Is The Microsoft Stack Really More Expensive?

by Jon Davis 5. September 2009 23:17

As a Microsoft customer, who at times rambles on with a fair share of complaints about Microsoft’s doings, I want to take a moment to discuss Microsoft’s successes in making its development stack affordable, equal to or even more so I’d argue than the LAMP + Adobe stacks.

Let’s Get Started

If you’re developing for the web, Microsoft makes it easy to download everything you need to develop on the Microsoft stack for free with a do-it-all download application called the Microsoft Web Platform. Everything you need to get started is available from that tool for free, including (but not limited to):

  • Visual Web Developer 2008 Express (FREE)
  • Silverlight tools for Visual Web Developer (FREE)
  • Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Express (FREE)
  • IIS extensions such as FastCGI for running PHP applications (FREE)
  • ASP.NET add-on libraries, including ASP.NET MVC (FREE)
  • Tons of free, open source ASP.NET applications (FREE)
  • Tons of free, open source PHP applications that can run on IIS (on Windows) (FREE)

I’ll even go so far as to repost a pretty Microsoft-provided button.

(FREE)

Windows

Let’s get the obvious realities of Microsoft stack expenses out of the way first. Microsoft is a platforms company. They make their money off of our dependence upon their platform. That platform is Windows. Many people’s reaction to this is to hold up two fingers to make a cross and shout, “Eww, nooo! No! Monopolies, baaad!” I believe I have a more well-rounded response, which is, “Oh! Well dang. If we’re going to build up a dependency upon a platform, that platform (and its sub-platforms) had better be REALLY FREAKING GOOD—good as in performant, easy to work with, reliable, scalable, and a joy to use, and it had better support all the things most all the other platforms support.”

Enter Windows Server 2008 and Windows 7.

Over the last decade, Microsoft has worked hard to achieve, and since Windows Vista (believe it or not) has already achieved, the right to sing the song to Linux,

Anything you can do,
I can do better!
I can do anything
better than you!

 

And yeah I think Microsoft gets the girl’s part on this one, but perhaps only because of:

Boy: I can live on bread and cheese.

Girl: And only on that?

Boy: Yup.

Girl: So can a rat.

By this I simply mean that everything that’s on the Linux stack is also on the Windows stack, plus Microsoft has its own proprietary equivalents that, in the opinions of most of its customers, are a lot better than the open source equivalents. Take PHP for example. Internet Information Server 7 does everything Apache can do plus host non-HTTP network applications, but it also does everything Apache does, functionally speaking, including configuration details and hosting PHP. But it also performs faster than Apache at hosting PHP applications with Fast-CGI and binary script caching installed and enabled. But beyond PHP, which in itself is technically not much more than ASP Classic (Javascript flavor), Microsoft’s ASP.NET is far more powerful and versatile than PHP, and it’s 100% free (after the cost of Windows itself). And don’t get me started about how much better I think Windows is at GUIs and graphics with GDI+, DirectX, and WPF, than the Linux flavors. (Apple, on the other hand, competes pretty well.)

Windows can also execute all the Java and Ruby stuff that you see in *nix platforms. In fact, Windows has all the UNIX subsystem underpinnings to make a UNIX enthusiast comfortable. The shell and all that fluff is a separate download but it’s all part of the Windows package and is free after the full Windows Ultimate or Windows Server license. You can snag Cygwin, too, if you like, if you want to get an even richer Linux-like experience.

So that’s Windows; you can go fully-licensed and get Windows 7 Ultimate ($219) + Windows Server 2008 R2 ($999) as a workstation + server combo for a total of $1,218 plus tax. However, if you’re in a position to care about that much money, I can tell you that you do not have to suffer that amount if you don’t want to.

First of all, Windows 7 Ultimate can perform just fine as a server. Windows Server 2008 is intended more for an enterprise environment that requires prison-like security and needs some very enterprisey or advanced features, such as hosting Active Directory domains, hosting Exchange Server, or hosting some unusual network services for developers with very specialized needs. If all your needs can be met with IIS and a database, so long as you don’t have a million hits a month (there is, unfortunately, simultaneous network connection count throttling built into Vista/7), you really don’t need anything more than Windows 7 Ultimate, no matter how many sites you host. It will scale, too, and in fact Windows 7 is built to handle tens of CPU cores. So, going Windows 7 only takes the total cost down to $219.

