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(We apologize for the recent slow flow of posts on the blog, but we’re spending all our time finishing off our first product for the Private Beta launch and we still haven’t figured out how to extend the 24h limit per day.)

In our last article, Building an IT infrastructure with a sub-3,000 budget we discussed the possibility to build an extremely cheap, yet modern IT infrastructure. Now a couple of weeks later, I’ve actually deployed a setup based on that article.

The final system I deployed differed slightly from the specs provided in the previous article. For instance, instead of 10 clients as the article stated, my deployment only included 4 clients (at this point). Other than that, the hardware used was very similar to the article. Below is a list of all the components that was purchased and the approximate price in dollars.

New Inventory

Note that I decided to buy three different brands of hard drives to reduce the chances of having two drives collapse at the same time (two drives from the same batch are more likely to collapse around the same time than two random drives).

The company already had a handful of semi-obsolete computers that would work fine as clients in the new environment. Also, as in most organizations there were already other peripherals available that I had to make working in this new infrastructure. Fortunately, this went smoother than what I had anticipated. The peripherals were as follows:

Existing Inventory

The Server

The server is the heart of this environment (as in most environments), therefore, I’ll start describing the setup of the server first. (I’m not really going to describe what LTSP is, and instead kindly refer you to the previous article for an introduction on the topic).

The initial plan, as I described in the previous article, was to install the 64-bit version of Ubuntu 6.06.1 LTS Server on the server, primarily because of the Long Time Support. Unfortunately it turned out to be a bad choice for two reasons:

1) Ubuntu 6.06.1 has quite limited support for LTSP. Although many of the features work fine, some features such as sound-forwarding to the clients are not implemented. It would quite likely be possible to modify the 6.06.1-setup to support sound as well, but I decided to save some time and just switch over to 7.04 server instead.

2) I was forced to use the 32-bit version instead of the 64-bit version. Although I really tried to avoid this, the software support in the 64-bit version didn’t meet my requirements. For instance, I didn’t manage to print from Wine to Cups in the 64-bit version due to some problem with libcups. Moreover, I discovered that there is no Flash support in the 64-bit distribution. Since many websites today require Flash, I had no choice but to use the 32-bit distribution.

So we decided to use the 32-bit version of Ubuntu 7.04 Server. The next problem I came across was how to partition the hard drives. In contrast to what my previous article stated, it turns out that /opt/ltsp/i386 only includes the boot-environment for LTSP, and not the entire system. Therefore it makes little sense to have an 800GB RAID5 array devoted to it. Once the clients have booted up, they log into the core-server. Because of this, I had to change the partitioning strategy. What I ended up doing was to create two partitions on the RAID5 array: one of 795GB to be used for / and one 5GB to be used for swap. I did discover one problem with this setup though: Grub had problems booting off a software RAID array. After some research, I found that it’s possibly to boot Grub from a software RAID, but it required some hacking. Because of this, I decided to create a small partition on the stock hard drive for a /boot and use the remainder of that drive for backup (mounted as /backup). The problem with this setup is that we have a single point of failure – the stock hard drive. Although nothing important is kept on this drive (unless we need to recover our backups), a failure of the drive would still prevent the system from booting.

The hardware

APC Smart-UPS SC 450VA
The only piece of hardware that requires a bit configuration other than the RAID is the UPS. Fortunately setting up this particular brand of UPS is dead simple. Just install the NUT package and modify your configuration files to match the following:

/etc/nut/ups.conf
[ups]
driver=apcsmart
port=/dev/ttyS0
desc="UPS for BLServer1"
sdtype=0

/etc/nut/upsd.conf
ACL all 0.0.0.0/0
ACL remote 192.168.10.0/24
ACL localhost 127.0.0.1/32

ACCEPT localhost
ACCEPT remote
REJECT all

/etc/nut/upsd.users
[monuser]
password = ups_password
allowfrom = localhost
upsmon master

/etc/nut/upsmon.conf
MONITOR [email protected] 1 monuser ups_password master

and edit /etc/default/nut to
START_UPSD=yes
START_UPSMON=yes

Brother MFC-8460N
Setting up the network printer was a breeze. Just enter the IP address and you’re set. What surprised me a bit was that even the network scanner worked. After installing the Linux driver from Brother’s homepage and following the instructions, the scanner was up and running in less than 5 minutes.

