What’s In My Bag? Windows To Go: Windows on USB

When I’m travelling for work there are a number of items that I make sure are in my travel bag.  These include a USB-C charger (almost all of my electronics can charge over USB-C now); a copy of any recent projects I’ve worked on (sometimes I need to hop in to help a team member); and a computer.

The operating system on that computer may vary.  Sometimes I travel with a Windows machine, sometimes a Linux machine, and other times a Mac.  Regardless of the operating system, I usually always have a Windows To Go drive.

The last item is something that is probably a little more obscure.  Since Windows 8, there have been a special type of USB drives that are different in one aspect: they appear as a fixed drive to the computer, even though they are connected to a USB port.  These drives were specifically made for making a portable Windows experience on a USB drive.

It is possible to make bootable Windows environments on other USB drive, but there are some differences.  If you have a Windows ISO you can make a bootable Windows USB drive with a number of tools.  I recommend using Rufus to make the drive.  Though there are other options (including one that is a part of Windows Enterprise Edition), Rufus doesn’t care much about the drive properties.  It will just write the data to the drive in a bootable format.

With any type of USB drive you’ll be able to boot up with little to no trouble and do initial setup on the drive.  The difference will show up when you start installing programs.  Some programs will only install to a fixed drive.  Visual Studio is one such program.  If you have a USB drive that isn’t Windows To Go certified, then chances are that it will appear as a removable drive to the computer.  Visual Studio will not install to a removable drive.

With a non-certified drive it will generally refuse to install.  If you know that the programs of interest to you don’t care about the drive type, there’s a couple of other reasons why you still may want to consider a Windows To Go certified drive.  One is performance. There was a minimum performance requirement that these drives had to achieve as a part of their certification.  However, now there are other solid state drives available that are much faster than the available Windows To Go drive (such as the Thunderbolt 3 only Samsung X5 drives).  Another consideration is security.  Some of the Windows To Go drives have hardware implemented encryption and include the option of voiding the contents of the drive under some conditions that you can define (such as the wrong password being entered at bootup too many times).

The best practice, if you plan to work with any sensitive data, is to not store it on a portable drive, if possible. But if you must, then encryption is an uncompromising need. Whether or not a Windows To Go drive is necessary for you may only be known after you review your needs.

One significant drawback of Windows To Go drives is you cannot perform a major Windows Update on it. The installation can receive Windows security updates though.  When there is a major Windows Update if you want to install it, it’s necessary to format the entire drive and start from scratch.

For my needs, I have a Super Talent 128 GB USB 3.0 drive (for speed) and a Western Digital 500 GB mechanical drive (much slower, but I can work with larger projects using it).  If you choose to do this with a certified drive, make sure you read the drive’s instructions, before you begin writing your Windows Image to it.  Some drives come with their own software that must be used for making the image and if you start off formatting the drive then you’ve already destroyed the software that you need (and it may not be readily available for download from the company’s website).

If your project needs call for a Windows To Go certified drive, I’ve found 4 available on Amazon.  Here are the links to them (affiliate links).

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SignageLive + BrightSign

Signangelive is a platform for managing content on digital signage.  It works on a variety of devices, including BrightSign, Chrome OS, LG webOS, Samsung Tizen TVs, and Windows.  I recently used evaluated Signagelive for use with a BrightSign project.

One of the units of deployent on Signangelive is an HTML Widget.  An HTML Widget is a zip file of HTML assets with a manifest and a .wgt file extension.  Prior to now, the only place I’ve really seen Widgets used is on Samsung’s Tizen based platforms.  The Samsung smart watches, TVs, and the Tizen powered phones support HTML applications through Widgets.  The Widgets and other presentation items (such as videos, pictures, or other displayable elements) can be scheduled to run on a device and the platform will take care of the rest.

For the solution I am working on, I packaged it as a widget.  The only additional file that I had to make to do this was a config.xml along with a PNG image to use as an icon.  I updated the WGT into the signage live system, scheduled it, and sometime later the widget was running on the BrightSign.  This deployment process would work great for a production environment, but it doesn’t work as well for development where you might want to make a quick change and refresh.  I found two solutions for this.

