Getting Started with Salt Stack Windows Minions

This how-to on Windows Salt minions will just scratch the surface of the power behind Salt, and will cover remote execution, installation and management.

Please note: I’m new to Salt, and I’m a recovering Windows syasdamin from the 2000-2013 era. This means I probably have a bunch of out-moded ways of working with Windows.

To this end, this first question would be: why? Active Directory and associated policies do a good job of managing Wintel already. I’ve had luck in the past managing hundreds, thousands of servers, desktops and laptops using the tools Microsoft provides without too much issue, and I’ve heard things only got better since I left for greener pastures.

The easy answer is that many organisations may now find themselves with a combination of Linux and Windows servers, Windows and macOS workstations, coupled with the odd BSD system here and there, Linux desktops and Unix servers.

What Salt allows for is a management platform that covers all of these platforms with a common language that is easy to read and hack away at (YAML) and very extensible using a programming language with a relatively gentle learning curve (Python).

In my case, most things running at home are either running OSX or some version of Linux/BSD, but there are a few of oddball Windows 10 computers doing things Microsoft-based computers do pretty well; gaming, spreadsheets, touchscreen-enabled full-desktops.

The idea of managing Windows computers with Salt came to me pretty late into the journey through the docs, but hit me like a freight-train as these are often the computers that require the most maintenance for me personally, meaning reinstalls, reconfiguration and general “care and feeding”. Having gone down the path of running my own Active Directory at home a few times and finally settling on a couple of Apple “servers”, this seemed like a pretty good work-around that wouldn’t introduce much pain.

The first caveat, however, was that I was unable to get Windows-based Salt minions to be accepted by OSX-based Salt masters. Not the end of the world, but it meant running Docker or a Vagrant box to handle the Windows 10 computers. I ended up simply installing Salt on an Ubuntu-based storage server I already had running that had recently been upgraded to Xenial instead, but I’m most likely going to be revisiting this architecture in the long-term.

Now that we have that out of the way, here’s the general architecture of what I’ll be going over:

Windows Salt Minions

A simple Windows Salt Minions example with one Salt Stack master running Ubuntu Linux

The Nitty Gritty – Deploying Salt Minion Services to All of Your Windows Nodes

I’ll come right out and say that I cheated when it came to installing the Minion service on the nodes at home in that I already had Chocolatey installed, and that I simply used the default salt hostname for the master by adding it the the static DNS entries on my DNS server.

This last bit, the part about the DNS server, might be a luxury depending on your install location. I also can’t expect that Chocolatey is installed everywhere, but just quickly, here’s how that scenario works:

  1. Install Salt Master and start the service on a computer in your network
  2. Ensure that there is a DHCP reservation for the IP of this node
  3. Add a DNS entry salt for that DHCP-reserved IP
  4. Install the Salt minions via choco install -y saltminion on the Windows hosts
  5. Accept the keys on the Linux master via salt-key -A

Should you have to go about this a different way, you can point an alias (CNAME) to the hostname in your network, OR add a manual host entry to your nodes (I’ve used Group Policy to do this in the past, with network scripts), or finally, you can simply change the Salt Minion config to point to the new hostname.

As for the deployment of the Salt Minion service and binaries, you could do this over RDP for a few hosts, Group Policy, or via psexec:

Salt-Minion-2016.11.5-x64-Setup.exe /S /master=SALTMASTER

This snippet will install the Salt Minion service, configure it to point at `SALTMASTER` (replace this with the hostname you’d prefer) then start the service. Note: as mentioned above, I haven’t tested this myself!

The most up-to-date Salt Minion binaries can be found here: https://docs.saltstack.com/en/latest/topics/installation/windows.html Should the version change, you’ll want to update that one-liner as well.

Accepting the Minions

Assuming you’ve got your minions now sending requests to the Salt master node, you need to approve them.

On the master node running Linux, this can be done like so:

sudo salt-key -A

You’ll be greeted with a list of nodes to be accepted, and you can take a moment to note the names and accept them:

user@ubuntu:/srv/salt# sudo salt-key -A
[sudo] password for user: 
The following keys are going to be accepted:
Unaccepted Keys:
WINDOWSGAMES
Proceed? [n/Y] 
Key for minion WINDOWSGAMES accepted.
user@ubuntu:/srv/salt#

Testing the Minions

Now that you have minions installed and working, let’s run a quick test that proves we can run remote commands on them. Note that this is just scratching the surface, and that “push commands” are just one way of working with Salt Stack, you can also have the nodes “pull” from the Salt master on a regular basis.

