Mountain Lion

So, Mountain Lion is coming this summer.  Woo!  I personally like how they’re unifying different ideas and sorting out weird inconsistencies between iOS and OSX (like making Notes separate rather than part of Mail, creating a separate Reminders app, and renaming iCal to just Calendar). Messages also is pretty handy, and now available in beta form.  The way it was announced was also interesting: no press event, but instead one-to-one presentations with key Apple writers.

My prediction is that it will be a free update to all users of Lion. The benefits of having everyone on the latest OS release far outweigh any revenue they may get from the update. iOS updates are free for this very reason.

It ‘Just Works’

The latest point update to OSX 10.7 was released last week and I was pleasantly surprised today to discover that all of the Lion machines had already updated themselves thanks to Munki.

I know this is not the most exciting news in the world, but I was happy to see it as our Mac server is only running 10.6 and had to be fiddled with to get it to dish up Lion updates. I followed Apple’s instructions on how to do this but at first I didn’t think it had worked. Now I guess it was just caching them all as Lion clients now seem to be happily updating themselves. Yay!

I guess that now frees up my half term to do the LGfL 2.0 switchover with our trusty IT technician Ji. Looking forward to that job…

Lion installs

Today I had the fun job of updating 3 Macs to Lion. Fun!

It was actually pretty straightforward. The update installed in under an hour and seemed to work fine. But the more important part was that the drivers for our touchscreen LCD displays now work. Yay. It’s a shame it’s taken 5 months sort out. The only setting I had to fix was that Lion turns on fast user switching by default.

Hopefully the job of doing the rest of the school come April shouldn’t be too bad!

Lion and interactive whiteboards

Today I made the happy discovery that even our aged 580 series Smartboards work with Lion. Yay! Our school has been gradually buying Smartboards over the last decade, which means some classrooms have some very antique models (with serial to USB cables and the old-style round erasers.  I once rang Smart’s UK technical support about one of these boards and they were in complete shock that they still worked at all…). I was not looking forward to paying thousands to replace them when we either bought new Lion Macs or upgraded from Snow Leopard.

Smart still claim that OSX 10.7 isn’t officially supported by their Notebook software, but they have released a patch that fixes things up well enough.

Sidebar in Lion

Having got the Lion machines to actually log onto our network, the task was to tweak away the preferences using Workgroup Manager on our Snow Leopard server.

One of my aims for the Macs in the school is that they should be just as easy to use for everyday tasks as a PC was before; it’s no good it being super simple to make a video in iMovie if it’s a complete pain to access the school shared drive.  Putting a shortcut to the ‘school’ shared drive in the Finder sidebar was therefore a priority for me.  I managed to get this to work in Snow Leopard because a mounted network drive appears under ‘devices’ rather than ‘places’ so I just managed those preferences with Workgroup Manager.

Toucan set up our Macs with a log script that renames the ~/Documents folder to something called ‘MacDocuments’ and then creates a shortcut to the user’s network home (i.e. Tim.Lings$ in my case) called ‘Documents’. Without any further trickery, Finder then puts this link to the network home in the sidebar instead of the normal link to the user’s Documents folder.  This is remarkably handy, as default folder for saving files automatically becomes the network home folder rather than a local documents folder.  This is much easier than having to train children and teachers to always save to the network drives.

Now the problem with Lion and the sidebar is that it puts any extra shared drives under the ‘favourites’ heading on the sidebar, along with ‘Pictures’, ‘Movies’, ‘Desktop’ etc.  The clever hack mentioned earlier still works, meaning that my network home folder appears in the sidebar instead of the local ‘Documents’ folder.  Normally to manage the preferences of a feature in OSX, you just set it how you want it, find the relevant .plist file in ~/Library/Preferences (i.e., make a copy of the file, open it with Property List Editor, remove all the XML keys you don’t want to manage, and then import it into Workgroup Manager.  However, this then means that every user would have ‘Tim.Lings$’ in their sidebar, as well as the ‘school’ shared drive as they all lived under that ‘Favourites’ heading in the sidebar.  What to do?

It then struck me that maybe if I changed the key in the preference file to go back to just showing the default ~/Documents shortcut, Finder would swap in the relevant network home drive, as before.  I copied that key from a blank Lion login account and it seemed to work.  Hurrah!

The curse of .local

When Toucan first installed our suite of iMacs, we had a simple Active Directory (AD) integration setup, authenticating and accessing network home folders from our Windows Server 2003  Active Directory.  This worked well, with fast log-on speeds and generally playing properly.  However, over the year the login speeds started to deteriorate.  I originally thought this was because we had installed a Mac Mini server to add some golden triangle goodness to our network, so didn’t investigate much further.  Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse at the end of October 2011 when all the Macs decided that they wouldn’t log onto our AD any more, instead just showing the red light and ‘Network accounts not available’.

Understandably, this wasn’t so great, especially as one of the reasons for getting some Macs in the first place was that they ‘just work’.  Really bad is probably a better way to put it.

After much Internet research, we managed to get things working a little bit by doing the following:

  • creating computer accounts for each Mac on the AD before binding each machine
  • rebinding each machine, making sure we put in the IP address in Directory Utility where it says ‘Prefer this domain server’ and unchecking the box for ‘allow authentication from any domain in the forest’

This still wasn’t a very reliable solution, with the dreaded network red light still appearing regularly and log-on times taking up to six minutes.  It was like returning to the good old bad days of a decrepit ICT suite of aged XP machines…nooooo!

It turned out that the problem was because our internal domain ended with .local.  Apple uses this for its Bonjour technologies and, despite several possible hacks suggested by Apple (involving mdns_timeout and IPv6), things weren’t getting any better or likely to anytime soon.  Apparently Apple changed the way Macs resolve DNS around 10.6.7/8 in order to get ready for Lion.  The couple of Lion machines we had weren’t working at all with our AD so something needed to be done.

In the end we decided to change our domain.  Not an easy task (so I’m told) so our technician suggested buying a cheap new Windows 2008 Server and setting up a new .sch domain on it.  We would bind all the Macs to that server, leaving the PCs as they were and with the old server still doing all the file sharing for the network homes and shared drives.

We did the transition on a day when no teachers were in and managed to set up a new server and bind 50 machines in a day…not bad!  The only major snag was that all the home folder permissions on any existing network accounts on a machine didn’t work any more, resulting in not being allowed to look in the ~/Pictures, ~/Library folder etc.  Looking back we probably could have figured out how to reset the permissions, but instead we just deleted every account off every machine so that they would get freshly created on login.  Most children’s work gets saved to network folders so we only had to make sure we rescued any iMovie projects or important files saved to teacher’s desktops.

It was a bit of a job to sort out, and we now have two independent yet interconnected domains on our curriculum network, but things are now working much, much better (including our now fully-functioning Lion machines). Our technician is planning to wipe the old server during a holiday so we only have one domain, but I’m sure that’ll be another tale.