Second, if you really do want to go with the Server flavor, you have a couple more options, including a COMPLETELY FREE option which is very easily accessible, but I’ll get back to that later.

I just want to say, though, at this point, that I for one am already a Windows user, and you probably are too, statistically speaking. Our investments have already been made; however, only the Ultimate edition of Windows is one I would settle for as a “Microsoft stack” developer. Mind you, I’ve never had to pay the full price for any version of Windows in many, many years, yet I am currently running the latest and greatest. Again, I’ll get into that later.

Now let’s look at the development languages and the tools that support them.

Development Languages and Tools

The big names among the non-Microsoft platforms for languages and sub-platforms are:

  • PHP,
  • Ruby (on Rails),
  • Python, and
  • Java

Their tools come in many shapes and sizes. They can be as simple as vi or as complex as NetBeans. Many of the good tools people like to use are free. However, many of them are not.

For example, Aptana Studio is a very good web development IDE that supports Ruby, PHP, and Aptana’s own Javascript/AJAX platform called Jaxer, plus it runs in Eclipse so it supports Java as well. But the Pro version costs $99. That’s not free. There’s also JetBrains RubyMine which is also $99. On the other hand, Ruby developers tend to adore NetBeans, particularly over Aptana, and that is free. So go figure, to each his own.

The point is, if you want to get a rich and richly supported toolset, you’re just as likely going to have to pay for it in the non-Microsoft stacks.

On the Microsoft stack side, everyone knows about Visual Studio. The licensing cost for the Team Suite is $10,939. LAMP developers just love to point that kind of thing out. But folks, the fact is, that price is not measurable as the equivalent of LAMP freeware. It’s for an enterprise shop that needs very advanced and sophisticated tools for performing every corporate software role in a software development lifecycle. If you’re measuring the price here and it’s of concern to you, you probably don’t need to choose the most expensive offering to evaluate the costs of the MS stack!

First of all, the Professional edition of Visual Studio, if you’re crazy enough to have to pay for that out-of-pocket (i.e. not have your employer pay for it or get it in a bundled package such as one of the free ones) only costs $799, not $10,939.

Secondly, if money matters all that much to you, and you’re unable to get one of the free or nearly-free bundles (more on this in a bit), you really should push the limits of Visual Studio Express first. It’s free.

Experience Development Tools: Microsoft Expression vs. Adobe CS

Microsoft has been competing with what was Macromedia, now Adobe, for its designer-oriented web tools for a very long time, and finally came through with a reasonable offering with Expression Studio a few years back, which offers very close to the same functionality, at least at a basic level, for creating compelling web experiences as Adobe’s current CS4 Web Premium offering minus Photoshop.

Dreamweaver vs. Expression Web

A surprisingly large number of web designers use Adobe Dreamweaver (formerly Macromedia Dreamweaver) as their standard web creation tool, not far in similarity to the ubiquity of Adobe Photoshop for editing graphics. Microsoft has had an equivalent web creation tool for well over a decade. It used to be called FrontPage, now it is called Expression Web. But let’s get one thing clear: Expression Web replaces FrontPage, it is not a rename of FrontPage. It is, in fact, a different product that accomplishes the same task and in the same general way. By that I mean, as far as I know, very little of Expression Web’s codebase reuses FrontPage’s legacy codebase; it is a total rewrite and overhaul of both the tools and the rendering engine.

Expression Web supports PHP, in addition to its extensive support for ASP.NET and standards-based raw HTML and CSS. Technically, Expression Web is very close to being on par with Dreamweaver, and I think the differences are a matter of taste more than of function. I for one prefer the taste of Expression Web, and don’t know what Dreamweaver offers that Expression Web doesn’t.

Expression Studio includes Expression Design which is functionally equivalent, albeit to a much lesser extent, to Adobe Illustrator. The rest of the Expression Studio suite accomplishes most of the same functional tasks for web design and development as Adobe CS4 Web Premium Suite’s offering. So, to be functionally complete, you’d need to add a graphics editor to Expression Studio before Expression Studio can be compared with CS4.

