Saturday, November 7, 2009

ACL management on MacOS Snow Leopard

So I was going to follow the directions at this hint site to prevent Time Machine from doing a full backup again once I updated my MacBook Pro to a bigger drive. After all, I don't want to re-backup the stuff I just restored from my backup! But my attempt slammed to a halt after I type 'fsaclctl' and... uhm... WTF? It isn't in Snow Leopard! And by the time you get to userland the permission to override a "Deny All to All" ACL is dropped even if you su to root... you just can't get there from here unless you can somehow turn off ACL support for the whole filesystem!

Ah, but never fear, the Leopard version of fsaclctl works just fine on Snow Leopard. The question is, which of my half dozen backup drives up in the storage closet or offsite is old enough to have Leopard on it? I was about to get up and go grab one, when I glanced down and... there was the Mac OS Leopard 10.5.2 install DVD, right there, in the pile of disks I'd used to re-image the Mac.

So first thing to do was drill down and find the package. The packages live in '/Volumes/Mac OS X Install DVD/System/Installation/Packages' and the easiest thing to do is 'go to folder' from the Finder 'Go' menu to go there. Then by dragging dropping packages onto the /Developer/Applications/Utilities/PackageMaker utility, I discovered that fsaclctl lives in package "BSD.pkg" in directory /usr/sbin.

The next question is, how do we get the file out of the package? I couldn't drag it out of PackageMaker, PackageMaker simply refused to do so. So I grabbed a utility called 'Pacifist'. I won't claim it's the best utility for doing this because it's simply the first one that came up when I googled, but it allowed me to drop the BSD.pkg onto it, drill down to the file, then drag the file out to a folder on my desktop, from whence I could then put it into ~/bin and use it.

Now, this isn't about the Time Machine hack (BTW, it didn't work -- apparently Time Machine's implementation has changed since Leopard), but, rather, about security. Some folks wonder why MacOS is more secure than Windows. This experience gives you one clue why. There are things you cannot override even if you have full administrative access, once permissions are dropped during the boot process. I suspect that in future releases of Snow Leopard will remove the low-level ioctl that fsaclctl relies on, further securing the system. But it's clear that while Apple doesn't make splashy announcements about security and doesn't have some of the bells and whistles like address space randomization, they're doing some things quite right in the background to keep things secure.


Friday, November 6, 2009

Parallels 5 vs. VMware Fusion 3

So I have tried both of these virtualization solutions for MacOS Snow Leopard and the winner is... VMware by a landslide. Not because of performance. VMware's performance is acceptable for my purposes but I can definitely tell that I'm running in a virtualized environment. But, rather, because VMware WORKS, and Parallels doesn't. That's the bottom line. I can go into more detail, but I'm just too frustrated with Parallels right now and would use language not appropriate for polite conversation. Having Parallels crash my computer *TWICE*, and lock up three different times, simply does not make me happy.

I am saddened to say this, because I've owned Parallels since version 2.0, but this is it. This is the end. They are not getting any more money from me. Each new release of Parallels they promise that they got it right this time. Each time, they break things badly -- for example, in Parallels 4, one of my mapping programs ended up going BLAMMO unless I turned off mouse pointer acceleration in the Windows control panel, and then the Parallels device driver simply refused to display any mouse pointer at all. Meanwhile VMware Fusion 3 is a rock solid product. It might be slightly slower than Parallels on some benchmarks (hard to tell, I could never keep Parallels running long enough to run the benchmarks I was wanting to run), but it *works*, and the integration between Windows and MacOS Snow Leopard is quite good, no problems with cut-and-paste or sharing files between Windows and MacOS or anything like that. The competition between VMware and Parallels is over, and Parallels is done. Finished. Kaput. They had first mover advantage, and like Netscape with web browsers, simply failed to execute.

Which reminds me of the time that my manager was the guy who ran Netscape's development process into the dirt. Needless to say the common Linux fanboy notion that Microsoft ran Netscape out of business is utter nonsense -- Netscape's browser technology disintegrated without any help from Microsoft at all. Their technology simply disintegrated under the weight of too many idiotic false deadlines and hacks, and the manager who did that then did the same thing for my then-employer's development process. But that's another ugly tale that tends to evoke unwise language so I'll do something a bit more abstract about deadlines and why they're both useful and, in some cases, toxic.


Numbers from Windows Experience quickie benchmark:

  • VMware 3:
    • Processor: 5.9
    • Memory: 3.9
    • Graphics: 2.9
    • Gaming graphics: 3.4
    • Primary hard disk: 6.3
  • Parallels 5:
    • Processor: 4.5
    • Memory: 3.9
    • Graphics: 2.9
    • Gaming graphics: 4.1
    • Primary hard disk: 5.9
Parallels has somewhat better 3D performance, somewhat poorer performance on processor and hard drive tests, same as VMware elsewhere. Parallels is probably better if you want to play games, but that's why Boot Camp was invented...

