Why Not OS X Cougar?

Apple announced today that the new version of OS X (10.8) will be called Mountain Lion.  This makes sense considering the last version was called Lion and this is more of an evolutionary upgrade than a total redesign.  But I wondered why the didn’t pick something more catchy.  Like Cougar.  I realize the connotations that the word “cougar” carries in the world today.  You can read some of them on Urban Dictionary, but be warned it’s a very Not-Safe-For-Work page.  The more I thought about it, the more it made sense that it should be called Cougar.  After all, OS X 10.8…:

– is very mature at this point

– is trying to stay attractive and good looking despite its advancing age

– is trying hard to attract a younger crowd

– unsure of what it wants to be (OS X or iOS)

– has expensive tastes (10.8 will only work well on newer Intel i-series processors)

For the record, OS X 10.1 Puma and 10.3 Panther are the same animal as 10.8 Mountain Lion.  Maybe they’ll save Cougar until 10.9.

Software I Use Every Day – OS X Edition

For those that have been keeping up, I am now the proud owner of a MacBook Air.  I originally purchased it to use as a learning aid to get better at working on OS X Snow Leopard and Lion.  I also decided to see if I could use it to replace carrying my behemoth Lenovo w701 around to do simple things like console connections.  I’ve done my best to spend time in the last month working with it every day and trying out new software to duplicate my current job functions.  Now that I’ve got a handle on things, I figured I’d share what I’ve learned with you in a manner similar to my last software blog post.

Terminal Access – iTerm2

This was the first program I downloaded after I logged into my MacBook.  If you are a network rock star, it should be your first download as well.  This program is the terminal on steroids.  Tabs, split window panes, search-in-window, and profile support top the list of the most needed features for someone that spends most of their day staring at a CLI window.  I don’t even open the Terminal.App program any more.  I just use iTerm2.  This program replaced PuTTY for me and did a great job of replacing TeraTerm as well.  The only thing that it lacks is the ability to use a serial console connection.  I think that’s more of a single-purpose use case for the iTerm2 folks, so I doubt it will ever be rolled into the program.  All things being equal, this will probably be the most useful program you’ll download for your Mac.

Serial Console Access – ZTerm

The console is where I live.  I spend more time staring at CLI screens that I do my own kids.  The inability for me to access the familiar confines of a serial connection is a deal breaker.  I was a little apprehensive about serial console access on the Mac after hearing about some troubles that people were having after upgrading to OS X Lion.  I pulled out my trust Prolific PL-2303 serial adapter and plugged it in to test the driver support.  I had no issues on Lion 10.7.2, but I’ve been told that some may need to go to the Prolific site and download the newest drivers.  As a side note here, I had the exact same issues when I upgraded to Windows 7 64-bit on my laptop, so I think the problems with the adapter are based on the 64-bit drivers and not necessarily on your particular OS.  Once I had the adapter working in the OS, it was time to find a program to access that console connection.  ZTerm kept coming up as the best program to do that very thing.  Some of the other serial connection programs (like CoolTerm) are focused on batch serial connections, like sending commands to a serial device in programming.  ZTerm allows you to have interactive access to the console.  You can also do captures of the serial output, which is a feature I love from TeraTerm.  That way, I can just type show run and not have to worry about copying and pasting the input into a new Notepad window.  A quick note – when launching ZTerm for the first time, the baud rate of the connection is set to 38400.  Since networking equipment only plays nice at 9600, be sure to change that and save your settings so it comes up correctly after that.

Note that ZTerm is shareware and costs $20 to register.  It’s worth every penny for those that need to access equipment through old fashioned serial links.

TFTP Server – TFTPServer for Mac

OS X has its own built-in TFTP server.  However, I’ve watched competent network rock stars struggle with permissions issues and the archaic CLI needed to get it running.  In the comments of my original software blog post, Simon Naughton (@norgsy) pointed me toward Fabrizio La Rosa’s TFTPServer GUI configuration tool.  This little jewel helps you get the right permissions setup on your TFTP service as well as letting you point the TFTP service to a specific directory for serving files.  I love this because I can keep the remote machine from needed to sift through large numbers of files and keep only the necessary files located in my TFTP directory.  I can also enable and disable the program in a flash without needing to remember the five argument CLI command or forgetting to sudo and get a failed error message.  Do yourself a favor and download this program.  Even if you only ever use TFTP once, you’ll be glad you have this little tool to help and won’t have to spend hours sifting through documentation and forum posts.

