The Return of the Server

“It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing.” (Boromir from The Fellowship of the Ring)

It was nice to get our Mac mini server back today, complete with new hard drive. It’s surprising how vital a little shiny aluminium box can be for the smooth running of a Primary school.

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Reflector vs. Apple TV

One of the really cool things about an iPad in the classroom is how you can mirror your iPad’s screen to any AirPlay-receiving device.  Like an Apple TV.  I use this functionality all of the time, basically using my iPad as a replacement for the notorious ‘smart’ board, particularly when using Explain Everything.  It’s very handy and means I can have my iPad sitting on the piano whilst I’m teaching and easily change slides, annotate things, move things around etc.

Apple TV is Apple’s preferred way of doing this, which is their little black box of goodness which you then plug into your widescreen TV by HDMI and go from there.  If you have a widescreen HDMI TV, then this is the simplest solution.  However, most schools are instead running some sort of fangled VGA projector+computer+monitor+speakers+amp, without an HDMI input or output in sight and projecting onto a 4:3 interactive whiteboard.

This results in the following problems:

  • you’ll need to buy a HDMI to VGA converter.  Kanex do the very cool little adaptor that does the trick, but the problem with this (so I’ve been told) is that it can’t cope with a really long VGA cable to the projector as isn’t powered.  Most schools have the VGA cable running up the wall and along the ceiling, adding a good 5 metres of cabling.  You can buy powered HDMI to VGA converters, but this adds another little box, another power lead and all sorts of other tangles.
  • screen ratio issues.  The Apple TV assumes you are going to a 16:9 output, so it just adds black bars to the left and right of the image when mirroring the 4:3 iPad.  When you are projecting to a 4:3 screen, this results in either a weirdly stretched image or a rather small image.
  • you’ll need to switch between displays.  If you’re already running a smartboard computer, the teacher will have to switch displays on the projector to the Apple TV input.  Not difficult, but still a bit of a bother.

Enter Reflector (formerly Reflection).  It’s a Mac (and PC) app that turns your computer into an AirPlay receiver. It’s only $15 and you can buy multiple licences slightly cheaper.  All you have to do is start the app running, and then you can mirror your iPad to your Mac’s display.

The advantages are as follows:

  • true 4:3 mirroring.  If your computer is already running a 4:3 display, then the iPad mirroring will fill the whole screen.  Yay!
  • no display switching.  It just uses your existing screen and projector.
  • no extra wires or boxes.  Which is always good.
  • cheaper!  £10 vs £85 speaks for itself.

The only downside is that iPad Keynote slideshows don’t fill the screen.  This is because the Keynote app assumes it’s mirroring to a 16:9 Apple TV so adds it’s own black bars to the left and right of the image.  Swings and roundabouts I guess!

’twas the week before BETT

We’re off to BETT on Wednesday, the annual ICT in Education trade fair. I wasn’t overly impressed with it last year, mostly because it seemed to be mainly about interactive whiteboards. I’ll be interested to see how much of a conspicuous appearance the iPad will make, considering it is revolutionising ICT in schools at a furious pace. Apple have long since pulled out of such shows, but I know that several big Apple resellers will be there. The iPad demonstrations at people like Toucan’s stand were certainly very crowded!

Seriously though, I’m interested to see how iPad storage solutions have developed and if there’s anyone talking about 1:1 iPad deployments. Such fun!

I’d also like to see how the Google chrome book experiment is shaping up the in the UK and if there is much interest in Windows 8 tablets.

Such fun!

Managing without the Mac server

A few weeks ago, we discovered that the second hard drive on our Mac mini server was failing.  Which isn’t good.  It’s still under warranty though so won’t cost anything to fix, apart from the inconvenience of having it taken away from our school for a few days.

And an inconvenience it certainly has been!  The Mac server has been brilliant for managing all the little settings and preferences on the Macs and I’ve made much use of Workgroup Manager for tweaking this and fixing that.  This makes it all the more painful when it is removed, especially with a large school full of an ever-increasing number of Macs.

All the Macs are bound to two servers: the Open Directory (OD) on the Mac server and the Active Directory (AD) on the Windows server. The AD manages usernames and passwords and serves up all the network drives, but the OD tells the Macs what to put in the dock, what drives to mount on login, and where Microsoft Office can put all its first-run registration windows (i.e. not on my screen!). Without the Mac server, the Mac will still let users login, but the dock will be empty, network drives won’t be mounted and everyone will come running to find me and demand access to their shared folders.

After some very helpful support from our wonderful reseller Toucan, I settled upon this plan:

  1. Make a local account and set it up just how I wanted it, i.e. applications in the dock and network drives mounted on login with credentials on the keychain.
  2. Log in as root and copy this home folder to all the Macs using Apple Remote Desktop.
  3. Tell teachers to login with the local account only.

The first part was fairly straightforward.

The second part was a little more tricky as it involved logging in as root, something I had not done before.  But Apple give some easy-to-follow instructions how to do it.   This gives the user unlimited powers to look in any folder and move anything anywhere, without running into permission errors all the time.  Once logged in as root, I used Apple Remote Desktop to copy the home directory of the local user to all the Macs. I had already set up a local user previously, so I just reused that name and didn’t have to go to each machine and add a local account.

The annoying problem I ran into was that some Macs were still remembering all their managed preferences, even though the Mac server was unavailable.  This would have been fine if every Mac was doing this, but it was inconsistent across the school and gave an uneven user experience.  Thankfully, I found an article explaining how to flush the MCX cached settings. Et voilà, everything working fine.  Or at least good enough.

I hope the Mac server gets fixed quickly!

It does make me realise why Apple is moving to profiles for managing preferences on a Mac, just like with iOS.  That way, the client machine remembers the settings it’s been given, rather than relying on a continuous connection to a server.  It’s just a shame that Profile Manager isn’t quite up to the job as of yet, particularly with OSX.