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Windows 7 'reg' command

So I had a problem. I had a Topo 8 install on my old XP hard drive and wanted to transfer it to my new Windows 7 machine. No problem, just re-install, right? Well, that would be a problem alright, because my activation key for Delorme Netlink would not work in the new install -- Delorme links it to a single installation of Topo USA. Note that the licensing for Netlink allows me to run it on any computer that I own as long as it's just one computer at a time (i.e. I can't have it installed on more than two computers and can only use it on one computer at a time), but the actual implementation is similar to the lamentable Windows Activation in that it often disallows things that are allowed under your licensing agreement, requiring you to call in to a support center and have a database entry adjusted at the other end to allow activation.

So now let's talk about what actually happens on modern versions of Windows when you install a program. Things get placed into basically four areas:

  1. Start Menu folder -- usually a folder is created here with a new Shortcut to the application plus utilities. The location of the Start Menu folder differs wildly between Windows XP and Windows 7, but it's easy to find.
  2. Program Files -- usually a folder with the program and all its data is created here.
  3. Windows -- Any driver bundles are plopped into the appropriate folders here, as is installer/uninstaller info.
  4. Registry -- Configuration data and component registration.
Of these, the first three are easy to copy from one computer to another. But the registry entries... ah yes, now that is a problem!

The fundamental problem is that the registry is a database, and thus you can't simply use drag and drop to move entries from point A to point B, unlike with MacOS where you could just copy the appropriate directory from the old /System/Library/xxx to the new /System/Library/xxx and/or the old ~/Library/xxx to the new ~/Library/xxx to move the configuration data, or Linux where you could just copy the appropriate directory from the old /etc/xxx to the new /etc/xxx to move the configuration data. You have to use database tools, and the Windows database tools for accessing the registry are crude and primitive compared to the tools available for accessing file data. This is especially true for the 'regedit' GUI command which is utterly incapable of copying registry from place A in the registry tree to place B in the registry tree. But never fear: This is a capability that the command line 'reg' command has, and we're going to use it.

The first thing to do is to mount the old hard drive as your "D:" drive. Make sure you've added the 'Run' menu option to your Start Menu with the appropriate control panel entry (sorry, you've already seen my opinion of the Windows control panel, it's in there *somewhere* but you'll have to do like me and just dig until you find it!). Select 'Run' from your start menu, and go into 'Regedit'.

The next thing you'll need to do after that is import the HKLM hive into your registry. Click on the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE entry and select File->Load Hive. Browse over to D:\Windows\System32\config and select 'software' as the hive to import. Then give it a name, like OLD_SOFTWARE. Once you finish doing this, you'll find that OLD_SOFTWARE is now in your registry tree. You can now exit regedit, because regedit has no (zero) ability to copy subtrees from one place to another in your registry tree.

Now you'll need an administrative mode command prompt in order to operate. Now, I'm going to assume you have some basic Unix-compatible command line tools available using Cygwin or by copying files to MacOS or Linux via a network file share then executing Unix commands there, simply because there are no native Windows tools which will do the same command line parsing in as easy a manner, but it COULD be done with VBscript. It'd just be a lot more coding to make it work.

So: now that we have a command line,let's query out all the Delorme keys:

  • reg query HKLM\OLD_SOFTWARE /s /f delorme >\Delorme_keys
Then copy Delorme_keys someplace where you can run Unix commands on it:

  • grep "^HKEY" Delorme_keys >Delorme_keys2
  • vi Delorme_keys2
Take a look at those keys, and at the original file too, to see which ones you want. In general you will not want to completely replace the contents of all keys that have some data item related to your application, you'll want the Classes and any software-specific key. So I edited Delorme_keys2 to have the keys I wanted to copy from the old install, then:

  • awk ' { t=$0; sub("OLD_","",$0) ; printf("reg copy \"%s\" \"%s\" /s\n", t,$0); } ' Delorme_keys2 >DelormeRegCopy.bat
This gives me a file that has lines in it that look like this:
  • reg copy "HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\OLD_SOFTWARE\Classes\CLSID\{20016EDD-4CB6-11D3-A3FA-0000C0506658}" "HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Classes\CLSID\{20016EDD-4CB6-11D3-A3FA-0000C0506658}" /s
The 'reg copy' command will copy both the key (and its data items) and any subkeys to the new location, assuming you provide the /s flag. Then I copy this .bat file back to the Windows 7 system, and from the Command prompt type "delormeregcopy.bat" and voila! Now my copy of the Delorme application works, Netlink works, and I can then re-install Topo 8 on top of this install to "repair" it (i.e., put the installer and driver bundles in the right place and verify that everything is registered properly) and the installation keys will still be there to keep my Netlink operational.