SFTP – Built In

This was one of my first “Ah ha!” moments with OS X.  Working with voice requires access to FTP services for COP file uploads and DiRT backups.  I have used FTP forever on my Windows machines because SFTP was such a pain to setup.  I wanted to duplicate that functionality on the MacBook Air, but a few searches found that Apple has removed the ability to configure the FTP service from the GUI.  I knew I was going to need to use FTP at some point, so I kept looking and found an article on OSXDaily about enabling FTP with a command line string.  However, buried in the article is a gem that took me by surprise.  By enabling remote login in the sharing page under System Preferences, you automatically enable SSH and SFTP!  Just like that.  After all the fits and starts I had with SFTP on Windows, OS X enables it with a simple radio button.  Who knew?  Now that I have a simple SFTP server running on my MacBook, I don’t think I’ll ever use FTP again unless I have to.  Should you find yourself in a predicament where you can’t use SFTP though, there’s the CLI command to enable the Lion FTP server:

sudo -s launchctl load -w /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/ftp.plist

And here’s the command to turn it off once you’re done with it:

sudo -s launchctl unload -w /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/ftp.plist

RSS Feeds – Reeder

My favorite RSS reader for the iDevices, Reeder allows me to digest my RSS feeds from Google Reader in a quick and clean manner.  No ads, no fluff, just the info that I need to take in.  Thankfully, Silvio Rizzi also put out a version for OS X as well.  I keep this one up and running at all times in a separate screen so I can flip over and see what my friends are posting.  It’s a great tool that allows me to be in the know about what’s going on.  It’s $5 on the Mac App Store, but once again worth every penny you pay for it.

Tom’s Take

There are a ton of other apps that I use frequently on my MacBook Air, but the ones I’ve listed shine above all others.  Those get a workout and some of the reasons why my little adventure with OS X is staring to grow on me.  Yes, there are apps that don’t really have an equivalent right now.  I’ve managed to avoid the need for modeling/graphics software so far, so I can’t compare the alternatives to Microsoft Visio.  I spend a lot of my time using Netformx DesignXpert, which I can’t use natively in OS X.  Beyond that, it’s just a matter of deciding what I want to do and finding a program that will do it for me.  There are a lot of options available, both in the Mac App Store and out on the web.  The trick with a Mac isn’t so much about worrying how you’re going to do something, but rather what you want to do.  The rest just seems to take care of itself.

MacBook Air – My First Week

As many of you know, I am now a convert to the Cult of Mac.  I finally broke down and bought a MacBook Air this past week.  I’ve spent some time using it and I think I’m about ready to give my first impressions based on what I’ve learned so far.

My primary reason for getting a MacBook was to spend some time learning the OS.  I’ve taken the OS X Snow Leopard Administration exam already thanks to my Hackintosh and the time I’ve spent troubleshooting some of my friends’ MacBooks.  If I’m going to seriously start to work on deploying them and working on them, I figured it was time to eat a bit of my own dogfood.  Thanks to Best Buy running a nice sale on the entry-level MacBook Air, I leaped at the chance while I could.  I knew I wanted something portable rather than having a 21″ iMac on my desk.  I did spend a lot of time going back and forth about whether I wanted a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air.  The Pro does have a lot more expandability and horsepower under the hood.  I would feel a lot more comfortable running virtual machines with the Pro.  However, the Air is an ultraportable that would come in very handy for me on my many recent travels with things like Tech Field Day.  The SSD option in the basic Air was also a lure, as my SSD in my Thinkpad was the best investment I have made.  Add in the $1000 (US) price difference, and the Air won this round.

I’ve used OS X quite a bit in the last 6 months, but most of my experience has been on Snow Leopard.  Lion wasn’t much different on the surface, but it did take some time for me to relearn things at first.  I spent the majority of my time the first couple of days finding things to replicate the tasks that I spend most of my time doing each day.  I installed VMware Fusion as my OS virtualization program thanks to my status as a VMware partner, and I installed MS Office thanks to my Microsoft Gold Partner status.  Afterwards, I looked back over the lists I had compiled for Mac software, such as those found in the comments of my Software I Use Every Day post.  I settled on OmniGraffle for my drawing program and TextWrangler for my basic text editor.  After installing the drivers for my USB-to-serial adapter, I figured I was ready to strike out on my adventure of using a Mac day-to-day.

