My Chromebook Experience: Six Months later

After changing jobs nearly a year ago I found myself in need of a new laptop as I had handed back my corporate Sony Vaio and that left me with an old heavy weight dual core laptop with Windows 7.

I had wanted to try a Chromebook before and had seen several on demo stands at Citrix Synergy in LA. Having already moved over to Google apps where I keep docs, spreadsheets and pics, a Chromebook seem to be a logical move and I didn’t want to splash out hundreds of pounds in a Windows laptop with bulky updates and AV to maintain.

I had been using Google Docs to do some online coursework and found it very easy, reliable and was accessible on laptop, PC and my iPad.

So I set about reading up on product reviews and found some very capable devices ranging from cheaper sub £200 devices right up to the top Google Chromebook and HP models that come in at at £500-1000 pounds. A bit pricey for a first timer I thought. My old Sony was very lite with a dual core i7 CPU with 8GB Ram and a touch screen for £650 – a cracking price at the time some 5 years ago now.

In the end, I settled for a Acer Chromebook 14” with the full 1080 Full HD Screen and 32Gb local storage. Not a lot – but then Google kindly threw in an additional 100GB of online space.

When I went into my local PC World they made a big deal about telling me that the Chromebook didn’t have any Microsoft Office apps, and that it could not install any. This is not a problem to a Citrix guy, and a quick demo of published Word and a virtual desktop had them well impressed. I did try Word on Office 365 but was very disappointed when doing some documentation and found that Word was missing the Table Of Content feature and prompted me to download and instal the full application for local install. Google Docs just has it, and the ability to share docs from Google drive makes for easy collaboration. You can even have multiple people editing the same doc at the same time. Google Docs, Sheets and Slides is pretty much all I need. Business mail can stay in Outlook Web Access, and I’m writing this in Docs now before uploading to my blog.

As nearly all my work-work is designing, setting up and implementing Citrix virtual solutions, a Chromebook is a perfect tool for the job – both at home, in the office and on the move. Google Docs can be used offline – so I can work on the train with no connection quite comfortably. If I need Office or other business application – I just login to a Netscaler Gateway and launch any apps using the latest Citrix Receiver over HTML5. This is a great way to run published apps as the Receiver puts the apps along the bottom in a toolbar style – almost like running a full desktop.

Google Chrome web store has a load of techie apps including RDP connector, notes, screen snipping and even network troubleshooting tools. There are loads of others.

This little Acer has a great screen with 14”  full-hd, 4Gb RAM, and a nice keyboard, though it’s not backlit. Battery life is amazing at around 12 hours. Its silent, has USB3 and HDMI for external screen. The casing is finished in silver metal much like a Macbook Air and overall I’m very please with the quality for only a £300 layout. I could nearly buy four of these Acers for the price of one Macbook Air.

As for not having touch screen laptop – well, that novelty has passed me by. I have tried a Microsoft Surface – but I just don’t get Windows in tablet mode. Sorry, but I prefer the traditional laptop model, and would certainly prefer a £300 14” Chromebook to a 13” Surface Book  for £1300. I’ll keep using my Android phone or iPad if I need a tablet for other content.

For business users, I would definitely recommend giving Chromebooks ago. They can be centrally managed via Google MDM type service, and if you’re using Citrix already or moving apps to web or SAAS models – they make a great option for BYOD or CYOD without breaking the bank. This may be the first laptop that I buy twice, but there are plenty of great models to choose from.

Acer Chromebook 14 Review

http://www.trustedreviews.com/reviews/acer-chromebook-14

Citrix Receiver HTML5 Demo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qn5ypf3UEVw

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Building NVidia GRID and XenDesktop – Part 2

So how has that initial POC been going? After a year of production use the general feedback from the end user has been very positive with few calls to the customers helpdesk and no real issues passed onto me. With users designing detailed multi layer automotive diagrams from a country on the other side of the world – it’s been a very successful deployment.

nvg

This year has lead onto a couple of new installations. One local customer wanted to use AutoCad on XenApp 7.8 servers running a shared desktop on Windows Server 2008 R2, and some standalone virtual PCs running Windows 10.  Provisioning Server 7.8 was used to spin up some 10 XenApp servers. This solution is for students  – so the need for intense graphical rendering is somewhat lesser than what you would need in vehicle design or in construction. Having a NVidia vGPU shared across some 15 users is a great way to introduce CAD beginners to the tools and apps they will use later in their career while the the system itself is very capable of dealing with all they can throw at it.

The XenServer buid was 6.5 and completed just before v7 was released. A pair of Dell R710 servers each with 2 x  NVidia K2 cards. One thing to look out for is that Citrix XenServer does not officially support installation on SD cards, unlike other hyper-visors. While it will install and works ok – the OS footprint of v6.5 and v7 is noticeably different. Stick to a local pair of hard disks in a Raid 1 mirror so there is plenty of room to upgrade to the new OS – and make sure the server comes with a Perc Raid card..and right cable. Don’t ask me about getting those later!

