Trip to Bend, Oregon (September 2012)

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Shoshone Falls Day Trip (7/1/12)

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Hell’s Canyon Day Trip (5/20/12)

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Swan Falls Dam Day Trip (2/19/12)

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Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic (9/2/11)

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Silver City, ID Day Trip (8/26/11)

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Redo Backup and Recovery

One of the most critical aspects of setting up a new system is creating a system image. Especially for Windows systems. Who wants to install updates and reboot all day long? Whenever I set up a new system I install all of the updates, drivers and software that are needed on that system. I then create an image of its current, freshly installed state. In the future if my hard drive crashes, my installation becomes corrupt or I simply want to start over with a fresh installation I can very easily. It is much nicer than starting over with a fresh install of an outdated copy of Windows or having to deal with the CRAPware that comes pre-loaded with most consumer desktops and notebooks.

For a few years I was using BartPE with a plugin called SelfImage. It worked tremendously well. The BartPE CD I created must have been trashed when I was in the process of moving. Otherwise, that is probably what I would still be using and I wouldn’t have a reason for writing now. I did try to create a new copy of BartPE but had trouble finding the correct copy of the SelfImage plugin. Frustrated, I started looking for something else. I tried several live Linux distributions that were designed to create and restore drive images. I also tried a couple of free Windows programs. None of them were working. Finally, I came across Redo Backup. I have to tell you that I am VERY excited about this software. It does what a professional grade cloning tool should do, for free! If they were to charge for this application it would be worth every single penny! Though, I hope they don’t because I’m sure it would be expensive!

The feature that I am most excited about is the ability to save and restore images to an FTP server or SMB share. It’s very useful if the machine you are imaging only has one hard drive. It would also be useful in a corporate or educational environment where many machines need to be imaged. I have to tell you that while I did manage to use this feature successfully, I did have problems with it. Many times the process would lock up and the only way to start over was to reboot the machine. Sometimes the screen would go blank only showing the cursor. Like I said, I did manage to successfully backup and restore an image via FTP. But only after many restarts was I successful. The problem could be that the machine I was backing up and restoring was a virtual machine. It could also be a bad connection between the desktop I was running the virtual machine on and the desktop I use as a server.

While I did have issues using the network backup and restore feature; I was completely successful in backing up a hard drive to a secondary internal and external hard drive and restoring the image back to the main hard drive.

In addition to drive imaging you can use Redo Backup to: manage your partitions, use Firefox to download drivers (or just surf the web), synchronize files, recover deleted files, reset your hard drive to factory condition, mount internal or external drives to manage files. You can do all of that and more with software that can be run from an external 256 MB flash drive.

If you’re looking for free drive cloning software, look no further. I have tried them all and I promise you, this is THE ONE to keep in your toolbox!

Redo Backup and Recovery

Mac OS X terminal server using Vine Server

In the previous blog entry I wrote about Aqua Connect Terminal Server for Mac OS X. While I think it’s a great application for an organization that can afford to implement it, I cannot. I’m sure there are others out there wanting to implement terminal server functionality but can’t afford to pay for a proprietary product either. If you are one of those people, I have great news for you! You can do it right now, for free! All it will take is a Mac with OS 9 or later (I am running OS 10.4.11), Vine Server, a little time and maybe a few groans here and there. But hopefully, this tutorial will get you up and running without going through the moans and groans that I did! Let’s get started.

User account creation and fast user switching

The first task that we’ll take care of is setting up users. I am using a fresh installation of Tiger but you may not be. The first user that I would recommend setting up is an Administrator account.

This is simply an account named “Administrator” with administrator privileges. This is an optional step but I find that it lessens the confusion of system administration. It also gives you an account that you can use to login to the machine you are setting this up on without disturbing a session of another user or your own.

Once you have multiple users set up you need to enable fast user switching. Either click on the System Preferences icon in the dock or from the desktop click on the Apple icon and then System Preferences. Once the preferences panel has opened go to Accounts. Look for a button labeled “Login Options” and click on it. If you cannot click on the button you’ll need to un-lock the system for changes by clicking on the lock at the bottom of the panel. Once there you’ll want to make sure that “Automatically log in as:” is unchecked. Under “Display login window as” I would recommend selecting “Name and password.” This way if someone happens to connect to your system through the network they will not see a list of your user accounts, which will give them half of the information they need to gain access to your system. The very last option is a definite necessity, check the box beside “Enable fast user switching.” The “View as” option is your own personal preference but I personally like the icon since it doesn’t take up so much of the title bar.

