Walking in the Footsteps of Giants

I have a project at work I have been dreading. Our current wiki is running on Ubuntu JeOS and PostgreSQL, and we are moving to Microsoft Windows Server 2008 and Microsoft SQL Server. The move to Windows was frustrating, but pretty easy–to be perfectly honest, getting it to all work on Linux was a lot more difficult, but that was partially because I had no friggin’ idea what I was doing 2.5 or so years ago when I started working with Confluence. But I could handle that OK. Moving to MSSQL is a bit terrifying though. I’ve been avoiding it for a week.

Confluence was built to work with Postgre, and it works very well. There’s no configuration, no real tricks to it. You just drop the driver in the right folder, click the install button, and go. For MSSQL, though, there are a lot of hoops to jump through, both in regards to software configuration and the database setup. What’s more, the DB is running on Enterprise System‘s SQL Server, which is kind of a Big Deal. This isn’t me just playing around with a local toy anymore, so if I screw something up, it’s going to be a little more noticeable.

This afternoon when I began working on it, though, I had already spent about 4 hours researching the topic. I had read all the comments on different wiki pages and I had all my notes. I followed the directions Very Carefully.

And it worked.

I was pretty nervous when it took over two minutes to connect to the DB and get set up, which it did silently so I had no idea if it was about to stab me or not. But in the end, it did connect, and now I’m getting ready to push a ton of data to it.

That’s my next big hurdle: will the data pulled from PGSQL push into MSSQL without a hitch? According to what I read, it should as long as the DB username is the same, but I’m still nervous. Regardless, I want to offer public thanks for all those early adopters who blaze the trails I hesitantly step down.

Shifting Perception of Microsoft

I just finished reading an article about Microsoft’s antivirus offering. Due to my ongoing pain, exhaustion, and fuzzy-headedness, I will once again ask your forgiveness for my short, curt, and blunt sentences.

First, I’ve got a decent amount of experience as an end-user and as tech support with various antivirus (AV) products. I’m not a virus expert or a coder, but I know more than the average bear about viruses and their removal, as well as about different AV software. I’ve been following Microsoft’s offering and development for at least five years now.

Second, I recognize the various red flags that are put up about M$’s AV. “Do they purposely make their operating system insecure to sell additional security products?” “Won’t this make other security companies obsolete, putting them out of business? That sounds like monopoly behaviour.” Etc.

For expediency’s sake, I won’t go into a lot of detail about how M$ AV has fared in the past other than to say that it sucked. Windows Defender was piss-poor in beta and has improved, but I still don’t trust it. Combine this with my general distrust of Microsoft and their DRM, fierce anti-piracy, and privacy-invading systems and I think you’ve got an operating system best avoided if at all possible. That’s why I switched to Linux almost three years ago (following my beta testing of Vista) and now own a MacBook. I don’t like being treated like a criminal.

All that being said, there are a few new things on the M$ horizon. Windows 7 is simply a phenomenal operating system based on what I have seen so far. They keep telling me that it’s very similar to Vista under the hood, and maybe that’s true, but it just runs well. Way better than Vista. It makes me feel like they actually listened to customers rather than treating us poorly and assuming we’d happily pay to choke down whatever they deigned to throw to us. Over the last few years, they’ve relaxed their communications grip and allowed more blogging, more openness, and more honesty with the user community (and their relationship with developers has been good for quite some time). This leads to a more positive perception of them.

From what I read in the above-linked article, their AV is pretty solid now, and I think they have some good reasoning behind it. I dislike the idea of buying an insecure OS, but the more I learn about Windows development, the more I can accept its quirks and appreciate how they are working to correct the problem(s). I think they’re going about it the right way.

And to be perfectly honest, using Mac OS X, I’ve come to accept the dark side a bit more. I’m not so blindly hypocritical that I can’t realize the absurdity in bitching about M$ DRM and then accepting Apple with open arms. No one is more locked down than Apple. There’s a philosophical difference between the two, but the point stands: I am willing to accept certain restrictions because functionality and ease are superceding factors.