Brother HL-2040
This printer was locally connected, and once it was added in LTSP (see the next section), the printer worked without any problems.

Dymo Labelwriter 400 Turbo
The printer was connected locally to one of the workstations and added without any problems using the pbm2lwxl-driver (ex. CoStar LabelWriter II). I did not spend much time with this printer, but according to openprinting.org the printer is supposed to work fine in OpenOffice with a specific template matching the paper size in the printer.

Setting up LTSP

As described earlier, the way I described LTSP in the prior article was slightly incorrect. Instead of having the entire environment in /opt/ltsp/arch, the clients actually log into the server as if they were local users. Because of this, the first thing we need to do is to install the desktop environment (since the server-edition comes without this). To do this, simply run:

# sudo apt-get install ubuntu-desktop
Note that this will take quite some time, and I would encourage you to use the installation CD as the source unless you have a very fast internet connection.

Once this is done, it’s time to set up LTSP.
# sudo apt-get install openssh-server
SSH is required to run LTSP, since the traffic from the clients runs through an SSH tunnel

# sudo apt-get install ltsp-server-standalone
Install the LTSP-software

# sudo ltsp-build-clients
Build the client environment. This will take a while.

It’s important that you install the ‘standalone’ edition, else you won’t get the dhcp-server that enables the clients to boot from the actual server. Once you’ve run all the commands above without receiving any errors, you need to make some changes to the dhcp-server. Go ahead and edit /etc/ltsp/dhcpd.conf with your favorite editor to match your network.Then restart the dhcp-server:

# /etc/init.d/dhcp3-server restart

If you changed the IP-address of your server after you ran the installation of ltsp-server-standalone, you need to update the SSH-keys. Do this by running:

# ltsp-update-sshkeys

Setting static IP on clients and allowing local printers

Once you have LTSP configured, you might need to access local devices on the clients. In my case, I had a couple of locally attached printers (both USB and Parallel). To enable the use of these, the first thing you want to do is to set a static IP for the client that holds the printer, based on the MAC address. To do this, we first need to configure the DHCP server to assign a static IP to the client. Edit /etc/ltsp/dhcpd.conf and add:

host ExampleWS1 {
hardware ethernet 00:01:02:03:04:05;
fixed-address 192.168.10.21;
option host-name "ExampleWS1";
}

Now we need to tell LTSP to share the printer assigned to that given workstation. Edit /opt/ltsp/i386/etc/lts.conf and add

[00:01:02:03:04:05] #ExampleWS1
PRINTER_0_DEVICE=/dev/lp0

for sharing a parallel port attached printer, or

[00:01:02:03:04:05] #ExampleWS1
PRINTER_0_DEVICE=/dev/usblp0

for sharing an USB printer.

Once you’ve added this, you need to restart the DHCP server as well as the local client to receive the new IP (or wait for the current IP lease to expire). Now all you need to do is to add the printer using TCP/IP printing with the above IP as the IP address and the appropriate driver for the printer.

That’s it for LTSP. Your server should be ready to have your clients boot off of it now.

Creating a shared space

This part was something that I anticipated to be very simple, but it turned out to be more complex. My plan was to create a folder (/home/shared) and simply just set the owner of that folder to the same group in which I had placed all the desktop users. Although this seemed to work fine at first, a problem appeared when a user created a folder inside of /home/shared. The problem was that all the other users only had read, and not read and write permission to that folder. This means that if User A creates a folder in the shared space, User B cannot rename or delete that folder, which is unlikely to be desirable. After a couple of attempts with chmod, I gave up and started to look for other solutions (correct me if I’m wrong, but it appears as Linux does not inherit folder permission like FreeBSD for instance does). Instead, I found the solution in umask. By editing /etc/profile and changing umask from 022 to 002. What this means is that all files created by the users now have read and write permission by all users in the group. Although this might be considered a security problem, it was the only solution I could find. However, since this is a closed environment, I wouldn’t consider it a very serious problem. Yet, you probably don’t want to have a 002 umask for root and probably want to edit /root/.profile and set umask to 022.

