Category Archives: linux

Chromebooks get more useful as Linux comes to Chrome OS

At Google’s IO conference under way in San Francisco, the company has announced the ability for a Chromebook to run Linux applications.

image

“Support for Linux will enable you to create, test and run Android and web app for phones, tablets and laptops all on one Chromebook. Run popular editors, code in your favourite language and launch projects to Google Cloud with the command-line. Everything works directly on a Chromebook,” says product manager Ton Buckley. “Linux runs inside a virtual machine that was designed from scratch for Chromebooks. That means it starts in seconds and integrates completely with Chromebook features. Linux apps can start with a click of an icon, windows can be moved around, and files can be opened directly from apps.”

Squinting at the screen in Google’s photo, above, it looks like the Linux VM runs Debian.

Coupled with the existing ability to run Android apps, the announcement makes Chromebooks more attractive for users (and I am one of them) who would previously have found the operating system too restrictive.

Buckley presents the new feature as primarily one for developers. You will be able to build and test Android applications directly on the Chromebook. Given the operating system’s native support for Android, this should be an excellent machine for Android development.

One of the first things I would install would be Visual Studio Code, presuming it runs OK. Thanks to .NET Core, ASP.NET development should work. The LAMP stack running locally would be great for  PHP development.

Personally I would not only use it for coding though. The ability to run LibreOffice would be great, for example. There are also a ton of handy Linux utilities for admins.

Top feature: security

The key attractions of Chromebooks (aside from low prices from OEM vendors) is security. They are popular in education for this reason. They require less management than PCs because the operating system is locked down and self-patching. The new feature should not compromise security too much, because Linux runs in a VM and in the worst case resetting the VM should clear any malware – though access to user documents could make malware running in the VM quite disruptive.

Apple’s iPad Pro is another capable device with a locked down OS, but does not run Linux applications.

What about Windows? Microsoft has tried and so far failed to lock down Windows in a manner acceptable to its customers. Windows RT was the first attempt, but users found it too restrictive, partly because the Windows 8 app ecosystem was so weak. Windows S is another attempt; but progress is slow. Microsoft has also weakened the security of its modern app platform to make it more capable, even to the extent of allowing desktop applications into the Windows Store. The approach taken by Apple and Google, to design a new secure operating system and make it gradually more capable, is more viable than Microsoft’s work in the opposite direction.

Why Subsystem for Linux in Windows 10 and Windows Server? And what are the implications?

Microsoft is busy improving Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL), the compatibility layer that lets you run Linux on Windows. WSL is not an emulator. It accesses the same file system and you can launch Windows applications from WSL, and vice versa. It also runs actual Linux binaries.

The latest announcements cover copy/paste between Linux and Windows, and a tabbed console. Both enhancements are in the skip-ahead insider version of Windows 10, which means they are unlikely to be in the one about to be released, currently known as Spring Creators Update (but rumoured to be getting a name change). In other words, you may have to wait around six months for this to be generally available.

image 

These are not huge changes, but overall WSL is a big deal. Why is Microsoft doing it? One Betanews commenter says:

I still can’t figure out who this whole "Linux-on-Windows" thing is meant for. Developers who work on both platforms maybe? I guess it would be handy for people who just want to try out Linux before migrating to it, but that’s the last thing Microsoft would want to promote.

Microsoft has in fact stated the primary purpose of WSL:

This is primarily a tool for developers — especially web developers and those who work on or with open source projects. This allows those who want/need to use Bash, common Linux tools (sed, awk, etc.) and many Linux-first tools (Ruby, Python, etc.) to use their toolchain on Windows.

There is a bit more to it. Developers are small in number relative to general users, but disproportionately influential, since they make the applications the rest of us run, and if the applications are not there or are inferior, the ecosystem starts to fail and the operating system declines.

I am not sure when it was that developers started to prefer Macs, but I noticed this trend many years ago, perhaps from the time that OS X moved to x86 (2006). This was not just about preferring the Mac user interface. In 2008 Apple opened up iOS, its mobile OS, to third-party applications, and a Mac was required for iOS development (this is still the case). It has long been relatively easy to run a Windows emulator on a Mac, but not vice versa, so for developers who want to support multiple target platforms from one computer, the Mac makes sense.

OS X / macOS is a Unix-like operating system, based on BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution). This means that moving between Linux and Mac is relatively smooth, from a developer perspective. The same tools are generally available. The internet runs mostly on Linux so the Mac has an advantage there as well.

In some cases this is more than just inconvenience. Windows has a long-standing issue with path lengths. MAX_PATH is defined as 260 characters. This limitation can be mostly removed if you have Windows 10 build 1607 or higher. Nevertheless, path issues have made Windows awkward for developing with Java, Node.js, and other languages or frameworks which typically use deeply nested directories. Open source developers perhaps did not care as much about these issues because they were mostly using Mac or Linux.