Another recent build on a Dell Precision R7910 Workstation was completed with XenServer 7, XenDesktop 7.8 and PVS 7.8.  The Workstation  technical spec is actually better suited to multi user CAD than the equivalent server. Again, the customer was looking to run AutoCad Revit on a pre-built Windows 7 virtual machine imported from Hyper-v. All possible!  The big Dell itself had two NVidia Grid K2 cards, eight 400Gb local SSD drives, eight NICS and loads of RAM.

With no students in sight, this time the solution was for serious users. Designing and constructing world class buildings around the world needs decent hardware and graphics – no XenApp this time.  

The initial import of the virtual machine completed with no issues, but we then came across some boot problems after importing the local C drive up to the PVS to create a vdisk for multiple devices to use. With recurring BSOD –  initially this was suspected to be due to ghost network cards in the Device Manager. True enough, there were a few extra cards listed in there from the previous hyper visor build and and from a Cisco VPN adapter. Once removed, booting was better – but still the occasional blue screen. Closer analysis of the error and some Googling turned up some hints that AV was interfering with the PVS-TFTP streaming to the disk less clone. With some further digging we found that AV was being auto-deployed on boot from an inherited Group Policy. Once disabled – the boot issues were no longer present.

The size of the vdisk also posed some problems when scheduling reboots in the Studio Delivery Group. Due to the size, other devices were struggling to boot up as the first one or two PCs were still streaming. This was resolved with some help from Citrix support who suggested a PowerShell script to increase the time between each machines restart and boot. This worked a treat. Also very helpful was a hands-on customer keen to get to know all the components – who patiently worked through many of the issues after I had left site. Many thanks for that. 

It may have been said before, but the feedback from this customer’s end user was again – “Better than the physical PC!”. Citrix and NVidia Grid – Pretty awesome.

Don’t forget Part1!

 

 

 

Building NVidia GRID and XenDesktop POC – Part1

It’s always exciting to get your hands on some new technology that breaks the mold when it comes to deploying VDI and applications on Citrix. For years, using CAD and high end graphics has been a no go area on shared desktops hosted on Presentation Server or XenApp. The best you could probably achieve would be  CAD viewer for some light review work – no chance of full blown Auto-Cad or video editing software. You really needed to keep your big workstation PC or MAC with expensive hardware to do any serious work. More recently though Citrix have been able to connect you into dedicated PCs or blade-PC hosted in you data center with much improved graphics and capabilities for rendering images and video. We have had some success with this in hospital environments where medical staffs can remote in to their desktop and review x-ray and other patient videos from their home PC of tablet.

NVidia GRID and XenDesktop really do change the game. With dedicated Graphics Processing Units that you can allocate to your Windows PCs – the days of using hardware PC or blade PCs are banished. The NVidia cards can be fitted into a server running XenServer 6.2.  A XenServer plugin then allows access to the GPU and the XenDesktop Agent talks to the hardware. The result is quite spectacular! The POC I have been working on recently involves users in India accessing a XenDesktop Windows 7 PC in a server room in Northern Ireland. That’s a looonnng way away to be using a CAD application over a 3G connection. Results?  “Better than a desktop PC” was one user’s feedback.

So here are some tips.

Make sure you have all the cards, cables and components to put in the server. Check you have enough network ports, and switch connections for storage.nvidia

I was using HP DL380g8 servers with 2 NVidia GRID cards per server. To fit these, you need to order alternative PCI riser cards with cage from HP – and you need two different parts. One has an additional PCI slot, the other has not. The additional PCI slot is critical as you need this to facilitate another PCI card – in my case a HP dual port HBA for connecting to the fiber channel SAN. Without this, you’re pretty stuck with only local storage, unless you’re using iSCSI perhaps.

You’ll also need a set of torque screwdrivers as the cages (that house the NVidia cards) have tiny screws that would be easily damaged if you try to force them loose with something else.

It’s also worth ordering your server with on-board 10GB NICS instead of the standard 1Gb NICS. This will provide better connectivity that the standard 4 port 1Gb NIC card.

To fit these new risers and cage – you need to remove the CPU heat sinks and grab handle on the mother board and replace these with new ones that fit with the cages. If your happy enough to do that, make sure you have an anti-static wrist band and be very careful not to drop any screws into the server.

If you have all the cards, cages and cables – you can do it all in one go instead of having to rack and stack the servers and then come back and have more downtime.

BIOS – After installing the cards – go into the BIOS and make sure the on-board graphics card is still the main display card. If your server is set to use the external or extended graphics card as the main one – you won’t be able to see anything on the console, or on the iLO card for remote management.

