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?