IFRAME

One solution was to deploy an IFRAME whose address pointed back to my development machine.  With this solution, if I want to make a quick change, I can make the change on my local file system and then refresh my view on the device.  Refreshing the video on the device could be done by pressing the reset button, but that takes too long.  If you have Chrome installed, you can connect to port 2999 of the BrightSign unit; connect to the browser instance; and then press the refresh menu option on your local browser.  It results in the BrightSign refreshing too.

Remote File System Browsing

You can also upload files directly to the BrightSign. Connect to the BrightSign’s IP address (without the port specified).  There’s a tab labeled “SD” (for the SD card). From there you can upload content to any place on the file system.  After your files are copied, you can either reset the device (which in my opinion takes too long) or connect to the devices IP and refresh the view as described in the IFRAME section.

bscardlisting

Accessing Node

I initially ran into another problem with running my code in a widget.  I mentioned in another blog posts that BrightSign does not support the HTML5 APIs for persistent storage.  The solution that I suggest for this is using NodeJS within BrightSign.  Signagelive runs the code that was packaged inside of a widget in an IFRAME.  As it turns out IFRAMES on BrightSign does not support NodeJS functionality, but that is easily overcome.  The IFRAME that contains the widget has access to the parent window.  The child window cannot call NodeJS functions directly, but it can grab a reference to its parent and invoke the parent’s NodeJS functionality.  To minimize the difference between code run within and outside of the WGT and IFRAME we can coalesce the possible locations of a needed function. To get access to the required function, I used the following.

window.require = window.require || window.parent.require;

File System Access

My attempts to access the file system would initially fail while hosted in Signagelive. To fix this it was necessary to modify AutoRun.brs. When the BrightSign version of Signagelive creates its HTML window (of type roHtmlWidget in BrightScript) it does not configure the window for file system access. To fix this the WebWindowHTML function in Autorun.brs needs a couple of items added, storage_path and storage_quota.

Function WebWindowHTML(index% as integer, url$ as string, RectX as integer, RectY as integer, RecWidth as integer, RecHeight as integer) as Object
	
	webRect=CreateObject("roRectangle", RectX, RectY, RecWidth, RecHeight)
    is = {
        port: 3000
    }
    webPageConfig = {
        nodejs_enabled: true,
        storage_path: "SD:"
        storage_quota: 1073741824        
        inspector_server: is,
        brightsign_js_objects_enabled: false,
        javascript_enabled: true,
        mouse_enabled: true,
        scrollbar_enabled: false,
        storage_path: "SD:",
        storage_quota: 1073741824,   
		port: m.msgPort,
        security_params: {
            websecurity: false,
            camera_enabled: true,
            insecure_https_enabled: false
        },
		url: url$
    }
	
    webhtmlWidget = CreateObject("roHtmlWidget", webRect, webPageConfig)
    webhtmlWidget.Show()

	return webhtmlWidget
	
End Function


I talked to an engineer at Signagelive about addressing this issue.  I do not know how frequently Signagelive makes updates., but this change may appear in future versions of the software making it unnecessary.  If you happen to read this close to the time that the post was made, the change might not have rolled out yet.  You can make the change yourself but beware of a possible risk.  There is a possibility that an update will be made and pushed out to your device that does not yet contain this change. If that happens you would want your code to fail gracefully instead of simply crashing.

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Simplified Sidereal Time

While preparing for a full moon / blue moon, I was looking at an algorithm for calculating sidereal time and had a mini epiphany. The algorithm is basically an elaborate modulo operation. Modulo is generally applied to integer values, but it can be used with decimal numbers and even fractions.

For the algorithm that I have generally used, a lot of the calculations are only for converting the date to some linear expression of time. The calendar that is usually used does not express time linearly.

The amount of time from the beginning of one month to the beginning of another month could be 28 to 31 days. With linear representations of dates, a subtraction operation is all that is needed to know the amount of time between two moments in time.

In JavaScript, this linear representation of time is shown by calling getTime() on a date object. The time value for 2019 January 10 @16:40:20 UTC  is 1547138420000. This value is the number of milliseconds since another date and time. This time and date is also 00:00:00 Sidereal time. The number of milliseconds in a sidereal day (23 hours 56 minutes 4.1 seconds) is 86164100. For any date after 2019-01-10T16:40:20 we could get the Sidereal time by doing the following:

  • Acquire the getTime() value for the date in question.
  • Subtract 1547138420000 from that value.
  • Get the modulo 86164100 for the resulting value.
  • Multiply the result by 24/86164100.