Vista wasn’t good enough to make up for its shortcomings. Windows 7 is, and when you bundle it with tight antispyware and antivirus software that makes it actually [more] secure out of the box like it’s supposed to be, that makes the operating system significantly more palatable.

Ever since they got trout-slapped in response to Vista, Microsoft has been working hard to clean up its act and woo users. Believe you me, I can be bought. Make me a shiny, solid, secure operating system and you might just get a user back.

Endnote:: The last sentence isn’t quite true. There’s an excellent chance I’ll run Windows 7 in a virtual machine at work to use Microsoft Outlook. I’ll keep Linux on my desktop and OS X on my MacBook. I do, and will, however have Windows 7 in Bootcamp on my Mac for gaming. There’s a decent chance I’ll even increase that partition by another 25gb come August to move World of Warcraft from the Mac to the Windows side, as I’m pretty sure it’ll perform better there. What I’m saying is, I don’t have Vista anywhere, nor will I. Windows 7 is acceptable, and Microsoft is whirming its way back onto my computers with their improved PR and OS.

Linux vs. OS X? Why are we even talking about this?

I read an article recently on ZDNet about 10 things Linux does better than OS X which was accurate, insightful, and altogether correct. It was also pretty damned irrelevant.

You don’t have to go far on the Internet to find what we like to call a “fanboi” or “zealot,” defending their chosen pile of software against all comers. I don’t know if it’s because people are insecure in their choices or because they are trying to convince themselves, but a lot of writers on the ‘net will take up arms if you choose to use a software package different than their chosen avatar. This is nowhere more prevalent than when it comes to operating systems.

To be fair, you don’t see many Microsoft Windows zealots because, let’s face it, there’s not much to defend there. They’ve got 80% or more of the personal computer market, and while their OS isn’t great, it gets the job done most of the time. Those who use it don’t really need to say anything to defend their software, they just have to point at the numbers.

But Apple and Linux certainly have their fans, of the mouth-foamy type, and it boggles my mind. I don’t particularly like Microsoft Windows, but I can see where it is sometimes necessary, and the same goes for the other operating systems. I love Linux and it’s a great OS, and I’m really enjoying using OS X on my MacBook.

An article like the above-linked 10 things Linux does better than OS X can be helpful when deciding which OS to run, but the problem is that articles and opinions like these are usually held to be normative. That is, they are trying to say, “Here are ten things that Linux does better than OS X, therefore Linux is better than OS X.” It’s absurd.

The truth of the matter is that different jobs call for different tools. If I was a construction worker, hitting a nail with OpenOffice.org would fail. If I was handling very sensitive data that needed to be kept secure, yeah Linux would be best. But if I needed to work with advanced spreadsheets in Microsoft Excel 2007, Microsoft Windows would be the only operating system for me.

Personally, I was looking for high battery life, a good writing program, and a lightweight notebook, which led me to the MacBook. I recognize that Linux has some superior characteristics, but not for what I needed. I don’t need the most secure operating system ever, it doesn’t affect my writing one way or the other if my OS is open source, and the abundance of software available for Linux doesn’t make a difference in this case. It didn’t have Scrivener, so it was out.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. You’ve got to use the right tool for the right job, so a better article might be, “Given X, here’s the best OS and here’s why.” That is, of course, if you can be bothered to wipe the foam away from your mouth and say something worthwhile.

Why I bought an Apple Macbook

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Looking back, I’m not sure why I was so anti-Mac once upon a time.

Oh wait, yes I am. Because they were expensive, not as functional, and didn’t bring enough to the table to justify the investment.

Enter the new Macbook

When I saw the video detailing the changes and updates in the body and design of the new Macbook, I salivated. The way they put the laptop together was very cool, and between hardware changes and the standard integration of OS X, it looked like it ran very well indeed. “If only it was around $1200 instead of $1800,” I said. “Then maybe I could justify such an extravagant piece of machinery.”

Then I looked at the page on Apple’s site and discovered that the base Book was sitting at $1299. That was almost reasonable, I thought, and I began considering it more seriously. I’ve been thinking about getting a new laptop for around two years now, and my old lappy was originally purchased in late 2003 or early 2004. It weighs around 6.8 pounds and currently gets around 30 minutes of battery life, so you might consider it more of a desktop replacement than a true mobile computer. I didn’t use it much anymore because it just wasn’t that useful for my purposes.