System VNC Server, Accept SSH connections and Firewall Configuration

Vine Server does have a system server but I do not recommend using it because it interferes with the functionality that we are trying to achieve. Instead, we will use the system VNC server. To enable it stay in System Preferences.

Click on Show All at the top to return to the main panel. From there click on Sharing. Click on Apple Remote Desktop. The service will start and you’ll need to assign a password in the section “VNC viewers may control screen with password.” You do not have to configure each user account with permissions. The permissions at the top of this screen are for Apple Remote Desktop software connections only.

If you are going to want your users to connect using SSH (great for security) you’ll want to enable the Remote Login service in the Sharing panel as well.

Next we’ll configure the firewall so your users can connect remotely. From the Sharing panel click on Firewall. Make sure that “Apple Remote Desktop” and “Remote Login – SSH” are checked. They should already be enabled. If not, simply select the check box beside them. Next, we need to allow connections into Vine Server (which we will install next). Click on New. Choose Other from Port Name. In the TCP Port Numbers field enter: 5800-5809. In the UPD Port Number enter: 5800. In the Description enter: “Vine VNC Server”. You can now close system preferences.

Install Vine VNC Server

Next you’ll want to login to your Administrator account (again, this is just a personal preference) and install Vine Server.

Configure user accounts

After you have installed Vine Server log out of the Administrator account and log into one of the other user accounts that you created. Inside of each user account do the following: Launch Vine Server from the Applications directory. You’ll be asked to either enter a password or choose none (no password required). I would recommend using the same password that is assigned to that user account. Now, to make sure that Vine launches at log in. Right click on the Vine VNC icon in the dock and select “Keep In Dock”. Right click on the icon again and select “Open at Login”.

We’ll need to make some changes to the Vine Server. From the toolbar click on Vine Server >> Preferences. The first thing you will enter is a display name for the connection. I like to use “username on machinename.” This is for organizational purposes so whenever I connect to the server from a remote machine multiple times I will know which account I am in.

We now need to configure the port. Since we’re also running the system VNC server we cannot use the default ports. This is why I had you to add those ports in the firewall. Otherwise, we could have used the standard VNC option in the drop down menu. You can use port 5800 for this first account but I prefer to use port 5801 for the first user account, 5802 for the second, 5803 for the third and so on. Again, it’s a personal, organizational preference. Before you continue you can also choose whether you want to require users to connect via SSH before they can make a VNC connection. Generally, on a local network I don’t require users to connect via SSH. If a user was connecting remotely, I would.

Let’s switch to the Device tab. Since this machine will be used by multiple users we want to make sure that it will not go to sleep. We also want to make sure that the screen saver is not running. Running a screen saver over VNC will make everything on your network extremely slow. Make sure those check boxes are not checked.

In the Sharing tab, I select “Always allow multiple VNC connections.”

Lastly, make sure that “Stop server on a fast user switch” is unchecked. Otherwise, when you log out you won’t be able to connect again unless you use the system server VNC connection to log in.

Configure all of your users with these settings and reboot the server.

Connect to Apple’s built-in VNC Server

To connect to the system VNC server you’ll need a VNC Viewer. For Windows I recommend TightVNC Viewer. If you’re using Linux use Vinagre or TightVNC. If you’re using a Mac you can use Chicken of the VNC. Testplant has a VNC viewer called Vine Viewer that you can purchase for added functionality.

Once you have chosen a VNC viewer, open it and enter the IP address of the Mac you are setting up as a terminal server and connect. You should be asked to enter the password you entered in the Apple Remote Desktop settings. Enter the password and you should then see the log in screen.

Now all you have to do is log in to each user account so that each account has Vine Server running in it and return to the log in screen using fast user switching. Make sure that you don’t log out or you won’t be able to connect to the VNC server that is running inside of each user account.

After you have finished starting up Vine server in each user account and have returned to the log in screen you can disconnect from the system server.

Connect to user account Vine servers

To connect to the user VNC servers the only change you will make in your connection process is the IP address in the VNC viewer. This time you will enter the IP address of the server followed by a colon and a port number. Example: 192.168.1.23:5801 – This will connect your VNC viewer to the first user account in which you launched Vine server. You’ll be asked to enter the password that you specified in that user account.

NOTE: The default VNC ports are 5900 but since we are running the system VNC server we had to use a different port range for the user VNC servers. If you were not running the system VNC server and were using the default port range you could simply use 192.168.1.23:1

Final Thoughts

No, this is not a true terminal server. However, if you need this type of functionality and are not willing to pony up the dough, I think this is a great solution. At least, it’s the only solution I have been able to come up with! I think my next experiment will be to see whether I can achieve better performance with it using a FireWire connection. I’ve got to get the FireWire 6 pin to 6 pin cable first. I’d also like to eventually have a dumb terminal connecting to the server to display the Mac OS X desktop.