Sample run command:

sudo salt -G 'os:windows` cmd.run 'dir'

This should give you a directory listing on each of the nodes, like so:

WINDOWSGAMES:
 Volume in drive C has no label.
 Volume Serial Number is 3FF7-A973
 
 Directory of C:\Windows\system32\config\systemprofile
 
 07/16/2016 04:47 AM <DIR> .
 07/16/2016 04:47 AM <DIR> ..
 07/16/2016 04:47 AM <DIR> AppData
 0 File(s) 0 bytes
 3 Dir(s) 66,483,965,952 bytes free

Package Management on the Master Node

You’ve got a few options for package management for Windows Salt minions:

  • Chocolatey packages
  • Cygwin Packages
  • Master-shared packages (WinRepo)

Personally, I’m currently using Chocolatey package management because it’s what I’m used to, but I certainly do still use Cygwin for development purposes from time-to-time since Windows Bash mode has still yet to become commonplace. The third option, however, is probably the most scalable, and more user-friendly.

To get started with Windows repositories on the Linux Salt master, you’ll need to run:

sudo salt-run winrepo.update_git_repos

This means that you now have a repository for Windows packages on the Master node, but also note that these don’t come with binaries – they will fetch and send them as needed. I can see this as both good and bad, in a corporate setting you’ll want to create your own SLS files and point them to known-good sources.

To install a package on all of your Windows remote nodes using the Linux Salt master repository:

sudo salt -G 'os:windows' package.install 'firefox'

Note that if ever you want to specify a specific action for a node in particular, that’s done like so:

sudo salt 'WINDOWSGAMES' pkg.install 'firefox'

I’m trying to follow the “pets vs cattle” paradigm here, though you can also use -G to specify groups of servers/workstations/laptops which can overlap in order to manage things in a more granular approach (bit of a pun here, the G is for Grains).

Useful Commands for Windows Salt Minions

In no particular order, here’s a quick dump of the commands I used during my first weekend managing Salt minions at home running Windows 10.

Show installed applications:

sudo salt -G 'os:windows' pkg.list_pkgs

List current Salt minion keys:

sudo salt-key -L

Delete an old Salt minion key:

sudo salt-key -d WINDOWSGAMES

Check if a service is available:

sudo salt -G 'os:windows' service.available 'salt-minion'

Restart a service:

sudo salt -G 'os:windows' service.restart 'salt-minion'

Flashing an AMJPad with QMK

Thanks to the hard work of /u/TerryMatthews on Reddit, there’s now a port of QMK for the AMJ numpad!

In order to get QMK on the number pad, however, a bit of work will need to be done, though none of it is insurmountable.

First off, I’ve compiled the AMJ Pad QMK default layout hex file for you to download.

The default layout is set up like this:

 /* Keymap _BL: (Base Layer) Default Layer
 * ,-------------------.
 * |Esc |TAB |BS  | =  |
 * |----|----|----|----|
 * | NL | /  | *  | -  |
 * |----|----|----|----|
 * | 7  | 8  | 9  |    |
 * |----|----|----| +  |
 * | 4  | 5  | 6  |    |
 * |----|----|----|----|
 * | 1  | 2  | 3  |    |
 * |----|----|----| En |
 * | 0       |./FN|    |
 * `-------------------'
 */

 /* Keymap _FL: Function Layer
 * ,-------------------.
 * |Esc |TAB |BS  | =  |
 * |----|----|----|----|
 * | NL | /  | *  | -  |
 * |----|----|----|----|
 * | 7  | 8  | 9  |    |
 * |----|----|----|RST |
 * | 4  | 5  | 6  |    |
 * |----|----|----|----|
 * | 1  | 2  | 3  |    |
 * |----|----|----| En |
 * | 0       |./FN|    |
 * `-------------------'
 */

Legend:

  • Esc – escape
  • BS – backspace
  • NL – Number lock
  • En – Enter
  • Fn – Function key, hold this and press keys in the second layout to activate them
  • RST – Reset – put the board in DFU mode

Programming the board can be done like other Atmel PCBs – just remember that this is an Atmel ATmega32u4.

As such, we can follow The Van Keyboards programming guide, which covers Linux, Windows and Mac.

