Run Zeroconf for Linux in a Snap

Best of ENP: Zeroconf networking makes life easier for your users without making things too hard on your admins. Here's how to run it with Linux network clients.

By Carla Schroder | Posted Oct 9, 2007
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The fond dream of computer users everywhere is to plug in their computers and watch as networking automagically sets itself up. Computers are connected and give themselves IP addresses. Network resources are available without having to lift a finger: wireless devices, printers, local Web sites, image galleries, music collections, the boss's greatest inspirational speeches collection, the rude body noise collection — anything that is network-able. Apple users have long been able to do this with Bonjour (formerly Rendezvous). No messy hassles with DHCP, DNS, smbclient, or NIS; no horrid kludges to enable interoperability with cliquish platforms like Windows that hate to share with non-Windows systems.

Gnarly old network admins who are accustomed to keeping a tight grip on their realms tend to be resistant to the whole idea — why, it's as free-for-all as ad-hoc wireless networking or NetBIOS, with users running rampant and sharing everything and no one is in charge. The security implications are obvious; Zeroconf is not suitable for sites that need tight controls, or to use over untrusted networks. But it's great for home and small business users, small groups inside the enterprise, and get-togethers like business meetings and trade shows. Some consumer devices like Tivo already use it, as well as a whole world of Apple printers and network devices.

Don't Get Happy Yet
Zeroconf is coming to Linux, but it has a way to go. For all of that happy automagic to happen a lot of work has to go into infrastructure. Networking, applications, and devices have to be Zeroconf-enabled, which means more work for developers. Linux uptake has been very slow, possibly because of patent issues (see the Aunt Tillie thread in Resources), and possibly because Linux developers haven't been very interested in it. Fortunately the KDE team has been working hard on implementing Zeroconf, so it's coming at last. Gentoo and SUSE are reported to have excellent Zeroconf support.

Finding any coherent or up-to-date documentation is difficult. If you want to start testing Zeroconf, the easy way is to use a Linux distribution that already has it built-in. In this article I'll stick to rassling Kubuntu Dapper, and refrain from boring you with my heroic, but losing adventures with other distributions.

Kubuntu Dapper
You can test Zeroconf on any existing LAN, even if it already has a full complement of networking services running, so don't worry about making any special preparations. On Kubuntu Dapper Zeroconf is supported in KDE, but not enabled out of the box. I got it working by installing the avahi-daemon package. But before you install anything, check to see if it's already in place and working by entering zeroconf:/ in the Konqueror location bar. This is a good thing to see:

An error occurred while loading zeroconf:/:
The Zeroconf daemon (mdnsd) is not running.

That means all you need to do is install Avahi. Older howtos will tell you to get Apple's mDNSresponder package. Don't do that. Avahi is written for Linux, is licensed under the LGPL, and performs very nicely.

$ sudo apt-get install avahi-daemon

Now try browsing zeroconf:/ again. This time you should get a blank Konqueror window. Or, if you happen to have some Zeroconf-aware service running somewheres, it will appear. This confirms that you can use Konqueror to discover and browse Zeroconf-enabled services.

Something that had me darn near homicidal was documentation that referred to using zeroconf:/ ioslave as though that were the literal URI, which is all wrong and does not work, because it's not the literal URI. It's just shorthand for "the zeroconf ioslave", and I call a pox upon all writers who do this.

I/O slaves are small specialized KDE programs that manage individual protocols. These are the little magic genies that allow Konqueror to support just about every protocol there is. You might already be familiar with common ones like smb:/, file:/, man:, and vnc:/. You'll find a complete list in kinfocenter, Protocols. The syntax is a bit inconsistent; usually it's name-colon-forward slash, but sometimes it's two forward slashes, and sometimes no slash at all, so the Protocols list will help with this.

Now install mdns-scan. This works independently of KDE to browse Zeroconf services, so you'll be able to tell if it's a KDE or Zeroconf problem when something doesn't work:

$ sudo apt-get install mdns-scan

Then simply run mdns-scan. When no Zeroconf services are available, it looks like this example, which shows that two hosts are up, but not broadcasting any services:

$ mdns-scan
+ xena [00:03:6d:00:83:cf]._workstation._tcp.local
+ stinkpad [00:0a:e4:40:8b:fd]._workstation._tcp.local
Browsing ... -

It continues to scan the network until you stop it with Ctrl+C.

Setting Up Zeroconf Services
An easy way to see Zeroconf in action on KDE is to use the Public File Server applet. Right-click on the panel, click Add Applet to Panel, and select Public File Server. Set up a New Server by right-clicking on the Public File Server icon. Give it a descriptive name, like in Figure 1.

Figure 1.
(Click for a larger image)
The final message should be "Successfully published this new service to the network (Zeroconf)." Now when mdns-scan is run it looks like this:

$ mdns-scan
+ xena [00:03:6d:00:83:cf]._workstation._tcp.local
+ xena-vacation-pics._http._tcp.local
+ stinkpad [00:0a:e4:40:8b:fd]._workstation._tcp.local
Browsing ...

Figure 2.
(Click for a larger image)
Konqueror should display the share, and let you browse and download files from it. You can access the share via http://[hostname]:8001, which is the old-fashioned way that requires you to know the address, or use the newfangled Zeroconf way, which automatically browses all available resources, and you just click on the ones you want, like in Figure 2.

No Zeroconf For You
You don't want Konqueror to show you this message:

An error occurred while loading zeroconf:/:
KDE has been built without Zeroconf support

This means you'll have to download and compile Avahi from sources, and then recompile kdelibs to include Zeroconf support.

The Dream
Zeroconf is a lightweight, fairly simple set of cross-platform protocols that can work on any system- Linux, Unix, Macintosh or Windows. But currently Windows is the odd one out, as Microsoft is showing little inclination to play with the rest of us, and are more interested in its own service discovery protocol, uPNP. But it works great on Apple devices and services, so someday this could be a good tool for easily integrating Macintosh hosts with your Linux machines, and leaving the unsociable Windows hosts to mutter amongst themselves in a damp corner.


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