Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Oddities come in pairs

A brand new issue surfaced with the high school teacher laptops today. Two separate MacBook Pro laptops from two high school teachers threw a little curve ball on the technology team here today. Teachers decided to logout and log back in mid morning. Both were running OS X 10.7.4 and a standard set of applications. Both also were set to launch the open applications when logging back into their mobility accounts. One laptop had Mail, Excel and Word running. The other laptop had Mail running.

After a quick look on Apple Remote Desktop, we decided to bring them back to the office. The English teacher was giving her laptop over to upgrade to a new Macbook Pro (Summer 2012 model) and 10.8.x. The other teacher was to keep his late Fall 2011 Macbook Pro. We performed some basic maintenance procedures like Repair Disk and DiskWarrior and Repair Permissions. This did NOT solve the issue.

The mobility accounts synched their accounts, but would not go to the user's desktop. Instead each Macbook Pro presented the desktop background (the universe), the Apple menu icon and the Spotlight icon. No menu or desktop icons were displayed. The favorite spinning multicolored beach ball had replaced the mouse pointer cursor. On a brighter note, the local administrative account worked flawlessly. The culprit had to be a bad preference file for Finder that was launching and restoring the application prior to showing the desktop. Bummer!

The Lion desktop with no OS X Desktop showing.

Now most people like to pull out their hair at this point. I admit that seeing this for no apparent reason is frustrating, but not from the point of view that no solution can be found. The problem is that of answering the question, "why does this happen?". In my 25+ years of experience of playing Q&A with the end user, little information is garnered to shed light on the "why" question.

In this series of events, we already knew that we were moving these teachers to Mountain Lion from their current Lion software. We were not sure if the two processes for upgrading to Mountain Lion would solve the problem, but we decided to try both.

Process number one was to login with the local administrative account, copy our Mountain Lion installer to the Application folder and start the upgrade process. The second process was to take a new June 2012 Macbook Pro and use the migration tool and the older Macbook Pro in target mode with a Thunderbolt cable to move the mobility account. We proceeded with both options on the respective laptops.

Both machines finished the processes and when we logged into them, both problems were solved and the laptops were working fine. The downside is that we really do not know what happened to corrupt the Finder preferences for restoring the desktop on login. So that is disconcerting to us until we read up on the discussion thread if this is a known issue.

If anyone reading this blog has run across this issue, please let me know. I would love to share the issue in more detail and what causes this behavior. Is it a user behavior or a software glitch or some combination of how the user interacts with the laptop's operating system.

Mobility Account Synching with Teachers

Currently the North Mahaska laptops issues to teachers and staff use Apple's mobility accounts. This has the benefit of keeping a copy of the files from the laptop on the local network server. To keep data synching to a reasonable level of activity, only documents and desktop files are synchronized and the ~/Library, ~/Movies, ~/Pictures, ~/Music are prevented from synching.

Managing Home Synchronization folders and exceptions

A couple typical issues have come up in the past year that prevent good solid synchronized files between the laptops and the server. Again, the primary culprit is human interaction and usage of the laptop in ways that while natural for them, cause issues on the technical level.

Issue 1 - I need to use my laptop now; I can't wait for synchronization of my files. By pausing or canceling the synchronization process, the local files on the laptop will not get pushed to the server. In affect, over time the number and size of the files for synching grows. And when a teacher or technology person needs to ensure a complete synchronization, then it takes a long time. In addition, if the server synch is a primary means of backup, the backup is NO good.

Issue 2 - I decided to save a new iPhoto library in my Documents folder and have been saving iDVD and video projects on my Desktop; its just easier that way! Apple's server technology is designed to exclude paths. When teachers make decisions on where they store large files like photos and movies, this makes synchronization more challenging. Combine Issue 1 with this issue and the synchronization issues really get messy.

Since the use of mobility accounts has generally worked well for the past 4 years, it seems natural to continue their use with Mountain Lion. However, we will continue to educate teachers on backups in hopes they buy the low cost USB external hard drives and use them for Time Machine backups. Now there may be those whom believe we could use our LAN and server hard drive space for Time Machine machines, but that space is limited right now. We are implementing Time Machine backups for network account users like secretaries and the nurse.

Good education and training for the teachers must be followed by teachers practicing what they learned to keep operations moving ahead smoothly. When teachers have solid reasoning for doing things contrary to their training from the school administration, they must communicate those ideas and practices so the technology can be adapted to work. After all, change is constant and we want to adapt to the needs of the classroom teacher in so far as it is possible and timely.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

First Student Macbook Pro Problem

North Mahaska had its first student Macbook Pro failure today. The machine came into the office at around noon and would not boot into either main partition or recovery partition. My initial assessment was a faulty hard drive. I booted a trusted USB OS X drive and sure enough the hard drive could not be repaired and dismounted itself, unhappy at my attempted fix. I then placed the machine in "target mode" and connected it via Thunderbolt cable to my Macbook Air. Again the hard drive mounted until Disk Utility tried to work its magic.

Meanwhile, my wife is getting her feet wet calling Apple with her first "bad hard drive" on a Macbook Pro. She is working via Apple to send the Macbook Pro in for repair, which given the machine is 5 months old, is not problem. The student appears to have taken good care of the machine this first 3 weeks as the Macbook Pro is clean. So that is nice to see.

Currently we are building an Apple Diagnostic bootable USB drive for the Macbook Pro to aid in a positive identification of the problem hard drive. Given this is the first issue in the three week deployment, we had yet to make this diagnostic USB drive. We have made USB boot drives for Lion and Mountain Lion with the ability to use Disk Utility and other 3rd party utilities to aid in troubleshooting, but have Apple's tool will be good as well.

