Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Thin Clients, Groupwise 2012, Alfresco & LibreOffice

Lots of projects, and progress on them.

Our next thin client release was pushed out a wider group of users and they have been testing the new features. The new interaction with USB memory sticks and cameras is making it much easier for those users that just want to shoot a few pictures and insert them into email downsized from their raw size.  One click and a paste and it's done and they can go back to fixing cars and do their jobs and not having to learn how to use GIMP for this basic function.  We also got a few users on the local ICA client which offloads this canvas and transport from the GNOME desktop to their workstation.  They are reporting that it's faster for sure, and those CPU cycles are now off the server.

I mentioned that HP released a new Ubuntu build for their thin clients.  I downloaded it and installed it on the 5745, which is their current model.  The release notes indicate much faster boot time and that was the case for sure.  Within a few seconds of power, X was up running.  In the coming months, I'll move our customizations over to this new OS version and then backport it to the older 5725 model, all of which is easy.  The code is all sitting in one directory and I just need to install the right pieces of software and drivers.  We should see better performance with newer X drivers and it also will make it easier to add more local software if we so desire.  I spent a few minutes and installed the new Skype client on the thin client and it worked.  Lots of ideas to kick around and it should be a nice upgrade for users.

We are once again looking at the web interface for Groupwise 2012, so I spent some time again reviewing the feature set and testing.  Outside connectivity to devices is exploding, and we're exploring options.

Document management is a hot spot on our radar and I was assigned the project of installing and reviewing Alfresco to see what it does.  It's very Linux friendly on the back and front ends and was a great place to start.  I downloaded and installed the community version on a retired server and found it extremely easy to get up and running -- nice work guys.  A few clicks of a wizard and everything loaded.  I then spent some time looking over the design and flow and was impressed.  It certainly would save us untold hours of staff time.  The biggest problem with these types of solutions is mind share and skills.  Hopefully we'll start to see some moving in this direction and we'll be looking at other products too.

The ever helpful Cedric Bosdonnat helped me understand how his experimental CMIS code connects to Alfresco from LibreOffice and I was able to make an initial connection and view documents.  Possibly this connector could be ready by the time we need it and are ready to deploy, so I will be spending bits of my time checking the progress and helping do QA.

The shot below shows LibreOffice making the connection to Alfresco right from the file manager along with Alfresco displaying inside of Firefox; all 100% Linux front and back.  No software licenses anywhere in this shot!

I installed the Alfresco client software on an iPad and tested it there as well.  I had easy access to the documents stored in the various Sites.  Things appear to work quickly and easily right out of the box.  Here is a shot:

Coming up for me:  Final push of the new thin client software patches to our users; testing LibreOffice 3.6 and looking for regressions and prepping to go live; Additional testing of Alfresco, reviewing other products for features and suitability with our goals; Looking at issues related to moving Groupwise 8 to Groupwise 2012 on 64bit Linux; Disk and server requirements for Groupwise 2012.  It all keeps one busy.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Another Busy Week

It's hard to believe that it's Friday; the days go so quickly.  I have been putting the final touches on our next thin client release and it's now in the hands of more users. I have been pushing it to 16 test thin clients to ensure that everything works.   I had a white board of ideas and things that could be improved and nearly everything is crossed off....a sign that a release is almost here.  I finally got a few people to test full time the Citrix client running on the thin client instead of being host based.  The feedback has been a 10-20% increase in speed and those CPU cycles will now be off the server.  So it's a win/win for us. 

I wanted to be able to remotely poll the thin clients to detect all devices plugged into the USB ports.  People sometimes bring in their own hardware without approval and we need to be able to see that it's been installed.  We QA with all known hardware when we do upgrades, but unknown hardware might yield unexpected results.  For now I just made it very simple: I wrote a small wrapper for lsusb that formats the output a bit better and then creates a more friendly output.  (lsusb is not enough information, lsusb -v is too much).   The support portal grabs the output and puts it into a simple treeview (below).  I had some ideas in my head for a graphical screen, but unfortunately the various hardware vendors return their own non standard strings...too hard to parse as part of this project, this will have to do for now.

I have been testing LibreOffice 3.6, found some documents that won't open and UI screens that aren't working and filed bug reports.  Very happy to see how quickly this software is moving.  3.5 has proven itself very stable, and we still have had very few issues moving away from OpenOffice.

HP released a new thin client operating system which is now Ubuntu based.  I downloaded it and installed it on a test device.  It will be nice to have newer underlying libraries to put live, and the boot time is greatly reduced.  Newer Xorg drivers should help us too with various monitor configurations; good stuff.  I installed Skype 4 and it went on cleanly and was peppy on the t5745 device.  Looks like we will be able to offer a lot of nice new features two updates from now, later this year.

We have been looking at Alfresco document management software a bit, and I was asked to install it as part of some early testing.  I'll be testing how well it interacts with Linux, Firefox and how well one can download documents from iPads and LibreOffice.  This is a huge change, and will obviously need a lot of testing...but it's on the radar and assigned to me.

Other issues: Monitoring crash reports, tuning servers, adding a bit of code here and there to help users restart applications on failure. For the number of users logging in, things are very stable and support is happy.