I’ve already encountered some interesting issues.  I knew Outlook at my office would be broken for me thanks to some strange interactions between Outlook 2011, Exchange 2007, and Exchange Web Services (EWS).  Outlook 2011 might as well be called Outlook 1.0 right now due to the large amount of issues that have cropped up since the switch from Entourage.  Most people I know have either switched back to using Entourage or have started using the native Mail.app.  I have decided Mail.app is the way to go for me until Outlook 201x comes out and actually works.  I also have to remember to use the Command (⌘) key for my CTRL-based shortcuts when I’m in OS X proper.  The CTRL-key commands still work in my terminal sessions and Windows RDP sessions, so the shift in thinking goes back and forth a lot.  I’m also still trying to get used to missing my familiar old Trackpoint.  I like the feel of the MacBook trackpad, and the gesture support is quickly becoming second nature.  However, the ability to navigate without taking my hands off the keyboard is missed some times.  I also miss my Page Up and Page Down keys when navigating long PDFs.  I know that the scrolling is very smooth with the trackpad, but putting a PDF into page mode and tapping a key is a quick way to go back and forth quickly.  The other fun thing that cropped up was a ground hum from the power supply when recording Packet Pushers show 78.  Thankfully, Ivan Pepelnjak was able to help me out quickly since he recently got his own MacBook.  If you’d like to read his thoughts on his new MacBook, you can go here.  I can definitely identify with his pains.

Tom’s Take

When I announced that I had finally fallen to the Dark Side and bought a Mac, the majority of the responses boiled down to “about time, dude”.  I can’t help but chuckle at that.  Yes, years ago I actively resisted the idea of using a Mac.  I’ve started to come around in the past few months due to the fact that most of the software that I use has an equivalent on the Mac.  Given the fact that I’ve already had to start running some of my software on a Windows XP VM instead of natively on Windows 7 64-bit, the idea of switching wasn’t that abhorrent after all.  I don’t know if the Air is ever going to replace my every day Windows computing needs.  I know that carrying it around on trips is going to be a lot easier than lugging the 8-pound Lenovo behemoth through the TSA gauntlet.  Maybe after I spend a little more time with OS X Lion I’ll finally get my processes and procedures to the point where I can say goodbye to the Redmond Home Improvement Corporation and settle down with the Cupertino Fruit Company.


I’ve talked about the whole Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement before and how it reminded me a lot of social circles in high school.  Now, a few months later, it appears that this movement has gained a lot of steam and is now in the phase of “If you aren’t dealing with it, you need to be” phase for enterprise and corporate IT departments.  I also know that it must be gaining more acceptance when my mom started asking me about that whole “Bring Your Own Computer to Work Day” stuff.  To give you an idea of where my mom falls on the tech adoption curve:

Yeah, it’s going to be popular if my mom has heard of it.  It also hit home last week when the new guy came into the office for his first day of work toting a MacBook and wondering what information he needed to setup in Mail to connect to Exchange.  Being a rather small company, the presence of a MacBook sent hushed whispers through the office along with anguished cries of fear at such a shiny thing.  We shackled him with a ThinkPad and took care of the immediate issue, but it did get my brain pondering something about BYOD and what represents it.

When I talk to people about BYOD and how I must now start supporting new devices and rewriting applications to support various platforms, the response I get is overwhelming in its unity: Will this work on my Mac/iPad/iPhone?  I hardly ever get asked about Ubuntu or Fedora or Froyo or Blackberry.  No one ever worries about using Ice Cream Sandwich to access the corporate Citrix farm, and not just because it isn’t out yet.  I find that far and away the largest number of people driving the idea of platform-agnostic service and application access tend to be fans of the Cupertino Fruit Company.  In fact, I am almost to the point where I’m going to start referring to it as BYOAD (Bring Your Own Apple Device).  Why is the representation so skewed?

