Thursday, July 28, 2011

Do Not Annoy The Geek

What brought that up? Well, two things. The first is that I'm updating my report on virtualization systems with a new round of testing. This new round of testing includes some entrants that didn't exist during the first round -- Scientific Linux 6 / Centos 6.0, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6.1, Ubuntu 11.04, and OpenSUSE 11.4. I'll write that up as soon as I finish with OpenSUSE 11.4, the only one left to evaluate. The second thing that happened was that my Macbook Pro decided it didn't like to sleep or shut down cleanly, which annoyed me because, reading forums, it appears that the only way to fix it is to do a clean wipe and re-install from scratch, re-install my applications from scratch, then restore only data, not configuration info. Makes me feel like a Windows user. Which annoys the geek.

So, how did the round of virtualization evaluations annoy the geek? Well: SL/Centos, Ubuntu, and OpenSUSE can be downloaded from their respective web sites. Red Hat requires you to sign up for an evaluation. Okay, so I already have an account on their site from the *last* version of their software that I evaluated back in December of last year (the original RHEL 6.0 release), so I went back in and signed up again. And promptly got rejected. "We do not accept personal email addresses for evaluations." I.e., they only want corporations to evaluate their software. I shrugged, changed my email address to a .com address that I registered over ten years ago but have never used (but which forwards email to my personal inbox), and downloaded the software. But I was annoyed.

So why is this important? Simple. I am not a product manager. I don't make final decisions about what to buy. But I am, more often than not, the person that the product manager or the IT manager comes to when they have a problem and want to know, "what technology do I need?". People like me are called influence leaders, because our combination of technical skills and communications skills, our understanding of both technology and actual business issues, means that folks who have one but not the other come to us to decide what the next round of innovation deployment is going to be. My estimate is that I've personally influenced or caused to happen over $5M/year of purchases over the past ten years. And that is true of geeks in general -- geeks may not be the people who sign the checks, but they're the people who evaluate the technology and tell the people who sign the checks what to buy.

So anyhow, back to Red Hat. That question on their web site is completely anti-geek. See, while evaluating virtualization technology is part of my job description (seriously -- it's there in black and white), for the most part I do it as a private citizen, not as a qualified lead. That's because otherwise I get bombarded with spam emails and phone calls asking me to buy stuff -- but I don't buy stuff, I evaluate stuff. Other people in my company buy stuff, and no, you are not getting their name or phone number from me because then they'll come to me and ask me questions about you that I can't answer until I finish evaluating your product. But Red Hat's marketing department is looking for qualified leads -- potential check-writers that they can bombard with phone calls and spam emails to sell stuff. But you won't get very far bombarding me with emails and phone calls, because I am a technical leader, I don't write checks and you'll do nothing but annoy me if you bombard me with phone calls and emails. If you want sales generated from me, you'll have to do it the old-fashioned way -- by letting me do a technical evaluation of your product for a month or so to see if it'll fulfil our company's needs better than the competition.

So how important is this sort of geek cred? Well, let's look at Sun Microsystems. Back in the day, they had geek cred out the yazoo. Geeks lusted after a Sun workstation on their desk, and fumed at the notion that they had to settle for a lowly PC, because Sun workstations with their BSD-based SunOS were geek nirvana with full geek programming toolkit including a "C" compiler and programmable shell scripting environment. Then Sun decided, upon releasing AT&T System V.4 as "Solaris", that they would no longer include the software development tools with their workstations. That was the beginning of the end for Sun, it just took fifteen years for it to catch up with them. The geek lust eventually moved to PC's running Linux. Linux went up and up and up, Sun lost market share to PC's running both Windows and Linux year after year, and to Apple once Apple moved to Unix and started including development tools to attract the geeks to their platform, until finally Sun got acquired for the few competitive products they had left. Sun made a last-ditch effort with OpenSolaris to regain geek cred, but it was too little, too late -- Linux had such a lock on geek mindshare that there was no way Sun could regain enough mindshare to make a difference. When geeks lust for Unix servers and workstations now, they lust for well-endowed Linux servers and MacOS workstations, not Sun ones -- but that was *not* true in 1990, in 1990 if you were a geek, you had serious Sun lust.