As for the costs,

Expression Web: $149
Expression Studio + Paint.NET = $599 + $0 = $599
Expression Studio + Adobe Photoshop: $599 + $699 = $1,198

However, I get Expression Studio for free as it is bundled with my Microsoft suite package. More on this later.

Adobe Dreamweaver: $399
Adobe CS4 Web Premium Suite: $1,699

Silverlight vs. Flash

Inevitably, “the Microsoft stack” has to run into the Silverlight stack because Microsft pushes that product out, too. I’m not going to get into the religious debate over whether Adobe Flash is better than Microsoft Silverlight, except to say a couple very important things. First of all, I understand that it’s a no-brainer that everyone has Flash. 98% of the web’s user base has it. That said, supporting Microsoft Silverlight for your user base—that is, getting your users to obtain it—is not hard at all. So let’s just get that out of the way, okay? Yes, I know that Silverlight comes at this cost of a one-click install versus a no-click install. Life goes on.

Okay. Let’s talk about tools. With Adobe Flash, you have three options, really, for developing Flash solutions: 1) Adobe Flash Professional, 2) Adobe Flex (an Eclipse-based IDE for developing Flash-based applications), or 3) third-party apps like SWiSH. Fortunately, Adobe has recently been rumored to be planning on merging Flash Pro and Flex functionality, which is a relief because Flex did not have the design power of Flash Pro and Flash Pro didn’t have the development power of Flex. Meanwhile, though, Flash Pro and SWiSH are hardly tools I can take seriously as a software developer, and unfortunately, at $249, Flex is expensive.

Microsoft, however, offers the functionally equivalent toolset with the Expression suite and with Visual Studio. The Silverlight Tools for Visual Studio integrate with Visual Web Developer, providing Silverlight developers a completely free IDE for developing compelling Silverlight applications. So let’s get that out of the way: You do not need to spend a dime on dev tools to develop Silverlight apps.

Expression Blend, however, which is a commercial product and is functionally comparable to Adobe Flash Professional as well as, in my opinion, Apple’s Interface Builder (with which iPhone application interfaces are designed), is a rich designer tool for Silverlight as well as for WPF (Windows applications) and outputting XAML, the XML markup required for Silverlight and WPF applications. It provides a syntax-highlighting, IntelliSense (code completion) ready code editor for C# and Javascript code, too, so technically you could accomplish much using just Expression Blend, but Microsoft (and I do, too) recommends using Expression Blend in combination with Visual Studio / Visual Web Developer 2008 Express.

Microsoft Visual Web Developer 2008 Express with Silverlight Tools: $FREE
Microsoft Expression Blend: $599 (full Studio suite)
Together: $599
Microsoft Expression Professional Subscription (Expression Studio plus Windows, Visual Studio Standard Ed., Office, Virtual PC, and Parallels Desktop for Mac): $999

Adobe Flex Builder: $249
Adobe Flash Professional: $699 (standalone)
Together: $948

The long and short of it: in terms of cost savings, Silverlight development costs are on par with Flash development costs, but can in fact go a lot further per dollar including at the price of $FREE, depending on how much tooling you need.

Databases

Then there are the databases. The non-Microsoft stacks include primarily mySQL and PostgreSQL, et al. Mind you, these databases work fine in a Microsoft world, too, just like everything else, but the Microsoft stack tends to work best with Microsoft SQL Server.

Okay, let me just say at this point that Microsoft SQL Server 2008 is, by far, a vastly superior RDBMS than most anything I have seen from anyone, in every respect. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly admire mySQL and the other RDBMSs out there, but SQL Server is seriously the bomb.

But let’s talk about pricing. Just like Visual Studio has a prohibitively expensive offering available to enterprise users, SQL Server 2008 Standard Edition comes to us at a whopping $5,999. That’s just a hair less than the price of my Toyota when I bought it (used).

But, once again, there’s an expensive commercial offering for everything under the sun. MySQL also has a commercial offering at $599, which I’ll admit is only 1/10th the cost of SQL Server standard edition but isn’t exactly free either.

