Sunday, May 27, 2012

Modern Family: Mom's computer

My mother is an attorney.  Her computer is as necessary as any other tool in her possession.  She practices out of a front room of her home in a classic old-school country lawyer manner.  She does everything from appearing in court to emptying the trash in her legal practice.

I am her tech support.  I live in New York City.  She lives in Dallas, Texas, about 1600 or so miles (more than 2500 km) away from me.  I visit the area two or three times a year.

She has been using a computer we bought from Dell a number of years ago.  It had 512MB of RAM and a 20GB HD.  The motherboard is a problem, I can't upgrade the RAM for reasons I've forgotten.  It runs WIndows XP Pro.

I have a LogMeIn client on her desktop, which I used for remote support, but it was slow, clunky, and unreliable.  I tried several different ways to backup her data files, but when something breaks she is often reluctant to call me. so often I'd discover quite by accident that every backup system I tried was somehow not meeting her needs.

The 20GB HD had gotten so full that she was buying thumb drives for data storage (on my recommendation).  That way, if the HD went south, at least her data files didn't get lost with it.

She tries to be self-sufficient, she won't call me unless she can't work for some reason, but often her delay, however well-intentioned, ends up making a bad problem worse.

For the gravy on this pot roast, she uses Word Perfect 11 as a Word Processor and asserts that we will have to pry her cold dead hands away from it, like Mr. Heston and his assault rifles.  Her other option is Microsoft Word, and all the commands are different, her macros don't work, and I frankly can't recommend it.  Word sucks.  It corrupts things all the time, which is a disaster for her.

This mother's day, I decided to do something about all this other than just buy her a new Windows 7 machine, which would have been a disaster because of migrating Word Perfect, not to mention a few other legal speciality apps she uses to draft bankruptcy and immigration documents.

I bought this small-footprint PCthis SSD HD and this RAM.

FoxConn, the PC manufacturer, has been in the news lately as the maker of iPads.  I felt safe with that choice because at least their QC is Apple-ok somewhere in the company (maybe they do it in other areas as well?).  So far, that seems to be the case.

I went with a 60GB SSD HD.  Doesn't sound like much, but it is three times as large as the one I was replacing.

I went with 4GB of RAM, the max for the motherboard in the PC, and 8 times what she was using.

All in all, it was about $275 ($220 Euro).

I was going to just migrate the disk image and leave it at that, but I found out from a friend that Windows XP doesn't support the TRIM function with modern SSD disks, you need an external util running to do it, and I just wasn't ready to kludge together another crappy Windows workaround if I could avoid it.

At that time, I began using VM Fusion on my MacBook Air (which has an SSD) and I was shocked by the performance.  Windows XP was faster as a VM on an SSD than it was on bare metal!  I assumed this had to so with the sub-optimal swap file usage in XP.

Beyond that, my professional life has been rife with frustrations related to using Windows OS's, and I wanted something that just works (and Word Perfect is not available for a mac, nor was the money available to buy her a mac).  So, I installed Ubuntu 12 LTS on the machine and configured it for remote support (ssh, VNC, dyndns).

I then installed VirtualBox and began the process of migrating a bare metal Windows install to a VirtualBox VM.  Obviously, Oracle is taking dead square aim at Windows users with this product, because the documentation for this task is extensive and helpful.

Basically, using dd I pulled an image of the entire drive and created the VM from the dd image file.  It took about 40 minutes to create a 20GB vdi.  VirtualBox required about another hour of configuration work to get the printer and shared disks to mount correctly, and there were niggling issues related to keyboard/mouse control.  Other than that, I had to log-on to her cable terminal (I refuse to call something which neither modulates nor demodulates a "modem") and punch-through a port for SSH.

But, it just works.

I had to train Mom a little bit on what all this means, but the only thing on her Ubuntu desktop is an icon to fire-up her Windows VM.  She just double-clicks that and things look and act just as they do when the old computer (which is unplugged and ready to be hot-swapped as-is for break-glass reasons) was being powered-on.  She went right back to work after I fixed a couple of migration issues that had nothing to do with VirtualBox or the VM.

I went back to NYC.

Now, SSD's are notorious for catastrophic failures, so a backup solution was a high priority.

I have a GuruPlug in my home that primarily serves to make a large XFS-formatted drive (don't ask) available to my home network over SMB and to me remotely over SFTP.  I set-up a cron job to rsync her home directory to that disk over SSH nightly.

Now I can relax.  If it craps out she can use the old computer until I get to Dallas to put everything back together.  I will have a pull of the last day's data with me to rebuild this system.  That's about the best I can do from this distance, and I am satisfied with it.

Owing to Ubuntu, DynDNS and VirtualBox I have an image, updated nightly, of all of my Mom's data on a HD under my desk.

If she has a problem with the computer when it is running, I can VNC over SSH to her desktop from any Internet Connection and see what she is seeing.  My account is in the sudoers file, if I can connect, I can do anything to the machine.

So, I can be her tech support, and worst case, she just has to dig out the old machine until I can get there on a plane.  That's cool.