Administering Your Network with Terminals: An Open Source Connection Manager

Posted on September 10, 2009 by Wesley David in Networking with 0 Comments

As an administrator who primarily supports users and computers in distant places, I have come to appreciate anything that can make working with remote systems easier. One of the biggest timesavers in my workday is an open source application named Terminals from Microsoft’s open source project hosting site, CodePlex.

Imagine my trepidation after I installed the Windows 7 RC and began testing to see if Terminals 1.7e worked well with the new Windows or not. Would I need to run it in compatibility mode? Or even XP virtual mode?

Fortunately, after extensive tire-kicking, Terminals 1.7e seems to behave every bit as good on Windows 7 as it did on Vista. Let me take you on a tour of its many capabilities.

Terminals 1.7e is all about storing multiple remote connections of varying types and arranging them by tags or in groups and then allowing you to mange numerous simultaneous open sessions via an interface similar to tabbed web browsers.  However, you have the option of having any connection that you create open in either Terminal’s tab system or within a separate window. Here’s what the basic interface looks like (remember, you can click the images for a full-sized view):

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Terminals is capable of creating connections using RDP, VNC, VMRC, Telnet, SSH1, SSH2, ICA Citrix, RAS and HTTP sessions. When manually creating a connection you are given the choice of the aforementioned protocols and, depending on the protocol that you choose, you will have a different set of options to choose from. All options should be familiar to anyone who uses that protocol frequently, e.g. toggling themes, menu animations and redirecting sound for RDP connections.

Connections can also be automatically discovered using Active Directory or by scanning a range of IP addresses for RDP, VNC, VMRC, Telnet and SSH accepting incoming connections. You can also import RDP, vRD or MuRD files.

Aside from the typical remote GUI connections to an operating system, HTTP connections can be made which essentially means that Terminals spins up Internet Explorer as a rendering engine within one of Terminal’s own tabs. This allows you to make connections to web sites or web based administration pages. Notice that picture 1 displays Terminal’s home page in the active tab.

You can keep your connections organized by tagging them. Those tags are used to create a hierarchy of folders located in a favorites fly-out window on the left of the screen. There is also a history tab in the favorites fly-out window that shows what you connected to in the last day, weeks and months.

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I’m sure every administrator has a group of servers or administration pages that they log into frequently and the creators of Terminals made a grouping feature that allows you to open multiple connections at once. For example, if the first thing in the morning that you want to do is check out 4 Windows based web servers, 1 GroundWork dashboard page, 2 telnet sessions to routers and throw in some VNC connections for fun. That’s easy! Just create a group and name it whatever you’d like and then add the relevant connections that are in your favorites list. From then on, if you select that group name in the “Groups” menu all connections in that group will start up in their own tabs simultaneously.

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After adding dozens or even hundreds of servers, you will want to take care that you don’t lose all of those configured connections. You can simply copy the terminals.config file in the Terminals application folder or you can backup your configuration file to Amazon’s S3 cloud storage system from within Terminals.

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Another one of the useful features of Terminals is the capture manager. Capture manager gives you the ability to take a screenshot of the active remote connection and then store and manage those screenshots in a hierarchy of folders on the local machine. By clicking the “Capture Terminal Screen” button in the shortcuts menu bar, a screenshot of the currently active remote device is immediately taken . Within the capture manager tab you can arrange the photos, view them by thumbnails and annotate them.

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Terminals also has the ability to connect to Flickr and upload capture manager shots to your Flickr account. I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming!

The main application window uses toolbars reminiscent of Office 2003 to organize shortcuts to many common administrative control panels and MMCs. Some of the utilities available on the toolbars include the Local Group Policy editor, device manager, certificate manager and even the power configuration control panel.

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You will probably find most of those utilities to be of little use to you in the course of your workday, so you can remove the ones you don’t use and create custom shortcuts. Simply supply the executable path, optional arguments, the working folder and you’ll have your very own shortcut.

If you need more space to view your remote connections, just press F11 for full screen mode. Terminals will remove its menu and toolbars and cover up everything on the screen (including the taskbar) to give you maximum space. Pressing F11 again will bring it all back.

A plethora of network related tools are available from the Networking Tools feature which you can open from the Tools menu. Networking Tools opens a separate tab with multiple sub-tabs that offer you tools like ping, trace route, WMI query, open connections, a list of network interfaces, whois lookup (yes, whois lookup from within the app), DNS lookup, scanning for shares locally or remotely, listing all running services, checking proper time from a time server and even a packet sniffer!

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Many of those tools can be run to query a remote system such as the WMI Query tool, connections tab (shows open connections on a system), shares and services. Note well that terminals must be run as an administrator for many of these Networking Tools components to work properly.

For all of this consolidating and time saving coolness, I must point out some of the rough edges to this program. I don’t want anyone to have any illusions about this product. It certainly doesn’t have the polish of a commercial product or the support. It is an open source product with very few people giving their precious spare time to work on it.

Some of the minor shortcomings include:

  • The picture manager tab is not named. Instead it is a barely visible stub of a tab on your tabs list. In fact, if you look at the above screenshot of the Network Tools feature, you will see a stub of a tab just to the left of the Network Tools tab. Yep, that’s the picture manager tab.
  • Groups don’t seem to support the addition of other connections once the group has been made.
  • Renaming a connection really just makes a new connection with the same settings and the new name. The old connection with the old name is left behind forcing you to manually delete it.
  • VNC support is through the open source VNCSharp .NET VNC Client library and only versions 3.3, 3.7, and 3.8 of the RFB Protocol are supported. Some people have reported good results with VNC connections and other people have had bad experiences.
  • The program must be run as an administrator to be able to use most of Network Tools features such as ping and the packet sniffer. In fact, if you attempt to run the packet sniffer with a regular user account, the program will simply crash.
  • The new version of remote desktop included in Windows 7 causes a tiny user interface glitch in Terminals. The remote desktop banner at the top of the screen is not neatly contained within Terminal’s application window as normal, but rather superimposed over the Terminals window at the very top of the screen. Compare the two images below. Windows 7 and the UI issue with Terminals is on top and XP with the more well behaved remote dekstop UI is on the bottom

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Concerning some of the more serious faults with Terminals:

  • The SSH and Telnet functionality has some serious limitations. Users have complained about not being able to enter brackets or the pipe character (SSH without the pipe character? Say what?). Terminals does not support the use of an external helper application for SSH so you can’t substitute the program’s built-in SSH support with something else like PuTTY.exe. Some have complained about the lack of “command recall” ability to allow you to quickly re-enter commands that you have recently used. Some other quirks exist as well such as the command prompt for the remote system being always at the top of command output rather than the output scrolling by and the prompt being at the end of the output.
  • There are spurious exceptions involving errors with the “DataGridView” which is usually followed by the need to completely close the program and restart. Happily, this error usually only happens when heavily using certain tabs of the Networking Tools features such as going from the connections tab to the interfaces tab. While in theory it is a nice set of features, I found that I rarely used the Networking Tools tab and concentrated mostly on RDP and HTTP connections and thus didn’t encounter DataGridView errors until I started experimenting in preparation for this article. Your mileage may vary.

With those shortcomings in mind, I invite you to try Terminals for yourself and even lend a hand in its development if you are able. The program has saved me countless hours (and some money that I didn’t have to spend on a commercial product) and made my day of remote administration much easier than it would otherwise be. And best of all… it works on Windows 7.

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