On a macOS system, for example:

sudo dfu-programmer atmega32u4 erase --force
sudo dfu-programmer atmega32u4 flash ~/Downloads/amjpad_default.hex
sudo dfu-programmer atmega32u4 reset

Stop Windows 10 Update Notifications from Interrupting Your Games

I had taken quite the hiatus from Windows gaming while I worked on certification, but got a chance to have some quick Overwatch sessions last night, only to have one of the competitive matches interrupted by a popup that took me out of the game (I was able to alt-tab back in) that stated the following: “Updates Are Available. Required Updates need to be downloaded”.

Thanks for letting me know about the updates, but interrupting all apps is not the best user experience

Now don’t get me wrong, this is normally fine, but when you’re in the middle of something, say a movie, intense game, conference call or presentation, this behaviour is pretty awful.

No fear, however, there’s a fix, though definitely not obvious. Let’s disable the Windows 10 update notification. We’ll be using the cmd.exe tool in order to run the following script found on StackExchange:

cd /d "%Windir%\System32"
takeown /F MusNotification.exe
icacls MusNotification.exe /deny Everyone:(X)
takeown /F MusNotificationUx.exe
icacls MusNotificationUx.exe /deny Everyone:(X)
rem

This essentially denies the system from running the app itself, which will stop the popup.

In order to undo it:

cd /d "%Windir%\System32"
 icacls MusNotification.exe /remove:d Everyone
 icacls MusNotification.exe /grant Everyone:F
 icacls MusNotification.exe /setowner "NT SERVICE\TrustedInstaller"
 icacls MusNotification.exe /remove:g Everyone
 icacls MusNotificationUx.exe /remove:d Everyone
 icacls MusNotificationUx.exe /grant Everyone:F
 icacls MusNotificationUx.exe /setowner "NT SERVICE\TrustedInstaller"
 icacls MusNotificationUx.exe /remove:g Everyone
 rem

And there you have it! No more intrusive popups when updates are needed.

Now that we’ve modified this, a quick reminder that if you want regular updates, it may be worth checking for them once in a while.

New Zeal60 Keyboard Layout – Split Backspace, Split Right Shift, ANSI

I’ve really been enjoying the programmable firmware on the Zeal60 keyboard PCB from ZealPC. It’s definitely not all the bells and whistles, this layout gives you 62 keys in total, though you might need a keycap set that supports all of these keys. I’m currently using the Originative Co  Modern Beige set, though I hear most  (if not all) GMK sets would also  accommodate  this.

Zeal60 layout created with Keyboard Layout Editor – note the Fn button to the right of the shift key, and the backspace and backslash keys swapping spots, with an added tilde.

This layout addresses something I sorely needed: the ` and ~ keys (used with Github,  Bash and Slack on a daily basis).

In order to accomplish this, I need to edit the keymap.c and config.h files, which allowed me to generate a zeal60_rmac.hex  file for use with the QMK flasher tool (Win/Mac/Lin).

In order to follow the Zeal example, I also made a zeal60_keymap_rmac.bat file, which can be used with Windows.

The code is currently submitted to Wilba’s fork of QMK as a pull request, but here’s the code as well, so you can see what it looks like.

keymap.c:

// Rmac split backspace, split  shift layout for Zeal60

#include "zeal60.h"

// [0,13] is either left key of split backspace (e.g. HHKB \| key) or 2U backspace
// [1,13] is either backslash or ISO Enter
// [2,12] is either ANSI Enter or key left of ISO Enter
// [2,13] is right key of split backspace (e.g. HHKB `~ key)
// [3,1] is right key of split left-shift (e.g ISO key)
// [3,13] is right key of split right-shift (e.g. HHKB Fn key)

const uint16_t PROGMEM keymaps[][MATRIX_ROWS][MATRIX_COLS] = {

// Default layer
[0] = {
 {KC_ESC, KC_1, KC_2, KC_3, KC_4, KC_5, KC_6, KC_7, KC_8, KC_9, KC_0, KC_MINS, KC_EQL, KC_BSLS},
 {KC_TAB, KC_Q, KC_W, KC_E, KC_R, KC_T, KC_Y, KC_U, KC_I, KC_O, KC_P, KC_LBRC, KC_RBRC, KC_BSPC},
 {KC_CAPS, KC_A, KC_S, KC_D, KC_F, KC_G, KC_H, KC_J, KC_K, KC_L, KC_SCLN, KC_QUOT, KC_ENT, KC_GRV},
 {KC_LSFT, KC_NO, KC_Z, KC_X, KC_C, KC_V, KC_B, KC_N, KC_M, KC_COMM, KC_DOT, KC_SLSH, KC_RSFT, FN_MO13},
 {KC_LCTL, KC_LGUI, KC_LALT, KC_NO, KC_NO, KC_NO, KC_NO, KC_SPC, KC_NO, KC_NO, KC_RALT, KC_RGUI, FN_MO23, KC_RCTL}
},