Of course, this points out two things about geek cred: a) it takes a long time to build up to the point where it makes or breaks technology companies (but in the end it always does), and b) once you lose it, getting it back is a real problem. Well, and c) if your product is pretty much the only thing that solves a particular problem, you don't need geek cred (thus why the IBM 370 architecture machines still sell plenty despite being utterly unfashionable in geek circles). So if you're a marketing type looking for the long term, what do you need to know?

  1. Provide evaluation copies of your software without jumping through too many hoops. Basically, anything that involves delay is too many hoops for geeks, geeks are impatient and want instant gratification. At one employer they made it so difficult to download an evaluation copy of the software that virtually nobody did so -- the only way you could do it was to basically become a qualified lead and have one of their salesmen call you. But that annoys the geek. One reason why my employer uses VMware ESXi heavily is because we in the technical staff could download the evaluation version of the software, see that it worked quite well for our projects, and then, and only then, did we go to our superiors and have them negotiate whatever licensing was needed to make our projects work. If VMware had made it hard to get evaluation versions of their software, that would have never happened -- we would have used one of the Open Source virtualization platforms despite their limitations.
  2. Describe what your product does on your web site. Seriously. I can't count the number of times I read some breathless but vague marketing hype on the web site, try to infer whether it solves the problem I'm trying to solve, download the actual eval product... and meh. It didn't do anything like what I thought it was when I read the breathless hype on the web site. Tell me what problem you're trying to solve with your product. Yes, I know you don't want to limit yourself, but please. Give me a clue *without* having to waste my time, because wasting time annoys the geek!
  3. Provide technical documentation on your web site. At a previous employer I once wrote a blog entry for a customer-facing company blog that described, with some technical detail, exactly what it is that our product did. That blog entry got kiboshed by a PHB because "it lets out too many details of our secret sauce". Thing is, geeks don't like secrets. They want to know what it does and how it does it. If you don't tell them, they'll decide you don't have anything but smoke and mirrors and go elsewhere. It always frustrated me at that company that we had a cool product, but nobody knew it -- because we refused to tell it. But there's no such thing as secrets in technology. Everything can be reverse-engineered. So keeping technical details close to the vest doesn't accompany anything but annoying the geek -- and hurting your street cred, since it makes you look like a fly-by-night peddling smoke and mirrors.
  4. Provide a programmable interface if reasonable and possible. End users won't care, of course. But one reason why Linux (and eventually MacOS X) won out over the other Unixes was because they were very open to programmers. Linux of course comes with the complete source code, while MacOS has source available for many components of the system plus has a free programming tool set available for it (XCode) as well as having that all-important Unix shell prompt with all the geeky Unix tools. Meanwhile, the other Unixes required you to fork over significant sums of money to get their programming toolkits. One of the things Microsoft has done right recently is to include PowerShell with all their systems and export most of their OS API's as PowerShell objects. It has decidedly helped their reputation in geek circles -- you'll notice that while you still have some geeks saying "Microsoft is Teh Eeeevil", most have moved to a position of neutrality on the whole subject of Microsoft. (Disclaimer: This is being written on Firefox running on Fedora 15 running under VirtualBox on a Windows 7 host :). I still wouldn't deploy a Windows server unless you paid me a significant sum of money to do so, but people who put Linux on the desktop because Microsoft is 'Teh Eeevil' are just being twits.
  5. DON'T CRASH! Seriously. Crashes annoy geeks even more than missing features. If there's a choice between having a cool feature and having a reliable product, err on the side of a reliable product. Nobody ever lost customers by having a reliable product, but once you lose cred by getting a reputation for having a crashy product... well.
  6. And -- participate in geek community. There were some tools at one employer that we could have contributed to the Open Source community that would have worked quite well at building geek cred, but management was totally against it because it would "divulge corporate secrets". Well, that company is out of business now. Openness sells. Secrecy doesn't. If you can't out-innovate your competition once they figure out your "secrets", you're in the wrong business -- because the technology industry moves so fast that any "secrets" you divulge *should* be obsolete long before any competitor can take advantage of them. If not, you're as doomed as the startup I worked for that took three years to create their first product, which was two years obsolete by the time they finally got it out the door late, slow, and buggy. You have to move *fast* in the technology industry, and if you can't out-run any "secrets" you divulge to the geek community, you're going to be out of business soon anyhow.
So anyhow, just one of those things to keep in mind if you're a marketing person wondering how to get market share. Find some geeks and ask them what annoys them about your product or about how your company sells your product. Then fix it. It won't create short term sales figures, but if you're wanting a long career for a stable company, that's how to do it -- something that Red Hat needs to remember, in their current rush to go complete pointy haired boss on the geeks when it comes to evaluating their enterprise products.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Accessing raw drives from VirtualBox

