XFCE/Nautilus Hybrid Desktop

It’s been a while since posting here, but I haven’t forgotten about you :).  I’ve still been mulling over (read: procrastinating) on some things, but a lot of that has been put on hold due to some positive developments in my life which I will not go into.  However, I do have some other news:

  • Development on my inverter project continues, look for more information sometime in the future (who knows).
  • I recently received my Raspberry Pi, and am looking at making it into the server for this site.
  • I’ve also been considering ways to make the Pi run at least partially on solar power.  As I’ve mentioned before this would be a neat thing to have my server do, although there are some logistical obstacles.

That said, the rest of this post is not about anything mentioned in the above list.  Rather, it deals with my frustrations regarding Gnome.  I upgraded to Gnome 3 on my Gentoo machine, and for the most part was happy with it.  That is, once I got used to the layout.  I understand why people might not like it, but it didn’t bother me too much.  However, eventually it started getting unstable, as in certain things would make it crash.  At first it was not much of a problem, but then it started to get more and more random.  I switched to Fallback Mode, which I actually kind of liked too.  However, this too proved to crash a little too often.  (Note: I was also having some issues with the clutter-gst package and introspection USE flag not compiling, but I think my stability problems are related to the current nVidia drivers.)

The other day, a crash happened while playing around with the excellent EDA software KiCad, and that was it: time to migrate to something else.  I’d used Xfce in the past, and had been happy with it, although I usually stuck to Gnome because I was familiar with it most of all.  Desperate, I emerged it.  It’s a great environment as is, but it just felt lacking.  I wanted to manage my desktop like I did under Gnome, with my wallpapers and the like.  Actually, I wanted Gnome, but it just wasn’t working out.  This post will explain how I made this environment more like Gnome by using Xfce with Gnome’s Nautilus file manager.  It’s not difficult, and hopefully it will help someone out.

Xfce is a lightweight desktop, and I should point out that doing this sort of defeats the purpose of having it.  That said, I had the hardware resources to use Gnome more than comfortably, so this really isn’t an issue.  Also, if you really like it, you might consider a distribution that uses it by default, which will probably integrate it fairly well.

Anyway, assuming you’re switching from something else (Gnome in my case), to start with you’ll need to install Xfce.  To do this on Gentoo, I used the following command (as root):

emerge -avt xfce4-meta

(Note: The Gentoo Xfce Configuration Guide is a great place to check out if using this distro.)

Next, logout and log back in with Xfce selected as your desktop.  You should have a vanilla looking desktop, and now we want to have Nautilus manage the folders and icons.  Open the Settings Manager (Applications Menu->Settings), and click on Session and Startup.  Now, before I go on, I should say that we are going to determine what gets started when you log in to your Xfce desktop.  So, close everything you don’t want open (leave the Settings manager open though).  In the Session tab, you should see a list of running applications.  Select the xfdesktop program, and kill it.  Now click the Save Session button.

So now, Xfce isn’t managing the desktop.  Click the Application Autostart tab, and you will see a bunch of different services, some Xfce-related, some Gnome-related.  In my case there was one called Files, which I checked.  This basically runs the command nautilus -n, which has Nautilus manage the desktop.  (If you’re unsure, you can select it, hit Edit, and look at the command.)  I also activated some other things, like the SSH Key Agent.

Logging out and logging in again, you should now have Xfce panels, but with a desktop managed by Gnome that responds like it did before.  If you want, play with the Xfce panels, and you can make it look fairly Gnome-like.  It’s a little weird, but I’m happy with it.  It doesn’t have all the 3D effects of Gnome, but it’s responsive, and so far has been fairly stable.

Nautilus and vsftpd

Just recently I was playing around with setting up an anonymous FTP server using the excellent vsftpd software.  (The ‘vs’ is for ‘very secure’.)  To test this out, I decided to connect from Nautilus, on my Ubuntu laptop.  Unfortunately, I got an error like this:

Sorry, could not display all the contents of "/ on ftp.whatsmykarma.com"

So, I gave this a try instead with the commandline ftp client on this machine, and it worked fine.  This had me scratching my head, but I figured it out eventually.  Basically, the problem is one of passive vs active FTP – look a the Wikipedia page for more information.  As it turned out, the commandline FTP client was defaulting to active mode, which basically means that the server listens on one port, and connects to a port on the client (that is, the client has to have one open and listening) to make the transfer.  This is fine if you’re on a local network, or have a loose environment firewall-wise where the server can talk to the client this way.  However, because this setup is a bit more difficult, passive FTP was introduced – the server listens on one port and then some other random ports.  The client doesn’t have to listen, just connect to the server on port 21, and then get which other port it has to connect to on the server to actually do the transfer.  This is basically an improvement, but it still means we want to listen on more ports than just 21.  For whatever reason Nautilus only seems like passive FTP (which is probably a good thing), and was giving that error because I’d only forwarded port 21 on the server.

Now, the fix for this is simple, but before I give much of my vsftpd.conf file I would like to address a concern that will no doubt be brought up: FTP isn’t that great.  Well, not from a security standpoint, at least.  Normal FTP just sends everything in clear text, and with minimal effort someone who has access to the datastream (eg, the guy in charge of your company’s firewall, or someone on your wireless network) can easily get this information.  Perhaps your FTP login details are used elsewhere, like for logging into to a system account.  (Like, you sit at your workstation and login with those credentials, and someone else getting them means they can read your Email and delete your crap.)  These days there are better options, such as SFTP (basically an FTP-like protocol that tunnels over SSH, and only really needs OpenSSH) that are better for a lot of things.  However, FTP is nice for certain things, like if you have a server that hosts a bunch of big files you want to put up for download.  You can do this with anonymous FTP, with no need for sensitive usernames and passwords.  I’m going to assume that this is kind of why you’re looking into FTP, and that roughly you know what you’re doing.  (Note that it’s also possible to use FTP with SSL, which could be handy in some cases when you really want to use FTP with login info.)

Anyway, here’s what we have to do.  We want to use passive FTP, and configure vsftpd thusly.  To do this we need to forward port 21 to it (of course), but we also need to have it listen on another port to do the transfers.  Traditionally the FTP server would randomly pick a port from a range, but you really only need one.  I chose 2020.  It can be anything, so long as it’s above 1024.  This is because the server will try to bind it as a non-root user.

Now, the other thing the server will do when we tell it we want to go into passive mode is send an address for the client to connect to (with the given port).  In my case, I’m on a dynamic IP, so we would like to give it a hostname to use.  Luckily, vsftpd will allow us to do all this.  So, for a simple, anon-only FTP server that works in passive mode, here is my config:

# Optional directives

Change the details or add stuff to suit your setup.  Note that we have a pasv_min and pasv_max port, these can just be the same thing.  pasv_addr_resolv=YES just lets us specify a hostname.  And that’s that, restart vsftpd and enjoy FTP.