Windows 7 – The tip of the iceberg

Whenever Microsoft first release a new version of Windows there is always a massive debate on the subject. Is the new release an improvement or is it just a fancy new interface filling the cracks? Unfortunately Windows Vista was widely regarded as a step in the wrong direction and industry and education alike were unenthusiastic to replace the tried and tested Windows XP. Vista was somewhat of a system resource hog and many institutions weren’t keen on migrating as a lot of desktop hardware would have to be replaced or upgraded just to provide the same desktop performance in Vista that XP users expected. As with most organisations Edge Hill evaluated Windows Vista and concluded it wouldn’t be a worthwhile change while XP was still an option so the decision was made to depend on XP and hope that the inevitable Vista sequel is a game changer.

Fortunately Microsoft were very aware of Vista’s shortcomings and there were soon alpha releases of their latest OS circulating the internet. Soon dubbed Windows 7, the new version carried the many hopes for businesses who were facing the inevitable end of Microsoft support for XP. Windows 7 turned out to be the answer to our collective prayers. Keeping the majority of the positives from Vista but maintaining the stability and performance of XP, Windows 7 was soon on the agenda.

IT upgrades in Higher Education are usually saved for the summertime when the majority of full time students are on their summer break. With term time only staff and a lot of the academics also on leave it is the perfect time for any significant changes to be made. Windows 7 came too late for us to perform the upgrade during the summer of 2010 so it was pushed on to 2011. We spent the time in between testing software packages and getting up to speed on what needs doing to make the upgrade as simple as possible. As it happens the back end systems were also being reconsidered and our Core Services team started investigating the replacement of our Novell Edirectory services with Microsoft Active Directory. With Novell support for Windows 7 unlikely to be adequate for our deployment we could well be looking at our Windows 7 desktop deployment being supported by a Active Directory server 2008 infrastructure.

Needless to say there is a lot of work ahead for all the teams in IT Services and a very busy summer to look forward to. I’m sure there will be a lot more to post on here once we have a final schedule arranged and we can begin work on a live Active Directory environment.

Office 2007 upgrade part 3: Something worth a note…

office 2007 logoWhen you think of Microsoft Office the same old applications always come to mind: Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Access (maybe Outlook if you use it for your mail client). But what about the other applications packaged in the Office suite? Many have come and gone (Frontpage anyone?) but very few become regular additions. Publisher was probably the first big application to be added to the “core four”. Originally a standalone app, Publisher finally became proper part of the office suite with Office 2000 and has remained there ever since. So what will be the next application to make the jump and become an Office regular?

If I were a betting man then my money would be firmly staked on OneNote. In case you haven’t encountered it before OneNote is a virtual notebook application designed to simulate a filofax notebook for jotting down information and brainstorming. Now while I can’t see it replacing our lovely Edge Hill diaries (aren’t the new ones slick?!) I do think it could become an important part of our note keeping processes. I have been playing with the software for a few weeks now and using it for keeping track of several projects we have in the works (including the office 2007 rollout) and I have found it to be very useful. As with most new software the biggest problem is remembering to use it all of the time. When it is so easy to just scribble on a post it note why do we need software like this at all? Well if your office is anything like mine then I’m sure you are familiar with the post it note graveyard that soon forms. I often lose little bits of paper (sometime with import things on!) so taking a few seconds to type it up and have it permanently saved on my F drive is making all the difference!

OneNote tabs

So let us have a little look at OneNote. Above you can see the tabbed layout of the virtual notebook, each of these tabs represents a single section which can contain multiple pages (think of them as dividers in a folder that split up the pages into sections). These tabs form the basis of organising the notebook, in my notebook I have different tabs for each project I’m working on and then pages of notes stored under each one. This is a very effective way of organising your notes and lets you keep all of the information relevant to a single project or task all in one place. There are also options for having a rough area for random thoughts or quick notes. Maybe you could have a section for meeting minutes or for brainstorming, the options are very open.

