Using ownCloud For Personal Cloud Services

Recently, the term “cloud” has become quite a trendy term for what is a less-catchy term “application service provider” or “ASP” that has been around forever. But, the evolution of bandwidth connections across the US and world has helped fuel this idea that you don’t need local application servers or hire expertise in all things tech. Google, Apple, Facebook, Dropbox and others are jumping on this bandwagon with free or freemium models to provide filesharing and PIM tools for the masses. The rise of tablet computing has also driven the need for those less technical but with multiple devices to look to the cloud to help them somehow try and sync their files across all their toys. Of course, in going with a large company like Apple or Google, you get what they are able to provide and have to deal with putting your information and data in their hands as well as your passwords.

For those that run their own hosted or personal servers, self-hosted ownCloud is not a bad solution. I put it in for my wife and I recently to displace what we had been doing for a calendar share system and got some additional functionality in the process. I ripped-out Davical because some code broke when I upgraded our home server to Ubuntu 12.04. It is a LAMP-based extensible system that can power filesyncing across devices, calendar and contacts sharing as well as music streaming and picture viewing. These modules are installed when you do the initial installation, but there is even an ecosystem of other applications you can roll into the structure.

ownCloud Calendar via web interface
ownCloud Pictures via web interface
ownCloud Files server via web interface

Installation is a breeze with basic mysql and Apache knowledge. The datastore is a mysql database and plop the code into a new directory in an Apache virtualhost. It serves up Caldav that is compatible with iOS and other clients. Calendar sharing was the major feature I needed and that works well with iPhone calendars and Reminders between my wife and I. This is also the case with contact sharing via the carddav ability with the Contacts module of ownCloud. Nice to get that right out of the box.

I didn’t really care too much about music or files because I am not trying to make my iPad or iPhone be a laptop replacement, but for being a backup system for your documents at work or whatever, the sync clients ownCloud provides work okay in my tests. Because this is a browser-based tool, using SSL on Apache to serve it would be recommended so you don’t send passwords in the clear when you are on that public wifi. If you don’t have a legit SSL certificate from an authorized provider setup with Apache, this would be the time to do so. I moved off self-signed certs that I used for many, many years and got legit when I recently went with the self-hosted model of ownCloud.

Another application of note that seem nice are the browser email application Roundcube can be incorporated into the ownCloud framework vs. running this separately via just an Linux compile or apt-get. There is no reason ownCloud can’t be installed at a hosting provider site that allows mysql database access too. I just happen to have a local linux server for this sort of stuff and development.

I have been a happy camper so far with our “cloud” information under my control but still being able to leverage all the services I need and without downtime or security concerns you have to settle for with large companies like Apple, Google and other vendors.

Passing command-line options to OS X Apps with Platypus

Platypus from Sveinbjorn Thordarson

I love the Google Chrome Canary browser. For the last year, it has been my browser of choice on Mac, Windows and Linux after leaving the chaos and mess that has become Mozilla Firefox.

The only aspect that is bothersome for me in Chrome or Chrome Canary is the way the software deals with self-signed SSL certificates. I use a lot of them internally. Because of the current inability to trust self-signed certs in Chrome, you are forced to click through an error/acknowledgement warning prior to continuing to the address you want. This can get really annoying after a few times a day per site across a bunch of internal sites I use for monitoring or various sysadmin functions. Clicking the “Proceed Anyway” gets old. At least with Safari or Firefox, you can trust the cert and be done with it.

Google Chrome Self-Signed Certificate Error

The good news is that until they add some cert trust management into Chrome, you can at least pass a command-line flag to Google Chrome to ignore cert errors. Here is a great list of the various command-line flags or options you can pass to Google Chrome. But starting Chrome or other applications from Terminal is not usually what I do when I am in OS X.