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Just say no to IIS

Our university is not exclusively a Microsoft shop, but it sometimes feels like it is. We predominantly have Microsoft Windows PCs, all of our computer labs run Windows, most of our office computers, and the vast majority of our servers. Therefore, when I’ve had to build web servers for our department in the last year, they’ve always run Server 2003 and IIS. Quite frankly, I’m sick of it. My first webserver was Mandriva Linux running the LAMP stack, and though it was quite a learning experience resulting in reinstalling the operating system probably twenty times over the course of a month, I came to vastly prefer Linux over Windows. I now run Linux on all of my computers, both work and home, but I persisted in installing Windows Server on machines I built at work.

The justification was that no one else knew Linux, or at least not within our group. I wanted to build servers that others would be able to log into and administrate comfortably, if for no other reason than that I didn’t want to have to do all of the work. So I wrestled with IIS and ISAPI filters for redirection and poor SSL handling for encrypting logon pages and memory leaks and instability, just the whole gamut of problems one tends to run into when using Windows. The sad part is that I now have BSD on a second partition of my work computer, and even thoughts of that fill me with more warm fuzzies than having to put up with IIS.

Well, no more. I’m building a new web virtual machine for our wiki software, and today I configured the latest version of Ubuntu Server on it. I refused to touch the last version of Ubuntu Server (7.10) because it wasn’t mature enough yet. Last Thursday however, an LTS (long-term service) release of Ubuntu’s server edition dropped (version 8.04), and so I am more comfortable putting that on a production server.

So far, so good. I was able to get XFCE4 desktop manager on it with minimum fuss (once Ubuntu’s repository servers stopped getting hammered by everyone trying to acquire the software after release), and I have Confluence running smoothly. There were a couple of frustrating moments where something wouldn’t work right, but invariably a restart fixed it (like when I copied over a JDCB .jar file and it hadn’t been initiated yet because I hadn’t restarted the service, yet I was stupidly looking at my screen wondering why it wasn’t working).

Tomorrow, or Wednesday at the latest, I hope to get it setup as a mail server as well. It looks like that process is going to be significantly more difficult than it was with Windows, where I just installed hMailServer, but it’ll be a good learning experience if nothing else. And the most important part: no more IIS.

He who has root…

It is a substantial flaw in Microsoft Windows’ security scheme that administrator access is required for just about everything. Drivers go in at the kernel level and pretty much all software requires admin access, not just to install, but to run. Since our new ERP package is web based, we tried to have users in training labs not be administrator, but then they couldn’t connect to a printer or do other things they needed to. Our new residence management package requires admin access, even though it’s web based as well, because the activeX control requires administrator access to install. Even the most simple of tasks on Windows will require admin access, to the extent where the machine just isn’t safe.

Vista implemented UAC, which at least puts a sudo-like prompt in (though you don’t necessarily need to be in a certain group or have a password to use it) which has you click a button to do something as an administrator. The idea is that this warns the user that something important is going on. Unfortunately, over time people become desensitized to this sort of thing and just start clicking through. It doesn’t solve the problem of programs written that require root access to even run.

And generally, Linux does this pretty well. Programs require root to install, but most don’t require that level of access to run unless they really need it. And when they do require root, I can usually use sudo (because I’ve placed my username in the wheel group, so even that is limited), which means I don’t have to actually type the root password in.

But then something stupid comes up, like daylight savings time where I need to change my clock, and openSUSE has to freaking run YaST (requiring the root password, not just sudo) in order to change the time. Why? Why is that necessary? And my tablet is slow enough that YaST just kills it, so it takes so long to change my clock that it ends up being a minute or so behind at the end (because the process takes that long to run).

I like sudo + wheel group, and I hate having to do stuff as root/admin. I particularly hate having to use root/admin for simple, non-system-impacting processes. I have no conclusion or solution to this situation, I just needed to rant.

P.S. Linux Mint, which I use at home, updated my time automagically. Silly openSUSE.