Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bring Your Own Device, But Can't Touch Them

The issue of BYOD (bring your own device) certainly has challenges for IT professionals.  Putting on one hat, you can easily see that it's wonderful to allow users to be productive with their personal tablets.  The other hat comes from years of experience, and knowing that they could be a support nightmare.  In enterprise IT much of what you do is work to having a consistent hardware base, to ease upgrades and reduce the difficulties that arise from diverse hardware.  BYOD is exactly the other end of the spectrum, there are thousands of hardware and operating system possibilities and end users often don't understand why their own personal $200-$500 purchase decision doesn't work.

The IT Director has crafted a new City policy, which includes a description of BYOD in great detail.  The overview is that they are allowed, and that no IT resources will be allocated to making them work or troubleshooting problems.

With all of that said, how then to deploy NX technology to tablets?  Users want to use their own tablets to connect to our GNOME desktops, but we cannot touch the hardware.  Users can download the Nomachine/NX client, but do not have the right key pair and there are settings and optimizations that would difficult for them to do on their own.  So we can't touch them, and it's not secure to email them the settings and keypair.  We kicked around some ideas and decided the best approach was to allow users to connect their Apple and Android tablets to City Workstations via USB and then initiate a small amount of software that mounts and then installs the .nxs and .cfg files needed to make the device work as expected.  This process is initiated by them via icon, and they accept the dialog alerting that there is no support in the event of problems or failure.

Once this R&D project was approved, I started to looking at tablets.  Android tablets mount pretty easily with go-mtpfs and Apple tablets can use ifuse.  I was able to then get to the NX settings folders of both types of devices on the command line and built a platform specific tarball.  I then created a simple Glade UI that requires them to ACCEPT the notice statement (UI is seen below).  This software is running on the workstation (not the server) and downloads the tarball and performs the install of the settings.  So far so good, and it's working on all devices that I have on my test bed.

It was simple enough to add a tab that displays a list of tablets that are known to work, and this is downloaded at runtime with the most recent additions. 

When the current settings profiles are built on the server prior to download, they are date stamped (YYYYMMDD) so that users can easily tell the date of their files right from the NX connection manager.  In the shot below, the UI has been used to install our three profiles and they are display correctly.

We have a few users now testing NX technology with Apple iPads and the feedback so far is promising.  In my next blog,I'll describe the user experience of NX and the GNOME desktop via a tablet designed for Touch software.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

And Several Months Later....

I haven't blogged in several months, sadly.  It's easy to get caught up in projects and suddenly a good amount of time has expired.  So I'll try and do a quick update on my projects -- and try and publish blogs at better intervals. 

Here are the major things that I touched in the last few months:


We have continued to use LibreOffice for almost all of our employees, and after a few point releases upgraded to version 4.2  The filters continue to improve, and stability is improving too.  We don't often get reports of hard crashes.  We're down to mostly questions of how to use features, and from time to time issues with imports of the various and different OOXML formats.   What's interesting about LibreOffice is that as the years go by, younger employees are less impassioned for using Microsoft Office.  There seems to be a greater acceptance in just working with different software packages.  I think this might be rooted in the fact that every phone or tablet you pick up has different software and at a certain point you realize they can all help you reach the same destination.  Many thousands of documents are touched each day and work is getting done -- with no license costs!

We changed over to the SIFR theme Citywide, which are all monochrome.  More and more software packages are moving in this direction it seems, and now LO better matches their appearance.

The Alfresco connector works great in LO and we have been testing that as well with success and considering deployment options.  Alfresco is still in a test mode, and not widely used beyond IT employees.

A few weeks ago we received a new monster server (described below), and it's been tradition for me to break in these machines for a short period of time by allowing them to be used to better open source projects.  We loaded Linux on this server and put it on the Internet for the LibreOffice developers.  They used it to do their stress test of various problem documents and test the filters into the different file formats.  Always nice to help as we can.