But seriously, who comparing development stacks actually pays for this stuff? Read on.

Everything Starts At Free

Technically, one could download the SDKs (for free) from Microsoft and do most anything. Most of it would be from the command line, but even XamlPad.exe is bundled in with the Windows SDK to you create XAML files for WPF with a WYSIWYG preview. (For Silverlight, you might try Kaxaml’s beta release.)

But who on the Microsoft stack wants to use the command line? If you’re new to the Microsoft development stack, the first place you should turn to is the Express suite, which includes among other things Visual C# Express, Visual Web Developer Express, and SQL Server Express. Empowered with each of the components of the Express suite, you as a developer have all the extremely powerful tools you need to accomplish almost any development task, with absolutely no licensing fees whatsoever. There really is no fine print with this; the Express editions have a few functional limitations that are very rarely (if ever) showstopping, and you’re not allowed to extend the Express product and try to sell your extension or to redistribute the Express products themselves, but there’s no pricing structure at all for any of the Express suite downloads.

I must say, the 2008 flavors of the Express products are, far and away, the most powerful software development solutions I’ve ever seen as a free offering, and definitely compete fairly with the likes of Eclipse and NetBeans in terms of providing what the typical developer needs to build a basic but complete product or solution without a software budget. Ironically, in my opinion, Microsoft specifically created a web site for the Express flavors of Visual Studio to make it all look crappy compared to Visual Studio Team Suite. The Express web site does not do these tools justice. Combined, the Express products are very rich and powerful, and the web site makes them look like a boy’s play dough or G.I. Joe.

I must include SQL Server 2008 Express in saying that the Express products are very rich and powerful, particularly if you get SQL Server 2008 Express with Advanced Services including Management Studio Express, this RDBMS suite is insanely powerful and complete, and is by far more capable and powerful than mySQL. And no, people, SQL Server Express does not come with licensing restrictions. It’s free, completely free. Free, period. It has a few technical/functional limitations, such as for example it cannot consume more physical RAM (not to be confused with database size) than 1 GB, and there are limitations to redistributing the Express products. But there is otherwise no licensing fine print. You can use it for commercial purposes. Have at it.

Beyond these Express versions, there’s also #develop (pronounced “SharpDevelop”). #develop is a non-Microsoft IDE for developing .NET applications on Windows, and it’s quite functional. Initially I think it was built for Mono in mind, but in the long run it never implemented Mono and instead Mono took some of #develop and made it MonoDevelop. #develop is a very well implemented IDE and is worth checking out, particularly given its free price. However, since #develop isn’t a Microsoft tool, it’s not really part of the Microsoft stack.

The Cheap And Free Bundle Package Deals

If the Express flavors aren’t good enough for you, now I get to mention how to get everything you might ever need—and I really mean everything, including Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise Edition, SQL Server 2008 Enterprise Edition, Visual Studio Team Suite with Team Foundation Server, and Expression Studio—for absolutely no cost whatsoever. The only catch is that you must be needing this (a free offering). If you don’t need it because you have a heckofalot of money, then, well, go get a life.

Microsoft is still giving away all the tools you need to rely on the Microsoft stack for absolutely no cost whatsoever through a package deal called BizSpark, which basically gives any start-up company—including one-to-five-man micro-ISVs like yourself(??)—an MSDN Subscription with fully licensed rights to use everything under the sun for development tools and operating systems for absolutely no cost (except for a $100 closing fee after a couple years I think?). If you’ve been struggling as a business for more than three years or if your revenue exceeds $1mil a year, you don’t qualify, otherwise if you intend to create a product (including a web site hosted on IIS) that’s core to your start-up, you do. It’s as simple as that. But don’t take my word for it, read the fine print yourself.

[Added 9/26/2009:] If you’re not a software business start-up but more of a web services start-up, creating a web site, or are a web designer, there’s a brand spanking new program for you, too, that’s just like BizSpark but targets you specifically. It’s called WebsiteSpark. I’m injecting mention of this into this blog post but already discussed it in a follow-up post; here are the basics: For a $100 offing fee (a fee that you pay when your license ends, rather than when it begins) you get Windows Web Server 2008 R2, SQL Server 2008 Web Edition, Visual Studio 2008 Professional Edition, and Expression Studio 3, and your license ends in three (3) years (same as BizSpark).

