Little gotchas for virtual workers

Subject: Little gotchas for virtual workers
From: "McLauchlan, Kevin" <Kevin -dot- McLauchlan -at- safenet-inc -dot- com>
To: "techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Sun, 16 Sep 2012 14:48:57 -0400

Ladies and Gents,

I think I might be in the minority (so far) in having embraced not just
work-from-home via corporate VPN, but also working from a Virtual
Machine (or three...).

So far, I've found it to be a solid and comfortable way to work, that
bypasses occasional bandwidth/connectivity-related problems that
can afflict the way that I formerly worked, when the approach involved
the VPN.

For example, I always used to work entirely within my desktop (later
laptop) computer, and then ship the results out for archive/backup
purposes, and for publishing - both interim publishing to reviewers,
and eventual publishing for inclusion with released product.

We did a little early work with automating nightly builds from my machine
that would publish to a network drive. That worked reasonably well when
I had a desktop/tower as my main working computer. It could stay on
at the end of the day, and wake up at midnight - or whenever - to complete
its scripted task(s). When I switched to a laptop, that became less reliable,
because the laptop would often be off or sleeping in my backpack or, if
connected to my home network, it might have lost its VPN connection
while I was snug in bed, unaware.

Also, a lot of my source and other material was stored on network
servers, and losing a connection to one server or another could put
a definite crimp in my working style. The layers of VPN defense also
ensured that file transfers (like File > Save all... or perhaps Project > Build
in MadCap Flare) were often agonizingly lengthy compared to in-office
equivalent operations. It was also a bit of a drag when we got a second
writer at my location and we wanted to share projects.

So, our answer was to stand up a Windows Server 2008 virtual machine
instance with a couple of user accounts and to run Flare and other authoring
tools on that VM. Actual project data lives on yet another VM.

Now I connect using the corporate VPN, as before, but I no longer use
my authoring tools resident on my laptop. Instead, I access the VM
with Remote Desktop (over the VPN) and everything runs at server
speed all the time. Updates and file copy operations, and so on, are
very quick. If I tell a server at the office to copy a bunch of image files
to another server at the office, they do it directly, one-to-the-other.
The operation no longer needs to send each byte from one server,
through the corporate intranet to head office, through the VPN to
my computer, back through the VPN to the corporate head office,
and finally through the intranet to the other server. Yes, I know,
and we are not the only company that does it that way, for
security reasons.

As well, the VM is always awake and connected to the in-office
network, so scripted, timed tasks (like backups and nightly builds)
occur reliably. It doesn't matter if my laptop is switched off and
sitting in my backpack. the VM chugs along whether I'm connected
or not.

With all that said, there are a few subtle gotchas involved. One is that,
even with the small amount of VPN data transfer that now occurs,
to simply send my mouse-clicks and key-presses, and to receive back
the refreshes of the Remote Desktop screen(s), those are still subject
to the vagaries of home network, personal ISP connection (not a
corporate T1..., just an ADSL or cable-tv data connection) and yes the
corporate VPN itself. This means that real data rates fluctuate.
It means that the action can pause ever-so-briefly without being
obvious about it. Mostly that's not a problem, because at least 90
percent of all the "action" is me reading/viewing something, between
key-presses and mouse-actions.

Sometimes, though, I might be selecting some files/topics on which
to perform an action. Say, for example, I have had a file selected in
a file list for a while, then I decide to click another, nearby file and drag
that to a different folder. And away it goes. The Remote Desktop image
refreshes a moment later over the VPN, and shows the file has been
moved.......... but it's not the file I thought I had moved. It's the file I
had previously been looking at, or it's some file that was physically
between the two on the list when I quickly clicked-and-dragged.

That can be a bummer.

Similarly, if I quickly click and drag a selection of text, I might think
it's happened, but I miss a chunk, or I accidentally take too much.
It's reminiscent of what happens when you try to use a camera
with an electronic view-finder to capture sport or nature photos.
You end up with lots of pictures of departing tail-feathers or of
the aftermath of the big play. That's because there's a fraction-
of-a-second delay between what's happening in the real world
and what is relayed to the screen for you to act upon... or react to. (*)

So, if you are considering moving to a model like the one I'm using,
I heartily recommend it for many reasons. It has almost no drawbacks.
But you do need to be a smidgen more deliberate when you perform
some actions that would be greased-lightning if all activity was taking
place on your local machine. I think that's a more-than-acceptable
trade-off for what I gain, but I had to learn that there was a trade-off
involved. This heads-up will shorten your learning curve and save you
some head-scratching in what is otherwise a very positive experience.

Another little quirk related to copying and pasting.

I actually connect to several remote desktops. Sometimes I need
to take results of an operation on my office test computer (as
seen in one RD window) and put them into a document on the
above-described server VM (in another RD window).

The Windows Remote Desktop that I'm currently using seems not
to like that. I can copy anything from my local desktop and paste
directly into any of the RD windows. Or I can copy from an RD window
and paste onto my laptop's desktop (or file system). They somehow
manage to share copy buffers. But I can't copy from one RD and paste
directly into another. This means I do a lot of two-stage
copy-past-copy-paste-again operations.
Not a big deal, but something to be aware of.

It means that you might lose some formatting of data between origin
and destination, but the text itself will go. Text with graphic elements
included might take a few separate copy-paste-copy-again-paste-again

Possibly somebody can recommend a fix, or a Remote Desktop software
other than the Windows-supplied tool. If not, then it's just a small thing
to be aware of. It'll affect some people more than others. I'd estimate
that for the vast majority of techwriters, it would not be a serious impediment
to going the VM-and-VPN route.... it's nice to go to work in your PJs, sometimes.
It's nice to get to work early, put in a full and productive day's work, and then
down-tools, without having wasted an hour or two in traffic.

Hope that helps somebody.



(* PS: Yes, I know cameras are getting better, and pass-through lag
and shutter-lag are becoming less and less a problem. But it's still
a valid example for another few years, until everybody's replaced
their current cameras with mirrorless DSLRs or whatever.)

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