Aqua Connect Terminal Server for Mac OS X

A few years ago I fell in love with Windows Terminal Services Server. Then I learned about the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) and fell in love with it even more because I could bring old computers to life by booting them over the network with a brand new, full-featured, modern operating system. I love the idea of terminal computing because it gives you the ability to connect from any workstation and access all of your applications and data from each workstation you connect from. Businesses, schools and organizations can implement terminal computing as a way to give more users access to a computer without having to purchase a complete computer workstation for each user.

Since setting up a Windows and Linux terminal server it has been a dream of mine to get a terminal server up and running on Mac OS X. It’s a topic that I will occasionally do a Google Search for to see if there are any new projects trying to accomplish this. A couple of weeks ago I was doing a search on this topic and found two software vendors that offered a solution. I decided to tryout Aqua Connect because it would run on my iBook G3. Yes, ancient technology but it still works and I use what I’ve got!

Taking control of a remote Mac is already possible with VNC server software and of course Apple Remote Desktop. However, with a VNC server and Apple Remote Desktop only one user can use the system at a time. That is where a terminal server comes into play. Multiple users can connect to the terminal server at the same time from their workstation and use the computer they are connected to just like they were sitting right in front of it. Each user can use the applications that they need to without disturbing other users.

Once I found Aqua Connect I requested a free trial and about a day later I received the download link and a serial number. I downloaded the software and installed it. The software is extremely simple to install. If you can install applications on OS X, you can install Aqua Connect. Installing LTSP is much more complicated so I was pleasantly surprised. Once you get the server started, users added and a hole added in your firewall so the software can pass through it; you can connect from any computer on your network, using any VNC server client software (or a thin client that supports VNC connections). It’s that easy. Seriously? Yup!

A couple of cool features in the Aqua Connect preference pane are the ability to control priority for each connecting client and the ability to set the default resolution of the connecting clients.

As I mentioned above I was testing Aqua Connect on an iBook G3 which has Mac OS X 10.4 installed on it. Aqua Connect is designed to work best on Mac OS X Server and of course a computer with more resources. There are two versions of the software. One for OS X 10.4 Tiger and one for OS X 10.5 Leopard. The Leopard version has more features and unfortunately, I am unable to tell you about those as of this time. If in the future I am able to test the Leopard version I will update this article with updated information. I mention all of that so you can keep that in mind as you read the rest of this entry.

To connect to the server you can use any VNC client software (TightVNC Viewer, RealVNC, Chicken of the VNC, etc). The problem with this is that VNC is terrible for performance. For quick maintenance on a system it is okay but I don’t think anyone would want to browse the Internet or use many applications at a time due to the slow screen re-drawing time. Fortunately, the Leopard version of Aqua Connect supports connecting via RDP (remote desktop protocol) clients which should make the OS X terminal server experience a much more pleasant one.

There were a couple of quirks that I encountered while testing Aqua Connect. The first is console lockups. After connecting and logging off multiple clients I would try to login to the server (the iBook G3) but could not enter any login credentials. It looked as though there was a remote login being displayed over the real login screen. I don’t know if this was actually the case or not but the display had a much lower resolution than it normally does. I could not interact with the console and had to reboot when this happened. The second quirk was that I would sometimes be unable to login to the terminal server from a remote client without rebooting the server first. I just assumed that these quirks were due to it being installed on the client version of Tiger instead of the server version.

I did not obtain a direct quote from Aqua Connect for pricing but I did find information regarding a “Green Campaign” that they had earlier this year in which 20 concurrent connections of Aqua Connect were given away. The retail price of the 20 concurrent connections was $7,980. So, approximately $400 for each client license. While that is out of my price range it could be very beneficial for a business that is trying to save money on energy costs. (Out of curiosity I do wonder how much the cost of the license would drop if they had not licensed RDP technology from Microsoft.)

The alternative to Aqua Connect is iRAPP Terminal Server. It looks like a really great solution as well but unfortunately, it only runs on Intel Macs so I am unable to test it. They are more up-front about their pricing, which I like. Their pricing for 20 users is $5256.00. One user is $262.80 (at the time of this writing).

Both of these options are currently out of my budget, but, they’re definitely interesting projects to look at if you’re interested in terminal computing. I will be sticking with a simple VNC server since it accommodates my needs nicely.