The Clients

Setting up the clients was the easiest part. Just plug in a new Gigabit network adapter and set the BIOS to boot off of it and you’re done. However, I also unplugged the hard drives from the clients to reduce the noise.

The Verdict

Overall the implementation was quite easy. Setting up the LTSP environment was really easy and probably took less than an hour. What I by far spent the most time on was to try to make Wine run the required Windows software (SPCS Administration 2000 Nät). However, after spending about two days hacking configuration files and researching, I threw in the towel – the software just didn’t run well (I primarily blame the software vendor, Visma Spcs, for a very poorly written software with very strange network behavior). Instead, I had to install VMware Server on the Server to run Windows XP (I initially tried Windows 98, since I had a bunch of licenses just laying around, but SPCS Administration 2000 Nät failed to work there too). This was of course undesirable, but with the time constraints I had this turned out to be the only realistic solution. The setup was quite straight forward (using this guide). In order to connect to Windows from the LTSP environment, I simply enabled RDP in Windows and used rdesktop to connect.

The d’oh and ahh’s

* /opt/ltsp/arch only holds the boot environment, not the entire LTSP desktop environment. Once the clients have booted up, they log into the core-server.
* The Windows software that I was supposed to run under Wine didn’t play nice. The only way I got this working was through a Windows XP session running under VMWare Server. Unfortunately this requires a Windows license. However, it’s likely that the company will switch to a web-based program instead, eliminating the requirement.
* I had problems using certain characters when connecting to Windows from the LTSP environment using TightVNC and RealVNC. I solved this problem by switching to Windows’ own RDP-protocol.

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Introduction
No way! That’s impossible.” Well, actually it’s not. Using Open Source technology, it’s actually possible to create a competitive IT infrastructure at very low costs. Not only does Open Source software enable you to create more customized solutions to better fit your needs, but it also means that you can spend your budget on hardware – not software.

Last month I was asked by a company to figure out how to ‘modernize‘ their IT infrastructure with a minimal (almost non-existing) budget. After plenty of thinking and research, I came to realize that the only way to do this was to use some kind of thin-client solution. The solution that I found to fit my needs the best was Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP). LTSP utilizes network boot (we will use PXE) to boot the clients directly from the server. Therefore, we can use obsolete clients without hard drives (to reduce the noise) as thin clients. The only thing we need on all the clients is a fast network adapter with PXE-support.

Some of the widest adoption of LTSP has been within K12 the education field. Since many educational institutions are working with very tight budgets, LTSP has a strong advantage. It is a way to save costs without having to compromise too much on usability. Edubuntu is a Linux distribution that targets educational institution. What makes Edubuntu very interesting is that it comes out-of-box with LTSP support, which enables system administrators with limited knowledge of Linux to get a thin-client setup running with little effort. Since Edubuntu is closely related to the regular Ubuntu, it’s not very hard to get Ubuntu up and running as an LTSP server.

Infrastructure

This layout is quite typical for a LTSP setup. You might also want to add a couple of network printers.

The Hardware
With a very limited budget, I realized that a thin-client solution would be the most realistic approach. As the name implies, the clients are thin and most of the load will be on the server. Therefore we will spend most of the money on a solid server. After a good amount of research to find a cheap, yet powerful and expandable server, I found the HP ProLiant ML115. The server comes with a 64 bit 2.2GHz Dual Core AMD Opteron CPU, which will serve our needs well. However, it only comes with 512Mb of RAM, which is insufficient for the number of users we intend to have. Therefore we’ll need to purchase some additional RAM. The RAM consumption estimates varies across different LTSP projects, ranging from 256Mb + 32Mb per client to 1024Mb + 64Mb per client. However, since I’d rather be on the safe side, I’d recommend that you purchase another 2Gb of RAM (total 2.5Gb) and put in the server (1024Mb + 150Mb per client).

The next thing we need to add is a Gigabit switch to reduce the possibility of having the network as a possible bottleneck (note that I’m not sure if a 10/100 Mbit network would actually create a bottleneck in this setup, but I rather be safe than sorry). Since Gigabit is cheap today, going Gigabit all the way seems like a reasonable move. Therefore, I’ve budgeted for 10 Gigabit network adapters (with PXE support) and a 16 ports Gigabit switch (the HP server comes with Gigabit network adapter).