At first I thought it might be a technical thing.  Linux users, after all, tend to be a little more technical than Mac users.  Linux folks aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty with file permissions or kernel recompiles.  They also seem to understand that while it would be nice to have certain things, other ideas are so difficult or impossible that it’s not worth trying.  Such as Exchange access in Evolution Mail.  Access to an Exchange server would make a Linux mail client an instant killer app.  The need to incorporate non-free code, however, is very much at odds with the “free as in freedom” mantra of many Linux stalwarts.  So we accept that we can’t access Exchange from anything other than a virtualized or emulated Outlook client and we move on.  Fix what you can, accept and work around what you can’t.  In a way, I tend to believe that kind of tinkering mentality filters down to many of the Android users out there.  Cyanogenmod is a perfect example of this, as is the ability with which users can root their devices to install things like VPN clients.  Android and Linux users like to see all the gory details of their systems.

I was lucky enough to attend a panel at the Oklahoma City Innotech conference that dealt with the new realities behind BYOD.  The panel fielded a lot of questions about software to ease transitions and security matters.  I did ask a question about Apple vs. Android/BlackBerry/Linux BYOD adoption and the panel said more or less that OS X/iOS access comprised up to 85% of their requests in many cases.  However, Eric Hileman was on the panel and said something that gave me pause in my thinking.  He told me that in his view, it wasn’t so much the device that was driving the BYOD movement as it was the culture behind each device.  As soon as he said it, I realized that I had been going down that road already and just hadn’t made it to the turn yet.

I had unconsciously put the Linux/Android users into a culture of tinkerers.  Curious engineers and kernel hackers that want to know how something works.  Nothing is magical for them.  They know every module loaded in their system and can modprobe for drivers like second nature.  Apple fans, on the other hand, are more artistic from what I’ve seen.  They don’t necessarily like to get under the hood of their aluminium marvels any more than they have to (if they even can).  To them, magic is important.  Applications should install with effort and just work.  Systems should never crash and kernels are pieces of popcorn, not parts of the operating system.  Their mantra is “It just works”.

Note that I didn’t say anything about intelligence levels.  Many of the smartest people I know use Macs daily.  I’ve also known some pretty inept Linux users that ran the OS simply because it couldn’t get as screwed up as Windows.  Intelligence is a non issue.  It comes down to cultures.  Mac people want the same access they’d have if they were running a PC.  After all, the hardware is all the same now with Intel chips instead of PowerPC.  Why should I get access to all my apps?  Apple is free to create interfaces into non-free software like Microsoft Office since they don’t have the “free as in freedom” battle cry to stand next to as much as the Debian fans out there.  For the Mac users, it doesn’t matter how something gets done.  It just needs to happen.  Software that doesn’t work isn’t looked at as a curiosity to be dissected and fixed.  Instead, it is discarded and other options are explored.

Tom’s Take

Thanks to Steve’s Cupertino Fruit Company, we have a revolution on our hands that is enabling people to concentrate more on creating content and less on having all the right tools on the right OS to get started.  Many of my peers have settled on using MacBooks so they can have a machine that never breaks and “just works”.  It’s kind of funny to think even just 3 or 4 years ago how impossible the idea of having OS-agnostic applications was.  Now I can go out and buy pretty much whatever I want and be assured that 85% of my applications will run on it.  As long as I’ve dabbled with Linux I’ve never felt that was a possibility.  To me, it seems that the artists and designers with an eye to form needed to cry out over the engineers and tinkerers that hold function in higher esteem.  We may yet one day get to the point where OS is an afterthought, but it’s going to take a lot more people bringing their own fruit to work.

One More Thing…Now What?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 13 hours or so, you’ve probably heard that Steve Jobs has stepped down as CEO of Apple.  He has asked to move to the position of Chairman of the Board, and he’s requested that current Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook step into the CEO seat.  This isn’t much of a change, as Cook has been acting in the role since January of this year, when Jobs stepped aside due to medical reasons related to his battle with pancreatic cancer.  One can only assume that if he is resigning today and completely stepping back that this medical battle isn’t going as well as he might have hoped and that he will need to devote time and energy to his healing process that would otherwise be distracted running the largest company of all time.