The result of these operations is the sidereal time in decimal. If you want to convert it to hour:minute:second format do the following:

var hour = Math.floor(result);
var minute = (result % 1) * 60;
var second = (minute % 1) * 60;
minute = Math.floor(minute)

solstice

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NodeJS on BrightSign

When I left off I was trying to achieve data persistence on a BrightSign  (model XT1144) using the typical APIs that one would expect to be available in an HTML application. To summarize the results, I found that using typical methods of checking localStorage and indexedDB show as being available; but indexedDB isn’t actually available; and localStorage appears to work, but doesn’t survive a device reset.

The next method to try is NodeJS.  The BrightSign devices support NodeJS, but the entry point is different than a standard entry point of a NodeJS project. A typical NodeJS project will have its entry point defined in a JavaScript file. For BrightSign, the entry point is an HTML file. NodeJS is disabled on the BrightSign by default. There is nothing in BrightAuthor that will enable it. There is a file written to the memory card (that one might otherwise ignore when using BrightAuthor) that must be manually modified. For your future deployments using BrightAuthor, take note that you will want to have the file modification described in this article saved to a back-up device so that it can be restored if a mistake is made.

The file, AUTORUN.BRS, is the first point of execution on the memory card. You can look at the usual function of this file as being like a boot loader; it will get your BrightSign project loaded and transfer execution to it. For BrightSign projects that use an HTML window the HTML window is actually created by the execution of this file. I am not going to cover the BrightScript language. For those that were ever familiar with the language, it looks very much like a variant of the B.A.S.I.C. language. When an HTML window is being created it is done with a call to the CreateObject method with “roHtmlWidget” as the first parameter to the function. The second parameter to this call is a “rectangle” object that indicates the coordinates at which the HTML window will be created. The third (optional) parameter is the one that is of interest. The third parameter is an object that defines options that can be applied to the HTML window.  The options that we want to specify are those that enable NodeJS, set a storage quota, and define the root of the file system that we will be accessing.

The exact layout of your Autorun.js may differ, but in the one that I am currently working with, I have modified the “config” object by adding the necessary parameters. It is possible that in your AutoRun.brs that the third parameter is not being passed at all. If this is the case, you can create your own “config” object to be passed as a third parameter. The additions I have made are in bold in the following.

is = {
    port: 3999
}    
security = {
        websecurity: false,
        camera_enabled: true
}
    
config = {
    nodejs_enabled: true,
    inspector_server: is,
    brightsign_js_objects_enabled: true,
    javascript_enabled: true,
    mouse_enabled: true,
    port: m.msgPort,
    storage_path: "SD:"
    storage_quota: 1073741824            
    security_params: {
        websecurity: false,
        camera_enabled: true
    },
    url: nodeUrl$
}
    
htmlWidget = CreateObject("roHtmlWidget", rect, config)

Once node is enabled the JavaScript for your page will run with the capabilities that you would generally expect to have in a NodeJS project. For my scenario, this means that I now have acces to the FS object for reading and writing to the file system.

fs = require('fs');
var writer = fs.createWriteStream('/storage/sd/myFile.mp4',{defaultEncoding:'utf16le'});
writer.write("Hello World!\r\n");
writer.end()

I put this code in an HTML page and ran it on a BrightSign. After inspecting the SD card after the device booted up and was on for a few moments I saw that my file was still there (Success!).  Now I have a direction in which to move for file persistence.

One of the nice things about using the ServiceWorker object for caching files is that you can treat a file as either successfully cached or failed. When using a file system writer there are other states that I will have to consider. A file could have partially downloaded, but not finished (due to a power outage; network outage; timeout; or someone pressing the reset button; etc.). I’m inclined to be pessimistic when it comes to guaging the reliability of external factors to a system. I find it necessary to plan with the anticipation of them failing.

With that pessimism in mind, there are a couple of approaches that I can immediately think to apply to downloading and caching files.  One is to download files with a temporary name and change the name of the file from its temporary to permanent name only after the download is successful. The other (which is a variation of that solution) is to download the file structure to a temporary location. Once all of the files are downloaded, I could move the folder to its final place (or simply change the path at which the HTML project looks to load its files). Both methods could work.

I am going to try some variations of the solutions I have in mind and will write back with the results of one of the solutions.

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