While I have yet to test the function out there is also an option for creating shared notebooks. These allow a team of people to all share the notebook on the G drive and collaborate on the notes inside. To me this is a brilliant way of working on large projects or for keeping staff or procedure guidelines. IT Services use a wiki based system for sharing technical documentation and it has been very useful for keeping track of what we are working on and for leaving instructions on how to perform specific tasks. OneNote could allow for a similar system with any team around the Campus with extensive (and searchable) notes allowing a new member of staff to have easy access to a huge library of useful information. Whatever happens I hope that people will try out this fantastic piece of software and have a look at what it can offer for themselves and their teams.

OneNote small

Sun Ray (part 5) Six months on….

It’s now nearly six months since my first post about the Sun Ray project and the following Faculty Of Health (FOH) deployment and it seemed to me that it would be a good time to have a little look back at what we achieved and see how things are now everything has settled down. I’m pleased to say that from my perspective things have gone very well. We now have around 250 Sun Ray devices deployed around the campus with large numbers being used in the FOH, Academic Registry and IT Services. We also have a number of open access Sun Rays running in the FOH to provide quick access web terminals for the students or visiting staff, I’ll talk more about those in a moment.

FOH

First and foremost I’d like to mention how much our back end services have grown as a result of the project. Our Core Services team have worked exceptionally hard over the last six months to build and maintain all of the infrastructure required for the Sun Ray project. To give you an idea of scale, the Sun Ray system alone current requires: 4 Solaris Sun Ray servers, 2 Windows 2003 2X Load Balancers and 9 Windows 2003 Terminal Servers. This represents the single largest growth in new servers since our Novell Cluster went in several years ago.

From a Technical Services point of view we have physically installed the 250 Sun Ray devices, monitors and peripherals. From that point we have been supporting our users in familiarisation with the new system and dealing with any teething problems that they experienced during the implementation. While each Sun Ray might not take as much maintenance as a computer we still have to deal with occasional faulty units and other issues such a network connectivity and printing problems. We have also been very busy fitting the open access Sun Rays in the FOH. If you have been over there you might have noticed them mounted on the back of the seating areas. These were quite tricky to fit as the Sun Rays are mounted under the seating with cabling fed up to the monitors and keyboard. This leads to the quite fun task of lying on the floor under the seating while a colleague tries to feed down cabling inside of the wood seating frame. We also fitted two accessible Sun Rays with monitors mounted on adjustable arms.

So far the Sun Ray project has been a great success, hopefully this summer will see us making them available to other areas around the campus and further expanding our capacity. For those of you who still aren’t sure that a Sun Ray is for you I can tell you quite happily that I’m writing this blog on one right now and that I have been using it for 80-90% of my work (which considering I fix computers all day is not bad at all!). User feedback has been very good and most people are very impressed with their performance. If you would like to try one then go and grab a coffee from the FOH and have a sit down on one of the stations in the cafe. Just to close I’d like to show you a few before and after pictures of the FOH, the before photos were taken on the first day we were able to access the building. As you can see we weren’t the only ones working frantically to get everything done and I think you will all agree at how amazing the finished building looks.

Reception beforeReception afterLecture theater beforeLecture theater afterCafe beforeCafe after

Office 2007 upgrade part 2: The Ribbon Effect

office 2007 logoIn this post I wanted to talk a bit about the most significant change in Office 2007, the newly “ribbon” user interface. As I mentioned in my previous post the ribbon is designed to make Office products more accessible to new users but can take a little getting used to for MS Office veterans. There is however nothing to worry about, all of your favourite functions are in there somewhere and for most people it’s just a case of finding out where the button or menu you want has been moved to. In most cases the location of a specific function is much, much more logical. So take a step back and forget everything you know about Office for a moment (well maybe not everything..)

Excel Ribbon

Here is our nice new ribbon in all of its glory, isn’t it lovely? Kudos to Microsoft for their nice design, as with Windows Vista the interface is looking pretty slick. For this example I’m going to show you the ribbon interface specifically for Excel. Click the picture above to have a proper look.

The first thing I would like to draw your eye to is the “Office Button” in the top left corner. This button represents the old “File” menu from previous versions of Office and is Microsoft’s attempt to create a Start Menu style interface for Office. This button will probably be the most important change for people to get used to as behind it we have a lot of the most vital functions of any Office application. I am of course referring to the “New Document”, “Open”, “Save” and “Print” buttons which will be used by everyone who has the application. Again click the picture for a better look.

