Fixing DVD player crashes in Mavericks

We run our SMARTBoards in school from Mac minis, some of which are old enough to have DVD drives and so which make use of Super Drives.  Anyway, since Mavericks there has been an issue where the DVD player will crash upon loading.  Annoying.

After trying out things like resetting the PRAM and the SMC, it turned out that the issue was due to the second display.  The machines have two displays: a monitor connected via DVI and a projector via VGA (which are mirrored).  I tried changing which screen the display was optimised for (in System Preferences > Displays) and this seemed to do the trick.  Yay.

LEGO WeDo and Munki

As part of Mr Gove’s wonderful new Computing Curriculum in Primary schools, we’ve invested in some LEGO WeDo kit to teach some simple robotics stuff to KS2. It’s basically a USB hub which connects to a computer, into which you can plug a motor, a distance sensor or a tilt sensor. You can then program these sensors using LEGO’s own WeDo software (or MIT’s Scratch!) to build cool stuff like a spinning top, an aeroplane or an automatic goalie.

So far so good.

Then I came to trying to install the software on all the Macs in the school using Munki. I love Munki as it means I can remotely install and update stuff on all the Macs in the school really quickly. But it does rely on software coming in a reasonably decently packaged form. Which LEGO WeDo does not. Rather than using a sensible .pkg file, it instead has an Installer App (I know!) which then asks you to choose a language, which then opens up a meta package (.mpkg) which runs 6 different installers, each with various pre and post-flight scripts that liberally sprinkle files across various parts of your system.

Lovely.

Having used Pacifist to look inside the meta-package to see what was being installed, I tried using Munki to install each of these packages remotely. Except this didn’t work – the App icon for WeDo stopped working and you couldn’t view all the build instructions (leaving the dreaded greyed-out LEGO head).

So I tried a different tack. I downloaded Packages, a brilliant package-builder for Mac, and decided to build my own package for the software. The LEGO installer handily gave a list of all the files to delete to uninstall it, so I just added those to my package. And this worked. Kinda, only the LEGO head was stilled greyed out.

[Incidently, making changes to a package and changing the version number of the package, makes it keep testing an installation on Munki. Because Munki checks package receipts, it won’t reinstall a package it’s already installed. But it will install a package with a higher version number.]

Having spent far to much time on this problem already, I decided to give LEGO support a call. They were quite helpful, and suggested I try log in with an administrator account and see if that worked. Lo and behold, it did. They then suggested I tweak permissions on different files and folders to see if that helped. I basically gave write permissions to anyone on all files and that seemed to fix it. Not ideal really.

What I’m looking forward to in the Great Software Update

At WWDC, iOS 7 and OSX Mavericks were announced and September 10th is the date when the new iPhones get revealed, so I’m guessing that the release of the aforementioned software won’t be long after that.  Here is what I’m looking forward to in those releases:

  • Automatic software updates for iOS.  No more stomping around the school with a big sync case updating iPads.  Or at least I hope.
  • SMB as the default for file sharing on Mavericks.  This should hopefully mean that using a Windows file server will be less painful.
  • A better Profile Manager on Mavericks Server that can actually manage ‘Often’ preferences on a Mac.

Thoughts on WWDC

It’s been a couple of weeks since Apple’s WWDC, so here are some of my thoughts.

The opening video

I really liked the ‘Designed by Apple in California’ video which opened the keynote. It’s clearly setting out what Apple is about and where it’s going, but it definitely feels more like an Ives/Cook vision rather than a Steve Jobs one.  Jobs’s Apple was about changing the world (as spelt out in the Think Different ad), whereas the ‘Designed by Apple’ video shifts the emphasis over to design –- changing the world one device and one happy customer at a time.  I like it, but it is slightly different.  It’s Apple finding its voice again, demonstrated too in the iPhone photos ad.  Apple is aiming at the heart, aiming at making every day lives ‘happier’ by the power of design. Or something.

Apple Stores

Apple Stores are clearly now Cook’s baby, and he seems to be doing well with them.  The creepy over-the-top store opening videos are a bit much though.

OSX Mavericks

I like the new name, picking a famous place from Apple’s home, California.  It ties into the whole ‘Designed by Apple in California’ thing as well, which is nice.  Sea Lion would have a been a good name though…

It didn’t seem like a dramatic update sort of release, but has a nice set of new features.  I’ve never heard Apple being quite so rude about their previous release (with all the jokes about not harming any cows in the making of ‘Calendar’), but they do have a fair point.  Maps and iBooks are obvious but great additions, and Finder Tabs and Multiple Displays make a lot of sense.