In Firefox 26 a patch was merged that basically broke honoring umask for downloaded files.  This was a really bad bug for us and made it impossible to upgrade.  On multi-user servers it's important the files honor the permissions we want -- to make it easier for users to share files.  We finally ended up putting out a few dollars to pay for a few hours of work to get a patch written and integrated and it's working like a champ once again.  We were able to install and deploy Firefox 31.  The only problem we had with the upgrade was related to changes in the way that bookmarks are retained and work, and once this was understood we made changes on the server and it's working as expected.   Firefox 31 also contains new monochrome artwork which better fits into our consistent desktop look and feel.

Support Portal

Our internally developed support portal software application has advanced further and was fitted with a new monochrome theme.  I have been changing certain aspects of how user information displays to make it easier to understand the device used to connect to our network.  BYOD tablets and laptops are not supported by our staff, and now we can clearly see they are using a personal device. 

Federico was awesome to help me understand how to use pygtkChart from within glade/python to finally use *real* charts.  This has been a huge help and reduced the lines of code greatly. 

The support portal has been fetching information from our Linux servers regarding user counts, load, disk and memory stats.  With the help with our internal Windows Admins, we're now fetching from MS Windows servers too.  This helps us greatly by alerting us when we reach certain thresholds.  Very awesome.

GNOME Desktop To New Hardware

We are moving our production GNOME desktop to new physical hardware.  After some discussions and reviewing work loads, we decided for now to stay with GNOME 2.  The older server was cloned and was finally moved to the new hardware.  The server is 100% solid state drives with 80 hyperthreaded cores.  This increased capacity was needed for the next project:

Moving From Remote X to NX Technology

Using remote X has been a wonderful thing for us the last 20 years with our thin clients, but new requirements from end users are changing that landscape.  Roaming desktops are the top most requested feature, and we have decided to move from X to NX and run sessions fully stateless and server based.  We have been working closely with the fine folks at Nomachine to implement in our enterprise using version 4.2.  We're not quite there yet, but getting very close.   The short summary status:

-- Workstations with NX

We have two workstation thin client models and I have been able to get the NX client running on both.  Logging in and resuming sessions is very stable.  Our older HP thin client is struggling a bit with some Flash content, and I'm working with NoMachine on some optimizations to try and allow these devices to finish their duty cycle.  All other aspects are working very quickly on thin clients using the NX protocol.  I'm typing this blog from the oldest workstation and response is quick and crisp.  NX is especially noticed in Firefox when scrolling through pages.  Certain pages are starting to get slower over remote X -- NX will be a nice upgrade in that regard.

-- Tablets with NX

The iPad client was finally released, and I have been testing this along with Nomachine for Android with good results.  The ability to interact with software not designed for "Touch" is better than expected and our users are very excited.  I rolled out a few pilot tablets just yesterday and have already gotten good feedback. 

So a very brief update.  I have a few more blogs that I want to post in the coming days regarding specifics of these projects in the hopes they assist others.   Next up, is how we are solving the issue of allow users to configure their own personal tablets without IT intervention. 

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

What's happened to Firefox?

Lots happening in Largo lately and I will get to a proper blog update in the next few days.  I have been working heavily on infrastructure changes to accommodate stateless GNOME sessions and BYOD devices.  Good progress, and interesting things to report.  Very busy hours of the day.

So it was an inopportune time that I have had to work a bug report with the current Firefox.  With all of these new versions, it seems like there is a strong culture now to get it out the door regardless of impact to long time users.  It seems like there is a horse race with IE and Chrome to pack in as much stuff as possible and this seems to be at the expense of less understood features that are critical.

We have been using this technology forever, riding the Netscape wave and jumping over to Firefox around the 1.5 era.  Firefox is very fast and stable for us, even over remote X and thin clients.  Everything just works.  It takes me just minutes to do an upgrade and it's something that just churns for hundreds of concurrent users.  Our email is now web based and this is the backbone of the City.  Most new software and all cloud based solutions work with it...that's just awesomeness.