// Fn1 Layer
[1] = {
 {KC_GRV, KC_F1, KC_F2, KC_F3, KC_F4, KC_F5, KC_F6, KC_F7, KC_F8, KC_F9, KC_F10, KC_F11, KC_F12, KC_DEL },
 {KC_CAPS, KC_TRNS, KC_UP, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_INS, KC_TRNS, KC_PSCR, KC_SLCK, KC_PAUS, KC_TRNS},
 {KC_TRNS, KC_LEFT, KC_DOWN, KC_RGHT, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_HOME, KC_PGUP, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS},
 {KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_VOLD, KC_VOLU, KC_MUTE, KC_END, KC_PGDN, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS},
 {KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS}
},

// Fn2 Layer
[2] = {
 {KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS},
 {KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS},
 {KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS},
 {KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS},
 {KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS}
},

// Fn3 Layer (zeal60 Configuration)
[3] = {
 {KC_TRNS, EF_DEC, EF_INC, H1_DEC, H1_INC, H2_DEC, H2_INC, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, BR_DEC, BR_INC, KC_TRNS},
 {KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, S1_DEC, S1_INC, S2_DEC, S2_INC, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS},
 {KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS},
 {KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS},
 {KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS, KC_TRNS}
}

};

config.h:

#ifndef CONFIG_USER_H
#define CONFIG_USER_H

#include "../../config.h"

/* enable/disable LEDs based on layout */
#undef USE_SPLIT_BACKSPACE
#define USE_SPLIT_BACKSPACE 1

#undef USE_SPLIT_LEFT_SHIFT
#define USE_SPLIT_LEFT_SHIFT 0

#undef USE_SPLIT_RIGHT_SHIFT
#define USE_SPLIT_RIGHT_SHIFT 1

#undef USE_7U_SPACEBAR
#define USE_7U_SPACEBAR 0

#undef USE_ISO_ENTER
#define USE_ISO_ENTER 0

#endif //CONFIG_USER_H

And as promised, zeal60_keymap_rmac.bat:

@echo off

zeal60 backlight_config_set_values ^
 use_split_backspace=1 ^
 use_split_left_shift=0 ^
 use_split_right_shift=1 ^
 use_7u_spacebar=1 ^
 use_iso_enter=0 ^
 disable_when_usb_suspended=1 ^
 disable_after_timeout=10

zeal60 backlight_config_set_alphas_mods ^
 MOD ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA MOD ^
 MOD ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA MOD ^
 MOD ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA MOD MOD ^
 MOD ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA ALPHA MOD MOD ^
 MOD MOD MOD MOD MOD MOD MOD MOD MOD MOD MOD MOD MOD MOD

zeal60 keymap 0 ^
 KC_ESC KC_1 KC_2 KC_3 KC_4 KC_5 KC_6 KC_7 KC_8 KC_9 KC_0 KC_MINS KC_EQL KC_BSLS ^
 KC_TAB KC_Q KC_W KC_E KC_R KC_T KC_Y KC_U KC_I KC_O KC_P KC_LBRC KC_RBRC KC_BSPC ^
 KC_CAPS KC_A KC_S KC_D KC_F KC_G KC_H KC_J KC_K KC_L KC_SCLN KC_QUOT KC_ENT KC_GRV ^
 KC_LSFT KC_NO KC_Z KC_X KC_C KC_V KC_B KC_N KC_M KC_COMM KC_DOT KC_SLSH KC_RSFT FN_MO13 ^
 KC_LCTL KC_LGUI KC_LALT KC_NO KC_NO KC_NO KC_NO KC_SPC KC_NO KC_NO KC_NO KC_RALT FN_MO23 KC_RCTL