Now we need somewhere to store the users’ data with high security and performance. Since we’re on a limited budget, we will use a software RAID solution rather than a high-end hardware RAID solution. A RAID-5 setup on three SATA disks using Linux’s software RAID is probably the cheapest and most reliable for the price. This will allow us to increase performance while we also gain protection against loss of any one drive without loss of any data. Moreover, we also use a separate OS disk to reduce the I/O load.

Because everything is both stored and running on the server, it’s crucial that we protect the equipment from power failures and spikes (the server by itself is a single point of failure). Therefore I’ve added an UPS to the budget (1100 VA) that will not only protect our hardware but also reduce server downtime.

The last thing we need to add is the clients. It’s quite likely that you have a many retired PCs (preferably P2>). If not, you’re likely to find a many of these computers for sale (or for free) in your local classified adds section. If Craigslist is available where you live, this is a great source to find this kind of hardware. Even though many of you will get these computers for free, I’ve budgeted $50 per client.

Budget

Here’s the complete budget for the project. As you can see, the total is just below $3,000

The Software
I’ve divided this section into two parts: Server and Desktop. Although all software will be running on the server, the users will only see the software on the Desktop side, which is why I have separated them.

Server
As already touched upon, the server will be running Linux. To be more precise, I’ve decided to use Ubuntu Server 6.06.1 LTS Server (64-bit). The reason why I didn’t chose to use the most recent version (7.04) is to minimize the administrative effort. Since 6.06 is the Long Time Support (LTS) version, the Ubuntu team will supply this version with security patches and updates for a longer period than the 7.04 release (6.06 LTS Server will be supported until 2011).

Installing Ubuntu is very straight forward. The only thing to consider in this setup is to make sure we install the system on the hard drive that came with the server and not the RAID-5 array.

Configuring the RAID 5 can be done though a couple of different ways. You can either do this during the installation (with Ubuntu’s graphical utility), or wait and set it up afterward in the console (see the Software RAID HOWTO for details). After setting up the RAID, go ahead and mount it to /raid or something similar.

Now it’s time to set up LTSP, which is the foundation of our cost-saving solution. There are a couple of different ways to do this, but the one I found to be most useful was to follow a guide from Novell (strangely enough) available here. You might also want to take a look at Ubunut’s Thin-client documentation.

Before you start the installation, go ahead and symlink /opt, which is where LTSP will be installed, to within you RAID array (ln -s /opt /raid/opt). This will install all the packages on the RAID array instead of the system disk. Finally, what you will want to do is to add a test-user (or a real user – it’s your call). This is done by simply using the user-management tool in the Ubuntu. Note that you probably want to have the home-dir of the users on the RAID array. To achieve this, you can either symlink the entire /home to /raid/home or just set the home-dir to /raid/home/user in the user-creation process.

Desktop
The LTSP setup comes with the most common software used in a corporate environment. This includes:
* FireFox – A great web browser
* Open Office – A Microsoft Office replacement
* Evolution – A Microsoft Exchange replacement
* The Gimp – An Adobe Photoshop replacement (arguably less powerful)
Plus a long line of other applications such as PDF-viewer etc.

You might also want to install is Wine. Wine is a Windows emulator which will run (legally) without any Windows license. Although it does not run all Windows software, many applications work very well.

If you have needs outside of the applications listed above, there’s more available. Any software that runs in a Linux environment (pretty much) will run on these thin clients. Although I haven’t tested it, you should be able to run a fully emulated Windows environment using a virtualization software such as VMWare Workstation or CPU/RAM intense softwares such as MatLab or CAD software.

Screenshot of LTSP in Action Running Open Office in Swedish

Here’s a screenshot of LTSP in action (from the client-side) running Open Office and the Gimp in Swedish

The Clients
The last part is to get the clients to actually boot over the network. If you decide to use a different network card than the one specified in the budget above, make sure it supports PXE booting. Many budget NICs don’t support this feature. There are also other ways to boot but I’m not going to cover that in this article (such as floppy, CD etc.).

