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Timbuktu Pro

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[Excerpted from Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh, 2nd edition.]

As time goes by in the Internet world, software that once ran solely on local area networks such as LocalTalk or Ethernet is migrating to the Internet. Often, it's not much of a chore to support the Internet - it's simply another network protocol, after all. However, with so many people accessing the Internet via SLIP or PPP and a relatively slow modem, the challenge to programmers becomes more serious. How can they provide adequate performance with a program designed to work over a network many times faster than the average modem?

The network wizards at Farallon faced this problem with Timbuktu Pro, a recent release of their long-standing Timbuktu application for controlling Macs and PCs from afar. Let me explain the idea behind Timbuktu a little more before I get into the version that now works over the Internet, because once you see what Timbuktu does, you'll better understand why supporting Internet connections was such a coup.

Networking the Macintosh has always been easy, thanks to Apple's foresight in including network hardware in every Mac, and (since System 7) including the software necessary to create a small network complete with servers and clients. Because of this, relatively wide-flung Macintosh networks sprang up quickly, making it difficult for a network administrator to physically visit each Mac that might be having a problem or simply need to be checked on. Farallon solved this problem with Timbuktu, an application that enabled the network administrator (or anyone else running the program, for that matter), to work on a host Mac somewhere else on the network just as though it were on the administrator's desk. Timbuktu became especially popular in large corporations because Sam on the 15th floor could call down to the help desk when he had a problem, and the help desk could not only watch onscreen what Sam did, it could also perform the task correctly, so Sam could see how to do it next time. All without some peon dashing up flights of stairs .

This was all fine and nice, and Timbuktu became popular. Farallon added the capability for Timbuktu to control PC-compatibles running Windows, and continually increased Timbuktu's speed, since transferring all that data over a network was poky, to say the least. Then, in late 1993, Farallon released Timbuktu Pro for the Macintosh. Timbuktu Pro increased the speed of execution, added support for Apple Remote Access (ARA) and probably fixed a few bugs, but most interestingly, it added support for TCP/IP networks - in other words, the Internet.

All of a sudden, not only can you observe or control a Mac on your network, but you can observe or control an Internet-connected Macintosh running Timbuktu anywhere in the world. Before you start shaking in your shoes about the security implications, let me assure you that Timbuktu has strong security features, and unless you allow others to control your Mac, they won't be able to do so. Same goes for observation; it's completely under the user's control, so there are no security or privacy implications that you cannot control yourself. One last thing - you must have two copies of Timbuktu to use it. When you buy it, you get both the client and the server, and I know of only one public Macintosh running Timbuktu, a demo machine at Farallon.

Installation and Usage -- Installation of Timbuktu is handled by the Apple Installer and is thus relatively straightforward. After you finish and restart, you should see a Timbuktu icon appear as the Mac starts up. This icon comes from Timbuktu Extension in your Extensions folder. The Timbuktu application appears in your Apple Menu Items folder, and the Timbuktu Sender application shows up on your desktop. If you use System 7 Pro, a Timbuktu Catalogs Extension goes in your Extensions folder as well.

You use the Timbuktu application, which you launch either from the menu that the extension creates on the right side of your menu bar, or by double-clicking the application, for one of four tasks: observing a host Mac, controlling a host Mac, sending files to a host Mac, or exchanging files both ways with a host Mac. When launched, Timbuktu Pro presents a New Connection window and a User Access window, the latter of which enables you to see and control what sort of access others have to your Mac.

The New Connection window has a pop-up menu with two choices, AppleTalk and TCP/IP. I'll concentrate on the TCP/IP setting, since that's the most interesting method of access and it's basically the same for AppleTalk anyway.

Farallon has made a Macintosh running Timbuktu available as a demo machine, and Farallon cleverly placed that demo machine's name and IP number into the New Connection window when the TCP/IP option is selected. So, typing <timbuktu.farallon.com> into the IP address field and clicking on the Control button enables you to control that remote Macintosh. Because <timbuktu.farallon.com> is a public Mac that Farallon wants people to use, the program doesn't ask for a username or password. Most Macs would have security features in place to prevent unsavory characters from riffling through private files.

Once connected to <timbuktu.farallon.com>, a window appears that represents the host Mac. In fact, it looks just like a normal Macintosh screen. When the mouse cursor is in that window, your keyboard works for the host Mac, and you can do anything there that you can do on any other Mac, except touch it.

Needless to say, the screen redraws slowly, since Timbuktu must transfer all the screen redraw information over the Internet connection, and if that's a modem, it takes time. You won't work on a machine like that all day long, but it's fine for basic troubleshooting and server control.

Farallon cleverly set up their demo machine to encourage you to check out their files, including tech support files about Timbuktu, Disinfectant (only slightly out of date), a demo version of Replica (another of their programs), and a folder entitled "Leave your comments here!" To exchange files, you click on the small icon of a folder with a double-headed arrow on the left-hand side of the Timbuktu window. Timbuktu asks for your username and password (I just told it I was a guest) and brings up the Exchange Files window.

The Exchange Files window works much like the Font/DA Mover (not that many people necessarily remember the Font/DA Mover, which hasn't been necessary since System 6 days). You navigate through the hierarchy on either the guest or the host Mac, and by Shift-or Command-clicking on items, select files to transfer. Clicking the Copy button makes files copy in the direction of the arrows.

