Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Some Project Updates

I wanted to blog one more update before the Holidays. I'll be off the next week enjoying time with friends and family.

We received a patch from Barracuda that allows our web filter to work in a manner better suited for our network design (all users coming from the same IP address). This was the last hurdle before deploying our new 64bit Firefox server. It will be nice to see the 48 hyper-threading CPUs in production. It should be a nice upgrade for our users and make their sessions more responsive. We also got a circuit upgrade and more bandwidth. This should go live the second week in January.

Now that my iPad prototype login is finished, I spent time bringing over more shortcut icons from the production GNOME server and testing them on the new one. Mostly all that remains is Windows apps now, and they are being QA'd as we move from using Citrix to RDP. My coworker has also been experimenting with running them in seamless windows, which would be a nicer user experience.

We had a utility on the old GNOME server to allow people to share their desktops with one another using VNC (x11vnc). What I saw when lingering in the support area is that they spent as much time showing people how to initiate this request as they did actually solving their issue. Users have a hard time finding new icons. So in my new design, the originator sends a vnc request and once accepted their desktop remotely displays. All the users have to do now is wait for a popup window, accept it and then get their support from our staff. I have also experimentally added a few more options to the UI, and having a fun time learning to use Glade and Python. The shot below shows the screen. You perform a search for the user, it matches their name and alerts you that they are online (green button) and then gives you options to take over their screen. It also gives you information about their resolution, color depth and thin client OS release number.

Nomachine released a preview of NX 4 last night, and being that this will be used for several of our projects I took the time today to get it installed and test it. The install process was quick and easy, and I simply typed in the URL and authenticated and the GNOME desktop appears right inside Firefox. I am waiting for some networking to be altered to allow my iPad to connect to the City network so that I can test this from that device using Safari. This technology seems to be working pretty well and promise. I really need to give this all a good shakedown (and maybe read a few manuals ;) ), and will report further as it's deployed. In the shot below, I'm logged into GNOME and then using Firefox opened another session with a different account name.

Friday, December 10, 2010

First Tablet UI And Work Flow Nearly Finished

This week went quickly, along with my various projects I have been improving my python skills so that the language wasn't a hindrance to creating the ideas that were in my head.

When logged into the new GNOME desktop, the MIME bars were updated to offer another selection to Save 'To MobileDocuments'. While this is a simple concept to computer people, moving files around the network is very difficult to regular users. With a single click, the document that is being displayed will now appear on the iPad/Tablet device.

The first iteration of the user interface that displays when you log into the network in portrait mode from an iPad is finished (below). All of the documents in your MobileDocuments folder display on the lower panel as thumbnails. When you click on them once, the drop shadow changes color and the status line displays information about the file. Touching the thumbnail button again or hitting the [ Open ] button opens the document in the appropriate software application. I'm designing with the consideration that users will be holding a stylus pen. I'm not sure how easy a right mouse click will be with a pen, so I'm coding with this limitation in mind. The UI supported PDFs and OpenOffice documents, and I just added photos. There might be circumstances where employees need to take photos with them into the field, and it only took a few minutes to add this feature. Being that everything is running on the server, if the iPad is lost, stolen or fails, no City documents are ever lost.

When I am sure that we are feature complete for the first release, I'll spend some time on the UI. Focus was on work flow, eye candy can come later. Here is a shot of a 768x1024 window, displaying documents and pictures and then opening a photo with eog.

With the coding nearly complete, I'll be at a stand-still now until NX 4 is released. Right now it's impossible to log in from the iPad. With this sub-project nearly finished, I'll focus on delivering the rest of the software packages on the new GNOME desktop and await patches to fix the last of our show stoppers.

Up next: Expanding use on the new desktop/GNOME server, putting the new Firefox server live, testing the new thin client changes and creating a large NFS drive for our documents. December is looking to be very busy.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Already A Good Morning

Yesterday I blogged about some ideas we are experimenting with to reduce printing costs. It was one of those days where you walk out the door knowing that pieces are just about ready to work.

I wrote a few python lines of code for the Glade UI to copy a pdf template from a skel directory into the MobileDocuments folder of the individual user and then fire Xournal against that document. The results are below. I then simulated the stylus pen being used for note taking.

The documents created are 100% on the server and never on the local iPad/tablet (simulated) and immediately show up in the users full GNOME desktop. Double-clicking on the file brings up the PDF MIME bar which shows the document already available on the network.