With a constant barrage of security exploits, it's critical that upgrades come in a timely manner.  And then came the problem:  Somewhere around Firefox 24 the whole download infrastructure was rewritten and now all downloaded files no longer honor umask.  It's been a disaster for us when this code was pushed live.  It was patched in Firefox 25 and now is not working again in both Firefox 26 and 27.  This is horrible for Linux and Mac users that want downloaded files that are world readable, they all default to 644 regardless of umask.

Here is a comparison of the older version vs FF 27:

-rw-r--r-- 1 drichard drichard 30169644 2014-02-05 13:33 ffirefox-27.0.tar.bz2
-rw-rw-rw- 1 drichard drichard 30169644 2014-02-05 13:30 firefox-27.0.tar.bz2

Maybe some of the developers have never seen Firefox running in the enterprise, or on multi-user servers, or in a VM or on a Mac with multiple users and don't realize the importance of this working correctly.  Please come and visit us anytime and we'd be happy to demonstrate these types of deployments!

So we are left now on a version two old with no solution in sight.  Do I need to start testing Chrome?

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Quick Network Change Diagram

I made a quick diagram to illustrate to a few people the new design that we are testing whereby NX technology is used to deploy to our workstations.  I thought it might be a good visual tool to clarify my last blog.  Instead of using the Xserver and Pulse daemon on the thin clients, everything is passed through the backend computer server running NX/GNOME.  This allows for a stateless connection that can be resumed on any hardware that runs the NX client and any browser.

Lots of progress in testing this concept, and I'll blog about it next year.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Thinning Thin Clients, And Other Projects

I have not published an update in a good while, but things have been busy.  Here are the things that I have worked on since the last blog:

Thinning Thin Clients

How the heck can you thin a thin client?  We'll it's my current project and things are progressing fairly well. Since we started using thin clients in the mid-1990s, we have always used remote X as the transport.  It's elegant and fast for our needs, and consumes almost no bandwidth on a modern network.  Our current design has been wonderful for having roaming profiles.  You can log in anywhere in the City, and because everyone is running from a centralized host all of your software and files are immediately available for use.  If you go home and log in using NX, the same is true. 

However this has one design issue, you have to log out of the first location before starting another session.  If users forget to log out from the first location, they  are able to "steal" the session which severs the X connection abruptly and is not ideal when they damage settings or lose some of their work.  In general all of this is working very well and people move around the City all the time.  With the advent of tablets and more mobility, users are wanting to "resume" sessions over different networks of various speeds, including WiFi.  In order to accomplish this goal, we're testing using NX technology for all sessions.  Using NX thins a thin client, because now it's 100% running in the data center and the workstation is used only for mouse and keyboard; the Xserver is no longer remotely running on the thin client.

What this means for end users is that when a second server instance is started with their user account, they'll be able to "resume" the session from one location or device to another.  You can start typing a document at your desk, walk to a meeting and start up a tablet and resume the session and continue on the new footprint.

This change is presenting some scaling issues.  In the past some load was offloaded to the workstations, especially in the case of memory consumption.  Now all of this must be moved into the data center, which means bigger and faster servers with more cores.  We already have money in our budget to replace the GNOME server in 2014, so the timing could not be better.

We have two HP thin client models in use at the City.  The t5725 and t5745, both of which are discontinued.  We ordered the new t610 model which came with Ubuntu 10 installed.  I started the formal process in recent weeks of staging a build for production use.  Customizations were required to order to accommodate the older models.  The 5745 uses the intel driver and the 5725 is running ati.  So the build was modified to detect thin client model at first boot and set up the xorg.conf appropriately.  I was making great progress, when HP released an upgrade for the t610 to Ubuntu 12.  So I created a tarball of the customizations and in a few hours, they were all working on the new operating system.

More and more users are doing Skype interviews and in the past they would just check out a laptop and use that from their desk.  Since Skype is available for Linux, we're testing the concept of adding that feature right on the thin clients.  So far it's working like a champ.

In a nutshell, all three models of the thin clients boot Ubuntu 12 very quickly, and start up a very basic FVWM desktop which offers them the ability to connect to our servers using the NX Client. I am in the process of tuning the build for the three models and I'm working with NoMachine on some issues to make the NX Client work better in our environment.