zeal60 keymap 1 ^
 KC_GRV KC_F1 KC_F2 KC_F3 KC_F4 KC_F5 KC_F6 KC_F7 KC_F8 KC_F9 KC_F10 KC_F11 KC_F12 KC_DEL ^
 KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_UP KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_UP KC_TRNS KC_TRNS ^
 KC_TRNS KC_LEFT KC_DOWN KC_RGHT KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_LEFT KC_RGHT KC_TRNS KC_TRNS ^
 KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_DOWN KC_TRNS KC_TRNS ^
 KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS

zeal60 keymap 2 ^
 KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS ^
 KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS ^
 KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS ^
 KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS ^
 KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS

zeal60 keymap 3 ^
 KC_TRNS EF_DEC EF_INC H1_DEC H1_INC H2_DEC H2_INC KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS BR_DEC BR_INC KC_TRNS ^
 KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS S1_DEC S1_INC S2_DEC S2_INC KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS ^
 KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS ^
 KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS TG_NKRO KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS ^
 KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS KC_TRNS

pause

Here’s a link to all three files with the compiled `zeal60_rmac.hex`.

Hope you enjoy this! It took a bit of doing, but was well worth it 🙂

Note that the files in question do a good job of walking you through the mods, making it rather easy. The one caveat was the tilde key being on a different row, as there’s only 13 spots per row, but that’s covered in the comments anyway.

As for the batch file for windows,  you can see that it’s really a combination of the config.h  and keymap.c files, to a certain extent, so copying and pasting the modified bits did the trick.

Zeal60 Zealencio Zealiostotle JSpacer Holtite Custom Keyboard Build

Custom Backlit Mechanical Keyboard - Ryan MacLean

The finished product – a ZealPC Zeal60 with holtite mod, Zealiostotlespacers, Originative Modern Beige Japanese keycaps resting in a Sentraq teal aluminum 60% case with teal plate.

After much research, I decided to assemble a keyboard using hand-picked parts.
The goals of this build were a bit lofty, but luckily I prevailed in the end:

  • Cold-swappable switches in case I change my mind later
  • Almost silent typing that would be safe for work
  • Tactile feeling on the keys when typing
  • The option to use backlighting at night
  • A small footprint so I could bring the keyboard home for the weekend
  • The board should be programmable and support multiple layouts
  • The keyboard should be as flat as possible
  • There should be no “ping” from the case
  • There should be no flex in the PCB when installing switches
  • Keycaps that fit Zealencios properly – Cherry profile thick keycaps

This led me to a few easy decisions: I would go with a ZealPC Zeal60 as it supported SMD LEDs, was programmable via QMK, was 60%. I’d also opt for Zealio 65g switches as they had great tactile response, and were fairly quiet when combined with Zealencios.

What I didn’t see coming was the arrival of the test Aristotle stems (via /r/mechmarket) and a last-minute purchase of JSpacers from The Van Keyboard. These were for two different projects, respectively: Gatistoles and Jailhoused Outemu blues. During those projects I got to wondering if I could mix the results, and sure enough, figured out a way to add JSpacers to Gatistoles. Not satisfied, I ended up trying this same mod in a Zealio housing, and then to seal the deal, put some Zealencios on top. This led to a tactile switch that was very quiet – more so than a typical dome keyboard.

Creating Zealiostotlespacers with Holtites - Ryan MacLean

Parts required for a “Zealiostotlespacer” – The Van Keyboard JSpacers (black rubber, bottom left), Zealios Switches (purple switch, middle), Aristotle switch stems (white, top right), and Zealencios (clear, top left). This creates a tactile, non-wobbly switch that is both satisfying and almost silent.

In order to be able to cold-swap switches as with the TeamWolf Zhuque+ and PC Gaming Master Race Mechanical Keyboard, I’d need to sort out a way to replicate the recepticles each of these boards implement. After doing a lot of research into LED sip sockets that might work, I stumbled across a Linus Tech Tips forum post about something called “holtites” which were used for this purpose. A few Reddit searches later I found out that the TE AMP connectors would fit the bill, and made a spur of the moment DigiKey order.

TE AMP Holtites - Ryan MacLean

TE Connectivity AMP Holtites – these allow you to “cold-swap” switches without desoldering, perfect for testing different switch types

Holtites Installed on ZealPC Zeal60 PCB - Ryan MacLean

Here you can see the Holtites installed in the Zeal60 board – they are flush-inserted using a spudger and a rotating motion to keep them snug.