This announcement happened when it did for a good reason.  Apple is rumored to be on the verge of announcing the iPhone 5.  In fact, I expect to see the confirmation of an event happening in mid-September sometime late next week, after news of Steve’s resignation calms down.  Had Jobs waited to announce his resignation between the pre-event release and the actual event, it would have overshadowed the launch of what will likely become the most successful phone in the history of the company.  People are salivating over the prospect of a new iPhone, and the fact that it wasn’t announced at WWDC this year is whipping the fanboys into a frenzy.  Stepping down now allows all the retrospectives and analysis to happen ahead of the new product launch, while not casting an iCloud on it (see what I did there?).

Tim Cook will be scrutinized at this event like no time in his past.  Sure, he’s launched products before in place of Captain Turtleneck, but this time he isn’t just a temp filling in for the man.  Now, he *IS* the man and the leader of the Cult of Steve.  If he comes across as confident and reassured, people will be happy and content.  If he feels nervous or ill-suited for his role at the head of Apple, both he and the stock price won’t last long.  Much has been written about what will happen to Apple after Steve’s departure, due to the effect his strong personality has on the direction of Apple’s business.  Much like Oracle and Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs drives his company through force of will.  His aesthetic ideas become design mantras.  If he thinks something needs to be jettisoned for the greater good, out it goes.  Cook may not be the man to do all that.  He may just be a steward that shepherds the last of Steve’s designs out the door before taking a bow himself.  I’ve always said that in football, you never want to be the coach that follows a legend.  Here, I’m thinking that Tim Cook may not want to be the CEO that follows an even bigger legend.

I think the Jobs Design Philosophy is still ingrained enough at Apple that the next generation or two of products will still be wild sellers.  The iPhone 5, iPad3, and rumored redesigns of 15″ MacBook Airs and the like will still bear enough of the imprint of the former CEO to keep the company riding high for some time to come.  Much like a football coach that takes over for a legend that has recruited the best players and goes on to win a championship with that talent, the hangover effect of Jobs will last for a while.  The worrisome thing is what happens after Generation+2.  Will the design wizards be able to continue the success?  Will the company have enough fortitude to make crazy decisions now to pay off later, like that whole silly notion of a tablet device.  Taking risks got Apple where it is today, but only because Steve Jobs was a risk-taker.  If that mentality hasn’t been cultivated among those left in the company, we could find ourselves quickly repeating history when it comes to Apple and their slice of the market.

Tom’s Take

I’m sorry to see Steve Jobs go.  Yes, I’ve poked fun at Macs before, but truthfully I’m starting to come around a little.  I think now the important thing is for Jobs to take all the time he needs to stay healthy and impart some wisdom from time to time at Apple.  I think that Tim Cook will do a wonderful job keeping things afloat for the time being, but he needs to be very careful in continuing the innovation and risk taking that has made Apple a serious contender in the personal computer market.  If Apple become complacent, there’s a long spiral to fall down before hitting bottom again.  Only this time, the man with the turtleneck isn’t going to be waiting to swoop in out of the cold and pick them back up again.  Who knows?  Maybe Woz is just biding his time to make a triumphant return…

Why I Went Back To iOS 4.3.3…For Now

I’ve been an unofficial beta tester of iOS 5 for about two weeks now. There are a lot of interesting features that I think have the capability to make my life easier. First and foremost is the revamped notification system. Not being pulled out of my current thoughts by a modal dialog box is a great thing. Being able to deal with alerts on my schedule is very liberating. Also of great import to me is the integration with Twitter.
Allowing me to tag contacts with Twitter handles helps me keep my nerd friends straight, and the ability to snap pictures and upload them directly to Twitter is very helpful for those that takes tons of snapshots, like Stephen Foskett. There are even more features that have promise, like iMessage.

So why, on the eve of my trip to Cisco Live 2011, did I put my phone into DFU mode and go back to 4.3.3? Well, for all the greatness that I found in the beta, there were a couple of things that gave me pause. Enough pause that when I knew I was going to be at a conference where I would be relying heavily on my phone to be my lifeline to the rest of the world for a week, I had to go back to something a little more polished. My biggest complaint about the beta release of iOS 5 was the abysmal battery life. I wasn’t on beta release 1, which by all accounts had a battery life best measured in minutes. I jumped in during beta 2, where things were much improved, or so the story went. However, I found my battery life to be noticeably worse. I hesitated to use my phone to check my email or Twitter feed for fear it wouldn’t last through the day. If I actually made a call on it, I had to recharge it on the way home from work to be sure it would hold out. My trip to the OSDE tweetup was marred by less than 10% battery power, which made status updates unrealistically optimistic. I know that battery life is always a fine balance to maintain. New features require even more power, and the antiquated battery in my 3GS is quickly approaching the end of its useful life. However, if the next beta doesn’t address the battery life issue with a little more tweaking, it will be a hard choice to make.