But let’s say you’re not really in business, you’re a college student, and you just need the software, without the pressure of being monitored for pursuing some kind of profit. Assuming that you are indeed in college, there’s hope for you, too, a complete suite of software for you including Windows Server 2008 Standard Edition, SQL Server 2008 Standard Edition, and Visual Studio 2008 Professional Edition, among other things, through a program called DreamSpark. All you need to qualify is to be a student. Congratulations.

An older program I took advantage of a few years ago, while Microsoft was still experimenting with these package deals, was the Empower program, which is like the BizSpark program but costs a few hundred bucks and doesn’t give you the ridiculously extensive Team Suite edition of Visual Studio. You basically have a year or two to enjoy it, and must offer a product within that timespan, after which point they drop you. But it was still a great deal considering the alternative outside of BizSpark was full-on full-priced licensing.

If you want a “normal everyday customer deal”, the MSDN subscription is still a good option. For about $1,200 for the Visual Studio Pro with Premium MSDN, you get everything under the sun (everything in BizSpark), except only the Team Suite flavor of Visual Studio. I’d save up my money for that even now if I didn’t already have what I needed.

Finally, if these still aren’t good enough for you, let me just say that if you work for an employer who provides an MSDN subscription directly to you as an employee (and I’ve had at least five or six employers do this in my career), and you go and use one of the unused licenses of one of the products under MSDN for your own personal use, unless Microsoft or your employer actually bother to check the download or activation history of your MSDN account, *psst* hey buddy, nobody will ever know. *wink* Seriously, don’t pirate. But hey I’m just sayin’. If you’re careful to only use the licenses that are not being and won’t be used (and in most cases with MSDN subscriptions there’s a ton of them), nobody will care.

Windows Web Hosting

All these things said, if you’re building a web site, you don’t likely need to buy Windows at all, other than the Windows instance on which you’re developing your app. You can rely on a third party web host just like nearly everyone else does. The price for hosting an ASP.NET app on a Windows-based server is typically about 20% more than the Linux offerings, but start at $4.99. You typically have to pay a little bit extra, as well, for extensive SQL Server requirements, but the basics are usually bundled in with these hosted deals.

The Costs Of Knowledge

Honestly, at $4.99 or even $10 a month, I don’t know what people would be complaining about. That’s a good price to host a Microsoft tools based solution. Sure, I can get a Linux hosted site running somewhere at as little as $2.99, but this comes at a prohibitive cost to me. First of all, I like most PC users (“most” being statistically speaking) am already familiar with Windows. In order to use Linux hosting effectively, one must explore and consume a lot of knowledge that otherwise has no relevance to my existing work-and-play environment.

Well let’s assume, then, that I know neither, and that I only use Windows for e-mail and web browsing. Let’s assume that I’m looking at PHP vs. ASP.NET and mySQL vs. SQL Server Express.

Linux proponents will say that you can dive right into PHP and mySQL because Linux doesn’t cost anything. But if you’re already running a moderately recent version of Windows, which statistically speaking you probably are, then this point is completely moot. Even with Windows XP (which is nearly a decade old and is showing its flatulent age) you can accomplish much with the tools that are already available to you.

At that point, then, which direction you should choose is going to be purely a matter of taste, vendor support, learning curve, and culture, because you can do pretty much anything on the Microsoft stack absolutely for free, or cheaper than the non-Microsoft alternative (i.e. Expression Studio vs. CS4), at every level, with no or very few strings attached.

