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Remote Desktop while away

In a few weeks I pop off on my first holiday for 2 years, for this trip I really do not want to take my laptop, this would seem odd as the darn things have been practically glued to me for the last 20 Years, but:

  1. Time to learn to take a break.
  2. As a Member of LDCVia I need to learn to know when to share the work, and how to hand over.1
  3. Errr… welll… There are now countries that were once thought to be friendly, that have now shown a distressing habit of being hostile at their borders and now want to take your clients private data away and look at it for “Reasons” and I figured this would be a great dry run for having to travel to such a country again.

But I’m not insane, nor can I leave my clients, sooo I needed to retain access in some way so that I can support as and when it is needed. someone sort of cloud desktop that I can reach from a cheap laptop or tablet seemed like an obvious answer.

Requirements

  1. It must be able to run a form of VMWARE as each of my clients has to their own separate VM machine(s) with separate security.
  2. It must support Android (large and small screen) and Linux as clients.
  3. Must not cost a bleeding fortune.

Contenders

AMAZON Workspaces: This looked a perfect fit to start with and I use AWS for lots of other services including this blog, but the setup was a right faff was slow and cumbersome and then I realised that it would not allow VMWARE or any virtualisation, undaunted I though I would at least check out the performance, only discover that despite stating “just connects from anything” it only meant large android screens (not my phone) and not from Linux at All.. so in the bin it went.(shame really)

VMWARE Remote Console: Wince!!..I have to own to a bit of paranoia here my self, direct access to the Clients VM’s is just too much of a risk from external, it just stops there. sorry VMWARE, I tried to mentally run through the conversation explaining my actions to clients, and none of them went well.

I started to look at Citrix then got a grip and thought, “OH COME ON” its just one machine. Just get another machine load your VM’s on it and get a good secure remote client… cue another 30 mins wasted looking at online hosting and then a small local server and more swearing comes from the office as I realise “JUST USE YOUR BLOODY LAPTOP YOU TWIT YOU WON’T HAVE IT WITH YOU”…. fsss.

So it just comes down to a good remote connection software

The 3 that stood out were:

Logmein : From my point of view easy to discount as it does not support Linux guests but would have been discarded anyway as it has a small company feel which you again make it a difficult sell to clients

Team Viewer : Used by many of my clients and supports a lot of nice security features, but a bit on the pricey side.

VNC Connect : I was attracted to this as I use the free version for my Raspberry Pi’s, I also like the VNC standard and it has been security hardened by many a grumpy sys admin and dev over the years, the VNC Connect platform provided by Real VNC ticks all the boxes.

I was actually hard pressed to pick between Team Viewer and VNC Connect, on paper they provided all the features/platforms and security that I could want, but in the end VNC Connect won though partly because of price (its is £422 a year vs £384) but mainly the fact that the android viewer on team studio does not support the use of a mouse via Android.3

Security

OK, lets get the elephant in the room out of the way, how are we handling security.

Well VNC Connect is nicely paranoid about security so to get to my laptop now requires 2 logons both different 12 digit ones (1 to login to VNC Connect and 1 to get to my laptop ) then each VM is encrypted and requests a login appropriate to the OS used, then of course the normal password for each client to connect via VPN/Programs etc etc.

I ran that though potential questions via any of my clients and it came out OK.

Phyisical Setup

I have attempted to do this kind of thing before and obviously used remote software all of my career, and thus have sworn at my fair share of thin clients, phones, and tablets

Requirements

  1. Lighter than just taking my laptop
  2. Resolution of a decent Screen
  3. Good keyboard
  4. Good mouse
  5. Either not a silly price or very reusable.

I looked at Chrome books but frankly all in the price range were poo, Microsoft surface laptops were too expensive and I’m not in the IOS ecosystem, So an Android Tablet it is, that meant a Nexus or Pixel as few of the other vendors keep the security patches up to date, thankfully the Pixel C was on special offer (most likely due to being replace in the next month or so) that meant I could get a good tablet with a great screen and a very pleasant keyboard, paired with the new Logitech tracker ball I had something that was very usable thank you.


RemoteDesktop01.png

Testing

So I did 2 basic tests, performance and usability

Performance: I connected my laptop to a VPN in Japan, then tethered the tablet to my phone, then connected via the remote and sat down to work, it was totally usable , there was that slight lag on the mouse you get on any remoting software but no more than I get when I VPN into any clients network, and that was going to be the real test, using a VM via another VPN while remoting to the host PC, here I have to say I cheated like a devil, as my laptop is in the comms room of the office where it has access to the AWESOME least line we use (and is physically secure), so in fact it was actually faster and more responsive than normal, which was a more than pleasant surprise

Usability: Not bad, not perfect but not bad, it worked as well as any remote program, with a couple of extra qwerks, it does not re-size the client desktop as it is a genuine KVM rather than creating a new session, which is both good and bad and easy to work around, the other qwerk I’m still working on, is that the top and bottom bars for the Real VNC client triggers very easily and they don’t always retract cleanly without an extra click, I would like it if you could allocate a special gesture to the client to stop it working in modal form, the same as VMWARE client, perhaps a 3 finger swipe from the top or something like that

Conclusion

OK, I have been doing dry runs of leaving my laptop in the office and just taking the tablet and mouse home at night then working on that and I have to say I am now comfortable just going to Japan without the laptop, this setup works…. wish me luck.. :p


  1. I get told off about this about once a month. 

  2. They do do a cheaper version but I wanted the higher level encryption. 

  3. But I do have to give the Team viewer client credit for handling screen render better than VNC it would have been nice to get the best of both worlds, and I hope VNC improves on that front. 