The Pros and The Cons
Although this approach is a very good way to create an updated desktop environment while at the same time minimizing the administrator’s job, it does come with some drawbacks. Unfortunately many companies today are stuck with custom software that only runs on Windows. Although Wine offers a great emulation software, you might be forced to purchase a license of VMWare Workstation (and Windows) to run some specialized applications. If you’re lucky, your custom software was written in Java, and it will actually run on Linux as well.

Another thing to consider is the transition from the old environment (quite likely from Windows) to this new environment. Although the transition is likely to be smooth for a crew of young people, members of the older generation (40+) are likely to require some training before being able to use the system fully. Both Open Office and Firefox work very similar to their Windows-counterparts, but Evolution is slightly different.

Another pro is the lack of viruses on Linux. Since we’ve left Windows behind, the likeliness of being infected by a virus is almost zero.

In summary, utilizing a solution such as this might or might not suite your needs. If you do have the flexibility to use Open Source software in your organization and are able to run your customized software either emulated or use a web-based interface, this is a great way to reduce costs from the IT budget and spend them in a way that benefits the company better.

Update: I’ve now actually deployed this solution at a company. For information about how it went, go ahead and read “Deploying the sub-$3,000 IT-infrastructure.”

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At least in my personal opinion, one of the strongest trends seen at the LinuxWorld expo in San Francisco over the last years has been virtualization. This year many exhibitors had taken the next step and were actually using VMware products on their exhibit computers to simulate a number of servers in a network. For instance, Hyperic demoed their systems management software with a set of virtual servers.

Whenever virtualization comes up, the idea of grid computing isn’t far away as enterprises wish to maximize server utilization by turning their data centers into grids that each deliver the ‘services’ of CPU, memory, ports and so on. But in this brave new world of virtual machines and grid processing there is an element missing. If you’re moving your computing over to a grid computing model, why is there no corresponding grid storage model?

The commercial open source startup Cleversafe has that corresponding model. By employing a mathematical algorithm known as an Information Dispersal Algorithm, found in the cryptographic field of research, Cleversafe separates data into slices that can be distributed to different servers, even across the world. But it’s much more than just slicing and dicing: the algorithm adds redundancy and security as it goes about its task. When the algorithm is done, each individual slice is useless in isolation, and yet not all slices are needed to reconstruct the original data. In other words, your data is safer both in terms of security and in terms of reliability.

Cleversafe is not the first entity to come up with such a scheme. The idea of an Information Dispersal Algorithm is known from Adi Shamir’s paper ‘How to Share a Secret’ and other publications. When we met up with Cleversafe’s Chairman and CTO Chris Gladwin at LinuxWorld, he mentioned that the Information Dispersal Algorithm had been used in many applications before – even to store launch codes for nuclear weapons securely.

The scheme is different from a simple parity scheme in that you can configure how many redundant pieces you want. With parity as found in common RAID setups, you can lose any one storage unit in the set. With an Information Dispersal Algorithm, you can make your system resistant to failure or corruption of any one, two or indeed any number of units in the set. If there’s a strike in your data center in Texas, and your German data center is on fire, your data will still be fully accessible through the remaining servers provided you began with a sufficient number of servers. And as opposed to the brute force solution of multiple mirrors of the data, the dispersal algorithm has a much smaller overhead.

Google is a well known proponent of the brute force solution: the Google File System implementation suggests that the best method to keep your data continuously available is to keep three copies of it at all times. Cleversafe is a smarter system. If you have 16 slice servers (known as pillars in Cleversafe terminology) with a redundancy of 4 slices (known as the threshold) you can lose up to four servers simultaneously and still retain your data. At the same time the total overhead in storage space is only 4/12 – 33% of the space. The advantage as compared to Google’s three copies method is clear: with three copies you only protect yourself against the failure of any two servers and yet you pay a much greater price with a total of 200% storage and bandwidth overhead. And that’s not all. While you’re storing two additional copies of your data, you have effectively tripled the risk of that data being stolen. When a careless system administrator forgets the backup tapes in his car over night and the car gets stolen, all those credit card numbers or what have you will be out in the wild, even that only one out of three locations was compromised. In our Cleversafe example, 12 separate servers would have to simultaneously be compromised – quite unlikely by comparison.