In my previous virtualization series, I avoided VirtualBox because there was no GUI support for accessing raw drives, and I have a pair of 2TB Linux RAID drives that I wanted to use a Linux VM on my Windows host to assemble and export to my network as a set of network shares. However, when I wanted to see the Gnome Shell functionality of Fedora 15, I had no choice but to use VirtualBox -- it's the only virtualization solution out there that currently supports OpenGL acceleration for Linux virtual machines.

So given that incentive, I actually did it. The secret is VirtualBox's VMDK support for importing VMWare virtual drives. The VMDK header format allows creating a virtual disk that is actually just a pointer to a physical drive. So, I used the directions on the VirtualBox site to create two vmdk files pointing at physical drives and then add them to my freshly installed Fedora 15 virtual machine as "existing" drives.

The first thing to note is that on Windows Vista or Windows 7, you MUST run VirtualBox as Administrator to access physical drives. Otherwise your VM simply won't start (and you can't even create your virtual VMDK's if you're not doing it as Administrator).

The next thing to note is where Oracle puts all the binaries you'll need. So you'll need to pop open a Terminal window as the administrative user (i.e. right-click and "run as Administrator") and:

C:> path "%path%;C:\Program Files\Oracle\VirtualBox"

Then you'll need to find your virtual machines. For me:

C:> cd "\Users\eric\VirtualBox VMs"

did the trick.

Now you can run the commands. I knew from my VMware Player experiment what my two physical drives were identified as in Windows. They were identified as drives 0 and 1, while my boot drive (which plugs into the front) is identified as drive 2. So I went ahead and did it. Otherwise you may need to do a bit of poking around to figure out which drives to push. So anyhow:

C:> VBoxManage internalcommands createrawvmdk -filename Fedora15/Disk0.vmdk -rawdisk \\.\PhysicalDrive0
C:> VBoxManage internalcommands createrawvmdk -filename Fedora15/Disk1.vmdk -rawdisk \\.\PhysicalDrive1

Then I right-clicked my VirtualBox icon and ran it as Administrator (you will probably want to go into its settings via right-click on its icon and make that permanent for left-double-clicks too), clicked the Fedora15 virtual machine, then its Settings icon, hit "+", and added the two hard drives as "existing" virtual hard drives. I then started the VM and... success! I saw my two drives in /proc/partitions.

Well.... *almost* success. Fedora 15 didn't activate my arrays on that first boot. So mdadm to activate them, vgscan (to detect my volume groups after activating the RAID arrays with mdadm), then lvchange -ay to activate the detected logical volumes. But once I did all that I could mount my filesystems and add them to /etc/fstab, and Fedora 15 properly assembled everything on my next reboot.

So what's the downside of VirtualBox so far? Well... it's hard to say. One thing I *have* noticed is that YouTube videos do not play properly. Multimedia playback in virtual machines is always problematic because of timing jitter, and I suspect that being on a Windows host with its really lousy clock system doesn't help. But then, I can just view multimedia on the Windows host -- that's why I have it, for games and stuff that doesn't work well under Linux. Other than that, everything else seems to be working... and you can't beat the price: Free (for personal use).