Another irritation was the overall lagginess of my phone. Apps would take an extra second or two to launch than normal. Pulling up information inside Facebook or Safari seemed to freeze every time. My new fancy camera app crashed so much it was unusable. The phone just seemed to stall, like a computer with an old, slow processor or inadequate amount of RAM. Again, I know that most of this is due to the code train not being
optimized yet for release and the apps not being optimized for iOS 5. Usually, these are the last things to get fixed before release, so I’m optimistic that things will clear up. However, these are the same complaints that iPhone 3G users had about iOS 4 when it was released. It seems that maybe Apple’s support of 2-year old hardware is spotty in some cases.

Tom’s Take

Beta testing is always a crapshoot. You are agreeing to test something that may not be ready for prime time. I’ve been beta testing things since I got into computers and networking, so I’m never shocked by what I get into. However, in recent years, companies have been using the beta tag a lot differently. They either keep something that’s ready for release in beta forever, like GMail, or they push unfinished code out the door and make
their customers unwilling beta testers, which can best be summed up by the old maxim, “Don’t install a new version of Windows until the first service pack is released.” While I like many of the new features of iOS 5, the lack of polish in the battery life and lag departments were enough to make me reconsider my decision this time. I especially find that part funny, since I’ve never been so attached to a device to care about what revision
of code is running on it. I might give beta 3 a shot (if there is one), but for now I’m going back to something that isn’t going to make me tote around a 500-foot extension cord and curse my phone twice as much as I do already.

Fruit Company Console: My Review of the Cisco Console Companion for iPad/iPhone

One of the major advantages to owning an iPad, or in some cases an iPhone, is that you have a mobile computer at your fingertips that is quite easy to carry around the datacenter or networking closet.  I have an iPad myself, and I find it very useful for documentation purposes.  Whether it be taking notes about the configuration of a specific device or looking up the PDF of a particular feature from Cisco’s website, the iPad has many uses.  However, if I find myself in need of connecting to a device such as a switch or a router, my iPad/iPhone options are limited.  I can use a telnet or SSH client to remote into the system, but if I don’t know the management IP or the username/password combination I can be sunk.  Or worse yet, if the switch has never been properly configured for remote access it becomes a moot point.  If I want to be able to use my trusty Cisco rollover console cable to get into the switch the old fashioned way, I have to lug out my behemoth Lenovo W701 laptop and get it ready, which can be quite an endeavor depending on the amount of room I have to work with or the amount of time that I’m going to spend consoled in, since my laptop has about 1.5 hours of battery life under the best of circumstances.  Add in the difficulties that I’ve faced with USB-to-serial adapters under Windows 7 64-bit and you can see why I’m reluctant to use the console.  However, there is hope for the best of these two worlds.

A company called Redpark has started selling a rollover cable with a 30-pin iDevice connector.  Engadget had a story about it HERE.  Naturally, I decided that I just had to have one of these.  You know…for work and stuff.  Anyway, I jumped right over to the Redpark website.  Hello sticker shock.  This baby is going to set you back a cool $69.  Add in more if you want shipping and handling (whatever that is), so expect to shell out about $80 to get it to your neck of the woods, more if you need to have one tomorrow.  That’s not all, folks!  Even if you do manage to get your hands on one of these little jewels, you still need an app to access the console.  Now those of you that looked at this excellent blog post by Ruhann about console access on a jailbroken iPad are all set.  The rest of us poor saps that haven’t jailbroken our iPads yet are in a bit of a lurch.  Fear not, because the company also has an official app on the App Store called Get Console (or Cisco Console Companion) that will give you console access.  For a measly $9.99.  After all, you’ve already spent $80 already, what’s a few dollars more?