Ok so we have found the File menu.. what about everything else? Well I’m not going to show you where every single function has been moved to. Luckily for me Microsoft have created some rather handy tools to help users find a specific function. You can download these tutorials here: Word | Excel | Powerpoint
Each one runs an interactive window that lets you click a button or menu option in Office 2003 and then shows you where this feature has moved to in 2007. Once we start installing Office 2007 on staff computers I’ll make sure these tutorials are available on our network for quick reference.

The Office 2007 interface shouldn’t be that intimidating. Things really haven’t moved around that much so to finish this post I’ve put together pictures showing the same file open in both Excel 2003 and 2007. The last picture shows the interfaces side by side and I’ve highlighted a few random buttons and menus to show how they have been re-arranged. The only significant change in these examples comes from the insert menu. In Excel 2007 this has been split up into common functions (such as insert pictures or word art) and application specific functions (such as insert row or columns). Stay tuned for some more information shortly.

Excel 2003Excel 2007Excel Comparison

WSUS – Making Windows updates nice and simple

Back in June last year we started to look at the feasibility of implementing WSUS (Windows Server Update Services) on our network. We had originally hoped to implement the system during the last summer period but unfortunately other work and the approaching FOH moves over took us and the project was put on the side. Luckily summer is nearly here once again and WSUS is back on the agenda.

One of the big advantages of our virtualisation programme is that we are starting to free up spare physical servers that we can then use for new services such as WSUS. Core Services have kindly given me the loan of the old server “Lee” so that I can run up a WSUS test server. The WSUS plans became even more important when Microsoft released Pack 3 for Windows XP earlier this week. The prospect of having several thousand workstations all downloading a 300mb file and having to face nearly an hour long installation didn’t seem particularly appealing. WSUS can make this whole process a lot easier for both IT Services and Edge Hill staff/students. Once setup we will be able to control the update process and (in the first instance) stop Service Pack 3 from automatically installing. Every summer the IT staff spend a lot of time re-ghosting and updating the staff and student computers so that they have the latest software installed and ready for September. This year we will be rolling out Office 2007 so it seemed logical to update to Service Pack 3 at the same time. Once our manual re-ghosting has been completed we can then mop up any other computers by having the WSUS server force down the Service Pack 3 update. So how do we do that??

I wanted to give a little breakdown of how WSUS works. The package is installed on a Windows server (in our case 2003) and downloads the Windows Update catalogue to the server’s hard drive. We then attach computers to the server using registry or group policy settings and from there we get a report of their status. How is that useful you ask.. well from the console we can see which updates our computers have installed and which they are missing. We can then authorize new updates and then distribute them to all of the computers attached to the WSUS server. If you look at this picture you can see some my test clients connected to the server reporting their various update statuses.

wsus clients small

Once we have a number of clients reporting their status we can get more detailed reports so that we can identify which computers have no updated and keep an eye out for any that have had problems installing a certain update. On the image below you can see a simple report which tells us the number of updates successfully install, the number pending and other useful information such as the service pack status and pc name.

wsus report

Sun Ray (part 4) Day 2 in the FOH

Despite the challenges of Monday everyone was in high spirits Tuesday morning as we went over to continue our work. I think we had all been surprised how quickly we had got through the offices, with nearly half the building done in the first day despite the hold ups.

The first port of call was the admin offices on the ground floor. We had electricians in there most of Monday fitting extra power sockets so the first thing on the agenda was to re-cable most of the admin staff Sun Rays and get them all powered up and running. I spent the first hour of the day under various desks in there trying to make some sense of the cabling. Despite the extra power we still had some really long runs where our standard power leads were too short. This lead to much debate from myself and the other techies as to how we could get everything plugged in. Krypton factor challenges have nothing compared to lying on your back under a desk and trying to visualise the power requirements of the desks above you while running the cables around. I think a few of the admin staff had a surprise when a techie suddenly appeared from under their desk!