Microsoft has responded by improving Windows as a platform on which to develop applications. Visual Studio now targets Mac, iOS and Android as well as Windows. MAX_PATH has been alleviated as far as possible. WSL however goes much further. You can install and run Linux development tools and utilities such as gcc, perl, sed, awk, grep, wget, openssl, perl and more. There is no MAX_PATH issue. You can run the Linux build of Apache, PHP, MySQL and more. I used WSL to debug a PHP application and explained how here.

WSL is not perfect. Not everything is implemented. You can check the current issues here. Still, it is genuinely useful and mitigates the advantages of Mac or Linux for developers.

Microsoft has also added WSL to Windows Server. Why? The main focus here seems to be on administrators. There are times when it is handy to run a Linux command or script on Windows Server. It is not intended for production use as a server, though there is now support for background tasks; however it is still per-session so you would need to keep a user logged on in order to run, for example, a web server. More important, Microsoft has not designed WSL for production use as a server platform so it might not be as optimized or reliable as you require.

Implications of WSL

Where is this going? This is where it gets speculative. I will argue though that WSL is in part an admission of defeat. Windows remains an important development platform, but is now greatly outweighed by Unix-like platforms:

  • Web/Internet applications
  • iOS applications
  • Android applications

Where Windows support is needed, developers have many cross-platform options to choose from, a popular choice today being Electron, based on Chromium (the open source foundation of Google Chrome) and Node.js.

Today there seems little chance of Windows winning back market share as a mobile operating system, and the importance of desktop applications looks destined for long slow decline.

Windows Server remains a significant application platform, but Microsoft is focused more on driving developers to Azure cloud services than on Windows Server itself. SQL Server now runs on Linux, ASP.NET Core is cross-platform, and Azure has excellent support for Linux.

All of this leads me to think that WSL will continue to improve, perhaps to the point where production loads are supported on Windows Server, for example. Further, the ability to run Windows applications on Linux (which is more or less what happens in SQL Server for Linux) may become equally as important as the reverse.

LibreOffice is four years old, plans Android version

Four years ago, on 28th September 2010, the open source LibreOffice productivity suite was created by forking OpenOffice. This Microsoft Office alternative offers a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation graphics, vector drawing package, and database manager. Its origins are in a German suite called Star Office, which was acquired by Sun Microsystems in 1999. In an effort to disrupt Microsoft, Sun made Star Office free and open source, creating OpenOffice.org. However Sun itself was acquired by Oracle Corporation in 2010, and LibreOffice was created by a breakaway group of OpenOffice contributors who were wary of what might happen to the project under Oracle’s stewardship.

image

They probably need not have worried, since Oracle donated OpenOffice to the Apache foundation in 2011. It is still performing its intended function as a Microsoft disruptor; see for example this report of the Italian city of Udine moving from Microsoft Windows and Office to Linux and OpenOffice.

A key motivation is that it is easier to keep free software up to date, and organisations like having all their users on the same version:

"Some of our PCs are stuck with pretty old software like Office 2000, which is no longer supported, as we haven’t had the resources to upgrade," Gabriele Giacomini, the innovation and economic development councillor for the municipality of Udine, told ZDNet.

"By switching to open source, we will have the chance to allow our employees to work with the latest version of the suite”

Microsoft, of course, wants to address this by persuading users to subscribe to Office rather than buying it outright; though this does not solve the problem of out of date Windows versions (but watch this space).

But what about LibreOffice? What is the point of having two major open source productivity suites based on essentially the same products?

Good question; but one possible differentiator is that LibreOffice is working on an Android port. The Document Foundation, which runs the LibreOffice project, is inviting tenders for implementation of the suite on Android, complete with a basic interface for integrating with the user’s “preferred cloud storage”.

Another point of interest is that the Foundation is asking for commercial tenders rather than hiring its own coders to work with the open source community.

That said, there is already an Android port of OpenOffice, called AndrOpen Office, though this is a fork and not an official Apache OpenOffice project.

Are these multiple forks healthy proliferation, or open source confusion? That depends on your point of view, though it does show the ability of the open source community to respond to obvious needs.

It seems to me though that the suite would be more attractive to businesses if LibreOffice and OpenOffice could merge, and develop an official Android version of the suite.

My guess is that productivity software on tablets (and phablets) will be a key battleground as users do an increasing proportion of their work on mobile devices rather than PCs or laptops. Microsoft already has an iOS version of Office, and one for Android in preparation. There is also a version of Office for the Windows 8 “Metro” personality in preparation.

Open source advocate Glyn Moody has posted about the LibreOffice project here.

Running WordPress on Windows Azure

I am investigating hosting this site on Windows Azure, partly as a learning exercise, and possibly to enable easier scaling.