Here is a shot of the current alpha build. FVWM provides menu and window management for software that connect to the servers.  Rdesktop, Skype and NX Clients run as siblings.  Full GNOME session is running inside the NX Client.


After a quick patch in Firefox 25 to allow files downloaded by users to honor umask, it did not land in Firefox 26 and will return in Firefox 27.  So we're going to skip a version, but the good news is that with Firefox that means only waiting a few weeks.


We jumped on LibreOffice 4.1 at 4.1.1 to solve some issues and improve file filters versus 4.0.  Out of 800 users, about 20 had to be rolled back for various bugs, which is normal and expected.  With release 4.1.4 we have been able to finally get everyone off of 4.0.  Things seem stable with this release too.  The server reports when users kill their software, and I'm not seeing many with LO.  Very cool.  Looking ahead to 4.2, there is a bad bug for us that prohibits us from testing heavily.  It's here.   We have lots of documents that make use of Nimbus Sans and the font currently is not rendering correctly. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

First Alfresco Upgrade, LibreOffice Work Around, Firefox 25

We had been testing Alfresco Community 4.2.c for a good while and getting positive feedback from our users.  Version 4.2.e came out and appears to be the version that will release as "4.2".  Naively, I thought there would be a ./install type upgrade with the latest code.  Alfresco upgrades are really more of a dump and reload, which increased the complexity of this greatly.  We decided to allocate some better hardware for this pilot project and for me to take the time to teach myself this process.  In a nutshell, you dump all of the data from Postgres and then it is restored on the new hardware.  You then bring over the alf_data directory and start up the daemons and hope it all works.  After a few test runs, I worked out all of the kinks and it came over and has been made available to end users.  

The LibreOffice 4.1 CMIS connector sadly no longer works with Alfresco.  I brought down LO 4.2 (Alpha) which has been resynced with the latest libcmis changed and it works like a champ, better than ever.  I have "upgraded" 5 of us to this release and we are going to begin testing saving and editing documents directly via LibreOffice -> Alfresco.  Response time and folder refreshes are much faster and the library changes are noticed and appreciated.  Let's see what feedback we get from the end users.

In the shot below, the new icons and art with Alfresco 4.2.e, and LibreOffice 4.2 making direct edits to files stored within the database.

Firefox 25 is out and fixes the issue of not honoring umask from the parent shell.  5 minutes after download, it was installed and live and we were fully patched.  800 users will be very happy about their file permissions.

Current Projects:  I'm looking over Ubuntu 10 loaded on the HP t610 thin clients and checking to see if it can be easily loaded onto 5745 and 5725 model thin clients.  This will continue with our design of having the same operating system on all workstations. I expect it to work, and easily.  Testing NX 4 client and server with the concept of using NX between all workstations and the server. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What's Happening?

Yet again a good number of days have gone by without a blog posting.  Projects and upgrades have consumed most of my time in the last few weeks.

NX/NoMachine 4 Released & Tablets

NX 4 was released.  I had installed and looked over various beta builds as it was being developed, and I put the released version on a VM copy of your primary GNOME desktop server.  The install process is a piece of cake, and you just edit a few .cfg files to point to the right scripts to run at startup and away you go.

One notable feature is the ability to connect with a browser and get a full GNOME desktop and run all of your software without modification.  As seen below, you enter a URL and up came the desktop.   Speed on Firefox 24/Linux is very acceptable.

This browser solution has not proven itself to work well on tablets, even over local WiFi.  But I was happy to see this on the download page:

Tablets have been interesting to me because one school of thought is that people would log in and get a GNOME desktop and work as they do from their desk.  Another thought is that they would work more client/server and download documents and use local software and then upload.  By far users have expressed more interest in the former.  They don't seem to want to use different/local software and want to use what works here at the City.  So the clients for iOS and Android will be greatly appreciated and used.