Solstice Sun RaySte in solstice
It didn’t take us too long to get admin up and running with quite a few of us working at it. I decided to take a wander downstairs and see how Solstice were running and check on their printing. When I got there I found out that because of issues with floor mounted power being in the wrong place they still had nothing up and running!! I got on my mobile and called for backup and started plugging in the Solstice (and LTD) computers. I should mention at this point that as the staff there do a lot of development work they have some quite fancy computers and these were moved over from their offices in the LINC. With the work they do it wouldn’t have been appropriate to use Sun Rays but I still felt that they should get the chance to use some so I spoke the Derrick and we arranged to have three sent over. By the time I had spoken to Derrick my re-enforcements had arrived in the form of Ste, Paul, Neil and Adam from Core Services. The left photo shows Ste doing some cabling under one of the desks, you can see the floor mounted power units on the right. Before long we had most of the computers up and running and I had used the lessons from Monday to programme most of the telephones in the office. We had some lunch and then went over and put in three Sun Rays in the Solstice office (pictured right), I’ll be interested to see what the staff there think of them.

Printing was the name of the game in the afternoon. I have come to the conclusion that there are several tiers of IT requirement for most users, the bottom tier consists of a computer and a login, the next tier is email and internet. The next tier calls for office applications and other software, after that the tiers include things like printing and usb pen drive support. Think of it a bit like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for the computer user! The fact that we had reached the printing stage so quickly suggested to me that everything was going well so far and that the Sun Rays were working as expected.

Printing on the Sun Rays works a little differently to a normal computer. Usually you would have just the printers you use installed on your computer but because the Sun Rays are actually using printers from a server we need every printer that can be used by someone on a Sun Ray to be available on that server. Originally we had just manually installed all the printers on each server, having to do it six times as we have six servers! As we started deploying the Sun Rays to some of our own staff we decided that having every printer available was confusing so the Core lads came up with something new. Using Novell Iprint we can assign users to a printer, this printer can follow the user to any pc (or terminal server) and will always be available if Iprint is installed. This works really well and means that you can have people all sharing a big office but only able to print to their teams printer. Installing one of the other printers for a user is as simple as adding them to the specific group for that printer.

JennyNeilSte, Tony and PhilPaul
By the end of the day we had virtually all of the Sun Rays installed in the building. Thanks to all the help from the different teams with IT Services and the ease of deploying the Sun Ray workstations we had got through an incredible amount in such a short time! We still have a lot to do before we are finished with wireless access, information screens and all sorts of other things left to do over the next few weeks but I hope that we have made the transition a little easier for the Aintree staff by getting them all setup so quickly. Above are a few more photos of various colleagues from our different teams at work around the FOH, as I mentioned it was a real team effort from the whole department.

Sun Ray (part 3) – To the desktop! Day 1 in the FOH

It’s 8.05 on Monday morning and despite my best efforts it appears that no amount of coffee or toast can prepare me for the day ahead. I’m stood in a large store room literally surrounded by telephones, specifically there are 150 Alcatel voice over ip phones covering every available surface within sight. Next to me is Pete Stein our telecoms guru (he’ll like that guru comment.) who is somehow getting all of these telephones into a trolley with amazing TARDIS qualities (in that it is obviously much bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside!). You might wonder what I’m doing messing around with phones when there is a whole building crying out for Sun Rays, well the answer is very simple. Now that we use VOIP technology the network for your pc (or Sun Ray) will be run through the telephone. So if we are deploying any kind of computer or terminal that needs a network connection it makes sense to put the phone in first rather than have to turn off the computer when the phone needs installing.

Phones!

More phones!