I’d argue, then, that the cost of knowledge is the only significant cost factor if you already have Windows and you’re just doing your own thing. Both the Microsoft and the non-Microsoft user communities are strong and will assist you as you learn and grow. However, I prefer the Microsoft path specifically because the education, training materials, documentation, and, yes, marketing, all come from one vendor. It’s not lock-in that I want, not at all, so much as it’s the consistency that I enjoy (not to mention the intuitiveness of the Microsoft platform at every level from a user’s perspective). Everything starts with MSDN and Microsoft employees’ blogs, for example, and from there I get everything I need from help on how to use new C# language features to how to use Visual Studio to how to configure or extend IIS. Whereas, with the LAMP community, everything is fragmented and fractured. If that’s your preferred style, great. Just keep in mind that Windows can do everything you’re already doing in Linux. ;)

[Added 9/26/2009:] As I mentioned (er, injected) above under “The Cheap And Free Package Deals”, Microsoft just created a new program called WebsiteSpark. In addition to the Windows, SQL Server, Visual Studio, and Expression Studio licenses, you also get professional training. This training is still “coming soon”, I suspect it’ll be online training, but it’s professionally produced training nonetheless (no doubt).

Discussions In The Community

Browsing the comments at http://stackoverflow.com/questions/1370834/why-is-microsoft-stack-said-to-be-costly/1376168#1376168 infuriates me. This is actually the reason why I felt compelled to post this blog article. I am so sick and tired of the FUD that ignorant anti-Microsoft proponents keep pumping out. I’m going to assume that the OP’s context was for web applications, but it doesn’t matter much either way.

  • “But still, Linux hosting is cheaper than Windows hosting at pretty much every level.”

Ahh yes, web hosting. At $4.99 or even at $10 per month I really don’t care.

If we’re talking about VPS or dedicated server hosting, that’s another story. Let’s just say I have a Linux VPS I pay $30/mo. or so for, but I really don’t use it for much because it just doesn’t do enough for me reliably and intuitively, and meanwhile this blog is hosted on a $160/mo. virtual dedicated server (hosted) with Windows Server 2008, but it’s heavily used. I feel I get what I pay for.

  • “Linux hosting is almost always cheaper for the simple reason that the MS stack costs the host more to license (which is the point of most posts). Also you don't get development tools with a hosting service. Let's not forget that you're also liking going to need a more expensive "Ultimate Developer, Don't Gimp It" version of Windows desktop to run the dev tools.”

I don’t know what “Ultimate Developer, Don’t Gimp It” means, but I do agree that Ultimate is the best flavor of Windows to do development on. However, you don’t need Ultimate edition to do Microsoft stack development. Visual Web Developer (which is free) comes with its own test web server and installs fine on Windows XP Service Pack 2 or on Windows Vista Home Basic. And its output works great at targeting Windows based web hosts.

  • “I've heard of express editions. I've even downloaded some. I seem to remember a license condition about non-commercial use, although I may be wrong. I don't think the express editions are particularly good for commercial development in any case.”

Hogwash. The Visual Studio Express editions are blatantly characterized on Microsoft’s pathetic Express web site as being cheap, simple, and even a little crappy, but in fact they are extremely functional and capable of doing much more than “hobbyist” solutions. The suite is really very powerful and I for one believe that if Microsoft only had the Express suite and sold it as their commercial offering it would still be a powerful, viable platform for many shops. And yes, you’re allowed to use it for commercial development, and it works great for it.

However, as described above, there are ways to get the Professional and Team Suite editions of Visual Studio and SQL Server Developer Edition (full) without shelling out a lot or even any money.

  • “I don't know Microsoft's specific licensing policies (I can assume they are pretty reasonable), but I can tell you that developer tools are often more pricey than you'd imagine when you start licensing for your company.
    Often when you start buying developer licenses for teams of, say, 20-50 you are starting to talk about millions of dollars up front costs. $100,000 per developer wouldn't be unheard of (not counting the often mandatory annual support fees which can double that number easily).”

Ridiculous. $10,000, which is a tenth of what this guy said, is all it costs to get everything under the sun without one of the special deals like BizSpark. And if you have a team of that size and you’re an established corporation, it would be below you to still be asking the question, “Is the Microsoft stack really more expensive?” It will be business. And I must say, Microsoft doesn’t suck at supporting its fully-paying customers.

At any rate, I must say again, BizSpark (bundled suite of everything) is completely free, with a $100 closing fee.