That's about it for basic usage in Timbuktu Pro as a guest. If you want to be a host, your Mac must be connected to the Internet via MacTCP and either SLIP or PPP or a network. You should use Define Users from the Setup menu to create users with specific privileges before turning on access, because if you provide full access to your Mac, nothing prevents someone from wreaking havoc on your system. After you've defined some users and properly set up Guest access if you wish to use it, selecting TCP/IP User Access from the Timbuktu Extension's menu in the menu bar, or clicking the On radio button for TCP/IP User Access in the User Access window of the Timbuktu application makes your Mac available as a host.

Needless to say, for someone to connect to you, they must know either your Mac's IP name or IP number, so if you use a Server-addressed account and don't have a dedicated IP name, you must somehow communicate the proper IP number to your guest.

Special Features -- In many ways, Timbuktu sports no special features. After all, what it does is astonishing enough - the concept of using another Macintosh over the Internet is extremely cool. However, the attention to detail is high, and little things such as screen sharing in color without a major speed hit is impressive.

Timbuktu has a number of buttons along the side of the Timbuktu main window. These buttons enable you to toggle between controlling the remote Mac and merely observing it, send or exchange files, transfer clipboards back and forth, take a screenshot of the remote screen, switch monitors on a multiple monitor host, and toggle between color and grayscale.

The Timbuktu Sender application simplifies sending files to host Macs - you can even send multiple files to multiple hosts at the same time by dragging one or more files onto Timbuktu Sender and, when it asks, providing the IP address of each recipient. Timbuktu then sends the files to each of the hosts in turn, placing the files in a folder with your name on it inside another folder called (by default) Files Received. It's a bit like broadcasting.

If you regularly connect to the same Mac, you can use connection documents to simplify the process. Launching a specific connection document connects you to the specified host Mac. It's actually kind of eerie - open a document and suddenly you're using or watching another Mac in a window on your screen.

Finally, Timbuktu keeps an activity log that tracks what everyone does on your Mac, which can be handy for seeing who has been peeking in. It also tracks when Timbuktu itself loads or shuts down, which corresponds closely with when your Mac restarts. It's interesting to see how often you restart, if nothing else.

Overall Evaluation -- As you may have gathered, I'm rather impressed with Timbuktu Pro. I'd never used it until the Internet version, but a friend of mine swears by it for controlling his Windows machine on his local area network. Most of my experience has come in administrating a Gopher server on a Macintosh SE/30 running Peter Lewis's FTPd. The Macintosh lives elsewhere, but it's directly connected to the Internet, and I can check in at any time by simply connecting via SLIP or PPP and launching my Timbuktu Pro connection document.

Timbuktu Pro's worst problem is that using it is not as fast as using a Mac normally, especially when connecting over the Internet via modem. The mouse is jerky, menus drop slowly, and highlighting a menu item can take forever. You wouldn't use a host Mac via Timbuktu Pro for daily work over a modem connection to the Internet. Nonetheless, most actions are fast enough to be worth the trade-off, and just because the screen draws slowly doesn't mean the host Mac is operating slowly. Programs run at full speed on the host Mac - the only slowdown is in how fast you see the screen draw. You get used to this after a while and learn to do things such as let up on a menu option when your cursor is in the right place but before the highlight has caught up with you.

The second limitation from which Timbuktu Pro suffers is that you cannot reach out and touch the host Mac, if you're controlling it over the Internet. This may not seem like a major liability until the Mac crashes or needs to be turned off. You can do a fair amount with software, but there's no guaranteed way to recover from a serious freeze. In some cases, you can avoid the problem by using a shareware control panel called AutoBoot from Karl Pottie. AutoBoot looks for system errors or freezes and attempts to restart the Macintosh if it catches a crash. I suspect it would be a big help in working with a remote or headless Mac (a Mac without a monitor). AutoBoot is available at:

ftp://mrcnext.cso.uiuc.edu//pub/info-mac/cfg/ auto-boot-13.hqx

Speaking of headless Macs, I hear that there's a problem with Timbuktu Pro 1.0 with headless Macs and certain types of user accounts - the problem is fixed by version 1.0.5, which you can get from Farallon.

Although Timbuktu Pro would seem to be a focused tool mainly for use in situations where both people know each other, creative thinking reveals interesting uses. For instance, everyone complains about not being able to try software before buying it, except in crippled demo versions. A Mac running Timbuktu Pro could act as a demonstration Mac for someone connecting over the Internet - it shouldn't be difficult to use security software to prevent people from copying the programs. Farallon provides demo versions of some of their programs on their public Timbuktu server, most notably Replica and Timbuktu Pro itself.

Administrative Details -- If you want more information about Timbuktu or other Farallon products, you can get plenty via the Internet. Farallon runs an anonymous FTP site at <ftp.farallon.com> and a World-Wide Web server accessible at:

http://www.farallon.com

Both sites seem to offer much the same information, ranging from technical notes about all of Farallon's products to press releases to free trial versions of Timbuktu Pro for the Macintosh. It's easy to navigate the Web site, but if you're connecting via FTP and want to find the demo versions, look in:

ftp://ftp.farallon.com/pub/farallon.products/ timbuktu.products/freeversions/

The free trial version works for up to seven days and on three Macs. During that time it works just like the full version, except that it won't connect to regular versions of Timbuktu Pro. You must use Apple's DiskCopy utility to create the installer disk for the free trial version.

Timbuktu Pro requires System 6.0.5 or later (it works best with System 7), a minimum of 4 MB of RAM, a network, and, if you're using the Internet, MacTCP 1.1.1 or later.

Farallon sells Timbuktu Pro through various distribution channels. Mail order prices seem to run at approximately $140 for one user, up to $1,400 for 30 users.

Farallon Computing -- 510-814-5000 -- 510-814-5023 (fax)
<info@farallon.com>

 

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