Pete’s magic trolley

So we packed up our trolleys full of telephones and headed over to the Faculty of Health building. I was instantly amazed with how much it had come along since Friday night and there were teams of builders and cleaning staff frantically tidying up the little bits and bobs. Our first port of call was the admin office on the ground floor, we popped all our phones in there and I headed upstairs to the Deans office to try and get them up and running. So I unboxed a Sun Ray and plugged in the telephone… and… nothing! The phone couldn’t connect! In went the Sun Ray… it couldn’t connect either! Disaster! It was the perfect start to the day… I made my apologies to the staff there and got on the phone to the rest of our guys. It was quickly determined that we had a network connectivity issue and Chris our Network manager was contacted to take a look. Chris quickly determined that it was a problem with the 10 gig Fibre optic connection between the FOH and CMIST (sidenote time.. the link between CMIST runs at 10000 megabits a second, our usual desktop speed is 100 megabits and most home broadband is only 2-8!). Chris was able to resolve the issue and we were up and running.

phone

I went down to admin and found colleagues from the IT Services Helpdesk, Core Services and Learning Services all busy shifting Sun Rays and phones into the building and starting to get them out on the desks. Unfortunately we had another problem.. In the admin office power and data (network) points had been mounted on the pedestals under the desks so that the staff could have an open plan office. Usually this is fine but in this case there were a number of desks where it was literally impossible to make a power cable reach from the wall socket to the Sun Ray. Soon we had an electrician in there working on changing the sockets around to sort it out for us but at the expense of us having no desktop power in that office for the majority of the day.

Gary under a desk

With nothing more we could do there our teams split up and we started working on the smaller offices for the FOH academic staff. I was working with Tony (our techie for the Aintree site) and Gary (from our Helpdesk) installing Sun Rays and telephones for the majority of the day. Here is an exciting photo of Gary doing some under desk cable management!

There is still a lot to do but with our small teams working like crazy for the whole day we managed to get the majority of the offices set up and running with their Sun Ray desktops and a lot of the telephones installed and ready to go. There is still a lot to do and tomorrow will be the real test when we finally have a large number of users running on our Sun Ray system. Expect another update soon!

Sun ray (part 2)

As I mentioned in my previous post IT Services staff have all been working their cotton socks off to get our new Sun Ray system up and running for the new Faculty of Health building. The project got into full gear a week ago when our servers finally arrived. I was spent all Saturday locked in the CMIST basement seconded to assist my colleagues from Core Services get everything ready for a week of insanely hard work. While they racked up the new servers and got everything ready I worked on some of the network cabling which involved running meters and meters of cables from the new servers back to the main network core. Here are a couple of pictures of our work. The first one shows the cable management system all opened up and our boxes of 15meter cables that we had to feed in. The second picture shows our nice new Sun Fire servers all racked up and ready to install.

server roomSun fire servers

I won’t bore you with the details of what we had to do but by the end of Tuesday we had 6 Terminal Servers up and a load balancer running. By the middle of Wednesday they were all talking to our 3 Sun Ray servers and the load balancer was spreading our users out so that no server is taking too much traffic. We were finally able to plug in our first Sun Ray workstation and give it a try. I have to admit I’m very impressed with them, they look fantastic and the server performance is exceptional. Racing one against a desktop computer was interesting. Needless to say with only minimal load on the system from 2-3 users the Sun Ray left the pc for dead and I was logged in and checking emails before the pc had reached the login screen. So here is a look at one of our new Sun Ray stations for all those of you who were wondering what this magic box was all about:

Sun Ray with monitorSun Ray

The left picture show the Sun Ray workstation (which is around 12 inches high when sat on its base) it’s very compact compared to a normal computer and takes up hardly any space. I’ll try and do a one for one comparison with how it compares to a computer in my next post but suffice to say that it doesn’t really process anything, rather it just connects your keyboard, mouse and monitor to a remote server which does all the hard work instead. The second picture shows a full Sun Ray workstation with a Sun keyboard, mouse and monitor all attached. I think they look very nice myself!

In reference to some of the questions I’ve been asked about the Sun Rays and those on the previous post from Jeannette, to the best of my knowledge:

Each Sun Ray has usb slots on it for taking pen drives. We had tested it with lots of different makes and models and they work really well.

The Sun Rays do not have any CD or Floppy disk facilities. I gather there will be CD Writers available to staff by other means but I don’t know the details at this stage.

Each Sun Ray connects to a Windows 2003 server which runs a desktop almost identical to Windows XP. Because the server is share between users we have to restrict the software to essentials and users won’t be able to install their own packages on the server. More details will be available about that as we deploy the Sun Rays next week.