I just have to learn a little about using the paste clipboard signal in python and that feature should be working here pretty quickly. That will allow Dragon Naturally Speaking documents to be pasted and immediately placed on the City servers.

Then I just need to write some code to create a listing of files in MobileDocuments and generate thumbnails. Not a bad start to my Wednesday.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Tablet Footprint & Cost Savings

Sometimes it's very hard to pack many months of conversations and needs analysis into blogs. My current project is just such an issue; I could type paragraphs describing the specifications but will try and be concise. We have tried to close up a number of open requests with one design.

There is a growing demand for mobile solutions that allow users to move around the building and gain access to their files. Our centralized design makes this easier, and many different concepts were discussed. The first inclination is to move in the direction of getting a laptop footprint device. Those of you that have seen my previous posts know that we already have a mobile laptop thin client that is being tested. The laptop footprint is not the best for meetings. Sitting in a room with 10 screens flipped up is not really ideal, and then you have to consider power needs, cords and batteries. They also are not suited for what people want to do most: annotate over the top of previously created documents. It would be wonderful if regular users worked as we do in the computer field with Wikis and sharing information, but that's not how they work at this time. They still want to annotate over the top of document with their own notes. Currently this is being done pen to paper. Technology changes are sometimes done in baby steps.

So if your IT department is like ours, you are not as staffed as you would like and the hours of the day are filled. So how do you add a new type of technology and still maintain a quality design? Replacing the thin clients at the users desktops with something they can pick up doesn't make sense. Our desktop cost is 600 dollars (400 thin client + 200 monitor) with a projected 10 year duty cycle. Annual costs are minimal. Laptop footprint devices (even thin client laptops) would then have lots of docking and undocking, snapping of wires, cords being moved, monitors plugged in, USB devices plugging and unplugging...all very expensive to support and problematic. Why change one of the most stable parts of your network? It was clear that our efficiency and cost savings should then be obtained from our printing infrastructure. We don't have desktop printers which are very expensive to maintain, but instead run departmental laser printers. Our printing costs and printed page counts are still too high in my view. There are people that print pages during document construction and then hand write notes on the pages; and some people print email messages in order to read them. Nearly every meeting involves pages being printed and handed out to employees. There has got to be better ways of working, and this for sure is the area that needs attention.

So what I am developing now with the IT Director is a way to integrate an iPad footprint device into our design as a way to reduce printing costs. The goal is to give them the power of the devices, but not allow them to store documents locally.

In prototype form I have accomplished the design below. I'm simulating this work flow on a thin client until NX 4.0 is relased. NX/Nomachine 4 will allow you to log into our servers with Safari directly from an iPad. The server will then detect your Xserver is 768x1024 and know that you are on a tablet and then bypass starting GNOME in favor of a UI designed just for this footprint. This will allow you to be logged into the server with a full GNOME desktop and also a tablet device at the same time. The UI opens in a split second, and will offer much faster response time than waiting for a desktop to start. The image below shows Xsession passing you to the two environments based on Xserver size criteria.

The workflow that we have worked out so far is: When users log into GNOME they always have the following icon on their desktop. This opens a Nautilus folder into which they can drop and drag PDF and OpenDocument files. Anything in this folder is staged then for the iPad devices.

The shot below shows the current UI that is displayed in the 768x1024 footprint, exactly what will be seen on iPads. The panel at the bottom appears and thumbnails are generated of everything in $HOME/MobileDocuments sorted in reverse order newest to oldest. Clicking once on the document will display information about the document on the status line. Pressing Open will open it in either Xournal or OpenOffice. Xournal will allow them to use a stylus pen and mark up the meeting notes in their own handwriting. These documents are always on the server, and when they return to their desks they are available for immediate reference and further editing.

The iPad also has Dragon Naturally Speaking, and I have created a small multi-line text widget that will accept a paste from the local device. Once pasted, the button "Save Dragon Document" will become active. When they click this button, the text will be converted into OpenDocument (with perl modules) and a unique date stamped file name auto generated. The document will then display on the left of the panel as a thumbnail and be available for editing.

To answer the questions that I think will be coming :) -- ** Yes other tablets will be reviewed and the market is always monitored. This design is elegant in that it does not lock you into a certain vendor. ** Yes the UI is very basic and will evolve and probably sux. I'm more focused right now on this work flow. ** Yes iPads are $500 a piece, but even buying 10-20 of these would be but a small dent in our printing budget. A 10-20% reduction in printing might pay for the hardware in the first year.

I'm looking forward to testing this workflow and it's proceeding as a back burner project along with my primary projects.