Cleversafe is not alone and there are other actors on the software market such as the PASIS system. PASIS’ home page describes functionality very similar to Cleversafe’s: “PASIS is a survivable storage system. Survivable storage systems can guarantee the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of stored data even when some storage nodes fail or are compromised by an intruder.” None the less, Cleversafe appears to be a step ahead of its competitors at this time and is poised to be the first to deliver grid storage to a wider market.

While the Cleversafe software is developed as open source through the Cleversafe Open Source Community at cleversafe.org, there is a commercial company behind Cleversafe: Cleversafe, Inc. Cleversafe, Inc. plans to generate revenue by offering a storage grid for rent based on the Cleversafe technology. “The market for a more secure, more cost effective storage solution is enormous,” says Jon Zakin, CEO of Cleversafe in a press release issued in May.

The Cleversafe project is available as Open Source under the GPL 2.0 License. The version online is apparently an early alpha version and is not ready for production use. According to Mr. Gladwin, there will most likely be a new version within a month, and sometime in the beginning of the next year Cleversafe may be ready for production use. In the meantime, you can download the current alpha version of the software at the Cleversafe Open Source Website. You can read more about the algorithm at Cleversafe.org’s wiki, and there’s also a flash video describing the idea available.

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Yahoo! recently released a new Firefox extension called YSlow. This article describes how to get started and what we did at Playing With Wire to get our front page to load in almost half the time.

YSlow is a handy little tool for analyzing the performance of your websites. It will give you vital statistics and grade your site on 13 performance points with helpful hints for what you may be able to do to improve the loading speed of your pages.

Installation

YSlow is actually a plugin to a plugin in Firefox. To use it, you need Firefox and the Firebug web developer plugin. Both are easily installable using links from YSlow’s homepage however.

Once you’ve restarted Firefox with the new plugins installed, all you have to do is to activate Firebug for a particular site and you’re ready to go. Normally, this means surfing to the site and then revealing Firebug from its icon in the Firefox status bar. Just click the Firebug icon and it will reveal it’s main view. In it, it will most likely say that Firebug is disabled. Just click ‘Enable Firebug for this web site’ and you’re ready to start dissecting it’s performance with Yahoo!’s YSlow.

This is what Firebug looks like.
Firebug revealed.

Taking your site apart

Once you have Firebug enabled, switch to the ‘Performance’ tab and you’ll get a grade on your website’s loading performance. The grade breaks down into several subcomponents where each one corresponds to a point in Yahoo!’s Thirteen Simple Rules for Speeding Up Your Web site. The grading is fairly arbitrary and should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, if you have 35 downloads for your page and just four of them don’t have an Expires header, YSlow will give you a harsh F in that category.

YSlow gives Playing With Wire an F for Expires headers.
Hello, is this Google? YSlow is giving me an F in Expires headers. Could you reconfigure your ad servers for me?

None the less, the sub-points of the grade-sheet are great hints for what you can do with your site. While you’ll probably be forced to ignore the ‘grades’ if you have externally sourced ad units like we do, you can still work your way through the list and fix everything that you do have control over. This is what we did with Playing With Wire and astonishingly enough we reduced the download size to about half of what it used to be. Below are the best tricks we learnt or revisited after using YSlow.

Eliminate HTTP requests

This is a well known method that we had already worked into the design of Playing With Wire. The idea is to have as few CSS, image and Javascript files as possible. Most browsers will only download two files at a time and there’s always some overhead associated with the download of a new file. If you can combine files you reduce this overhead.

YSlow’s Components page let us know exactly what we were bringing in through links and we could eliminate an external Javascript we were no longer using.

Add Expires headers

Expires headers are important to let web browsers know that once they’ve cached an image, CSS include or Javascript file, they can keep using it for a while. Without these headers most browsers will keep downloading the same files over and over out of fear that they may change frequently. Again, YSlow’s Components tab reveals relevant information: the Expires column lets you know what Expiry date your web server is broadcasting for each downloaded file. If you notice files with a value in the Expires column, it may be time to go into your web server configuration file. In Apache, a section like this one might just do the trick:

<virtualhost ...>
...

