More on iPad for academics

Recently, a lightning strike traveled over the phone lines and fried our modem and everything wired to it, including a TimeCapsule, a printer, and a bluray player. To say the least, it was vexing. I have since rescued the hard drive out of the time capsule, replaced the printer, figured out a new media option instead of the bluray player, and purchased a new router. Our ISP took care of the new modem and repairing the line into the house.

In the process, I took advantage of some recent changes in home internet technology to try to make my iPad more functional. I thought that it might be useful to share some of these developments here. If you are up-to-date on internet security, this will probably be boring for you. I intend this for the well intentioned amateur, like myself, who is not afraid of handling more sophisticated technologies but might need some help with terms and basic instructions.

I have recommended SugarSync to many people in the past. It is a cloud service that runs an automatic sync with files on your home computer that you designate. It has proven useful for me. For instance, when I use my iPad to grade student work (usually in pdf files), I do so using PDFExpert on my iPad and sync it with my SugarSync account, and everything ends of neatly back on my computer. It has been great, but for over a year, there has been one irritating problem. When Apple changed the file format for iWork (Pages, Numbers, Keynote) files, SugarSync stopped being able to read them correctly. It became impossible to look at these files on my iPad as a result. I have tried some workarounds, but ultimately I have simply had to remember to move all of my iWork files that I think that I will need into iCloud. Sometimes I forget, and then I am in trouble. SugarSync has refused to update their software to better understand iWork files, instead blaming Apple, and I have lost my patience with SugarSync. I will not be renewing my subscription when it is up.

My new router allows me new options. Routers that can create VPNs (Virtual Private Network) have typically been priced out of the range of the home user, but more and more companies are making more budget-friendly options. So I purchased a TP-Link VPN router. Between that and eventually buying an NAS drive, I figure that I will save a hundred dollars at least on buying a new TimeCapsule and have way more functionality. Take that, Apple!

Why would I need to set up a VPN? Well, I often like to be able to access my home computer while on campus or away from home. It allows me to access files I might need and to even use my iPad as a remote desktop, so that I can directly use my computer, even though it is still on my desk miles away. For that I use a program called iTeleport. I can get back to that later.

The trouble with this is that previously I have had to poke holes in the firewall that protects my home network. The firewall is the barrier that keeps other people on the internet from accessing your computer. There is probably one in your router and also on your computer. The VPN allows me to keep the firewall in place and access my home network, gaining all the access to my computer as I would if I was right there at home.

Setting up the VPN was stunningly easy. It will vary based on the router you choose, so I cannot give detailed instruction. Figure out how to access your router’s interface; there should be instructions with your router, perhaps printed directly on your router. Here are some key terms and things to do. You will probably want to set up an LT2P tunnel with IPSec encryption. This is easy to set up and fairly secure. I think  that the NSA can break it, but if they are interested in you, you probably have more pressing problems. A PPTP tunnel is also very easy to set up, but much less secure; go for the LT2P. It is a called a “tunnel” because it tunnels through your firewall, and then as far as your iPad is considered it will be as if you were sitting at home; you can access a network drive, your computer, your printer, the whole deal. You will need to set up a username and password, which shouldn’t be difficult. You will need to enable IPSec encryption on your router. You will also need to set up a shared key or “secret,” which will then serve as an encryption key. You will also need to set up an IP address pool. I don’t know why they make you do that, but you will have to. Where it tells you to do that, make up a name for the pool and assign IP addresses different from the ones that the router itself will assign, so if it assigns address in the range of and up, set the range of the VPN’s address pool to and up. Or make up a totally new number. It is your call.

A quick word on IP addresses, in case you were unaware. This is your computer’s internet address. Your ISP assigns you an IP address. Your router then accepts it, and then it assigns each device connected to it a new IP address that looks completely different from the one the ISP gave it. Your router does that so it can talk to each computer on the network. It then communicates with your ISP and sends you that cookie recipe you were looking for.

Another word on IP addresses. In order to finish setting up your VPN, you will need a way to keep track of your ISP-assigned IP address. There are a variety of services that will do this for you. I use Go there, set up an account, and you will also set up a web address that looks a lot like a URL. Hold on to that URL for a moment. If you are lucky, your router has a place for you to enter that information and it will help you to keep track of your IP address.

You will then need to set up your iPad. The good news is that it is built into iOS. Go to settings, General, VPN. Then enter your username, password, “secret,” and that URL you got from or whoever. And you are all set.

There is one more thing to do on your router. Assign your computer a set IP. You can probably find a place to do this under “router” or some similar heading in your router’s interface. There will be a place for you to enter your MAC address and assign a particular IP address to your computer. Just pick one. Hold onto that address for a moment. Your MAC address is a code embedded in your wireless card, or ethernet card, or any piece of internet hardware. Whatever computer or operating system you have, just google how to find your MAC address; it shouldn’t be too hard.

So you have a VPN. What now? You will want to get a few new apps for your iPad. I would recommend iNet, iTeleport, and FileBrowser. There are many others, but I use these so I know that they work. Follow the setup instructions for iTeleport. You will have to activate screen sharing and set up a VNC; you can do this in your system preferences under Sharing, if you are on a mac. Make sure you use a strong password for it. I would however recommend not bothering with the app they want you to set up on your computer. Go into manual setup on the app on your iPad, enter that IP address that you assigned your home computer in the paragraph before this. Because you will never need to access your computer from outside your home network, there will be no need to set up the app that helps you to locate your home network. Then add in your various usernames and passwords, and you are good to go.

To use FileBrowser, you will need to enable file sharing on your computer. On a Mac, look for “Windows sharing.” It is in your System Preferences under Sharing. In FileBrowser, manually create a new location by putting in that IP address for your computer and the proper username and password (probably the same ones you use to log into your computer), and you are done. I like FileBrowser because it has been updated to work with iWork documents. Take that SugarSync.

So now you can use your iPad as a remote desktop and access all of your files. The only major problem is that, if your computer is asleep, you need to be able to wake it up. That is what iNet is for, or iWol, or whatever similar app you get. WoL stands for “wake on lan.” Basically, you can have your router wake your computer up for you. For this to work reliably, you probably need to run an ethernet cable from the router to your computer; wireless connections can work, but they are far less reliable. You will need to enable Remote Login in your System Preferences. In iNet, you will need to set up the wake-on-lan service using your computer’s IP address, your login for your computer, and your MAC address. Once that is done, you can wake up your computer, put it to sleep, shut it down, and reboot it. You just can’t turn it on if it is completely shut off.

So next time your in the office or at a coffeeshop, just hit the VPN switch on your iPad, and enjoy all that secure and reliable access to your home computer. My next major purchase will be to set up an NAS drive; this is a hard drive that can be used by anyone on your home network. But I’ll talk more about that once I get it set up.

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