  • “If you want to use ASP.NET you need
    • IIS
    • A server with Windows (for IIS)
    • Visual Studio
    • A work station with Windows for Visual Studio

    If you want to use PHP, Perl, Mono, Ruby... you need

    • A web server that supports the technology wanted. May be Apache, IIS...
    • An OS that supports your weberver
    • A workstation with any Linux, Window or mac”

This is silliness. If you want to use ASP.NET, you can go Mono all the way on Mac or Linux and never touch Windows or IIS. But ASP.NET wasn’t the discussion; the Microsoft stack was the discussion.

The Microsoft stack infers Microsoft being the vendor at every primary level of the software stack. So of course you need Windows. (And for the third or fourth time, statistically speaking you probably already have it.) And Mono wouldn’t count because it’s not Microsoft, so of course you need IIS. #develop (SharpDevelop) and other non-Microsoft development IDEs don’t count because they’re not Microsoft, so of course you would probably use Visual Studio.

On the other hand, “needing IIS” has no meaning because it’s a part of Windows, it’s like saying you need a hard drive, plus you need a computer (to contain the hard drive). It comes at no cost. It’s not a product, it’s a technology component of Windows.

Visual Studio is also not needed, rather it’s available as an option, and its Express flavors are free. You can also use vi, emacs, Notepad.exe, whatever you like. There is literally nothing that LAMP developers enjoy in their development lifecycle that they cannot establish with the Microsoft stack. If you want to write in vi and compile with a command line using ant and make, great, use vi and NAnt and NMake or MSBuild. If you like your command shells, great, most of the Linux command shells are available in Windows, plus Windows’ PowerShell. Have at it. But please, please don’t assume that you have to use Visual Studio if you use the Microsoft stack but you get to use simpler tools for LAMP development. The Microsoft stack has all those simpler tools at its disposal, too. (Yes, all for free, with the Windows SDK.)

  • “I don't think they're talking about the time required to develop on the Microsoft stack. They're talking about the cost of:
    • tools (Visual Studio, Resharper);
    • operating systems (Windows Vista, Windows Server); and
    • databases (SQL Server 2005/2008).”

*sigh* Need I say more and repeat myself? And if Resharper was available for PHP/Ruby, and I was doing PHP/Ruby development, I’d pay for that, too.

 

Linux Mint FAIL

by Jon Davis 25. January 2009 14:02

I wanted to see what this Linux Mint (an “elegant” flavor of Ubuntu) was all about. It froze up on me on first boot while setting up. After asking if I wanted a root password it asked if I wanted to enable Fortunes—a “funny quotes” application. This was the first time an OS ever asked me to enable a “funny quotes” application, perhaps because it’s one of the most non-elegant non-trends in computing.

But what’s sad is that when I clicked on Show An Example a couple times, the whole virtual machine froze up.

This is the elegant OS people rave about? This is the best Linux proponents can do? This is sad.

LinuxMint_FAIL
Click to view

Tags: ,

VPSLink: Finally, VPS Priced For 2009

by Jon Davis 30. December 2008 15:00

A little over a year ago I spent weeks trying to find the most affordable way to host cachefile.net (now defunct) among a few other things in a reliable manner. I didn't want my site shared with a bunch of other sites, and I certainly did not want plain-vanilla Apache/mySQL/PHP. I wanted my very own instance of Linux on which I could feel free to do anything--rig Apache to my liking, host my e-mail, install an XMPP server, you name it, anything. I also ended up hosting this blog--jondavis.net--on my home PC with the Linux instance acting as a reverse proxy so as to bypass my cable modem provider's blockage of port 80.

The best deal I could find was ServerPronto. These guys seemed to have adequate bandwidth and gave me solid specs for the dollar, for what they said was a dedicated physical server. 

But even that was priced out of my range, because up to this point I have not been trying to make a profit / living off of my Linux instance, although at this point I think I might as well. I was paying out about $180 per 3 months, and that gets expensive especially in this economy.

I also found that while BlueHost has proven adequate for my own e-mail, and I'm REALLY not happy with the ASP.NET web host offerings out there since none of them support IIS 7 module installations, I could probably be just fine hosting everything on my BlueHost account and on my home PC through my cable modem, if only I could retain that reverse proxy out there, somewhere, without spending $180 every three months.