<directory ...>
  ...
  ExpiresByType text/css "access plus 1 week"
  ExpiresByType text/javascript "access plus 1 week"
  ExpiresByType image/gif "access plus 1 week"
  ExpiresByType image/jpg "access plus 1 week"
  ExpiresByType image/jpeg "access plus 1 week"
  ExpiresByType image/png "access plus 1 week"
</directory>

  ExpiresActive On
</virtualhost>

Enable compression

Most modern clients support streaming compression. This is a feature that lets the web server compress data before sending it to the client. This reduces the download time of the page at the expense of some CPU time on the server. While most graphics can’t be compressed much, this turns out to work out great for HTML, CSS and Javascript. All of these files can often be reduced to as little as a third of their original size. The best part is that the web server won’t try to compress the data unless it already knows the client can handle it.

How to set up compression depends on your application and web server software. If you’re using Apache, you can have the server do it for you for normal files. For dynamic content such as that generated by PHP it depends. In WordPress there’s a switch in the Options tab. If you’re using wp-cache like Playing With Wire is, it may take some more work to get things up and running, but it’s well worth the effort.

Conclusion

Between these tricks and a couple more, Playing With Wire came out about half as heavy for the main HTML, CSS and Javascript, and as a result felt much more responsive. All in all YSlow was a helpful utility, especially thanks to its ‘Components’ tab which made it easy to see what parts of the page were being cached and compressed properly, and which ones were not. The grading system wasn’t very helpful, not all of the grade hints were applicable, and none of the hints were unknown in the field. Still, the list of suggestions was a useful as a kind of laundry list of things to do for the site, combined with data specific to your site. At the end of the day, I’ve found a new partner for optimizing websites with Yahoo!’s YSlow.

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Finally! Ever since I bought my P990i about 7 months ago, I’ve been struggling with keeping my contacts and calendars in sync. Since there is no native support for the P990i in iSync (blame both Apple and Sony Ericsson, since none of them seems to care to solve the problem), I’ve been spending hours on the web trying to find nifty hacks to bypass this problem.

Until a couple of days ago, the most successful solution was to use Goosync to synchronize my calendar with my Google Calendar, and then simply import and export vCards back and forth to keep the address book in sync (note that you must use vCard v2.1 to achieve this). However, as you might imagine this gets tiresome quite quickly.

A benefit with GooSync was that I could synchronize anytime and anywhere as long as I had access to WiFi. The downside however was that I needed to remember to sync the phone every day. Another downside was that I needed to use Google Calendar instead of my personal preference, Apple’s Calendar. (Although it is possible to configure Apple’s Calendar to access Google Calendar in a read-only fashion when offline.)

Ok, lets cut to the chase: how to get your P990i to work with iSync. The solution to the problem is found here. The solution is a plugin written by ‘mate,’ who posted the plugin at My-Symbian.com. The plugin is still quite buggy, and neither we nor the author of the plugin should be held liable for any problems that might occur to your P990i or your data. It can be quite a bit of headache to get the plugin to work properly, so please follow the following steps carefully.

  • Back up your data
  • Make sure you back up all your data. If you have access to a Windows PC (which you will need in the next step anyways), use Sony Ericsson’s Backup-software from the PC Suite. Also, use the phone’s internal backup-software to perform a backup to the Memory Stick on the Calendar (Calendar -> Calendar Manager -> Backup) and the Contacts (Contacts -> Contact Manager -> Backup).

  • Update the phone to the latest firmware
  • In order to get this plugin to work, your phone need to run the latest firmware. Unfortunately there’s no way to do this on a Mac (maybe using Parallel’s might work, but I didn’t try this), so you need to have a PC running Windows to do this update. Just download the latest version of Sony Ericsson Update Service and install it on your PC. Since you’ve already backed up all your data, you can just go ahead and run the update right away. Note that the update takes quite some time, and that it will wipe all the data off your phone.