Once my console cable arrived in the mail, I was a little underwhelmed by the packaging:

Not much to look at.  The contents of the box were even worse.  The console cable lovingly encased in bubble wrap, and this instruction sheet:

Bravo for making it straightforward and easy to read.  Off to the App Store to download my new app.  Except…”Cisco Console Companion” isn’t the official title of the app.  It’s “Get Console”, along with a big disclaimer that it is in no way associated with Cisco.  I’m guessing they had to use an alternate title in the app store because of some wonky trademark issues that Uncle John wasn’t too pleased about.  At any rate, it was a fast download and then I was off and running.

For the purposes of this test, I’m consoling into a Cisco Catalyst 3560 8-port switch.  Once I fired up the program, it popped up with a one-time reminder that it was only for Cisco devices and that it would check each device to ensure that it was a genuine Cisco product.  My best guess is this is there to prevent people from trying to use it as an Ethernet cable or something, because most reports I’ve seen says that it works just fine with any kind of device that uses a rollover cable, like Juniper, or HP, or what have you.  I didn’t test this out during my first run, but I will be testing it down the road of some of those devices.  Note that since it is an RJ-45 rollover cable, it can’t be used on RS-232 or null modem devices.  Oh well, time to upgrade those old switches anyway.  The cable itself feels rather thin, almost like a fiber patch cable rather than a flat rollover cable or even a UTP cable.  It’s about 6 feet long, so you don’t have to be right next to the device you’re trying to console into, but don’t expect to be programming from across the room.  Here’s a picture of the cable on top of my test switch:

My first encounter with the Get Console program led me to this screen:

Fairly utilitarian, but that’s fine by me.  I’m not really a “bells and whistles” kind of guy.  The bottom section of the screen is dominated by the on-screen keyboard, but that’s to be expected.  Just above that is a collapsible keyboard bar that lists some very useful control keys.  First is the all-important TAB key, which I’ve found sorely lacking on some of the telnet clients I’ve used.  TAB saves me a ton of time.  Next is the CTRL key, which when tapped toggles on and allows you to use CTRL+ shortcuts for moving around the command line or sending a CTRL+C or CTRL+Z to end.  Next is the BRK key, which sends an immediate break signal to the console.  Useful for those times when you need to enter ROMMON on bootup.  Next is everyone’s favorite question mark key.  Having it here is really helpful so that I don’t have to waste a keystroke getting to the number/symbol keyboard on the iPad.  This is followed by the up and down error keys, which are used to cycle through your command history forward and backward.  Lastly is a Return key, which I didn’t really use, since the iPad keyboard has one built in.

The upper right corner of the app replicates many of the same keys as the collapsible keyboard, along with a paper clip icon.  When you tap this, it pulls out a drawer that contains the contents of the clipboard.  You can paste those contents directly onto the command line.  So if you find yourself typing the same commands in over and over, this is a handy shortcut (there are others we’ll get to in a second).  As a quick note, while you can type in this clipboard, if you don’t copy the contents before pasting it will simply paste what was in the box before.  So be sure to copy before you paste.

The upper left includes the Settings button, the session button, the keyboard show/hide button, a button to show/hide the collapsible keyboard with the TAB and CTRL keys, and a file drawer for storing config files.  The settings button is very feature rich. You can choose to have the program automatically connect when it launches or wait for you to connect manually.  There are also settings to change the baud rate and stop bits, which really helps when you are connecting to some non-standard gear.  You can have the system log all of your console sessions, which can be stored in the filing cabinet for later examination.  You can change the number of columns and rows, as well as the amount of scrollback in the window.  Be aware that adding too many columns will mean you need to scroll the screen left or right to see the output, as it looks like the main window is about 80 columns wide.  You can change the bell that dings when you do something you aren’t supposed to, as well as changing the color scheme to something other than white-on-black text.  The font size slider doesn’t correspond to actual point sizes, so you might need to play around with it to find a comfortable setting.

