Back to Mac - 2: Miscellaneous (VPN, Remote Desktop & Windows Servers)

As a follow up to my previous post [Back to Mac - 1: Multiple External monitors setup for a Mac] on issues regarding using a Mac in a Windows heavy office environment, this post contains some miscellaneous issues that crept up and some possible fixes. Again these issues and this series stems from my experience in my work setup, your's might be a totally different situation. The hope is that these fixes are helpful to at least a handful of people out there. 

Introduction

I have been an avid Mac user for almost a decade now, but when I graduated and started working as an Engineer, the company (as it was a startup) did not support Macs and I was forced to start using Windows again and worse, I was forced to use a Dell laptop. And surprisingly (I know I should't have been) the experience was still as shoddy as I had remembered when I used a Dell laptop last in 2007! Anyway after tolerating much much below par computing experience for more than three years now, I decided to jump the gun and switch to a Mac for work and convinced my company to let me use my personal MacBook. After the initial jubilation of getting back to my Mac subsided, I came across a number of issues in trying to use a Mac in a Windows only environment. I am going to be posting a series of blogs on this so that anyone who finds themselves in a similar position as I did, can find easy and fast solutions. 

Miscellaneous 1: VPN connection

Like many office setups, I had to use a SonicWall VPN client for connecting to my work server from non-office networks, like if I want a file off my work server and I am not connected to my official work network, but rather to my home wireless network. SonicWall VPN client had its own set of nonsenses (most of them had to do with Windows to be fair), that forced my IT administrator's presence every time I needed to set it up from the scratch. It worked reasonably well and reliably after that though. When I started using my Mac for work, the first thing I had to solve was a VPN client issue. After a brief search, I found out that all Macs have a VPN client built in the OS. VPN can be setup on a Mac using the Network panel in the System Preferences. 

The setup is fairly straightforward and easy, though you might need some information that only your IT admin can provide. My company uses Cisco IPSec for VPN connections and all you need to setup this connection is the server address for your remote network, your personal account name and password and then most importantly you will need the group name and the shared secret. The last two items most often or not will be available only with your IT admin. Once these are set, you can enable to show a VPN drop down menu on your menu bar and connect directly from there with one click. Follow the screenshots below to setup your own VPN connection.

VPN can be setup on a Mac using the Network panel in the System Preferences

Group name and shared secret are needed from the IT admin of your company for VPN setup

You can enable to show a VPN drop down menu on your menu bar and connect directly from there with one click

Miscellaneous 2: Remote Desktop Client

Working as an Engineer means there are a lot of computers at work that you need to access at different times during a work day other than your personal laptop and other than going to each lab to access the computer, most of the times for a couple of minutes, having a remote desktop client on your main laptop and accessing these computers from there makes a lot of sense. Microsoft has a Remote Desktop Client (RDC) for all versions of Windows built into its OS. Like many other Windows applications this one also works fine most of the time. "Fine" is the keyword here. Often I end up with situations where even after setting up my RDC client to save my username and password for a particular remote machine I want to access, it would not save my password and demand I enter it every time and worse, this sometimes happens to both my username and the password. Anyway when I migrated to a Mac for work, I was surprised to find that Microsoft has a Mac application for remote desktop use and more surprisingly its free! 

Like many Mac apps, Microsoft's Remote Desktop Client also works like a charm. It opens up with a very simple interface with minimal but enough options and preferences to get started. When you start setting up a new connection, you are asked for the name of the connection (just for your reference), its IP address, username and password. On top of that you can setup view options like the resolution for your remote machine, and if you want to start the session in full screen mode panning multiple monitors (if you have them setup), etc. Just entering this information saves a new connection in the main menu, clicking which connects you to the remote machine. No more information to be entered! Again see screenshots below for more clarity. 

Microsoft's free Remote Desktop client for Mac OS. The intro screen lists all the remote connections you have setup. 

Creating a new connection in Microsoft's Remote Desktop client

Once setup, clicking on the name of the connection in the main Remote Desktop client's screen connects you to your remote machine with no further steps

Once setup, clicking on the name of the connection in the main Remote Desktop client's screen connects you to your remote machine with no further steps

Miscellaneous 3: Accessing a Windows server on the Mac (natively)

Like I mentioned before, most of the files in any windows predominant office setup will be on windows servers. To access a Windows server on a Mac, is pretty straightforward. Before trying to access a Windows server, make sure that you are connected to the office network (either the wired or wireless office network or through a VPN connection). Open a finder window and in the Finder specific menu bar on top click on "Connect to Server" in the "Go" option. A window opens up and it asks for the server address and one you hit connect, you will be prompted for your credentials. Note that this server address should be the form of"smb://99.9.999.9/". You can save servers as favorites if you want a quick access from the main screen. Once you are connected to the server, under "SHARED" pane on the Finder's sidebar, your Windows server should appear (Check the Finder's preferences and View options if you cannot see the "SHARED" pane). While connecting to the server, if the server has multiple volumes you will be prompted to select specific volumes from a list of mountable volumes on that server. There is also an eject button next to the server and once inside, next to individual volumes, if you need to eject/unmount them. Screenshots are attached below for more clarity. 

In the Finder specific menu bar on top click on "Connect to Server" in the "Go" option

This server address should be the form of"smb://99.9.999.9"

Once you are connected to the server, under "SHARED" pane on the Finder's sidebar, your Windows server should appear (Check the Finder's preferences and View options if you cannot see the "SHARED" pane)

Miscellaneous 4: Opening Windows style links on a Mac

Many a times at office spaces dominated by Windows, people share files through server side links (through emails). Clicking on this on a Windows machine opens the server location or the file directly. These links in Windows are in the format: 

"\\99.9.999.9\test data\test_analysis\results.pdf" 

However in Mac the links are displayed differently, in linux style and more importantly they start off with a phrase "smb", like

"smb://99.9.999.9/test data\test_analysis\results.pdf"

So there is no way a Mac is going to recognize the back slash filled Windows links and when you click on one such link (say one you go on Outlook or something), it just cannot find the location, even if you have that server mounted on your Mac. 

After unsuccessfully trying different third party solutions like WinShortcutter, I finally found out that there is an inbuilt solution for this conundrum on the Mac. All you need to do is navigate to Services Preferences menu in any application that can handle links (like Preview or Mail) and locate an option called "Open as Windows Link" in the "Shortcuts" pane and enable it. Now when you receive a link through Outlook, instead of left clicking on the link, if you right or secondary click on it, you should see an option called "Open as Windows Link" and clicking on that should open the file or location on the Windows server, if that server is mounted on the Mac. Follow the screenshots below. 

Navigate to Services Preferences menu in any application that can handle links (like Preview or Mail)

Locate an option called "Open as Windows Link" in the "Shortcuts" pane and enable it

Instead of left clicking on the link, if you right or secondary click on it, you should see an option called "Open as Windows Link" and clicking on that should open the file or location on the Windows server