However, it’s the interesting stuff in the Core Technologies Overview, buried deep in the Advanced Technologies page, that I like.  Like how SMB2 is the default protocol for file sharing. This is (hopefully) going to make having Macs on a Windows Active Directory (even) easier and reliable.

Mac Pro

Nice. Even the mobile-friendly page that tells you all about it as you swipe down is nice. I wonder how much one of those canisters will set you back though…

iWork for iCloud Beta

Genius.  Hopefully it will work well too!  In some training recently I was showing teachers how to use iWork on the Mac and then how, via iCloud, how the documents can appear on their iPads.  Having the ability to edit these documents on a PC too makes iWork more and more of an Office killer.

iOS7

I’ve been wondering for a while what an Ives’ iOS would look like, and here it is.  It’s quite a big change aesthetically, but structurally iOS remains familiar and just as useable underneath.  The crusade against skeuomorphic design has been taken to a whole new level, and I wonder what will happen when iWork and iLife get an Ives makeover.

I do like the way that the interface is more dynamic.  Seeing the parallax scrolling animation on the home screen was one of those ‘wow!’ moments, making the background have a sort of hologram effect.  I’m pleased that the weather app finally gets some love, making it look as cool as some of the weather apps on Android or Windows Phone.

One thing that will make my life a whole lot easier when managing carts of iPads, is that app updates are now automatic.  Yay!  That’s going to save me hours of my life…

We didn’t really get to see what iOS7 looks like on an iPad, but I guess you can’t have everything.  I wonder if there are any exciting things up Apple’s sleeve for a bigger screen.

Fixing slow SMB shares in Finder

Hmm.  That’s quite a geeky title.  Maybe I should expound a little bit…

SMB stands for Server Message Block, which is a networking protocol used for accessing files and stuff on a Windows server.  It’s proprietary to Microsoft, so the rest of the world has developed their own ways of using it, more specifically with a technology called Samba.  Apple made use of Samba in OSX until 10.7, where they replaced it with their own version.  The good thing about all this is that, basically, a Mac is able to connect to a Windows file share right out of the box.  The bad thing is that Apple’s implementation of SMB is not altogether nor entirely wonderful.  In fact, it has the tendency to be a bit slow and unreliable.

At school we are still using a Windows server for file sharing, which means that all the Macs access the shared drives using SMB.  But recently the unreliability has become increasingly annoying: taking ages just to browse the contents of files, being unable to delete or move files (because Finder kept complaining that the file in question was already in use by someone else), and not being able to edit files.  Not great.

The options were to buy another Mac server and use that for file sharing (because it could share via SMB, AFP and WebDAV)).  Or try and find a solution on the Internet.

Thankfully, the Internet (via macosx.com) has answered.

I found that if I edited the /etc/nsmb.conf file as follows:

echo notify_off=yes >> /etc/nsmb.conf

it seemed to fix it.  Yay!

Network drives on wifi

Back in 2010, when we were considering getting some Macs in school, one option we considered was getting a set of MacBooks for use by kids. As we already had some PC laptops which connected to the server via wifi, I thought we could do the same with some Macs. However, our reseller strongly advised putting in wired network connections if you are binding a Mac to an Active Directory as performance would be poor on wifi. I didn’t think much further about this as we ended up getting lots of iMacs instead, which all ran off wired Ethernet connections.

However, I recently tried adding a MacBook Pro to our domain, running it just on wifi, and this cautionary advice all came flooding back. Because we’re a big school, we make a lot of use of shared drives for saving work on. Working on a document off of a network drive requires a constant connection, which can become a little tiresome on wifi (particularly if the access point has a couple dozen iPads on it as well!). Having had enough of the spinning beach ball of death, I found a long network cable and plugged myself in.

Running documents off a server does feel a bit like living in the dark ages though. Admittedly, it is handy to be able to log onto any computer in the school and have all your document just there, but you do pay for it with a performance hit. Storage read and write is the last great bottle neck, which is why Apple is aggressively moving towards flash storage (Flash? We love flash!) wherever it can. The iCloud document model also makes a lot of sense: your documents live on your iPad/Mac/iPhone, but any changes are pushed to your other devices so that the same document is ready and waiting when you get there. That way you get the speed (and non-reliance on a permanent network connection) of a local document with the convenience of network storage.

