2022 resolution: become machine independent again

I change jobs frequently, I travel a lot, I work in the operating system space so I like to try out new distros, installers, recovery measures… In addition, even when I am at home, in Málaga or Los Llanos De Aridane, Canary Islands, I like to take notes and write at different places since I find little inspiration at my office…

All these factors together means that I end up having several machines: laptops, convertibles, tablets, phone, RPis… and with various machines it comes the information, configurations and applications hell.

The mess

There used to be a time when I had the discipline to keep my information well managed as well as separated between work, personal related and junk. The result was that when travelling, I used to carry a single machine.

Those days are long time gone.

When working for companies that gave me a working laptop, I kept telling myself that carrying several machines was the price to pay for complying with the corporate policies. The reality was that those corporate policies were to a great extent useless, either because they did not consider remote work properly or because it considered the laptop as “part of the trusted network”, a secured node. We know it is not.

When working as contractor-consultant, the situation should have improved. It did in some aspects but not in others. The number of applications I needed to install exploded, so it did the effort to keep information segmented and on sync. The life expectancy of the machines shorten due to travelling a lot and my passion for carrying small convertibles/tablets to take notes and drawing wherever I go ended up cancelling all the benefits of me having a single machine to work on job related and personal matters while considering it an untrusted node at the corporate policy at the time.

The awakening

The pandemic has work against me. Such a long time without really travelling (beyond my two locations) had as a consequence that some of my good habits to keep the “machine independent” challenge under control were gone. I realized it when, despite carrying 3 machines in my first business trip since the pandemic started, back in November 2021. I still could not access to a couple of places because I did not have the credentials available or they were not up-to-date. My backpack was ridiculously heavy and I still could not perform some basic personal activities.

How could I let my self, a professional, get to this point?

In addition, I am increasingly worried about data privacy. I have taken several steps the last couple of years in this front, but for every step in the right direction I perform, I end up taking one in the wrong one. It is so hard to come into good terms with data privacy nowadays… The effort and knowledge required is simply too high for a regular citizen. I feel in this front like I did back in the days I started using Open Source. Like back then, I feel the world is against me. But I lack now the same energy level I had. A sign of getting old, I guess.

2022 resolution

So one of my 2022 resolutions is to go back 10 years, when I managed to carry a single laptop in several weeks long trips and not being obsessed with loosing or breaking it. It is a good resolution, isn’t it? Good for my back, reduce the time at security checks at airports… And I resolved to achieve this goal while increasing the levels of respect for my own data privacy.

I understand it is going to be a hell of an effort, specially considering that I do not have all the time in the world and I am technically limited.

Actions: phase 1

So I am taking a few actions this first quarter:

  1. Centralize all my credentials, including moving away from browser password managers. After thinking about it, I have come to the conclusion that, in my case, this should be the first step. I use Firefox in 95% of the cases, but I cannot depend any more on browser password managers and encrypted .txt files. I am going for Bitwarden as solution for a bunch of reasons. One is essential: I can manage corporate and personal credentials simultaneously using a multiplatform client as well as a plugin for Firefox. I am halfway through on this action. How can a normal person end up with so many credentials? It is crazy.
  2. Install the same distro on as many of my machines as possible. In my case, openSUSE Leap. I will leave one for playing around with distros, especially openSUSE Tumbleweed. This will be my solution to avoid the “application (version) hell” and unify how I do some things, like the next one. Android, you suck at this, by the way.
  3. Unify how I create backups and centralize where I store them. Although I am not fully convinced yet of this approach, I am going for a small, low power consumption, home server and external SSD drives connected to it. I will be able to use the same backup solution for all my machines, encrypt them in the same way, store them in a structured way…. It will be a great improvement compared to the current situation.
    1. Having a home server increases the management effort and brings new challenges due to the single point of failure concept. Time will tell if these risks are worth taking it for somebody like me.
    2. As home server I bought a Slimbook Zero. What a nice price beauty!
  4. Copy my critical information to the home server and keep it on sync. The idea is not to move the information to the home server at first but to have it there synchronized whenever I can. I have information stored in laptops, SSD drives… but also in various cloud service providers. This task is not going to be easy, given that I store information that is 20 years old.
    1. The first action is to install Nextcloud in the home server. I will need help on this one because the LAMP stack is not my thing. The Nextcloud documentation is good, but learning about the LAMP stack is not in my ToDo this year. Learning how to use and manage Nextcloud is. Hey, my time is very limited and the LAMP stack is so increasingly broken…
    2. The second action is to have git installed in the home server so I can sync all the git repos I have in the different machines. This is specially relevant for me despite not being a coder because I use zim-wiki to manage my personal information for many years, using git as backend. I will cry of joy when this is done and I have all my notes accessible from any machine with a single pull command. I cannot wait.
    3. The third action will be to keep what I currently store in GDrive on sync with the home server. Will I be able to stop using GDrive as store unit by the end of this 2022? Given the existing level of integration I have with my phone, tablet and Remarkable2, it would represent a great achievement, specially considering that. I am a GMail user (IMAP with KMail) and heavy Google Calendar user, which makes this goal even harder.

Phase 2: validate these actions as remote user

The next step is to prove myself that the above decisions and actions makes sense for a heavy traveller like myself. I will need to, at least:

  • Make the home server accessible remotely in a secure way, avoiding turning it into the single point of failure, which takes me to the following actions.
  • Find a second remotely and accessible storage unit for the key encrypted backups. If I loose the home server, specially while travelling, I need a solution to restore the data in a reasonable amount of time. Should that second unit be one of my laptops or should I find a cloud provider? Maybe both?
  • I will need to add a UPS to the equation for the home server and the home router to reduce the risks associated to power peaks or short outages.
  • I will need a new plan to deal with my laptop being stolen or broken while travelling so I can be productive again in a matter of hours.
  • I will need to contemplate the scenario where I get an electricity or connectivity outage at home that leaves the home server unavailable until I am back home.

It seems that the pandemic will play in my favour for once, Most of my business trips has been cancelled this 2022Q1 so I will have some time to prepare these measures.

Additional actions

I will need to store all the existing information from the different home directories and SSD drives into Nextcloud and make them consumable from any of the machines. For instance…years of mails…. oh dear, this will be tough.

Information from other cloud/web services should follow, like WordPress, Miro, social media… This point is in better shape that it was three or four years back. I have taken some actions to prevent the increasing spreading of personal information. Again, the goal at this point is to have such information also stored in my home server with a reasonable level of synchronicity not to use it a default storage unit.

Another step is to centralize the most relevant configurations applied to the different machines. After being a KDE, RSS or a Firefox user for so long, for instance, I have very specific configurations I use to remain productive.

As a consequence of these actions I plan to take, I should be to be able to decommission machines as well as spin off new ones faster and with less effort than today.

If I manage to do all the above this 2022, who knows, maybe I will be in a good position to move away from GMail and GCalendar as main mailing and calendaring solutions in 2023, keeping as backup/sync options with other services.

Conclusion

As many of you, I am not very good at achieving my New Year Resolutions. The most likely scenario will be one in which, as the existing pain reduces, I will increasingly forget about the pending points enumerated above.

Knowing myself, I decided to write this post, so you can remind me about this resolution when you see me or talk to me. Social/peer pressure is a very good incentive, in my experience. This post will also increase my level of shame when I read it back next year, while thinking in my 2023 resolutions. Yes, I am taking drastic measures here.

Dear reader, help me! I am such a capital sinner (laziness).

Ah, and remember, more is less. If you buy a new laptop, decommission the old one and give it to somebody that will not request support from you.

2 thoughts on “2022 resolution: become machine independent again

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