… If your bandwidth seems low, you might review some higher bandwidth services from your telephone or cable companies.

The next stop is to figure out what to do about your domain name, e.g. “yourdomain.com”. If you already have a domain name, then you will inform your current registrar about your IP address change, so that they can change your DNS Record. (If they cannot because they do not provide that service, you may have to switch registrars.)

What’s all that about the DNS Record? Well, the global Internic Registry used for decoding domain names into IP addresses does not, as some might assume, contain a direct pointer to your IP address but instead a pointer to a DNS Record that has the ability to direct the different services and sub-domains of your domain to unique IP addresses. Typically, your registrar maintains your DNS record for you and haven’t had to deal with it until now. Live and learn! Some registrars allow you to create your own DNS Record but will also do it for you through their customer support. If you want to learn how DNS Records work, it is certainly educational from a “how does the Internet work” perspective, but not a requirement for our task at hand.

If you do not have a domain name, now is the time to get one. First, choose a domain name you like and that you think will be easy for others to remember and use. Then, sign-up your new domain using one of the registrars that are authorized to provide domain names. We recommend assign a domain name that ends with the top level domain “.com” unless you have grand reasons for using another (e..g. non-profits typically use “.org”). If your domain is already taken, the registrar will let you know and offer alternatives. You can go with one of those or iterate and pick another domain name to try and register.

There are many low-cost registrars that will sign-up a new domain name for under $15 a year, so don’t get suckered into paying $25 or even $35 a year. The last registrar I used was aplus.net which charged me $11.90 for a one-year registrar of a “.com” domain including DNS service. Note if the registrar you use changes extra for DNS service (or even provides it – some registrars do not) as you will need it in order to have your registrar point your domain to your IP address. Normally, if they host your site at one of their own IP addresses which by the way is a huge profit margin for them – we are bypassing this typical configuration.

Okay, so you have registered or transferred your domain or changed your domain’s DNS Record to that you can . Now the bad news: It is going to take up to 48 hours for your change to propagate through the DNS System so, when someone, including yourself, types in “www.yourdomain.com” in a browser, it is directed to your new IP address. Do you now have to wait for a day or two until you can access your services?

Checking and Setting Up the “hosts.” File

The answer is a definitive “no,” and you can keep going in setting up your Internet node even which your domain name addressing is in transition. First off, you can simply type in your Internet Node’s IP address and service port number to get to a service. But don’t do this yet as we haven’t installed and activated any services yet – we are saving that for the next installment.

Also, you can edit a file on one of your local network PCs that tells your PC to go locally, even to itself, when it sees particular domain names. This local redirection will work also on the Internet node PC you are setting up. This file is called the “hosts” file (actually the file name is exactly “hosts.” with a period and a blank extension) and is located somewhere in one of your Windows folders, somewhere in “c:\windows\…”.

You should use Window’s find feature to locate this file – search for the file “hosts.” starting in “c:\windows\” and include subfolders. On my Windows XP Home PC, the file is in my “c:\windows\system32\drivers\etc\” folder. Open it in Notepad or Wordpad. Wordpad is preferred since it remembers previously opened files in case you have to reedit.

There should be many lines starting with “#” that explain in a semi-obtuse way the use of the hosts file. Basically, all you need to do here is add a couple of line in the following format:

127.0.0.1 yourdomain.com
127.0.0.1 www.yourdomain.com

The IP address “127.0.0.1″ is one that means “this PC” and reroutes the specific domains right back to the current PC without attempting to go out over the Internet and resolve the domain name, which, as we know, is in transition. So, at least for the next few days, we will be working with this redirection and you can continue to set up your Internet services and test them out. Then, once your domain’s URL is relocated, your Internet services will be all ready to go without delay.

If, in your hosts file, you already have a line:

127.0.0.1 localhost

that is fine and you can leave that line there as well.

While we are on this topic, let’s do a little security review. Any other entries, lines that begin with an IP address (without the ‘#’) may be a hijack by a virus, spyware or hacker, so if you see anything that looks suspicious, you might want to check it out and delete it. For example,

254.22.172.14 citibank.com

is very likely a hacker intercepting the citibank.com domain and redirecting it to a phishing site in order to steal your citibank online ID and passcode. If you see anything like this, your PC was at least at one point compromised and may still be, so rerun all of your antivirus and anti-spyware software first making sure you have the latest updates. Even better, use alternate software to evoke a wider gamut of detection.

Next Up: Free Internet Node, Part 3 – First Free Internet Service: A Website