Now that I had the switches and board picked out, I was left with a tough decision regarding the case and plate. Nothing I could find actually had the proper mounting standoffs for the Zeal60 PCB, most were of the “Poker” variety, which were missing top screw standoffs, as well as one lower-left. It looked like I had to compromise, and seeing as most 60% cases seemed to be incredibly similar, I ended up going with a Sentraq aluminum case and plate based on looks alone. I ended up getting a cyan case and plate, as well as purple versions of the same, intending to try and colour match the Zeal60. It later turned out that I preferred the cyan varieties, which you’ll see in the shots.

Custom keyboard with Zeal60, Zealiostotlespacers, Enjoy PBT Kana Keycaps, Sentraq Teal Plate and Case - Ryan MacLean

A pretty good match – the Sentraq teal aluminum case fit the purple legends with teal kana subscript

The Sentraq case with the Zeal60 is not without problems: both cases prohibited me from screwing in the leftmost PCB screw, and both seemed to have the wrong thread on the top left standoff. Nothing altogether impossible to get around, but disconcerting all the same. Furthermore, the fit and finish of the top plate in the case wasn’t great, causing the right side to be less snug than the left. All of this to say: I’m still on the lookout for a case and plate that fit well together, and have not ruled out making my own.

Sentraq Teal Case and Plate - Ryan MacLean

The Sentraq plate and case are pretty snug, but there’s definitely room for improvement. That being said, this is a 1:1 macro…

As for the keycaps, I searched all over, asked around and tried a few OEM samples and was not satisfied. I ended up purchasing an Originative Co Modern Beige purple set with kana legends which I am happy with in terms of looks, fit and sound, but am not sure they are fit for work. In other words – I’m still looking for a good set of keycaps. I’ve been told GMK might be the best call for the Aristotle stems, and as soon as I have a sample of them, I’ll report back.

Enjoy PBT Keycaps with Kana Legends - Ryan MacLean

Originative Co Modern Beige with purple legends and cyan kana keycaps

Custom keyboard with Zeal60, Zealiostotlespacers, Enjoy PBT Kana Keycaps, Sentraq Teal Plate and Case - Ryan MacLean

The Cherry profile is perfect for the Zealencios, which didn’t work very well with the OEM keycaps I had tried previously.

Finally, regarding the LEDs: though I was not at all interested in RGB LEDs (preferring white when possible), I ended up actually really liking the default rainbow profile (fn1+2). This is a bit colourful for most, but as I have them turned off most of the time, the assumption is that I’ll be the only one seeing them.

Originative Co Modern Beige Keycaps with Kana Legends - Ryan MacLean

The SMD LEDs are fairly bright when set to max!

Gallery of the rest of the shots from this set:

Building Zeal60 Keymaps on OSX

Before starting, this guide requires Homebrew, which you can install from here: https://brew.sh

Open Terminal, and paste in the following. It will take a while to build, but you should be able to get it all done in one fell swoop:

cd
git clone https://github.com/Wilba6582/qmk_firmware.git
cd qmk_firmware
git branch zeal60
cd keyboards/zeal60
git submodule update --init --recursive
brew tap osx-cross/avr
brew install avr-gcc avr-libc dfu-programmer

You can then make your keymap, like so:

  • make keymap=default
  • make keymap=poker2_ansi
  • make keymap=poker2_iso
  • make keymap=hhkb_ansi

You can run them all if you want, but you’ll probably only need one 🙂

Once you have your firmware, you can flash like so (for HHKB ANSI):

sudo dfu-programmer atmega32u4 erase --force
sudo dfu-programmer atmega32u4 flash hhkb_ansi.hex
sudo dfu-programmer atmega32u4 reset

Getting Started with the ZealPC Zeal60 Keyboard PCB

Recently I picked up a Zeal 60 printed circuit board from BC-based ZealPC, and I couldn’t be happier!

The board supports a few layouts for now, though it’s open source, and you can either fork it to add your own, or add a pull request to share with the community.

The first thing you’ll want to do after getting a Zeal60 PCB is to flash it with the “default.hex” file. I used Windows for this, though you can achieve similar results on Linux and MacOS (OSX).