The session button allows you to disconnect a console session manually as well as offering one of the added benefits of this program.  By signing up at http://www.get-console.com, you can add an option under settings to connect to a remote console server at that website.  You can then tap the session button and obtain a 7-digit access code that allows someone to access your console session from the Get Console webpage.  This is fairly handy if you have a junior administrator on site and need to walk them through a configuration.  Or if that same junior admin is in a network that is down, you can use a 3G iPad to connect to their console session and do some troubleshooting.  I had to play around with the settings in order to test this feature.  It looks like the app connects to the remote console server when you choose to share the session, and the access code allows the user on the website to connect in like a type of reverse telnet connection.  I couldn’t get the app to connect using the North America servers, but the Europe and Asia servers worked just fine.  However, the latency on these connections was pitiful.  Redraw on my screen could be measured in seconds.  I tried entering some commands on the webpage, but careful typing was enough to overrun the keyboard buffer for the app.  And if you’re going to try and look at live debugs, you might as well forget about it.  By the time you could send a break or “un all”, you’d be swamped in messages.  Better to use the web app as a mirroring device for training or for simple troubleshooting.  You can also choose to encrypt the sessions if you want, which is a pretty good idea if you don’t want everyone on the Internet up in your business.

The filing cabinet is another interesting piece.  By uploading configs to the Get Console website, you can store them in your filing cabinet to copy onto the device locally.  That way, if you have a template for your switches, you don’t need to worry about copying and pasting it out of an e-mail, where it may get buggered up by some strange formatting issues.  You can also have those pesky junior admins share an account and copy the configs to the filing cabinet for them, so all they have to do is walk out and plug in to setup the switch with enough config for you to be able to telnet to it.  There is local shortcut storage as well, so you can keep some of your more clever commands on your own iPad safe from those that could use them to do harm.  You can also store console logs for later upload or email.

Out of the box, the font size was downright tiny.  I had to bump the slider up to about 3/4ths of the way just to read it comfortably, and I was holding the iPad less than a foot from my face.  The keyboard was quite responsive, and the scrolling of the information was smooth and easy to follow.  The app is setup to beep at you when you try to use a key that isn’t supported, such as a down arrow at the prompt when there are no more commands to replay.  This feature is nice because it gives some feedback so you know when you’re beating your head against a brick wall.

In case you’re curious, this app is universal for both iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch.  But other than just glancing at the console I’m not sure how useful it’s going to be.  There isn’t much screen real estate to start with, and all the extra pieces don’t give you much room to look at things.  Here’s a screen shot to give you and idea of what I’m talking about:

Tom’s Take

It all comes down to money.  Is there enough utility in this cable and app for you to justify spending $100 on it?  Do you often find yourself in a network room with only your iPad and a switch that won’t respond to any other method of input?  I wouldn’t dream of trying to do any kind of heavy duty debugging on this device.  I’d rather have my full laptop with multiple apps and notepad windows to drag around to interpret console spam.  As well, any kind of programming that would require lots of time at the keyboard would probably get uncomfortable after a while, unless you’re one of those people that happens to like typing on the iPad on-screen keyboard.  I suppose you could haul along a wireless keyboard, but at that point you’re dragging along an awful lot of devices for simple console access.

I could see this being a useful tool for training or for an emergency tool kit.  Throw an iPad and a cable in your kit and you have instant access to the console of a device from anywhere in the world.  You could send the less-skilled network admins out on site and a more senior person could stay in the office and do some simple troubleshooting or configuration in order to get to the equipment through SSH or telnet.  The web piece, in my mind, is just too unresponsive to spend a lot of time on.  Plus, if you are fast typist like I am, you’re going to get rather frustrated with the delay in command execution, if you don’t outright lock the system up with all the characters you’re throwing at it.

The app does what it says, there’s no denying that.  I find it very useful to have on my iPad and I’ll probably use it going forward for many of my walkthroughs and audits.  However, I think the $100 price tag is a little steep for something like this.  I hope that the price of the console cable will come down at some point, because $69 dollars for this is a bit of a stretch, even by Apple standards.  If there is enough demand, we may even see some other vendors get into the market and offer something like this.  If that happens, hopefully the Get Console people will support them as well.  I had hoped that maybe the software people could offer a gift card with the purchase of the cable, but I believe that they are two different companies so that’s probably out of the question.  Redpark could always throw in a $10 iTunes gift card if the want to soften the blow of needing the additional app to use the cable, but marketing isn’t my department.

All in all, I think I’m going to be able to find some use out of this app.  However, you really need to think twice about whether or not a C-note is worth giving up for this type of functionality.  If you want to learn more about these products, you can check out the console cable at http://redpark.myshopify.com/products/console-cable and you can check out the software program at http://www.get-console.com/