New Logitech TrackBall

I moved to a trackball instead of a mouse about 22 years ago when I got a twinge of RSI in my shoulder and the best one on the market at the time was the Logitech ps2 Marble TrackMan, since then I have upgraded with each new model resulting in the current M570, a week ago on an off chance and needing a blue tooth trackball I checked the Logitech site, squeeking with surprise I saw the new MX Ergo trackball was just out

A few days later it arrives in my sweaty hands and I discover that someone at Logitech seems to be a mind reader and has added just about everything I wanted. So this review is going to be a bit unbalanced but I will try to point out the good and the bad.,

Good

  • Lots more grip: the M570 had 4 little rubber feet that had a habit of coming off and disappearing into the ether, meaning the mouse would rock slightly until you replaced them, the MX Ergo has a solid rubber foot that nearly glues you to any surface with NO sliding.
  • Multi-Multi connection: the MX ergo uses both Bluetooth and the Logitech Unified Receiver as well as supporting 2 devices swappable with a button click, this means I can swap between my laptop and tablet very easily and with no messing around to re-pair, it is JUST want I wanted and works flawlessly.
  • Easy precision switch: there is another little button that swaps between fast and high precision mode, another feature I have wanted and expect to come in useful.

Bad

  • The Little devil is more than twice as heavy as the M570, which is both good and bad, good in that it feels far more solid to use, bad as in I carry the sod around all the time.
  • Fragile: now I don’t actually think it actually IS any more fragile, but as it feels more complicated I think it could get grubby pretty quick and the base plate would fall off in my bag
  • Expensive: An extra £30~ over the M570 + £20 for the case I feel I needed, makes this a pricy old mouse.


MXErgo02.png

Size and Feel is nearly identical to the M570 (which just shows they got it right the first time) with the addition of the 2 position rocker (Hand flat and hand at 20°)


MXErgo04.png

The underneath of the MX Ergo vs one of my well-worn M570’s you can see the solid foot and absence of battery hatch, the MX Ergo just recharges via USB meaning I no longer have to carry around any spare batteries.


MXErgo03.png

The detachable foot, with sticks on the MX Ergo with 2 magnets, cant say I’m in love with the solution and would like the option to leave it off but there is no denying that it sticks on well and gives both weight and stability.


MXErgo01.png

Given the cost, less rugged nature and “waiting to fall off” base, the investment of a case seemed a prudent Idea I went with a Hard Travel Case by co2CREA

Conculstion

I love this mouse, I REALLY love this mouse, yes it costs more than its predecessor, yes you cant just bung it in your laptop bag anymore, but to use and in particular to use on different platforms, it is just a pleasure, comfortable, responsive and smooth…… Happy Sigh

Unlimited Test Email Addresses

A silly tip that has saved me tons of hours and make clients happy is having an Email domain that has “catch-all” routing on it.

Basically this is having a domain that any address that you use with it automatically routes to a central email address, mine is the “energywins.co.uk” domain, anything you send to that domain ends up at my main address, be it “clientTest1@energywins.co.uk” or “fakeUser200@energywins.co.uk”, this did not used to be that useful when all apps were internal, but in the world of cloud apps and PARTICULARLY with the Salesforce/Pardot world that only allows an email to be registered once it is invaluable and helps you to keep clients separated (they also love to have you use emails address that are specific to them ie “MicrosoftTEST@energywins.co.uk”

This can be done easily with just about any email provider, but I use Gmail for domains as it is easy, fast and cheap1.

Strangely the Gmail for Domain instructions keep changing, are oddly poor for Google and the setting is buried REALLY deep which I assume means they don’t really want you to do it. so if things change, just search for “Gmail Catch All” in the meantime:

  • From your inbox, Click on the little cog on the right-hand side and select “Manage this Domain”


CatchAll01.png

  • Then select “Apps”


CatchAll02.png

  • Then select “G Suite”


CatchAll03.png

  • Then select “Gmail”


CatchAll04.png

  • Then scroll down to the bottom and select “Advanced Settings”


CatchAll05.png

  • Then scroll nearly down to the bottom and under “Routing” you will see the setting for “Email routing”, change the radio button for “Unknown mailbox account messages” to “Route to catch-all address”, and put in your main email address for this domain.


CatchAll06.png

That’s it, for most people this is not a suitable setting because it just slightly increases your spam content, but for me and anyone who needs a constant stream of individual email address and to not lose track of old ones used one 6 months ago, it’s invaluable.


  1. Some of my colleges use temp email domains such as http://www.throwawaymail.com but I have found that such things have a habit of being needed again in 6 months when the client comes back for more work. 

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