Printing is an interesting one. Again I’m not certain of all the details but there will be printers available on each floor and all the staff printers will be available from the Sun Rays. Smaller printers are also being looked at, especially in terms of small desktop colour printers and we hope to have support in place for these soon.

reception desklecture theatrecafe

Next week the nearly the whole of IT Services will be in someway involved with the new building deployment. We have 150 Sun Rays boxed up, labelled and ready to go! It’s quite scary the amount of work involved so I hope everyone will bear with us and we get it all sorted. The good news is that we took several trips over to the new building and our Network and Telecoms guys have their stuff all sorted so we can just drop Sun Rays and telephones on the desk and get everyone running. For those of you who are interested I took a few snaps of the new building last week while I was over there. It’s not quite finished in these pictures but it’s already looking really impressive! Expect a (tired) update in a few days.

Sun Ray (part 1)


I haven’t had the chance to talk much about the Sun Ray project yet but with it’s impending deployment I thought I should give a bit of a Tech Services run down on the desktop side of things. Paul from Core Services has already talked a little about the benefits of the system and I’m sure he will be writing more as the back end systems are deployed so I thought I’d give a bit more information on the client side of things.

Sun Ray is a type of “thin client” system. Thin clients aren’t an especially new idea and the concept dates back to the original text based dumb terminals of the 1980’s. Recently thin client technology has become very popular once again and there are a lot of new products (such as Sun Ray) that are having great success in the corporate world.

The first thing most people ask me in regards to Sun Ray is how it differs from having a computer. Well the immediate answer is “not that much!”. On the surface people who are using a Sun Ray will still have a box on their desk, a screen sat next to it and a keyboard and mouse to control it all. You will still have to login using your Edge Hill ID and password and be presented with a familiar Windows Desktop environment (more on that in a moment..). Microsoft Office is there on the start menu right next to Internet Explorer and all the regular things you would come to expect from your computer. So I’m sure by now you are thinking.. “well.. what’s the big deal then?”.

At first glance there are very few obvious differences for the end user between running on a normal computer or on a thin client device. It’s the subtle differences and lot of things going on in the background that gets the IT geeks amongst us all excited. Let us have a little look at what they are…

We’ll begin with that oh so familiar Windows Desktop, everyone knows that. There is the start menu in the bottom left with all of your applications, your my computer icon on the desktop to get access to all of your drives. But hold on a second.. this isn’t Windows XP (or Vista for that matter!) so what is it? Well if you sat at a Sun Ray then the answer will be Windows 2003 server edition. The desktop you will be seeing is actually running on a server that is sat in our server room (probably in CMIST) you will be connected to it using something called Terminal Services. I’ve heard many different descriptions of what Terminal Services actually is but I find the easiest way to describe it is as follows: If you are using a Sun Ray then you are effectively remote controlling the desktop on the windows server in much the same way as the IT Services helpdesk remote control the staff computers when they are fixing problems.

The difference between connecting to the Terminal Server and our remote control of your desktop is that the server supports multiple simultaneous connections from many different locations. This means that you can have ten, twenty, maybe hundreds of people all remotely connected to one server. Unlike our desktop remote control the sessions are independent and each user has their own remote desktop to control (well it would be a bit difficult with twenty people all fighting for control of the mouse cursor wouldn’t it! The real strength of Terminal Services lies in the processing of the applications you are running. Because you are launching Word or Excel on a powerful server rather than your local computer it has a really impressive performance, even if there are lots of people connected to it! The other obvious benefit of this is that if we need to upgrade to a new version of Office or other new software all we have to do is upgrade that one server and everyone connected to it will get the new package. If we had to visit dozens of individual computers it would take much longer to roll out that upgrade to everyone.

This is only a taster of what is involved with the Sun Ray project and I’ll be writing more as we progress with it. Once we have it all up and running and I have the time I’ll write a walk through of the Sun Ray desktop and explain some more of the differences. Keep an eye on the Core Services blog and I’m sure you will see lots more updates about the server side of the project.

Touchdown update


One of our summer projects was to provide IT facilities to a number of new social study areas around the campus. The requirements varied from location to location and included wireless access, information screens and lots more Touchdown kiosks. If you have been over in CMIST lately you will have seen some of this work being done in the lobby (and the fancy new furniture pod seating).

