Tuesday, June 29, 2010

That XKCD 619 feeling

A Linux advocate says:

The case for using Apple software of Microsoft Windows for something is so slim it tends to sound like the techno lust (sooo shiny ...) or the machinations of a mad man (I HAVE TO HAVE IE!!!!!).

Ah yes, I'm getting that XKCD 619 feeling again, where Linux advocates say about usable user interfaces, "why would anybody want that?!". I've been using and developing for Linux since 1995, so I'm not exactly a newbie. I have the latest Ubuntu on my big Linux development machine (the latest Fedora is similar in my experience) and you know the latest Ubuntu desktop with a high-end graphics card reminds me of? It's as if someone had described MacOS and Windows 7 to engineers in the old Soviet Union, and they sat down and wrote their own clunky half-a** clone based upon nothing but those descriptions. You can practically hear the clunks of heavy metal and whirring of primitive gyroscopes as you operate it. I'm sorry, but anybody who says that Linux has the usability of MacOS or Windows 7 on the desktop is drinkin' some mighty strong kool-aid.

KDE is a bloated incoherent resource-hogging mess (consider it the Windows Vista of Linux desktops), and Gnome's primitive old-school Windows 95 Meets Motif style desktop is usable compared to the competition only if you have a high-end graphics card and can enable 3D Effects and their CCCP-style Expose' and Spaces clones (I say CCCP-style because they have significant usability issues compared to the real thing). And both are limited by "X" which has significant problems dealing with the modern world and hot-pluggable monitors. As in, it doesn't do it. On the day when you can plug an external monitor into your Linux laptop and have the desktop automagically just extend onto the new monitor, with no "dead spaces" and no problems dragging and dropping things between monitors, let me know. Right now, due to Xinerama basically being abandonware, the only multiple-monitor setup that works properly is nVidia's, and only with two same-sized monitors (otherwise there are created "dead spaces" that can eat your windows so you can't get at them), and only if you manually set it up using nVidia's own setup program. Wow, how competitive with MacBooks (where it Just Works) or Windows 7 (one right-click to get Display Settings, then select "extends desktop" rather than "mirrors desktop" from the Displays options) is that? Err... not!

I use Linux where it is appropriate -- my web and email server is running Linux, and I'm developing on Linux for embedded servers that run Linux. But to say there's no reason to use anything other than Linux is just koolaid-drinking ... and, uhm, for the guy who says his HTC Evo 4G proves FOSS rocks, I might point out that the EVO 4G is running a proprietary closed-source "skin" (HTC's "Sense" UI). Yeah, that's "proof" alright... but maybe not of what the original commenter claimed :).


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The new alternative to VMware: KVM

Both the latest Ubuntu and the latest Red Hat are shipping with a new alternative to VMware Server called QEMU-KVM. I've been playing with it, and it is much faster and lighter weight than VMware Server, as well as being more flexible and easier to use.

To get started with QEMU-KVM on Ubuntu 10.04, first install kvm and qemu-kvm from aptitude. Then install virt-manager. After that, System Tools->Virtual Machine Manager will bring up your virtual machine management console.

You'll see two entries when you do this:

  • localhost (QEMU Usermode) - Not Connected
  • localhost (QEMU)
Double-click on localhost (QEMU) and it'll connect to the local root virtual machine manager. You could also connect to other machine's managers, if you're wanting to, say, manage the virtual machines on a host in your data center, by using File->Add Connection. Now you'll probably want to set up a data pool for use by your new virtual machines. Most of us put the virtual machines on their own partition, not on the root partition, but the default data pool is in /var/lib/libvirt/images -- which is on the root partition. Ick. Never fear, right-click on the localhost(QEMU) and select 'Details', then click on the 'Storage' tab when you get the details. Click "+" to add your new storage pool, once you define its location click the green 'play' button to make it active, then hit the red delete button to get rid of the 'default' pool. You now have a new default storage pool at the location you desire.

Okay, so you have your data pool, now what about creating a virtual machine? Easiest way to do that is to use an ISO image of your favorite distribution. Just right-click on the localhost(QEMU) entry again, and select 'New'. The resulting wizard is ridiculously easy to navigate as long as you remember that it's going to create it in whatever your enabled data pool is when you tell it to 'create a disk image on the computer's hard drive'.