"Fun" way to open an OS X application executable with command-line options

The other typical way to change an OS X application settings at launch is to modify the Info.plist. But, after trying to pass some environmental variables to the application via that method in adding dictionary keys, I had to try something else. Even if I could get something to stick and have Chrome recognize the command-line args via the Info.plist under the app “Contents” directory, there was the probability I would need to mess with it over and over again each update. Not fun.

Enter Platypus.

Platypus has been around for years and allows you to quickly and easily generate a new executable .app that references other application but can merge with shell scripts or other stuff to get around the limitations of not being able to access functions lost when applications are ported to OS X.

Generating a new .app via Platypus that makes a call to start the executable in the Contents of the OS X app and an external shell script is a great way around this because the shell script and app will still work as long as the path to the Google Chrome Canary.app stays consistent from update to update.

Once in Platypus, I created a shell script that it places by default under the ~/Library/Application/Support/Platypus. The script makes a call to the executable and adds the flag that I wanted to nix the cert warnings.

Script to start Google Chrome Canary with the command-line arg in OS X

You can also test the syntax in the application.

Checking syntax of the script for errors.

After you get what you want, you can save the project as an application. I named my “ChromeHelper.app” and saved in the /Applications directory. This is the launcher I will use that starts Chrome Canary with the additional option. You can also snag the icon for the application from the real application “Get Info” dialogue then paste it into the Platypus interface to give the app a “custom icon.”

Creating the OS X .app in Platypus

After saving, you get an application wrapper that gives to the additional layer of code to pass the args to the executable. Super handy. Here is what the “Get Info” window looks like after the app creation via Platypus.

Dropping the app in your dock or creating a shortcut will have it act just like the original app, but with the additional options. Pretty cool and a great way to get around the one weakness in the application until they add the functionality or Mozilla gets their act together to make Firefox the best browser again one day.

Lenovo Thinkpad X130e First Impressions and Review

Thinkpad X130e Top

I was able to get my hands on a loaner unit from Lenovo via CDWG this week. This is the unit from Lenovo that they are specifically marketing to the education sector. I was eager to play around with it and see it firsthand prior to making an investment in them for student laptop carts. Also, Apple recently EOL’d the standard unibody white MacBook we were buying for student use, so looking at this unit to replace the MacBook is also in the back of my mind as I tear into it.

The Specs

Thinkpad X130e Specs

The unit I am testing has 2 GB of RAM, with the slower 1.3 Ghz AMD E-300. Feels faster than the Atom Netbook units. After initial boot of Windows, it was responsive.

Windows Device Manager

Windows 7 Device Manager on ThinkPad X130e

Liked the gigabit ethernet and 11n wireless. The 7200 RPM drive was also a nice add. No optical drive is a bummer.

Keyboard

Thinkpad X130e Keyboard

Really liked the feel of this keyboard to type. The keys are separate along the lines of what Apple has been doing with it’s hardware for many years now. The keys were normal size and not only going to work with small hands. I was able to type as I do with my MacBook Pro without a problem.

Trackpad and Buttons

Thinkpad X130e Trackpad and Buttons

Never have been a fan of the “eraserhead” navigation, but the trackpad on the X130 is pretty nice. It acts as a trackpad and as a large button to do right and left clicks. You also have the upper buttons. Simplification here would be nice, but I guess you choose the ones you want to use and ignore the ones you don’t.

The Chassis “Bumper”

Top Chassis Bumper Around LCD

Really like the rubber bumper around the LCD. There is a lip around it so when it is closed, it goes beyond the top and projects the entire unit. This is a great feature. MacBooks and other laptops used in carts get banged around a lot by students when they are out and when they are slid back into slots on a cart, so this feature is a total bonus.

Side VGA Port

Thinkpad X130e Side: Front VGA Port

The X130e has a standard VGA port which many schools that haven’t gone iPad crazy still have as standard for projectors. Unlike the Apple world, you are not in video adapter hell requiring a MiniDisplayPort or another type of Apple accessory to bridge the laptop to the projector cable.