Making the ICT Suite more iPad-like

Over half term we had the fun job of upgrading our Mac server to Mountain Lion and then fiddling around with user accounts to make the Macs play nicely with our new ADSync setup.  As part of this process, I decided to change the way that the ICT Suite worked.

The old setup had children logging in with a class login, which allowed for a shared ‘documents’ on the server.  However, you would have to be logged in with those credentials to see the files, which would be annoying for teachers wanting to access work elsewhere in the school.  Entering a password to login was also rather tricky for the younger children, wasting a substantial part of ICT lessons early on just with logging in.  Also, because iMovie projects were saved locally to a machine, children would have to go back to the same machine with the same login to continue with their video.  This generally worked well, but if a child didn’t check that the Mac was logged out before starting work, they may have no idea what login to use to go back to it in a later lesson.

Instead, I set up the ICT Suite as follows:

  • A local account, without a password
  • The login screen showing the local non-adminstrator account as a ‘badge’, rather than a text field for username and password
  • When children log in, a shared drive is mounted via Managed Preferences, which has the username and password build into the URL (e.g. smb://username:password@pathtoserver/sharepoint).  This shared drive is a subfolder of the shared drive that teachers use across the school, meaning teachers can see children’s work but children can’t see all of the teachers’ work.
  • A login script runs which renames ~/Documents to ~/MacDocuments and then creates a symbolic link to the mounted shared drive and calls that ‘Documents’.  This little manoeuvre tricks Finder into putting that shared drive into the sidebar where Documents used to be, and also makes it the default save position

The upshot of all of this is that it makes the ICT Suite have much more of an iOS-like experience; instead of typing in usernames and passwords, you just click and go.  Popping into the ICT Suite today, teachers and children certainly liked the change!

Munki really does work!

Munki really is brilliant. From the user’s end, it is basically invisible, installing software when the computers are sitting logged out and never bothering anyone.  From the admin side, it is super quick to import a package file  and super easy to add it to the list of files to be installed.  This week alone I have been able to push out three different installs, confident that, by the next day, they will be installed on all the machines.

The only problem with it is that the admin backend is not hugely user-friendly, relying on setting up your own webserver, typing stuff into Terminal and editing a .plist file of software to be installed. I would love it if someone might perhaps consider building a beautiful and simple GUI backend too.  Anyone offering?

ADSync

When I first heard about the LGfL USO, it made a whole lot of sense to me: one Unified Sign On, allowing you to log onto a range of different services using just one username and password.  As part of that service, something called ADSync is also offered, which allows your Active Directory to have all the same usernames and passwords as your USO account.

I first heard about this in 2010, and we have finally installed it in our school!  Hurrah!

We were a little bit wary of this (as was my technician, who didn’t like the thought of someone else controlling our AD), but the installation seems to have gone very well.  It was all installed remotely, but Atomwide were very friendly and helpful along the way.

The job isn’t completely done yet as all of the Mac home folders are still under the old names.  However, Toucan are coming in and running some sort of magical script that will rename everything and make everything work wonderfully.  For staff, this should mean there is one less username to remember.  And for support staff who don’t log onto their emails very often but do use the Macs, it might help them remember their login!

Flash vs. Safari

Upon arriving at school today, teachers started telling me that they couldn’t view their Flash content because Safari was saying that the plugin was out of date and therefore blocked. Some had the initiative and had download and install the update because they knew the admin credentials, but it wasn’t looking good for everyone else.

Thankfully, Munki was there to the rescue! I managed to quickly download the Flash installer (using the volume distribution link on Adobe’s website – long story) and then uploaded it to our Munki repository. Our Macs are set to update every morning using Munki, but that was no good in this situation as everyone was already logged in. Instead I had to post some instructions for staff on how to use the ‘Managed Software Update’ app which comes with Munki to manually activate the installation.

Simples. Kinda.

The reason this is all happening is because of Apple’s XProtect software, which downloads a list of software to watch out for and then proceeds to block it as it comes across it. Which includes any out-of-date versions of Flash.

I guess the annoying part of this is that there is no automatic way of downloading and installing Flash updates, particularly on a network and particularly because Adobe specialise in inventing their own balmy and non-standard installer files.

Maybe Safari should join Chrome and offer automatic updates of plugins (particularly Flash). Or maybe Flash should just hurry up and be replaced by HTML5.