When we first met to discuss the Touchdown pc requirements I had already been looking into how we could improve them. The Touchdowns we had already were all using Internet Explorer 6 and a free kiosk utility called Publicbrowser. We had done some testing with Publicbrowser and found that it didn’t like running with Internet Explorer 7. Unfortunately with the new portal coming along and a lot of websites using much slicker features Publicbrowser was starting to look a little clunky.

I had heard about an add-on for Firefox that put the browser into a full screen kiosk mode and thought I would try that out and see how well it worked. So I set up a test pc and popped Firefox on with the add-on installed and I have to say that I was instantly impressed. The kiosk mode worked really well and let you customise which buttons and toolbars were visible. As with public browser the idea was to run Firefox as a replacement for the explorer shell (so that when you login all you get is a Firefox window and nothing else). Publicbrowser had a number of nice features which included a log off or shutdown button within the browser interface, protection to stop users from Alt-F4 closing the application and a blacklist system that allowed us to use for very specific Touchdown kiosks (such as the library catalogue machines in the LRC). While Firefox has none of the features by default it does have a very active development community who are always writing new add-ons so I trawled the Firefox website and found some very useful things!

The first thing I needed was a logoff button. Sure enough the community didn’t let me down and I found the Custom Buttons add-on. This add-on lets you create buttons that perform specific functions. In my case I made a button that would run a batch file to close down firefox and log the current user out.

Next on the list was a blacklist utility, this one was easy! Public Fox is an add-on that provides several really useful features. First it has black and white lists that let you control what your users can access. Then it has a wealth of other useful things such as locking downloads and stopping access to several of the options menus.

At this point I noticed I had another problem. Firefox had a big X in the top right corner that people could close the browser with. As with using Alt-F4 this left you trapped on a blue background with no way to relaunch the browser without logging off first. It was also taking up a lot of space in the top right of the screen and looked out of place. Cue the UI Tweaker add-on! It’s a cracking little add-on that lets you fiddle around with all sorts of interface settings and (most importantly) it let me get rid of those nasty buttons!

The final problem proved to be the biggest one. I couldn’t find anything (free) that would protect Firefox from being Alt-F4’d by a user. I knew it was probably not going to cause too many problems as a lot of people don’t even know Alt-F4 does anything and those that do are hopefully sensible enough not to use it on their only browser window. Despite this our previous system had this a s a feature and it would be hard to sell the Firefox kiosk as an improvement if it couldn’t at least do everything that we needed from it. I also really didn’t like the idea of our users being stuck in limbo if firefox crashed for any reason. After much searching I found the University of Waterloo in Canada who have a very useful wiki which happened to include a load of information about their own Firefox kiosks! They had run into the same issue and had written their own utility to automatically relaunch Firefox if it was closed. So I dropped them an email to see if they could point me in the right direction and maybe share their source code.

In the mean time I took myself over to our Corporate Business Systems team who have all of our application skills to see if they could do anything to help me out. After a little chat I had the basics of a batch file that would check for Firefox running as a process and then launch the browser if it wasn’t found in the current processes list. Perfect! I already had a program for compiling batch files into hidden .exe files that ran silently in the background. After a little bit of trouble getting it to run as a shell (it seems that it doesn’t like executing files from the root of the C: drive as shells! So into the Windows/system32 folder with it…) I finally had my Firefox kiosk up and running. Here is a screenshot of a finished kiosk screen.

kiosk

We have since deployed several into the LRC to see how they get on. I did find a small problem of my own making (I had forgotten to disable the automatic updates!) but other than that they have been running really well. The kind folks from the University of Waterloo have also been in touch and shared their kiosk utility and source code with us. It runs beautifully and I’ll be looking to use it on our next installs. So many thanks to them!

The success of Firefox is in a great part down to the community that backs it. The caring and sharing approach of open source software is always really useful when dealing with problems and community blogs and wikis were priceless during my work on this project. Hopefully this entry will be of use to someone who’s looking to do something similar! Lets hope so!