Side Front

Thinkpad X130e Side: Front HDMI, USB, Ethernet

The next standard for classroom projection (again not for schools in an iPad haze with AppleTV and iPads) is to go HDMI. All new projection systems are HDMI and the cable is much more durable and can send/receive video and audio. The Thinkpad X130e has an HDMI a USB and gigabyte ethernet and 3.5mm audio. Having the ethernet port towards the front on laptops is always ackward, but it will rarely ever be used in most environments since WIFI rules, so not a huge deal.

Other Side Front

Thinkpad X130e Side: Front SD slot and USB

On the other side, they included an SD card slot to use with digital camera media and/or camcorders that dump video to the popular media format. They also have another USB port here. Nice.

Other Side Rear

Thinkpad X130e Side: Rear USB and Power

Towards the back of the other side, you get another USB and the power jack in from the adapter. Having ports along the sides of the laptop are critical for cart use and charging. Huge. Unlike the Mag stuff from Apple that students and teachers always have issues with fully connecting in a cart environment, these see m better to deal with longterm.

Power Light Indicator

AC Power Light Indicator

When you plug in, you get a green light for power to show you are receiving power. It is only green. It does not change to something like yellow or orange to show it is charging the battery. You get a audiable sound when you plug in power or remove it.

Power On Light

Thinkpad X130e Chassis: Logo with Power Indicator i

The way they light the dot in the “i” on the top and on the wristpad area is pretty cool.

Thinkpad X130e Chassis: Logo with Power Indicator

The Battery

Thinkpad X130e Battery

The battery is pretty small. On a full charge, Windows shows over 8 hours. I am still testing, but the run-rate is pretty great. Could you get through a whole day of classes for students? Probably not, but close.

Power Adapter

AC Adapter

Pretty standard 65W power adapter.

AC Adapter vs Apple Power Adapter

Smaller than the Apple Mag brick and doesn’t get as hot it seems. Uses the standard 2 prong cable to the wall and to the transformer.

Bottom of the Unit

Thinkpad X130e Bottom

The bottom of the Thinkpad X130e is simple. Three screws across the front give you access to the insides. The speaker bar runs along the front of the bottom.

Thinkpad X130e Open: All Areas

Unscrew the three phillips screws and you are in. Easy access to the drive, RAM and wireless.

Thinkpad X130e Open: Memory and Processor

Two memory slots. My unit came with 2GB of RAM in one slot.

Thinkpad X130e Open: Hard Drive

Two screws and a slide take the SATA drive out. Nice.

Thinkpad X130e Open: Hard Drive Area

The 7200 RPM 2.5″ SATA is a nice touch. I find drive RPM super critical and many netbooks were cursed with slow drives. Since this is running full Windows 7 Pro, any bump in read/write speed is appreciated.

Thinkpad X130e Open: Full

Three screws to get to pretty much anything you need to get to that is field repairable is nice if you are duplicating drive images, or need to move through a bunch of them quickly as we do in school environments.

Next to the MacBook Unibody

Thinkpad X130e next to White Macbook Unibody

The Thinkpad X130e is smaller than the MacBook Unibody. But, the feel is solid. The black color is a plus for schools because the laptops get dirty and the white MacBooks rarely look clean. The Thinkpad X130e feels solid and durable.

Thinkpad X130e stacked on White Macbook Unibody (Side)

The lack of an optical drive is a big bummer, but Apple is also going that route now too, so at about half the price of the MacBook or the MacBook Air for education model, you cannot complain.

The Positives:

  • Solid construction: the X130e feels like it can withstand the students we would throw at it. The color and bumper around it.
  • Power adapter: I’ve never been a fan of the magnet system of Apple, so this plug is just better. When Apple moved to the right-angle, less magnetized power adapter it got even worse to keep power connected in a cart system.
  • Video/Audio Ports: Love the VGA and HDMI. The less special adapters required for standard connections the better.
  • Internal Access: Quick to get into it and swap hardware. Right there with the MacBook design model. Three screws to pop-open the bottom and get to everything is great.
  • Battery Life: Still testing but seems to be great. No iPad battery life, but with a physical keyboard and ports definitely a better tool to make things without having to be plugged-in to the wall.

