FAXing From the Beach: Mixing Business and Travel

A number of years ago, a forward-thinking company (I forget which one) put an ad on TV that zoomed in on a tablet-looking device on the arm of a beach chair. The punch line was, “FAX from the beach? You will.” Well, that was a long time ago, before the dot-com bubble burst and before the Internet turned FAX into one of those quaint twentieth-century technologies that nobody remembers fondly. And we did FAX from the beach, just not quite that simply. Even before the now-archaic ad broke, we were dragging thermal-paper FAX machines and luggable computers with modems off to time-share escapes. The extension cords and phone drops didn’t quite reach to the beach, but we could see it from our room.

Today, the “FAX from the beach” mode is the art of remote computing. If you have a Unix system, or the right combination of Windows applications, and the blessings of the Network Police at $WORK, you can “be at your desk” from almost anywhere on the planet, thanks to WiFi almost everywhere. But, technology is, as we all know, not always infallible. Cell phone coverage isn’t everywhere for every carrier, and WiFi systems get overloaded at inconvenient times, or the hotel or coffee shop decides your time is up and logs you off their system until you refresh your login. And, at best, shared WiFi connections are slow, compared with your network at work or even at home.

Graphical user interfaces are all the rage, but waiting for a Virtual Network Console (VNC) session to crawl down the screen and fill in the detail is painfully slow. Most of the time, VNC works pretty fast, as long as you are on a local network, or there are no firewalls between you and the remote host. Since running without a firewall is corporate and financial suicide, regardless of your base operating system, the only safe way to run VNC is either through an SSH tunnel with port forwarding, which is an incredibly complex process, or to run the viewer on the remote host with X11 forwarding, which SSH handles internally. Unfortunately, X11 is way too chatty to use over a slow link, so the initial display creeps down your screen, taking several passes before it is ready to use. Then, the mouse tends to react sluggishly, making the whole experience a bit less productive than desired.

One thing that does help is to use the -C option on the slowest of the SSH links to use compression on that link. And, there may be multiple links, since a really secure connection will relay through a gateway server straddling the corporate firewall. But, this becomes an extra planning process and procedural step, complicating the process. But, if you need a 24×7 connection to a remote host, this might be your only option. One advantage to using VNC is the persistence of the remote desktop, which can be a representation of the actual console display on the remote, or, in the case of Unix, a separate login display. Unix, being a multi-user system, has had the capability of multiple graphical desktops over the network for decades, but VNC transmits a single window containing a “picture” of the desktop instead of dozens of window and widget objects that compose an X Window desktop.

In recent years, vendors have employed remote-host initiated connections, using HTTP to exchange host display information with the support technician’s computer. This technology is also available through third-party services, where both the remote and local hosts connect through the external service. To securely effect this type of remote connection, the connection information must be passed from the operator of the remote host to the operator of the local host, so this method is also limited in scope. But, when it works, it is adequate, as compression is built into the connection protocols.

For Unix administrators and programmers, there is another method of connecting to a remote computer with the safety of a persistent remote process: the ‘screen’ utiitity program creates virtual command-line text terminals. ‘screen’ allows multiple terminal sessions to be run on the remote host under one remote login session.

One of the big advantages of using persistent remote connections is the ability to connect, say “at the beach,” or in a coffee shop, start up some processes, then disconnect and reconnect later from another location, even from another computer. Most servers now have “Lights Out Management” devices built in, so we can even turn the power on and off and monitor the start-up processes remotely. These tools enable us twenty-first century leisure-seekers to work from the beach as if we were in our windowless cubicles in the basement next to the data center. At least we have the satisfaction that, if we had looked up from our computer, we would have been able to see a spectacular sunset. Hey, it’s dark out! When did that happen? Hmm. Tomorrow night, we’ll be in a different city, but the view will be the same–unless I change my desktop background picture…

Oh, I know this, it’s Linux

A week into Road Tour 2010.  After a few days, we found sharing one laptop computer just wasn’t working.  Getting too fat in coffee shops, reading too many magazines in public libraries that we wouldn’t ordinarily read, etc.  We each needed a computer.

Hanging out in coffee shops waiting for the computer

We’ve been budgeting for a netbook computer for just this purpose for some time.  Obviously, the time is now.  On our way out of Montana, we stopped at Costco, picked up an HP Mini, and tossed it in the trunk.