Happy weekend.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

User Instructions For USB

User Instructions:  If you support a large number of users, one of the hardest parts of any project is creating documentation.  If it's more than one page, no one will read it ... even if it's required for their job and something they should know.  I'm sure there are many techniques, but I have found instructions work best when they have screenshots and arrows and post it notes over the top.    Here is my first draft on the notes for how to interact with USB sticks and our software.  The left column is the new UI which eliminates file management almost completely.  A few clicks and it's into email and already sized.

I got about 5 people that indicated they would test all the new USB code and should be getting feedback over the next few days.

I also took the time to create a one page cheat sheet related to using the desktop.  There are a lot of keystrokes and shortcuts and if they are not known this lowers productivity; or they say they want another operating system because of memorized technique -- be it Windows or Mac.  The items mentioned are to assist with issues that cause user frustration.  Computers do really cool things, users just often don't find the steps intuitive..  User top issues:

- I find it hard to navigate to folders and remember where I saved my documents  (not one person has ever figured out the GNOME shortcut concept in the file manager without training)
- I need help finding those documents, and also documents that other employees have created.  Where did they save them?
- I saved a document last week, but forgot where it was saved and the file name.
- How do I change the speaker volume?
- We have to plan for the weather, how do I easily see the forecast and radar?
- How do I find other software applications that are not shortcuts?
- How do I check for new email messages quickly?
- I want to just type in the file folder instead of having to click in GUI mode. (not one person has never figured out that you can type in / on the wallpaper to open an entry dialog).
- How do I lock my screen easily?
- How do I take a screenshot on a timer, so that I can capture drop down menus?
- How do I take a screenshot of just one window, to avoid having to print the whole screen?

This one page document went out today and already people are trying new things.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Simpler USB Sticks And Cameras

In the last thin client upgrade, the first UI to assist users with USB sticks was released.  There were some issues in the design and people were using these workstations not always as expected.  So as I mentioned in my last blog, I have been retouching that code to make it work better.  The biggest issues that need to be solved:

1) We don't want everyone to have full USB stick access with drop and drag capabilities.  Why?  Because for most employees they are only working with photos and they are moving UP to the server from cameras and sticks.  In the hands of many, file managers are a dangerous things.  Errant lassos and drags are always present on a multi-user system.  Many workers only use computers for the smallest part of their jobs, and being able to insert a few pictures into a flyer or email message is all they need.

2) Users don't understand file types and sizes, no should they...yet just simply giving them a file manager yields all kinds of problems.  a) Why is this document so large?  b)  I resized the photo with the green handles in LibreOffice, why didn't the document get smaller?  c) I emailed this document and it was rejected on the other side as being too large  d) Why is the printer blinking for 5 minutes waiting for these 10 pictures to print?  e) Why is this taking so long to export to PDF?  --- and for Information Technology   a) Where the &*# did our disk space go?  b) Why did this user upload 500 pictures when they only used 2?

In the last blog, I showed the dialog that appears when a user inserts a USB stick.  Those with full approval can activate a full file manager and drop and drag files as they wish.  But for the rest the updated clipboard manager UI will appear.  The screen gives them the most common photo adjustments that they will want to do before it goes into LibreOffice or Evolution.  The original source files never are uploaded to the server, and everything is passed through the clipboard.  A few clicks and a paste and they are done.  Of course, these can be done in GIMP, but it's way too many steps and beyond the scope of what many can do. 

These new screens are modeled after the photo helper MIME bars that appear when they double-click on a photo.  Which were also designed to make it easier to shrink photos to the right size before inserting them into documents.

The software is not finished, but for the most part it's working as designed.  User inserts USB stick and it does a crawl and finds all pictures and sorts them by date and then by time in reverse order.  The screen below appears and shows the most recent date photos were taken.  If pictures are in sub-folders from the same date, they will appear all merged together.  The concept is not folder-centric, but instead date centric.  ( I remember WHEN I took them, but don't remember WHERE they were saved).  Arrows on the left and right of the thumbnails allow you to navigate up and down through the days with photos taken.  The arrows below the thumbnails allow you to move up and down through that date.   At the bottom, there is a mini navigator that allows you to quickly move to another date without having to wait for the thumbnails to refresh.  When you click on a photo the file size and width and height appear....which for most people means nothing.  As was the case with the desktop UI, it estimates the "LibreOffice Suitability" and "Evolution Suitability".  

If the photo is too big, they can select the appropriate size with the combobox, the thumbnail data changes and the new file size, height, width and suitability appears.

Once the adjustment is made, they click on the clipboard button and it's ready for any GNOME application that will accept the photo with a simple paste.   No file management, no's as simple as it can be.

I still have QA work on the code and will be testing it with real USB stucks here shortly and then will push it to some beta testers who will very probably find some issues.  But, I am pleased with the progress.

The white board of features for the new workstation upgrade only has a few items left and then we go to a more widespread beta test.  It will be great to get this code into production.

Other projects this week: Packing up Evolution crash data for the month of May; testing LibreOffice 3.6 with our documents and the new Corel Draw import filter; Testing Firefox 13 which came out today; looking over Java 1.7.4 and repercussions with web software that might have problems.