The Negatives:

  • Screen: The display is good. Not great. If you are used to Apple devices, this is not that. Not a bright, but I do like the matte finish. The 1366 x 768 resolution is fine. Not as bright as the better units from other vendors, but more than fine for classroom use.
  • Windows: Yeah, no iMovie, iPhoto, etc. but Windows 7 Pro is great for everyday use. If students need processing and browser applications along side programming tools, this is a great solution.
  • Trackpad: Not a fan. It works, but too much stuff going on there. I realize they make this for people who might prefer different input methods, but feels less elegant that it could be.
  • The Thin SATA Drive: The clearance in the hard drive bay is so thin that it requires a thinner SATA drive that your standard 2.5″ variety. The one that shipped with it is 7mm wide. You are NOT going be able to fit a normal 2.5″ drive in there.

Conclusions:

I really like the unit I am testing and think it has potential here. I also liked the design of the Chromebooks I was playing with last year, but this is a big step-up from Netbooks and Chromebooks on content creation capability with resident applications and tools. If you aren’t stuck on trying to force iPads into your school and want an alternative to Apple for laptops, these is a great units. I can see us getting a couple of new carts in for the same price of one Apple-based cart.

P.S. – If you can, get 4 gigs of RAM on them. You will probably be able to run them longer in Windows. I am guessing the 1.3 Ghz vs the 1.6Ghz is less important then the RAM upgrade.

Cloud Computing: More Like Costco, Less Like Oxygen

People Waiting For Costco

The hype around the cloud computing is getting tiresome.

The recent highly-visible downtime with Amazon is not a rare occurrence, it just happened to be so widespread that Amazon and others that rely on the EC2 infrastructure had to publicly address and acknowledge it. Negative aspects of the ‘cloud’ are rarely addressed. I am sure there are many failures of many different flavors that the larger public never even knows about. I am happy that this recent situation does bring up the downside of what is normally touted as a salvation to many as of late. As the hype dies down over the next few months and years, I think you will see cloud computing settle in as something more along the lines wholesale giant Costco rather than something ubiquitous and unavoidable (as is the current consensus) for a few of major reasons.

Different, But Hardly a Revolution

The term ‘cloud computing‘ is a new term for something that, at it’s core, is nothing new. Yes, the recent technological advances on clustering and the vendors packaging services sitting on top of the newly clustered hardware and software is new, but vendors selling hosted services is nothing new or tremendously revolutionary. You don’t want to all the heft of managing servers and hardware? That was the case back in the mainframe days before the PC revolution of the 1980s and 1990s. You don’t want to try and have all the possible information in the world on your local hard drive? Makes sense. Glad we have an ‘internet’ of connected servers across the world with different types and sources of every-changing information. People farming-out services is not a new thing.

When Price Club and Costco first arrived on the scene, the items they were selling were not new. The channel methods with the vendors, portions of the products sold, wholesaling to the consumer all while grabbing membership dues from the public was the revolutionary part. The consolidated company, Costco, is wildly successful and has a strong model and loyal customers. We shop there every once and while when we have a need for certain types of stuff. We get toilet paper, paper towels in bulk and other items we know we will use a lot of and don’t particularly care about brand or exact details. Many will come to understand this is the kind of service cloud computing provides.