Then you’re ready to install XenServer 6.2 + Spk1 , and add in the NVidia graphics plugin. Check here – https://www.citrix.com/go/private/vgpu.html

This needs to be copied to the root folder of the server using WinSCP or similar tool. Once installed, the XenCentre tools should show a new tab for GPU.

RAM – Make sure your server is fully loaded with as much RAM as you can get. If you’re running a CAD application like Auto-Desk or Creo you’re going to need a minimum of 16 Gb per Windows 7/8 virtual PC. If you need more per PC, you won’t be long running low on resources.

In deploying an initial server for a proof-of-concept, I limited the number of users to six. After building the OS, and installing the NVidia drivers, you then install the XenTools as normal and you’re ready to install whatever software you need. I left this to the customer to do while I created the Machine Catalogs and Delivery groups in Desktop Studio.

More later..

Citrix Reference doc:

https://www.citrix.com/content/dam/citrix/en_us/documents/go/configuring-xenserver-to-use-nvidia-grid.pdf

NVidia:

http://www.nvidia.com/object/virtual-gpus.html

XenDesktop & XenApp 7.5 – time to get planning!

Time is moving on for the current XenApp 6.5 platform with only some two years left to go on the standard Life Cycle, that will come around sooner than you think.

There are many things to consider when moving to a new XenApp platform, not least of all changes in operating systems, application compatibility and printing (as always). Since my early days of working on MetaFrame 3, Citrix has been promising reduced management overheads, fewer consoles and better support for mixed OS environments. However, while they did do away with the old Citrix Management Console eventually, you were still left with Web Interface, Licensing and AppCentre to manage different parts of your environment. Then of course XenDesktop came along and brought new consoles, new management protocols and another database – and a StoreFront. Nearly forgot –  a Provisioning Server farm, console and database just to keep you on your toes!

My previous blog post on AppDNA touched on the challenge of making applications compatible with new desktop and server operating systems. But what about the management challenge of hosting virtual desktops, shared desktops and publishing your applications?

Citrix has been working hard on that chestnut for a couple of years and the recent launch of XenDesktop/XenApp 7.5 now provides administrators with the ability to manage and deploy various operating systems and applications from a more unified console, namely Citrix Studio.

Key to this new platform is the FlexCast Management Architecture, or FMA. FlexCast was previously used in licensing terms only. For nearly twenty years now Citrix Presentation Server based products including XenApp 6.5 have relied on IMA – Independent Management Architecture for the underlying farm communications, load balancing, policies, and admin etc etc. A tried and tested product, many millions of users have been relying on IMA all over the world for application and desktop delivery.

Here are a few of the new terms to get your head around –

Instead of this in XenApp 6

Think of this in XenApp 7

Independent Management Architecture (IMA)

FlexCast Management Architecture (FMA)

Farm

Delivery Site

Worker Group

Session Machine Catalog, Delivery Group

Worker

Virtual Delivery Agent, Server OS Machine

Desktop OS Machine

Zone and Data Collector

Delivery Controller

Delivery Services Console

Citrix Studio and Citrix Director

Publishing applications

Delivering applications

Data store

Database

Load Evaluator

Load Management Policy

Administrator

Delegated Administrator Role

(Source, XenApp eDocs – http://support.citrix.com/proddocs/topic/xenapp-xendesktop-75/cds-previous-xa-admins.html )

FMA however introduces some new capabilities that IMA could not deliver. The main being the ability to deploy the Citrix Virtual Desktop Agent (VDA) to both Windows desktop operating systems, and servers –  and manage both in the same place. Think about that for a second. No more multiple farms with different version of Windows and XenApp. A single console where you manage desktops, machine images and applications. You can even use the VDA on physical PCs – useful for administrator or power users with heavy graphics and connect directly with HDX.

Key Components:

fma

Of course, with change – there are some things that are no longer. User Shadowing, Oracle Database support, SSO for Win 8.1/2012, Local Text Echo, Legacy Printing (XP/DOS clients) –  are no longer supported. Secure Gateway, still in use by some customers, is no longer supported and customers are advised to move to NetScaler Gateway as a replacement for remote access. Web Interface is still supported but customers are also expected to migrate to StoreFront with Web Interface having a limited shelf life and no further development.

So get planning! A two year window to get all your old x32 or 16 bit applications tested, upgraded or redeveloped is really not very long. Some will be easier than others. With an AppV now bundled, you could give that a try or look at Unidesk. Licensing, print strategy, remote access and your hyper visor platform all need careful consideration. I’ll be looking into those in more depth in my next few blogs.

Useful Links:

XenApp 7.5 and XenDesktop 7.5

XenApp/Desktop 7.5 – Not supported

XenApp Support Matrix