Initial Downloads

  1. Download Java Runtime Environment (JRE) here: http://www.oracle.com/technetwork/java/javase/downloads/jre8-downloads-2133155.html
  2. Download the Atmel flashing utility “FLIP”: http://www.atmel.com/tools/flip.aspx
  3. Grab the most recent Zeal 60 keyboard zip: https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0490/7329/files/zeal60_v0_3.zip
  4. Unzip the zeal60_v0_3.zip file to your desktop

Install the Driver

  1. Plug in your Zeal60 to your computer via USB
  2. Hit “Windows” and “r” keys together, then type “devmgmt.msc”
  3. Right click the device with the exclamation point next to it
  4. Click “browse for driver”
  5. Navigate to C:\Program Files\FLIP\Drivers
  6. Hit “next”

Flashing the Board

  1. Install the driver –
  2. If you’ve not started assembling anything yet, press the golden button between the “A” and “S” pads on the board (if you’ve already assembled it, unplug it and hold the “space” and “esc” keys while plugging in the USB cable)
  3. Open FLIP
  4. In FLIP, hit connect to the device, and select “ATMega32U4”
  5. Hit “ctrl” + “U” keys to connect to the Zeal 60 PCB
  6. Hit “ctrl” + “L” to load a file
  7. Select the “default.hex” file in the Zeal 60 folder you extracted to your desktop
  8. On the left-hand window, click “Run”
  9. Once completed, then click “Start Application” in the right window

You’re all set!

Outemu Blue JSpacer Jailhouse Mod

This tutorial will cover removing Outemu Blue switches from a TeamWolf Zhuque+ and applying the “Jailhouse Mod” – so-named as it stops the mechanical keyboard switches from “clicking” when depressed. What’s great about this mod is that it also retains the tactile feeling of the switch, and slightly increases the force needed to bottom out.

An interesting side effect was that these switches became very quiet! If there’s interest I can also post a video with a comparison of before and after, and compared to Zealios + Zealencios, Gateron Browns, Gateron Browns + Zealencios. Just leave a comment and I’ll see what I can do  🙂

Note that it took about 6 hours to do this for each switch on the board, though admittedly I was watching a movie at the time, and it was New Years Eve. Also be prepared for some eventual pain in your fingers: Outemu switches are a bit hard to pry apart in this fashion, but I’m open to suggestions for easier methods.

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

Tools we’ll be using for this tutorial

Tools required:

  • A “spudger” – available at Mac repair shops
  • A 2.5mm size flathead screwdriver
  • A switch removal tool (or a soldering iron, if the board is not hot-swappable)
  • A set of JSpacers from the Van Keyboard

A note about the keyboard used:

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

1. Remove the switch from the board using the included switch remover

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

2. The removed switch

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

3. Put the screwdriver under the top (clear) part of the switch housing

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

4. Insert the screwdriver into the other side, being careful not to push the lose side back on, and pop the top off the switch housing

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

5. Rotate the screwdriver slightly and push in order to get the top of the housing over the retaining clips

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

6. Insert the screwdriver slowly at an angle

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

7. Place the flat head screwdriver between the top and bottom of the switch housing

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

8. As you pop the second side off, make sure to press firmly between the thumb and forefingers as there’s a spring inside just dying to get out!

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

9. A dis-assembled Outemu Blue mechanical switch

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

10. Wedge the spudger in the middle of the slider

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

11. Gently rotate the spudger to pop the two apart

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

12. Place the Jspacer on the slider, ensuring that the longer edges are rotated to fit between the opening in the stem side clips

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

13. Put the tactile white plastic piece over the slider and Jspacer

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

14. Place the switch spring on the switch slider

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

15. Place the spring and slider into the notch on the bottom half of the switch housing, ensuring that the clicking mechanism is facing the switch itself (copper coloured in photo)

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

16. Hold the combination of switch bottom, spring and slider together between thumb and forefinger of one hand – you’ll need the other hand free in order to attach the top

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

17. Click the top half over the bottom half quicklly and firmly in order to ensure that both sides “click” at once

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

Modding complete! A removed, assembled Outemu Blue switch

Modding a blue Outemu switch for a mechanical keyboard in order to remove the "click" sound and maintain tactility - Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

Final Step. Put the blue switch back on the board, then place the keycap back on – you’re done!

Because the beauty dish was already setup, I figured I might as well pay the dog tax! Ryan MacLean @ Blandname.com

Doge. Because the beauty dish was already setup, I figured I might as well pay the dog tax!

Top 10 Virtual Appliances, Revisited

It’s been almost 4 years since I’ve rounded up VMs used on a daily basis, so it’s high time I take another kick at the can and make an update list.

My workflows have changed quite a bit over the years, with more focus being on the Windows side of things. That said, I havent stopped using Linux and still have a keen interest in both storage and management, which should be reflected here.