I discovered that any web site short of Standard is worthless other than for experimentation and prototyping. I set up a Small Standard Web Site (£48 per month). But what database? I recalled that you can run WordPress with SQL Server and tried using a 1GB SQL Server Web Edition hosted on Azure (£6.35 per month).

In order to use this, I used the Brandoo WordPress configuration which is set up for SQL Server. I later discovered that it uses the WP Db Abstraction plug-in which according to its home page has not been updated for two years. The installation worked, but some plug-ins reported database errors. I imported some posts and found that search was not working; all searches failed with nothing found.

My conclusion is that running WordPress with SQL Server is unwise unless you have no choice. I looked for another solution.

Azure has a Web Site template which uses WordPress and a MySQL database hosted by ClearDB. I would rather not involve another hosting company, so considered other options. One is to run a VM on Azure and to install MySQL on it. If you are doing that, you might as well put WordPress on the same VM at least until the traffic justifies scaling out. So I have created a new Medium Linux VM – two virtual cores, 3.5GB RAM – at £57 per month, with Ubuntu, and installed the LAMP stack and WordPress on that. The cost is similar to the Windows/SQL Server setup, but the VM is a higher specification, since a Small Web Site is 1 virtual core and 1.75GB RAM. You also get full access to the VM, as opposed to the limited access that a Web Site offers. The installation is a bit more effort but performance is better and it looks like this might work.

image

Fixing lack of output in AWstats after Debian Linux upgrade

I use AWStats to analyse logs on several web sites that I manage. After a recent upgrade to Debian 7.0 “Wheezy” I was puzzled to find that my web stats were no longer being updated.

I verified that the Cron job which runs the update script was running. I verified that if I ran the same command from the console, it ran correctly. I verified this even using sudo to run with the same permissions as Apache. I also noted that the update button on the stats pages worked correctly. An odd problem.

This is how it rested for a while, and I manually updated the stats. It was annoying though, so I took a closer look.

First, I amended one of the Cron jobs so that it output to a file. Reading the file after the next failed update, I could see the error message:

Error: LogFile parameter is not defined in config/domain file
Setup file, web server or permissions) may be wrong.

I knew the config file was fine, but checked anyway, and of course the LogFile was specified OK.

It was a clue though. Eventually I came across this bug report by Simone Capra:

Hi all, i’ve found a problem:
When run from another perl program, it finds a config file that doesn’t exist!

I applied the suggested fix in awstats.pl, changing:

if (open( CONFIG, "$SiteConfig" ) ) {

to

if ($SiteConfig=~ /^[\\/]/ && open( CONFIG, "$SiteConfig" ) ) {

Presto, everything is running OK.

Valve announces Steam-powered apps beyond games as well as embracing Linux

Steam maker Valve has announced that it is expanding beyond games, to sell software titles that “range from creativity to productivity”.

image

The Steam software is more than just a store. The platform handles updates, digital rights management, and supports multiplayer gaming. It also forms a chat network. The Steam overlay lets users access Steam features while playing a full-screen game.

Users can install a Steam title on multiple computers but can only play while logged in, and can only log in on one device.

Steam launched first on Windows, but also has clients for Mac and, via Wine compatibility, on Linux. There are also mobile clients for Android and iOS, and some support for PlayStation 3, though these have limited features. The mobile clients do not let you buy and run games for the mobile device itself.

With Apple, Google and now Microsoft backing their own app stores for their respective platforms, Valve has some tricky manoeuvring ahead if it is to avoid being squeezed out. Valve founder Gabe Newell made headlines recently by calling Windows 8 a “catastrophe”, though he is hardly a disinterested party. Note that he should not worry too much about Windows 8 in the short term, since Microsoft’s store does not support desktop titles other than by links to third-party sites, including Steam. However the general trend towards locked-down platforms with software installed only through an official store must be a concern to Newell.

Valve is turning towards Linux as a possible solution. It is talking at the Siggraph conference this week in Los Angeles about its work on OpenGL and Linux, and it seems that a native Linux Steam client is in prospect.

Could Windows gamers, or others disillusioned with Windows 8, turn to Linux in significant numbers as an alternative? While this is possible, it seems more likely that the Mac would benefit. You would also imagine that skilled gamers will be smart enough to operate the Windows 8 Start menu and discover that most of their stuff still runs fine on the new desktop.

The Steam platform is a strong one though, and with Microsoft not supporting desktop apps through its own Store, Valve has a good opportunity to extend its reach.

According to its own stats, Steam has peaked at over 4 million concurrent users this month.

image

Microsoft deprecates Subsystem for UNIX, recommends open source instead

I am getting started with the Windows Server 8 beta and noticed this in the list of Features Removed:

The Subsystem for UNIX-based Applications (SUA) is deprecated. If you use the SUA POSIX subsystem with this release, use Hyper-V to virtualize the server. If you use the tools provided by SUA, switch to Cygwin or Mingw.