Belkin Desktop Phone for Skype

Last year I purchased the SMC WiFi Phone for Skype and was extremely disappointed. Haunted by it would probably be a better phrase. A reader of this blog by the name of Wayne gifted the Belkin phone to me. Thankfully so, because I was still needing a phone to use with Skype since I use it as my main line. I was still struggling with the same problems I faced when I purchased the WiFi phone. That is, I was never able to quickly answer Skype when someone was calling.

I’ve had the phone for a couple of weeks now and have thoroughly tested it out. Fortunately, for the phone, I don’t feel like slamming it against the wall as I did with the SMC phone. With that said, it’s not perfect. However, it’s been a much more pleasurable experience than the SMC phone.

I think I’ll start this review off with reasons I like this model, problems I had with the phone and then we’ll get to my conclusion.

Reasons I like this model: When I was looking at this phone on the Skype Store, I really liked that it was a desktop form factor. I have saw others in the past but they didn’t have all the features that this phone has. I liked that you could plug it into the network with an ethernet cable. I thought the call quality would be much better because of this. Others that I have looked at require you to connect the phone to the computer via USB. I wanted something fully independent. There are times that I’m working on video and still want to be able to talk on Skype. I also liked the fact that it had a full color display and speaker phone.

  • Voicemail: I am really happy to report that voice mail works with this phone. That phone that I keep referring to, the one I hate so much, would never send a call to voice mail. This phone will send it to voice mail after four rings.
  • Speaker: Although I really don’t use the speaker that much it is nice to have. Sometimes I’ll use the speaker to listen to voice mails or to see if I’ll get a ring or busy signal to the person I’m calling.
  • Web Based Administration: The only thing you can do with the web based administration is upgrade the phone’s firmware. However, the geek in me thinks it’s really neat. For added security you’ll want to change the default password so others cannot gain access to the administration area.

One or the other! One of the biggest problems that I have faced while using the Belkin phone is that you can’t use Skype on the computer and the phone at the same time. Well, you can, but it causes a lot of problems.

  • Instance 1: I was using Skype on the computer to talk to someone and I had my web cam on. I was mentioning to them that I had got the phone and they wanted to see it. I unplugged the phone from the network (thinking it would be no big deal) and showed it to my friend on camera. I then plugged the phone back into the network and Skype on the computer completely crashed.
  • Instance 2: I was on a Skype call using the Belkin phone. I needed to grab a link that someone was trying to send to me in chat. So, I started Skype on the computer and the Belkin phone completely rebooted and updated it’s firmware.
  • Instance 3: I had been instant messaging with a friend and knew that they were going to call me. When I know I’m going to be on a call for a while I’d rather use Skype on the computer because it’s much more comfortable than holding the phone. When they called me I had answered the call on the computer but the Belkin phone continued to ring a few more times.

For the most part I’ve mostly been using Skype on the Belkin phone and not running Skype on the computer. This is annoying because when someone IM’s me I don’t know. Also, a lot of the people on my contact list don’t pay attention to the message that says “This user is using a version of Skype that does not support chat.” So a lot of them have been irritated with me for not responding, I apologize. Though, it does keep my computer from being overrun with more instant messages. 😉

Quiet calls. A couple of people have mentioned that when I am talking to them and pause, that there is no background noise. “Are you there?” tends to rear it’s ugly head several times during the conversation. Only a couple of people have mentioned this, though.

Call quality. The phone doesn’t have the absolute best call quality. Though, again, it’s definitely much better than the SMC phone. I have forwarded ports to the phone and it is directly connected to the DSL router (which has a firewall, if you were worried) to try and improve call quality. It’s not traditional telephone quality, it’s definitely not the quality you can get out of Skype on the computer, but, it’s not terrible.

Conclusion. I really like this phone. It works and operates as a phone should. Although I did have a few problems with this phone (as mentioned above), it’s a really great phone. I think it would make a great gift. Buy one, set up a Skype account, add yourself to the contact list and give it away. Just tell the recipient to plug and play.

I hope to see many software updates for this phone in the future. Hopefully, they’ll figure out a way to improve call quality. I would also like to see an addition to the embedded Skype software that makes it easy to silence the phone without going on “Do Not Disturb,” going through the settings and turning the ringer off or signing out of Skype on the phone. Signing back into Skype through the phone requires re-entering your password. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s possible to silence the phone and it’s pretty simple to do. It just requires more clicks than I think there should be.

Most importantly I would like to see an update that corrects the problem of using Skype on the computer and the phone at the same time.

In a future model of this phone I would like to see the ability to plug in a headset.

Would I recommend this phone? Most definitely. Like I said, it works as a phone should. If you’re looking for a desktop Skype phone, this is the one to get.

Belkin Desktop Phone for Skype