Note: As always, back up your registry before mucking around in it. And be *very* careful with any keys you copy in, I examined the contents of each key using regedit before I allowed it to stay in my final Delorme_keys2 file. The above is NOT the full directions for how to do this specific task, simply because I do not wish to enable software piracy, but, rather, an example of how to use the 'reg' command to copy critical registry entries from an old installation into a new installation. And the usual disclaimer "this might destroy your system!" applies.

Now: I could go off on a rant about how stupid the Windows registry is, how the tools to manipulate it are primitive and far inferior to the tools available to manipulate text files, blah blah blah, but we already all know about that. The "reg" command at least gives us some of the missing functionality that regedit doesn't have, even if it requires typing obscure commands at a command prompt. But then, "obscure" and "Windows Registry" do go together like "macaroni" and "cheese", eh?

-- EG

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Windows 7 hoopla

So is Windows 7 a Mac killer? Or is Windows 7 lipstick on a pig? The answer is "No."

Let's look at the first one first. Windows 95 in many ways introduced "the" Windows user experience. It was a clean, reasonably logical user interface that was surprisingly good from a user interface perspective considering the limitations of the underlying platform, limitations which were necessitated by the limitations of the underlying hardware and the need for DOS compatibility until Windows-specific software arrived. It was Windows 95 that I evaluated, then went to my boss and said, "This is going to be big. We need to figure out some way to make money with it." That was a few months before a customer brought Linux to our attention (and my reaction to that later -- it was not favorable, initially), but certainly I wasn't wrong when I said that to my boss.

It's been all downhill since from a user interface standpoint, with each new release of Windows having yet more useless folderol to waste resources and confuse customers but no fundamental change in the UI. Windows 7 continues that tradition, adding lipstick to the pig that has become Microsoft's overly complex user interface by re-naming some things, changing text to icons on the menu bar, and somehow managing to make the Control Panel even more complex than it already was. People who claim Windows 7 could somehow be a "Mac Killer" are being ridiculous. Changing the text on the menu bar to icons does not make it a dock, and Windows 7 is even more confusing to set up and configure than its predecessors were if you're trying to integrate it into an already-existing network. I clicked away in the control panel for quite some time before finally typing "change workgroup" into the search bar. That took me to a place where I could change the workgroup (so it matched my home and office workgroup name so my systems would appear in the network browser), but where is that located in the morass that is the Windows 7 control panel? I have absolutely no idea, I clicked into the logical place and it changed my workgroup to "WORKGROUP", which isn't what I wanted at all.

Meantime, click on the open-apple icon and select 'System Preferences'. There's two possible places where you could set the workgroup -- 'Sharing', or 'Network'. I clicked on 'Sharing' and didn't find it, so I clicked on 'Network', there's a button 'Advanced', I clicked on 'Advanced', saw the word 'WINS', and yep, there's my NetBIOS name and workgroup name. Three clicks once I got the Mac "control panel" up - Network, Advanced, WINS -- to get me where I needed to be.

So from a user interface perspective, Windows 7 definitely is lipstick on a pig. It's just a bunch of lipstick on top of the original Windows 95 user interface, and like a toddler messing with mommy's lipsticks, the results are not all that great from a usability perspective. Frankly, I prefer the original, which was fast, clean, useful. However, that's not the important changes that have been made to Windows 7. The important changes are under the hood. Windows 7, in my test, used approximately 3GB more disk space than Windows XP -- i.e., around 8GB rather than 5GB. Its memory usage for snappy performance is approximately 256MB more than Windows XP (around 756M vs. 512M) if you disable Aero by switching to a 'Basic' theme, and since Aero is just lipstick, that's no big deal. In exchange you get a more secure operating system that has built-in functionality that Windows XP lacks, such as the ability to record a DVD. I have not tested Windows 7 on a netbook yet, but I'm not seeing any reason why it wouldn't work -- even with Microsoft Office installed and various third-party Internet software (Firefox, Safari, Flash, etc.) I'm using only 14GB of disk space for my Windows 7 system, and even low-end netbooks come with 32GB SSD drives and 1GB of memory today.

So from that perspective, Windows 7 accomplishes what Microsoft wanted it to do -- it allows them to discontinue support for Windows XP because it will run pretty much everywhere that XP is currently required due to the resource usage of Vista. It also accomplishes what most IT people want -- a more secure operating system that won't require them to spend half their time cleaning up after virus outbreaks, and which allows them to standardize on *one* operating system, rather than having a mismash of various versions of Windows. On the other hand, it's pretty clear that Microsoft needs more than lipstick on a pig to clean up their user interface. They need a few iFools to lead the charge against useless UI complexity, including at least one iFool who has the status in the corporation to push back against the marketing droids and geeks who always want one...more...feature... to never be used by actual customers, but look good on a marketing flyer or looks, like, really rad, dude. I wish them luck, because after fifteen years of putting lipstick on a pig, there's almost more lipstick than pig insofar as the Windows UI is concerned.

-- EG