FreeBSD 9 – I’ve made the switch to this as my go-to server OS. The jails functionality and ports collections are amazing! This could run many of the functions listed herein, but at the very least is a great ZFSv28 test box for the uninitiated.

Astaro –  I’m still using Astaro after all these years, and Sophos purchasing them has not stopped the love. By far the easiest way to start using Squid, Quagga and OpenVPN.

GNS3 Workbench – I use this for testing Cisco configurations on my way to certification. Load up an IOS image, configure, test away!

Nexenta Community Edition – My ZFS primer was done a few years ago using Nexenta, and it is still the easiest way to get into ZFS, so it deserves the nod. The first time you see the speedometers you’ll be in love.

Solaris 11 11/11 – For newer versions of ZFS, you’re stuck with Solaris 11.11.11. You can download this for free, but won’t be able to get support and updates without a license, so I wouldn’t consider it production-ready.

Bactrack 5 – Time to test your wifi security. I’d recommend plugging an Alfa USB wifi device into ESX, sharing the device with the VM and scanning your access point in order to do quick audits.

Windows Server 2008 R2 – Not free, per se, but a good trial that should be enough to get you going on your road to certification. I use the Core install for DHCP and DNS when Windows integration is important.

Citrix XenApp – You’ll need to convert this one, but combined with the developer license, you’ll get 2 concurrent users, include the web access gateway. Click this for a tutorial on getting a hostgator coupon or the developer license, which has always been a bit of a pain.

Plop Boot Manager – Great ISO for booting and testing USB sticks.

Amahi – Easy as pie mDNS and uPnP autodiscovery. I’ve written about this being a poor Windows Home Server replacement before, but to be fair they get an awful lot right at this point in time.

OSX Lion – A $20 purchase, and well worth it! Follow the guide here to get it all working in ESXi

Ubuntu LTS – Ubuntu is currently the most popular Linux distribution, can run a wealth of software. Finally took over OpenSuSE as my go-to distribution. The only thing I would mention is that unity does not work so well in ESXi, and if you require the whole desktop experience, you might be better off with Xubuntu or Mint.

 

Top 10 Chrome Applications I Can’t Live Without

I’ve been trying to become as agile as possible when it comes to personal data in order to be able to run and test any platform of my choosing. To that end, I usually resort to web applications.
That said, Chrome and its open source cousin Chromium can only be run on many (but not all) platforms:
CHROME
  • Windows XP/Vista/2008/7/8
  • Mac OS 10.5.6+
  • Flavours of Linux – Debian, RedHat, OpenSuSE, Ubuntu, Fedora, CentOS
  • ChromeOS
CHROMIUM
  • All of the above
  • BSD: FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD, DragonflyBSD
  • Solaris and Open Indiana
  • ChromiumOS
  • Gentoo
Unfortunately one OS left out is HP-UX 11i. This is typically a server install, and while I know it’s no excuse, no longer has the mindshare it once enjoyed.
On to the apps!
  • Google Music – free sync for up to 20000 songs. My iTunes replacement that allows offline play for iOS and Android
  • Adblock – A must. I block adverts on everything.
  • Google Reader – It took a very long time for me to get used to the way Google reader works, but it might actually be the best there is at the moment especially considering the aggregation of many feeds into one.
  • Mint – Personal finance application I could not live without.
  • IMO – Goodbye Adium, Pidgin and MSN Messenger! IMO.im is not only a multi-instance web chat client that runs everywhere, it also runs on iOS!
  • Kindle Cloud Reader – Never lose your place. The web client knows where you were on your Kindle, iOS device and syncs it up for you.
  • Google Finance – For stock checking and even watching mutuals. Find out when the next dividend is, sort companies by financials and even display candle graphs.
  • Aviary – Has just surpassed Picnik as my only photo editor, and is now also integrated with flickr. Note that there are many Aviary editors ranging from vector to audio and even video.
  • Netflix Instant Queue – I’m sure you’ve heard of this, but did you also realize that it will resume from PS3, XBOX 360, iPhone/iPad on the web? Outside of the US, we’re not able to use “Instant Queue” but this app brings it back.
  • Offline Gmail – Spotty wifi? Don’t worry, Gmail offline has you covered.
  • Google Voice – This doesn’t get as much hype as it should, but is a great app that can not only make calls for you, but also send SMS.Soon they will make loans app and pay day loans apps.