  • Restore your data from your Memory Stick
  • Assuming that the update went fine, you can just go ahead and restore your Calendar (Calendar -> Calendar Manager -> Restore) and the Contacts (Contacts -> Contact Manager -> Restore) from your Memory Stick. Don’t recover the data using Sony Ericsson’s backup utility, since you won’t be able to perform a sync if you do. We only took that backup to make sure that we have an additional backup in case something goes wrong.

  • Delete your old bluetooth pairing
  • Now let’s move over to the Mac to connect the phone with your Mac. The first thing we want to do is to delete the (possible) prior pairing with the phone. To do this go “Apple” -> “System Preferences” -> “Bluetooth” and Select the Devices tab. Now select your phone and press the delete button.
    bluetooth_thumb.png

  • Install the plugin
  • It’s finally time to install the plugin. Download the file from here (or our local mirror). When the download is completed, just go ahead and click on the dmg-file and run the installation.

    bt-add_device_thumb.png

  • Pair the phone with your Mac
  • The first thing you need to do is to enable bluetooth on your phone. Click Menu (far lower left corner) -> Connections -> Bluetooth -> “Bluetooth On”. Now let’s move over to the Mac and click on the Bluetooth icon up in the very right corner and select “Setup new bluetooth device.” In the wizard, select Phone and select your phone from the list. In the very last step, deselect Dial Up Networking, and just leave Address Book and Contacts selected.

  • Perform your first sync
  • Now, before you hit that sync button in iSync, you should make some changes to the settings. First, go ahead and deselect Calendar, and just perform a Contact sync for the initial sync. If your sync is successful, start by selecting one calendar, and then two calendars in the next sync. I’ve personally had problems with syncing more then one calendar, so you may or may not be able to sync several calendars.

properties_thumb.png
Congratulations, you should now finally be able to sync your P990i with you Mac. As you might notice, the plugin is still in early beta, so it’s not unlikely that you’ll receive some weird error messages or have some failed syncs. Regardless, this is by far the best solution that I’ve run across. If you however do run in to some trouble, I’ve compiled a small troubleshooting guide that you might find useful.

    Troubleshooting

  • My phone crashes and reboots when I try to sync
  • There’s a couple of ways this might happen. I actually ran into this myself, but was able to solve it. If you do run into this problem, try these things:

    * Make sure that you’re running the latest firmware.

    * Deselect the calendar-sync and only sync the Contacts.

    * If you can’t even perform a Contact-sync, you should try to make a Master Reset on your phone. After you’ve performed the Master Reset, try to sync before you restore any data.

  • My phone restarts when I try to sync more than one calendar
  • I actually experienced this too. For some reason some of my calendars won’t sync. At this point I really don’t know why some of my calendars won’t sync, but fortunately my most important calendars synced without problems. What you want to do if your phone crashes when syncing calendars is to select the calendars one by one, and see which calendar(s) cause the sync to fail.

For more troubleshooting ideas, please see the forum over at My-Symbian.com where the plugin was originally posted.

    Other useful tools to make the P990i more Mac friendly

  • USB File mode enabler
  • This little kernel-patch enables you to use the USB cable to connect your P990i to your Mac. Previously I was forced to either use bluetooth or a Memory Stick-reader to transfer data to the P990i. With this nifty tool you are not only able to access the files on the Memory Stick, but the cable also charges the phone.

  • iTunesMyWalkman
  • iTunesMyWalkman is a really nifty tool that works well with the USB enabler mentioned above. The software enables you to easily sync both photos and music to your phone. It also comes with some handy Apple Scripts that you can access from inside iTunes to make your phone act almost like an iPod.

That’s it. Hopefully this article is enough to help making your P990i more Mac friendly. Welcome to the world of synchronized data =)

As a side note I should probably mention that the guide above should be enough to get the m600, P1 and the w950 to get up running with iSync. The only difference (as far as I know) is that you use this plugin for the m600, this plugin for the w950 and this plugin for the P1.

Update: I guess I underestimated Sony Ericsson. As it turns out, the patch/driver mentioned in the article actually turns out to be made by Sony Ericsson (and only leaked, and possibly modified by ‘mate’). Sony Ericsson has now released the driver, which can be found here. The official download offers a new version which is also more stable.

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