Great For General Needs, But Not Displacing The Specific

You need a bunch of generic toilet paper? Let’s hit Costco. You need a bunch of generic email accounts? Use Gmail instead of buying your own email server, domain name and configuring it all and hosting it in your garage. You need tires for your car cheap and not concerned too much on brand name or options? Costco is great for that. You want someplace to put a basic webserver for a company or personal site? Great – use a cloud provider and let them figure out what to use to serve things up for you to rent. But, just as Costco is not the go-to place of choice for everything you want/need to obtain for your daily life, cloud computing vendors are not going to be the only place to get everything you need or want to go for everything information technology-related. If you are a business, you might head down to Costco to get basic office task chairs, but if you need specific, high-end models, Costco is not the place you are going to buy from.

Costco opened up new options for people to acquire consumer goods but it hasn’t ever displaced the Safeway, 7-11, Target or Whole Foods out there because consumers see it as an option for them, but not the only option or the option they MUST go with. You will see cloud computing and the hype around it dissipate in similar fashion as people realize there are fundamental reasons why you want to continue to have local servers and be able to continue to maintain strategic advantages of various aspects of information technology based on your educated needs. There are, and will continue to be, numerous reasons to keep services local. Even if you have the ability to move them to the cloud, you might not. Specific needs like access to large amounts of file data across a fast local network, ability to have vertical control over all aspects of the network service and be able to be secure in the concepts around where your important information is physically located will never go out of style and will continue to be important to you. You are not wrong. If you feel email/groupware is a critical piece of your information technology, you probably want to keep it in-house at minimal cost vs. renting at Google or another ‘cloud’ vendor. Even though cloud computing companies will evolve with more and more specification of services, they won’t be able to provide the types of tailored systems organizations need (coupled with staff that has your priorities in mind) after they perform thoughtful refection and analysis. You also might not like not having the visibility on services you sacrifice when moving it to the cloud.

TANSTAAFL, But Maybe Free Samples

As with all businesses and services, the old saying “There ain’t so such thing as a free lunch” still applies. Perhaps many people and organizations are so excited about cloud computing because they think it bends the economic reality and they can snag free stuff without regard. Just because the service is in the cloud doesn’t make the underlying economic factors and needs for the vendors coordinating the services any different. They still need to generate profit to stay in business. When you walk the aisles in Costco to get the free samples, they are not there for you to just consume but rather given in the hope they get a few takers to buy the case of their frozen corn dogs or potstickers. If they don’t move enough product, then the samples aren’t working and it is time try something else. This is really no different than Google giving you a free email account to sell ads and harvest user information and behaviors, Ning letting you have groups in their site so you see the value and will be eventually willing to pay or the many others trying to use the ‘Freemium‘ model.

Courtesy of Getty Images

If giving stuff away doesn’t help sell product in the long run, those taquito samples table near the frozen section in Costco go away just like the free access to the cloud system service gets turned off like Ning did a year ago. I see many people, schools and business trying to ride the wave of free stuff just those people roaming the aisles at Costco grazing samples, but that game usually ends poorly. You really don’t want to put critical pieces of what you need to operate and rely on dependent on shaky business models. It is an illusion that you can subsist bouncing from free thing to free thing. It consumes the time and energy that you should be putting into your mission, operations and investment in local resources for those items that are critical to you.

After The Hype, I Welcome Reality

As more incidents like the Amazon failure, Google deleting batches of Gmail accounts, etc. occur, when the VC money lessens and when darling cloud companies like DropBox figure-out they really need to properly monetize and have to stick it to the their users causing outcry, I think the cloud luster will wear-off. A few years ago there were tons of Facebook developers trying to do all kinds of crazy businesses and that was all the rage until reality set-in for the entire ecosystem. This sort of reality will take effect soon for cloud computing as well. I have no doubt and welcome it.

I know where Costco is and maintain my membership, but I don’t load-up on corndogs, peperoncini or frozen chimichangas like I once did. We all tend to make better choices when the options and understandings around them are more mature. We will all still breathe oxygen as the cloud computing hype will mellow to become commonplace but not essential and we will be on to the next hyped, ‘revolutionary’ technology cycle.