Tunnel VNC over SSH through the internet

One of the things I find most fulfilling about learning technology is the ability to pass along what I’ve learned.  I can also help loved ones migrate from Windows and other proprietary software, to free/libre software like GNU/Linux, and learn how to use their improved system.  This can take the form of looking over their shoulder and showing them how to do things, or temporarily unseating them while I work on things too advanced for their current skill level.  But what if I’m far away?  My father lives on the other side of the continent, but he is very much a computer novice.  When he gets stuck, or needs some administration done, it’s much easier to show him or do it for him than it is to put him through trying to describe what he’s seeing and then attempting to understand my instructions over the phone.

VNC is an excellent solution to this problem.  In combination with a phone call or VOIP call, it’s the next best thing to being there.   It allows me to see his screen, take control of his mouse and keyboard, and show him – “See this?  <wiggling mouse>  Click here.”  It also allows me to zip through administrative tasks myself, and once I’m connected, he doesn’t even have to be home.  I can do what needs to be done and then shut down his computer for him.

But VNC is not a complete solution.  It is, unfortunately, inherently insecure.  A cracker (notice I did not misuse the word “hacker” as the mass media so often does – because an ethical hacker would never do this) could use VNC password cracking software to get your password(s) and then wreak havoc on your computers, or steal personal data from them.  So we need something more secure than VNC so we can use strong encryption, greatly reducing the likelihood of getting victimized by the bad guys/gals.

Enter SSH, or Secure SHell.  We can create an SSH connection between the two computers and then tunnel the VNC data through that connection.  In this way we have a fully encrypted connection with all the advantages of VNC.

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Forcing krfb to disable the background image

The krfb application is used when you want to allow someone to connect to and/or take control of your computer using a VNC client. One thing that can really slow things down is when krfb insists on sending the background image, also called wallpaper. This slows down the connection with gobs of needless extra data from drawing and redrawing the wallpaper every time you open, close, or move a window. It can slow things down to a crawl while the person helping you waits and waits for your screen to refresh in their VNC client so they can see what your system is doing.

This might be a simple matter to fix, if your version of krfb includes a menu option on the Session tab to Always disable background image. But if it doesn’t, as is the case with krfb in openSUSE 11.1, what do you do?

Well, you can manually edit a file called krfbrc , most likely in your ~/.kde/share/config directory.  That is, the absolute path will probably be /home/yourusernamehere/.kde/share/config/krfbrc.  Make sure krfb is closed, then open this krfbrc file with your favourite text editor and add the following line:

disableBackground=true

Save and you’re through! When you launch krfb, it should now start and make a connection without wasting valuable bandwidth on sending the wallpaper over and over again..

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Adventures in GNU/Linux remote installation – or not

I wrote this entry in stages as things unfolded.  This does not end well, I’m afraid.  But I hope it will serve to help others avoid the same plight.  First, some quick background.

In addition to fixing computers by day, I am also by default the family computer tech.  My father is not the most savvy computer user, so the seemingly constant Windows updates and crashes always threw him off.  He also sometimes clicked things he shouldn’t and ended up needing spyware removal and such as well.  Thus began a process where I began weaning him off Windows and preparing him to switch to GNU/Linux, another blog entry for another day.  I installed GNU/Linux for him and the headaches went away.  But we’ve both subsequently moved and now have many miles between us.

Recently he tried to get to his OpenOffice but he said it’s not in his system menu.  I VNC‘d to his system to see what he was talking about and sure enough, his menu is malfunctioning and fails to display any of his applications.  I tried a number of things to remedy this but there appeared to be some file corruption behind it, including some photos he fortunately has backups of.  He was really in need of an update anyway so I decided a fresh install was in order.

But what to do?  He has an older notebook with built-in floppy drive, broadband, and a CD-RW drive he couldn’t find (sigh).  He had no CD-R’s or CD-RW’s on hand anyway, so I thought a CD-less install would be the way to go.

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