This incident also will highlight the recent call to backup files to the student USB thumb drives they were issues with their Macbook Pro laptops. My best guess is this student did not backup anything and was operating in a care-free manner. Time will tell if that was the case. We may attempt some file recovery in this first case for the sake of knowledge and to satisfy our own curiosity.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Time Machine Backups to USB Thumb Drives

"You are one crazy dude."

I can hear and see the comments coming a mile and a half away on this shin-dig. Many technology savvy people will be questioning the idea of using a USB thumb drive for a regular backup device. I agree with those technology folks and for my own personal and professional use, I would not use any sized USB thumb drive. So why am I publishing a YouTube how to video on this topic?

The school and the Apple 1:1 support team thought this was a workable solution for the students at a reasonable cost. Perhaps the thinking was that since other schools had tried USB thumb drives with some success, it was a good idea. Perhaps the thumb drives were the school's solution to providing a escape clause if the primary drive in the Macbook Pro died and the student forgot to backup.

The reason the YouTube video was created was to give the students with a screencast to show them how to do a Time Machine backup. It just happens that the Lexar 8 GB thumb drives they received along with their Macbook Pro is an option for a Time Machine backup. At the beginning of the video, I make a subtle hint on the USB drive's fragility and small capacity. I also point out the low cost of 500 GB external hard drives that connect via USB.

To further promote the idea of moving toward the external hard drive idea, here are some reasons why the USB thumb drives are not the best media for a Time Machine (or any regular) backup.

  • Thumb drives do not integrate well into backups because of versions and metadata.
  • Thumb drives do not integrate well with pockets, bags, dogs and small children since they are small and very easy to lose or misplace.
  • Thumb drives are physically flimsy and fragile. One local school in 2010-11 report a 50% + failure of thumb drives given to 7th & 8th graders over that school year - most due to physical damage.
  • Thumb drives are subject to corruption. People tend to unplug a drive without unmounting it.
  • Thumb drives have low read-write speeds relative to spinning disk media. Thumb drives are NOT solid state drives.
  • Thumb drives are not ubiquitous and their data does not naturally integrate with net-based cloud storage.
  • Thumb drives take up an extra USB slot on the Macbook Pro system.
My final thoughts here go towards the idea that Time Machine is a great built in backup utility that works very well - just not with USB thumb drives. Google yourself an appropriate sized external hard drive that works with either USB, Firewire or Thunderbolt and start backing up correctly.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Starting off

Getting started and looking back

With a tremendous undertaking like rolling out a laptop program to 300 students, there are bound to be stories to tell, reflections on the past work, and insights on future possibilities. My blog writing has been haphazard in the past couple years, but then again the material has been lacking prior to this 1:1 laptop program.

To be clear, my role is that of volunteer to my wife, who is the technology coordinator at North Mahaska Schools. However, I do provide some skills and abilities to compliment the technology endeavors at the school. So, I am often called upon to help with professional honey do items. My goal is to try to write a blog entry once a week in a consistent manner. With Julie's help, I hope to review the week's challenges and successes.

Let's start with the last two weeks. The Macbook Pro laptops were rolled out on August 27 - 28 to 285 students in grades 7 - 12. The rollout started with the upper grades and ended with the lower grades. The presentations to the students and the initial boot up and connection to the network and JSS management server went well. One observation for people who do this 1:1 work or will be doing it soon is this: allow time for the younger student groups because they do take longer to step through the process of initial Macbook setup.

As of today, September 7th, all of the Macbook Pros have performed flawlessly. In two weeks time, only two students have had login issues. One student had a problem during the rollout process which was corrected on the spot. The other student was a non traditional older senior whom thought her password was all lowercase. The password was simply reset and the senior was happy. The Macbook Pros did sit all summer, but we arranged to have some football boys run all 285 machines through a charging cycle in mid August prior to the rollout.

Both Julie and I were able to attend JAMF Casper training in Minneapolis on August 30-31. A couple small issues unrelated to the laptop 1:1 were handled remotely through a VPN connection to the school network. If you are a technology person in a public school and you do administration tasks for machines inside a firewalled network - do yourself a favor and learn to use VPNs. I use a software product called VPN Tracker for my MacBook Air. At home we have a Sonicwall that provides a "site-to-site" VPN to the school network.

With JAMF Casper training completed, we spent a fair amount of effort putting policies in place to accomplish software pushes to student and teacher laptops. In order to do Evernote training, we pushed the latest version to teachers a couple hours prior to professional development. A couple teachers were missed because their laptops were closed. We also pushed version 3.3 of Evernote to all the students in order to upgrade the old 3.0.6 version on their laptops since April 2012. In less than 24 hours, 285 student laptops had Evernote 3.3. It is an awesome feeling to have solid software that helps make management and deployment of software work well.

One observation on JAMF Casper and management that is interesting to note. When students are sick for a couple days, you notice quickly. This is because as managers, Julie and I run inventory reports to check on how the JSS server is progressing in delivering and deploying software packages. A couple two or three days time gives us a good idea when someone is missing school.

Lastly, we are testing LanSchool for deployment to the students and teachers. The student deployment is ready for next Monday. The teachers will be rolled out as they come by with their laptops and get the Teacher program with their unique channel ID assigned. There is a planned teacher development session for learning the basics of setting up class lists and using LanSchool.

So we finish the week pretty happy overall. The list of things done by Julie in one week of work would cover two type written pages and the variety of tasks would surprise most people. Between PowerSchool work, adjustments to the school security cameras, and fulfilling technology requests, we wonder if all the work will get done.