Monday, July 18, 2011

Re-inventing the Linux desktop

My opinion of the Linux desktop is pretty much well known by now -- I believe I mentioned "Window 95 as re-implemented by a Soviet Union that never fell"? A.k.a. clunky, incoherent, and obsolete? But recently two distributions have been released with a re-imagining of what the Linux desktop should look like. So today I installed Fedora 15 and Ubuntu 11.04 into Virtualbox on my Macbook Pro (into Virtualbox because it's currently the only virtualization environment with 3D support for Linux), and examined the two new systems -- Gnome 3's Gnome Shell, and Ubuntu's Harmony.

Gnome 3 was the first one I looked at, and by far the most revolutionary. Everything in the new Gnome Shell is set up to be doable with a couple of mouse swishes and one or two clicks. A swish to the upper left corner of the screen does three things -- does an Expose'-like scale of your windows so you can choose which window you want to activate by just clicking on it, sucks in a dock from the left side of the screen, and sucks in a screen list from the right side of the screen. You can grab a window and move it to the next screen in the screen list (there's always one blank screen at the end of the list -- sort of like the iPhone's applications screens), or you can click on the word "Applications" towards the upper left of your screen and see a list of applications in a format somewhat like an iPhone's application chooser. It is all easier to use than it sounds -- it really does make the whole thing swish swish swish point and click easy.

If you have applets running, like gDesklets, you can get to them by going to the bottom right corner of the screen. A sort of fuzzy menu bar then rises up from the bottom.

My general conclusion: Gnome 3 is currently incomplete -- it's barely configurable at all for example -- but it puts together the best ideas in UI's that have come down the pike over the past few years into an easy-to-use whole. My workflow falls out of the way Gnome 3 works naturally. If I want a screen for my browser windows, for example, swish to top left, swish to next screen on the right and click it, swish to left and select my browser on the dock, and voila, it pops open on the new screen and *another* blank screen is created for the *next* thing I want to do. Close all the windows on a screen, and it goes away, so I always have just the screens I need for my workflow -- no more, no less. I spent some time today doing software development with this system, and the usability compared to traditional Gnome is astounding.

Next up was Ubuntu's Unity. That, alas, turns out to be a disappointment. While Gnome 3 re-imagined the world to the point where some of the rumored Windows 8 functionality is going to be a clone of already-existing Gnome 3 functionality (like the iPhone-like application chooser), Unity simply attempts to clone Mac OS X without seeming too obvious about it. The problem is that simply moving the dock to the left side and modifying GTK+ to move application menus to the top like MacOS (except active and context sensitive, can't forget that!) isn't enough to make a quantum leap in functionality. Frankly, it ends up looking a bit of a mess. Gnome 3 re-imagined, Unity cloned, and like most clones, the clone isn't the equal of the original.

So: Does this mean the Linux desktop is usable now? Am I going to abandon my Macbook Pro and run a native Linux desktop again? Uhm... not hardly. I have a major investment in MacOS professional music software for which there is no Linux equivalent, and I still have significant difficulties viewing multimedia-based sites with Linux. Part of that is Microsoft and Apple's fault -- they release all these tools for "free" that produce (and view) multimedia content in their own proprietary formats like Quicktime and WMA, and don't release the viewing tools for Linux. I also can't read my corporate email using Linux -- neither of Evolution's Exchange plugins will handle proxied Exchange servers. That's sort of important too. Still, the fact that there is now a Linux UI which is actually innovative rather than a crude clone of other people's ideas is a sea change in an OS development process which all too often has ignored the desktop in favor of server optimizations. I don't know what happens next, but I suspect it'll be an improvement. Of course, given where the Linux UI started -- as an incoherent mess (inherited from MIT X11) -- that's sort of faint praise. So it goes.