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Inspired by a post by Mark O’Connor from Yield Thought (my frequent readers will have already read something from him from my link collections), I have been working remotely for a week. His set-up is an iPad 2, Apple wireless keyboard, the iSSH app and an account in Linode. My setup is similar, but I use an iPad 1 and 6sync for the VPS.
A matter of luck. Around 2 weeks ago, I set up my “name domain” at rberenguel.com (currently down, I messed the Apache configuration a few days ago), and I decided I had played with blogger for long enough. Decided to look up an VPS to host that site and whatever I needed to either host or cloud process in the future. Tweeted asking for options, and in the meantime, Sacha Chua explained how she switched to Linode. Linode was going to win…
Until the guys at 6sync (Mario and Rav) sent me a tweet, urging me to check 6sync before choosing. I checked the page, the prices, and was close to sold out. Exchanged a few tweets, read a few reviews, and I was convinced. Reasons? Many.
First, they offer a more basic and cheaper service. Whereas Linode offers 512 MB of RAM, 20GB storage and 200GB transfer for 19.95$/month as the basic plan, 6sync offers a nano plan with 256MB of RAM, 12GB storage and 150GB transfer for 15$. This plan is currently ideal, since my bandwith and RAM usage for the server side is close to nil, and I don’t expect to use that much of bandwith in daily doses. They also offer a Mini plan with 2 CPUs, 512 MB or RAM, 20GB storage and 400GB transfer for just 20$/month, beating the Linode offer on its own ground.
Second, they have a very nice website. As a hobbyist page creator, this is important. I like how they have set-up their site, and the pictures they choose to go by. If they are not the designers, the designers should receive this praise.
Third, they are a funny bunch. I exchanged several tweets with them, and they were very supportive. And as soon as I had my server up and running and ran into problems (or more precisely as it turned out, I was not patient enough for the DNS switch) they were extremely quick to help through their in-page customer chat service.
Fourth, they have a lot of server setups ready. Do you want Debian? Check. Ubuntu? Check. Arch…? Yes! I can use me dear pacman package manager and install whatever I want, in the latest version. Cool.
All in all, very happy for hosting. And then, Mark published his post.
The remote and local setups
At first, instead of filling my 6sync server full of software, I tried a simpler setup: using my office computer in the department. I still have an account for using that computer, and I have already everything setup for working remotely. I only needed a decent ssh client for iPad.
Back in the iPod Touch days, I used the awesome (truly awesome) TouchTerm app, which is (was) perfect for the iPod Touch. Offering a wide array of gestures to control it, it is a marvel of usability. But it has no iPad version. For the occasional SSH session I was using the free zatelnet app. But this also was not a good deal.
When Mark published his post, I decided to buy iSSH, and even if the price tag is high for an app, I don’t regret it. The freedom you get when only carrying an iPad and a very slim bluetooth keyboard is unmatched. The app is universal, so you have two apps for the price of one. Check the server stats from your iPhone!
Mark is a vim guy… I guess that’s okay for a lot of people, but not for me. I could go the vim way (I have been trying to get a basic proficiency of vim in the past), but I’m an emacs guy. Up to the last moment. And I had to cross fingers for iSSH and emacs to play along nicely…
Well, they mostly do (at least with iOS5). The control key works, and so does the option key (as meta). The real meta key (command) does not work as expected, but esc also works as meta, in case of need. The only problem I’ve found so far is the fact that control-f and control-b are hard-bound (in the iOS level) to advance/go back a word. Thus control-x control-f does NOT open a document. But if you press shift, emacs does not care about control-X control-F, and the iOS bound setting is overriden.
There’s a more important problem with these iOS level shortcuts, control-a goes to the beginning of the line… but leaves a nasty  in the buffer. I have written an abbrev-expansion and re-bound control-a to get rid of it, but it does not work as well as I want yet. Luckily emacs is flexible enough to allow me to solve this in more than one way. Currently almost done anyway.
Installing all the stuff is a breeze. Of course, I had already installed the LAMP setup, although I only have configured Apache so far, but adding the rest of things I use on a daily basis is straightforward:
pacman -S emacs-nox texlive-core
And now… Dropbox or not dropbox? Dropbox from the command line has a slight problem: you need a browser to accept the linking between your new computer and the remote system. And I didn’t want to add the complexity of X to the game (even if iSSH has a very cool X server…). So I left dropbox out of the equation. I can always push/pull the files every once and then without problems.
So, I have everything that I need. Now, how does it work in practice?
The daily grind
As you may already know, my daily grind is split between my part-time freelance job as social media manager (among many other things covering get more pageviews and make more money from the sites, mixed with data analysis and copywriting) and finishing my thesis.
Working in my iPad for the freelancing job was already possible. I could access almost all systems from just a browser. Reading and answering mails, the same, although going from the email app to the CRM is slow. So far, the only problems I’ve found are spreadsheets (solved since I got Numbers) and e-Junkie. e-Junkie has the nice feature of having a flash-based login box. Clever, isn’t it? Well, I’ll leave the e-Junkie management for my MacBook moments.
For the thesis part, it was harder. There is an awesome LaTeX editor for iPad, TeX Touch. I can’t really stress how good it is. Using it with the on-screen keyboard is as close as you can get to be proficient. The drawback is that once you’re used to emacs, if you have a solid keyboard, nothing can beat emacs except telepathy.
This is where the iSSH stuff enters into play. Fire emacs, edit all your TeX in console mode (I can somehow live without AucTeX’s preview, although it is slightly hard), compile the pdf and move it to the shared folder (all done via an automated script within AucTeX for compiling). Switch to Safari (or GoodReader) and open the document. Check everything is in place and keep going.
The standard TeX based lather-rinse-repeat is straightforward from within an iPad.
Anyway, I’m not using only the iPad day to day. Only those days when I know I don’t have that much work to do, requiring heavy task-switching or firing tons and tons of emails with attachments. For slow (or semi-slow) days, it is awesome.
What benefits are in this?
Well, I’m free of carrying a heavy MacBook. Until I get a nice MacBook Air, my current computer is a slightly too heavy MacBook from 2008. It weights quite a lot, and I need to add the charger (even if it is very light, it weights). When I carry the MacBook, I also carry the protecting case (more weight) and a backpack (weight) with some folders with the stuff I’m correcting for the thesis (I could remove this). And I also carry my iPad.
These days I get by with my purse-bag, which is perfectly sized for the iPad+keyboard. I carry the pages I need to check for the thesis, and no more. So I’ve gone from 5-odd (or 6-odd) kilograms to slightly more than 1.
I also don’t need to worry about plugs or battery, the iPad battery lasts for a days’ worth of working.