Cygwin and Mingw are open source tools which let you use some Unix tools on Windows. That said, my preference would be the virtualisation route, rather than installing these layers on Windows Server itself.

Top languages on Github: JavaScript reigns, Ruby and Python next

I cloned a github repository today, and while browsing the site noticed the language stats:

image

Git was originally developed for the Linux kernel and is mainly for the open source community. I was interested to see JavaScript, the language of HTML 5, riding so high. PHP, C and C++ are lower than I would have guessed, Ruby and Python higher.

Here are some figures for the venerable Sourceforge:

Java (7,163) 19%
C++ (6,449) 17%
C (4,752) 13%
PHP (3,521) 10%
Python (2,694) 7%
C# (2,481) 7%
JavaScript (2,011) 5%
Perl (1,138) 3%
Shell (757) 2%
Visual Basic NET (688) 2%
Delphi/Kylix (581) 2%

This comes with a health warning. I have taken the figures from the what you get if you browse the directory and drop down Programming Languages; but the total is only about 37,000, whereas Sourceforge hosts around 324,000 projects. I am not sure what accounts for the discrepancy; it could be that language is not specified for the other projects, or they are dormant, or some other reason. But I hope the proportions indicate something of value.

Github is madly trendy, and Sourceforge ancient, so this tells us something about how open source activity has shifted towards JavaScript, Ruby and Python, and away from Java, C/C++ and C#.

Of course the overall picture of programming language usage is quite different. For example, you can get some kind of clue about commercial activity from a job board like indeed.com, which currently has 77,457 US vacancies for Java, 22,413 for JavaScript, and only 5030 for Ruby.

Nevertheless, interesting to see what languages developers on Github are choosing to work with, and perhaps an indicator of what may be most in demand on the job boards a few years from now.

Finally, looking at these figures I cannot help thinking how short-sighted Microsoft was in abandoning IronPython and IronRuby back in 2010.

Trying out nide – a cloud IDE for Node.js

I was intrigued by reports of nide, a web-based IDE for Node.js. It was one of the entries in the Node.js Knockout challenge last summer.

So how do you install it? One line on Linux; but I did not want to put it on my web server and I re-purposed my spare Linux machine last year after one of my other servers broke.

I decided to run up a Debian install on a Hyper-V server that has a little spare capacity.

image

I then followed the setups here for setting up Node.js and npm (Node Package Manager). I also installed nginx which I have been meaning to try for a while. Linux on Hyper-V works fine, though you have to use a “Legacy” network adapter which compromises performance a bit, unless you are willing to tackle installing Microsoft’s Hyper-V integration components for Linux, which do not support Debian though it is said to work. I do not need a GUI and the legacy network adapter is OK for this.

Everything works OK, though I found that nide does not work in Internet Explorer 9. I used Google Chrome, which makes sense I guess since the same JavaScript engine is used by Node.js.

Nide is a simple affair which is essentially a file manager. Projects are displayed in a tree view, and you select a file to view or edit it. The icons at the bottom left of the screen let you create and delete files and folders.

image

The smartest feature is version management. Files are saved automatically and you can easily compare versions and revert if necessary. The “Go backward in time” button shows that auto-saves are quite frequent.

image

There is also a GUI for npm built-in. Pretty good for a competition entry, though I had a few problems.

If you are interested in web-based IDEs, another interesting one is Orion, an Eclipse project.  Executive Director Mike Milinkovich says Orion will ship a 1.0 release later this year.

image

Users petition Asus over locked bootloader in Asus Transformer Prime

The new Asus Transformer Prime TF201 Android tablet is winning praise for its performance and flexibility. It is driven by NVIDIA’s quad-core Tegra 3 processor and can be equipped with a keyboard and dock that extends battery life and makes the device more like a laptop.

All good; but techie users are upset that the bootloader is encrypted, which means the kernel cannot be modified other than through official Asus updates.

A petition on the subject has achieved over 2000 signatures. Detailed discussion of the implications are here.

image

Why do vendors lock the bootloader? One reason is for support, since it increases the user’s ability to mess up their machines. On the other hand, most users who hack to this extent understand what they are doing. This comment from the petition stood out for me:

We understand that custom firmware cannot be supported by ASUS, but we consider that it is our right to customise our devices in any way we wish: once bought, the Prime is our property alone to modify if we choose.

This is something we have taken for granted in the PC era, but the tablet era is looking different, with locked-down devices that give vendors more control. The success of the Apple iPad suggests that most users do not mind if the result is a good experience. It is a profound change though, and one that makes users vulnerable to vendors who are slow or reluctant to provide updates.