So, after this you should be able to run the virtual machine and install your ISO on it. Remember that ctrl-alt gets you out of the QEMU console back into the regular Linux desktop environment, and you'll be fine. To open a console, just right-click and select 'open'. Or once you have a VM set up and installed, you can shut it

Okay, so what's the limits of QEMU/KVM right now? First of all, don't expect to run graphical environments via the normal console with any kind of responsiveness. It emulates a very slow/old display card which is then screen-scraped by a vnc server. KVM is mostly useful for running non-GUI setups, such as Asterisk servers or hosted virtual web servers. Secondly, some operating systems might not install at all into KVM due to driver support issues. Finally, there is no equivalent of "VMware tools" to integrate with your host environment so you can move your mouse freely between the virtual machine terminal and the host OS. Your best bet there, if you want a graphical console inside a virtual machine, is to install VNC in the virtual machine and then use VNC to view your graphical console.

But aside from those limitations, KVM appears to be working quite well. It is definitely better on Linux than VMware Server, and if you need to create a vmdk to import into VMware on some other non-Linux host, it's easy enough to just 'qemu-img convert -O vmdk VbAst32.img VbAst32.vmdk' and voila, the new virtual machine will import cleanly into VMware. And of course VPEP runs inside a KVM virtual machine just fine... :).


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Doing an installer right: Microsoft Office 2010

So out of curiousity I downloaded and installed Microsoft Office 2010 today (don't freak out about piracy, folks -- I'm a Microsoft TechNet subscriber and this copy is a quite legit eval copy). I haven't had a chance to use the software yet, but one thing I have to say is about the installer: Microsoft did it right.

A good installer must do the following things:

  1. It must be SIMPLE. People don't want to select lots of stuff, they just want to click one button and have it happen. With the Office 2010 installer you click the 'Install' button (or 'Upgrade' button if Office 2007 is installed on your system), it prompts you for the license key, validates it right then and there, you click 'Next', accept the license, and then it just does it. It's basically four clicks (assuming you can cut-and-paste the license key from the TechNet site of course, if you have to type it in then there's a few keystrokes too). If your geeks or marketroids insist on all sorts of additional functionality, hide it behind a little "+" sign or something where people won't get freaked out about it, users just want it to Just Work, they don't care about all that stuff.
  2. It must handle both upgrades and fresh installs in a clean manner. So if a prior version is already installed, it should give you the option of upgrading it and keeping your configuration settings as much as possible.
  3. If possible, it should offer to import settings from a prior program, or from a competing program, much as the latest IE will import settings from an install of Firefox or Safari.
  4. It must handle aborted installs gracefully. The installer should be idempotent -- you should be able to run it regardless of what state the system got left in, and it will just Do The Right Thing. If the process fails halfway through removing the old version of the software due to something out of your control -- like the moron behind the keyboard accidentally hitting the shutdown button when he was trying for another button -- you should be able to run the installer again and have it Do The Right Thing, knowing what part of the process was last successfully finished and continuing from there, or unwinding back to the original conditions and starting from scratch again, but either way it should Just Work.
  5. Once it starts actually installing, it should just do it, not bother you anymore, until the end of the process where, if a reboot is required, it can prompt you for that.
Microsoft has accomplished all of these things with the Office 2010 installer. And you should do the same when you write yours.

So let's state that principle one more time: End users want it to Just Work. Geeking out with oodles of settings and such might make marketroids drool with all the checkboxes they can fill in on the inevitable "competitive comparison checklist", and might make geeks drool over all the cool widgets they can play with, but for 99% of the people out there all you're doing is a) confusing them, and b) making your technical support people pull their hair out trying to deal with end users who want it to Just Work rather than have all these options to select. Especially now, with 2 terabyte hard drives selling for $130 at Fry's and most computers shipping with a minimum of 4 gigabytes of RAM, it doesn't make sense to do anything other than install the whole tamale in the default place. For 99.9% of your users, that's going to be all they want. For the other 0.1% of your users, put that little "+" if you want... just put it somewhere out of the way so someone has to *want* to click on it. And realize that in reality, nobody cares other than a few fellow geeks.

Thinking like an end user. That's what it takes to make a program that Just Works. That's something I've had to pound into my team's head over and over and over again over the years, think like an end user, not like a geek... and Microsoft, at least, appears to have finally learned that lesson in at least this one instance. At which point I must congratulate them, because it's *hard* for geeks to think like end users, but in this one instance, at least, they managed it.