VASS v The Real World

For those fortunate enough never to have heard of VASS, it’s a site maintained by VCAA where school administrators can enrol students in VCE/VET courses and record results. While I’ve no doubt that the service the site provides is essential for our school and students, the site itself with it’s browser restrictions and configuration requirements make accessing the VASS website from anywhere impossible

While VCAA have recently published their requirements for Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 9, they have only done so and supported IE9 since January 2012, a lethargic ten months after the IE9 release.

While we currently use a GPO dedicated to the VASS browser settings for our SOE desktops, we weren’t prepared to wait for VASS to support IE9 before we updated our fleet of staff tablets to the latest browser. 

This time last year we were trialling RemoteApp for remote access to Synergetic, our school database system. We had an immediate need for our VASS Coordinator to access the VASS web site and obviously had problems after the IE9 update.

This week we were challenged again when we were asked to add RemoteApp VASS for two other members of staff. The challenge was with VASS’ ridiculous requirement for a unique USB dongle for each VASS user. We’d overcome this with our original VASS user by adding a floppy drive to the RemoteApp virtual server and using WinImage to create a virtual floppy disk from the USB dongle. The problem was that our VASS RemoteApp solution was limited to a single user!

Our RemoteApp server is running Windows Server 2008 R2 64bit with Internet Explorer 8 and already has the ridiculous VASS browser settings applied

We started by using WinImage to take copies of the two new USB dongles and copied the FLP files to the RemoteApp server

image

The next step was to create a batch file to check the logged on user for the VASS RemoteApp and load a virtual floppy with the users USB Dongle. Since the virtual floppy in VMware wasn’t an option for 3 different users, we found a utility called IMDISK which was perfect since it works on 64bit Server 2008 R2 and has the benefit of only being visible to the logged on user, so the these VASS users would only be able to see their own “USB Dongle”, not all three.

Now remembering that RemoteApp is just a clever way of using an RDP session into a server, we could use %username% in our batch file so IMDISK would load the desired virtual floppy

VASS.CMD
rem imdisk -d -m A:

if %username% == user1 imdisk -a -f c:\vass\user1vass.flp -s 1440K -m A:
if %username% == user2 imdisk -a -f c:\vass\user2vass.flp -s 1440K -m A:
if %username% == user3 imdisk -a -f c:\vass\user3vass2.flp -s 1440K -m A:

"C:\Program Files (x86)\Internet Explorer\iexplore.exe" https://www.vass.vic.edu.au

NOTE: The first line dismounts any virtual floppy mounted at A:. This seemed to be a little unreliable and the virtual floppies seemed to get stuck unloading, and wouldn’t reload. This didn’t seem to be an issue with the way the RDP sessions work on the RemoteApp server

The last line of the VASS.CMD file loads the 32bit version of IE8 (remembering that the 64bit version is not supported by VASS) on the RemoteApp server and goes straight to the VASS login page.

The last step was to create add a new RemoteApp pointing to the VASS.CMD and distribute the new RDP file to those users

image

With this in place, it only takes a couple of minutes to add a new VASS user by taking an image of their USB dongle and updating the VASS.CMD file, and we’re looking forward to a Windows 8 / Internet Explorer 10 rollout later this year, knowing that VASS won’t be holding us back!

RemoteApp: Synergetic access from Home

Finding a decent solution for remote access to Synergetic has always been a problem. The Synergetic loader starts the application from a shared network drive, which is fine when Staff are at School but when they’re offsite, it’s tedious loading Synergetic with a 1Mb upload on the School’s internet link.

RemoteApp was a new feature with Server 2008 and has been refined further with 2008 R2 and Windows 7 with the RemoteApp and Desktop Connections. RemoteApp works similarly to the traditional Windows Terminal Server login used with previous versions of Windows Server, but with more functionality. When you configure a program for RemoteApp, the end user gets the same icon on their desktop or start menu that they would if the application was installed locally. The icon is a shortcut for remote desktop(RDP) that loads a full terminal services login, but hides the session and only shows the application, which is running in the TS session. The user’s printers and mapped drives etc can all be used in the RemoteApp, same as an RP session, but is set per program.

Accessing Synergetic via RemoteApp offsite is as seamless as connecting when at School and doesn’t require a VPN connection. Setting up RemoteApp with signed certificates and opening ports on the firewall is the way to go. Users still have to pass AD authentication, and depending on your Synergetic setup, another username and password to login to Synergetic.

 

Video -  loading Synergetic with RemoteApp

After a brief trial of Synergetic with RemoteApp it looks like we’ll be purchasing the necessary RDS User CAL’s (Check here for changes to TS licensing) and using RemoteApp for Staff access to Synergetic from home and getting them to use this setup for their Academic Report writing and avoid the confusion between Synergetic Network/Stand-Alone and importing/exporting reports.

To setup the trial of Server 2008 R2 and RemoteApp, follow something like the TS RemoteApp Step-by-Step Guide which is pretty straight forward. If you have Windows 7 clients, make sure you check out RemoteApp and Desktop Connections where you can set the Win7 machines to check a URL for a list of available RemoteApps and it will update regularly and automatically put shortcuts on the start menu for users

After you’ve configured the TS services, install Synergetic on the TS box and add it as RemoteApp through the Wizard

wiz1

If your a large Synergetic customer, you probably have multiple databases for different users and need to specify different configuration files with command line arguments.

wiz2

Here’s our test RemoteApps for Synergetic

remoteAppPrograms

Pushing the links for RemoteApps out as *.MSI or RDP files via a script or download makes things nice and easy too

I hadn’t paid much attention to RemoteApp and Microsoft’s VDI offerings, which seems like a mistake on my behalf. With the price of EDU licensing for MS Apps, this is a nice and tidy solution to a problem we’ve had since purchasing Synergetic 10-12 years ago. It might be a good solution for getting applications onto our Student Netbooks too… will see how we go