The biggest issue for us right now with NX 4 is that the clients are not yet ready for deployment in a multi-user environment with "regular users".  NX3 clients allowed you to automate the login process and once they entered their account/password...GNOME came right up.  NX 4 has a lot of prompts and questions which are better suited for power users.  As it stands right now, we would be bombarded with questions and support and there would be a drop in productivity.  If a user is attempting to connect, they have work that must be finished.  If they fail, that work doesn't get done.  There are plans on the roadmap from what I understand to add more of these entperprise features in the future, and we'll have to wait for them before we can deploy.

EDIT: Sarah from Nomachine posted information on this issue on the comments section.  We were unaware and are going to test.

Support Portal Has More Features

Our in-house support portal is still helping us monitor all aspects of a thin client and centralized environment, and some modifications have been made.  It's wonderful that when you have ideas, you can just throw in a few lines of code and it's done.

We're using the issue tracking module now for all calls received and the data is very interesting.  In the shot below you can see that in the last 24 hours our primary support call center got around 20 calls.  This is with many hundreds of users logging in and out of the workstations and using software.  Our current regular concurrent load is right around 300 users.  I have said it many times before, that using thin clients allows your staff to work on maintenance and future projects vs spending lots of resources keeping support intensive PCs running.  I marked the general trends of problems

(RED) Linux/GNOME/Desktop problems   Only 1 all day!
(GREEN) Phones
(PURPLE) Problems with hosted/cloud apps
(BLUE) Problems with MS Windows on various specialized computers
(BLACK) End user questions about working software or procedures.

I also hacked in a quick screen on the user detail area to show documents edited by the user.  Very often people call and have "lost" their document...or sometimes they make edits to a document in /tmp accidentally and then it's lost when this area is purged.  Now at a glance we can assist them without having to look on backup tapes and such.  Very helpful.

LibreOffice 4.1 , Handling Rollbacks

This isn't unique to LibreOffice 4.1, because it's happened going back all the way back to OpenOffice 1.1.  Whenever you get a patch or even more so, whenever you get a major release there are always issues where documents don't work correctly.   I keep all of the old versions on the server and can always test and find the regression.  Standard procedure then is to rollback a user until we get a patch and then upgrade them again to the latest release.  This was done by me, with hard coded scripts.  I put this into the support portal and now anyone in IT can either roll their own account back or rollback another user to solve these types of problems.  All of this activity is logged, and we're nagged once a day of people on prior versions so that we continue to try and resolve their issue.

We have three bad issues with LO 4.1 right now, affecting about a dozen people.  1) There is a bug with building graphs from spreadsheet cells 2) There is a bug for selecting sections of spreadsheets for printing 3) There is a bug with drop down cells in Calc.

These users are on 4.0 and everyone is happy and working.

Firefox 24 Bug And Quick Response

 Firefox 23 had an issue with saving files, the files were saved as 600 on Linux and no longer honored umask.  When then happened was that work flow for many people was interrupted because as they shared files with others, they could not be opened.  In general users do not understand how to use file permissions nor how to change them.  The Firefox developers came through in a pinch and a patch is already landing in time for version 25.  Thanks guys.

Alfresco Testing Continues.

We have three non IT people starting to test Alfresco 4.2 as a proof of concept.  Deployment is not imminent at this point because we don't have the staffing; but it's gaining some steam and people are starting to see the power of working in this manner.   The testers are putting PDF content into the Alfresco database and then seeing that it's immediately available on their tablets.  We're meeting today again to discuss how to connect with LibreOffice, and will talk about the concept of using hybrid PDF as our official City file format.  Right now LO is a bit clunky with this format, but we see possibilities I can start creating feature requests and possibly funding improvements.

Alfresco supports RSS feeds, so I have been building a proof of concept systray application which would alert users of changes to documents and work flow that need their attention.  In the shot below, the icon is sitting in the tray and clicking on the icon shows the last document updates.  At our meeting today we'll talk about this idea and whether we want to test notification popups too.  The strength of open source:  being able to rapidly build prototypes and then deploy solutions quickly with little to no cost.

SuseCon Orlando

It's only a few weeks away, and I'll be attending along with my coworker.  Find us and say Hi!