That night, I fired it up, upon which it went through the excruciating and dreaded Windozews 7 setup procedure.  After grabbing all the updates and replacing Internet Explodrer with Firefox, I backed up to external disk, shut it down and packed it, since the Ubuntu laptop had been thoroughly shared while I was occupied with the onerous Windows task.  Meanwhile, I downloaded the Windows 7 recovery disk ISO (since Microsoft hasn’t figured out how to make a recovery flash drive: Windows can only deal with CD/DVD drives) to write onto a memory stick, and the Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook edition ISO, expecting a few days of fiddling to get things right.

But, the next night, we broke out both machines, turned on the HP Mini, and something called HP QuickWeb came up, with a desktop menu that offered Mail, Web, Photos, etc.  Down in the lower corner of the task bar was an icon labeled “Boot Windows.”  We didn’t click on that one.  There was a familiar-looking antenna icon, which we did click, getting a list of wireless networks, and with one click, we were on the ‘Net, with a Firefox-looking browser, all we really needed.

The Nice Person was delighted, quoting the line from Jurassic Park paraphrased in the title, and the Unix Curmudgeon was delighted to not have to spend evenings repartitioning, installing, and tweaking Ubuntu.  The amazing part of all this is that HP QuickWeb is a carefully kept secret, as if HP doesn’t want Microsoft to find out that the machine is really a Linux machine that just happens to be able to dual boot Windows.  The automatic firstboot setup of Windows is a red herring.  Why would anyone want to click on the Windows start button if they can do everything they need to do with a Netbook within a few seconds of turning on the machine.  And, like Ubuntu, if the wireless network you connected to last is still detectable, it quietly connects you without asking.  It simply does not get in your way, and when you are ready to move on, it shuts down promptly, without the “do not touch your computer while Windows is installing and configuring updates” that we’ve encountered the few times we had to use Windows.

I still have the Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook Edition flash drive to fall back on, though I need to get a bigger flash drive to make it useful as a stand-alone system. HP QuickWeb is adequate.  Thanks, HP.

Highways are Networks, Too

We’ve just started on Road Tour 2010, at the first stop in Montana to take care of business before moving on to Albuquerque for Convergence 2010, a conference of the Handweavers Guild of America.  Summer also being Road Maintenance in the American West, I was struck by the similarities between computer networks and the highway system.

Most people assume the Interstate Highway system is a High Performance system, since it has multiple travel lanes in each direction, permitting parallel travel at different speeds without “blocking.”  Parallel computer systems, whether Symmetric Multiprocessors (like multi-lane highways) or clusters (like the street grids in cities or concentric beltway systems) provide multiple paths for program execution, so there is no waiting in queues or waiting for an opening in the opposite lane to pass.

But, during Road Maintenance season, it is painfully obvious that the Interstate highway system is High Availability instead.  High Availability systems do some load sharing, so appear to be High Performance, but the real purpose is to carry on the job if one of the nodes fails.  A lot of our four-lane interstate highways end up being alternating sections of two-lane highways, as road crews perform necessary repairs to and replacements of paving and bridges.

Interstate 90, which traverses the northern US from Seattle to Boston, suffers greatly from the fierce winters in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains.  In the long winters, heaving asphalt, spalling concrete, and cracks from the inexorable slip of the roadways downslope result in poor traction indeed as your tires hover a fraction of an inch above the rough surface.  After a few harrowing S-turns through steep mountain canyons, the narrow two-lane corridors through the construction zones are most welcome.

So, too, do computer systems need maintenance.  The roads in Montana require it so frequently that the department of transportation has constructed the equivalent of hot-swap disks and power units, great paved permanent X’s between the numerous  overpasses and bridges to facilitate switching traffic from four to two lanes and back.  A high-availability computer system includes not only fail-over standby and load-sharing systems, but redundant components that can be replaced without ever turning off the system.  The system administrator’s job is to monitor the internal failure sensors and replace failing items before the fall-back components also fail.  Information must flow, even as the daily commerce of the Interstate highways must keep flowing.

In the Rocky Mountain West, there are often no parallel paths for detours: keeping the roads open in bad weather and during maintenance is as essential to commerce as keeping the company web server online 24x7x365.  Those fast four-lane highways are really just redundant two-lane roads: take time and enjoy the scenery.  Oh, and do check on the server status back home when you get to the next WiFi hotspot.