Last night I went shopping around again to see if there were any other solutions for me, when, lo and behold, I came across a VPS (Virtual Private Server -- Xen virtual machine hosting, basically) host that came at the same price as a typical shared web host: VPSLink. For less than the price I was paying every three months before, now I can get two years of my own Linux instance. Indeed, if you're reading this right now (and of course you are, as am I posting it), that's my new VPSLink account working for me.

Now, granted, I lose out on what I originally sought after: very high availability and scalability. I am back on a shared host, after all, and I have little doubt it's gonna get crowded over here. But, as I said, cachefile.net is now defunct, and really this only serves for reverse proxying to my cable modem and for lightweight LAMP hosting; if I ever really need high availability I'll also need a good reason, and if it's for profit then I'll be able to afford something more. But I get everything else here: my own CentOS instance on the 'net really, really cheap.

---

UPDATE: Of course, upgrades to Apache when migrating from FC6 to CentOS 5.2 would force me to add these directives to my httpd.conf:

SetEnv force-proxy-request-1.0 1
SetEnv proxy-nokeepalive 1 

.. or else I get proxy errors:

The proxy server received an invalid response from an upstream server.
The proxy server could not handle the request GET.

Still not sure if I have rid myself of them entirely yet...

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Linux | Servers and Services

openSUSE 11: Sorry, I Gave You A Fair Chance

by Jon Davis 24. June 2008 08:08

I was excited that openSUSE 11 had just been released. I was looking forward to the Next New LinuxTM to come out and convince me that the best non-Windows alternative besides a Mac was usable and exciting. 

For the first time in years, I deployed Linux (openSUSE 11) to physical hardware (not a VM), meaning a quad-core processor, 4GB RAM, a GeForce 8800 GT, and a WD Raptor drive, and gave it a completely fair shot.

The first installation attempt was actually in a VM at the office, and it failed--it got to 90% installed then froze up on an FTP download. A 2nd attempt with out networked repos had it still freeze up at some point, now the VM just boots to a blank black screen.

But now at home installing on physical hardware, it booted to my environment with a striping RAID array configured it warned me that it couldn't "partition the drive using this tool". Oh. Okay. I pushed forward anyway, spending upwards of 15 minutes selecting most of the software package options without selecting conflicting options, and then I went to go forward and install and, sure enough, it failed to partition the drives, and sent me straight to a non-GUI installer view where I pretty much had to just restart the computer, enter the BIOS, break off my two Raptors from RAID, and give it another shot.

An hour or so later, I was looking at my fresh new KDE 4 desktop and thinking, bleah. Okay. So there's not really anything to see here, nothing I haven't seen over the last many years. Sound is gone, I enabled the sound but my 48kHz native sound card could only playback jittery noise that had me laughing and moaning on every reboot. I tried the GNOME desktop as well. Yeehaw *yawn*.

Having two monitors, one monitor was not displaying. I went to nVidia's web site, installed the latest display drivers (executable, but still opening up a terminal and chmod +x 'ing, how retarded!), rebooted, still didn't see two monitors lit, tried to enable the 2nd monitor from the nVidia control panel, couldn't save the xorg.conf (or whatever) file for no obvious reason, rebooted, tried again, still couldn't write the xorg.conf (whatever) file, logged in as root, tried again, worked. *sigh* OK now both the Mac and Windows' UAC have spoiled me on this, why was I just not prompted to enter a password?

Without even considering using MonoDevelop, re-exploring Eclipse, testing Apache and PHP5, dinking around with Ruby, trying out OpenOffice, or tinkering with any of the games, I threw my hands up and said, "I've seen all this crap. It's all crap."

Linux has still not managed to catch up with Windows 95, and instead of fixing these usability issues they just keep slapping on new software and eye candy like Compiz-Fusion effects, and I've had it.

Fortunately I had a full backup of Windows Vista, which I was 95% certain I was going to restore within a day, and, sure enough, I did.

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Computers and Internet | Linux

So How Can You Graphically Install Ubuntu 7.10 On Generic VGA, Anyway??

by Jon Davis 30. March 2008 21:13

I noticed in my Start menu that I had installed VirtualBox a few weeks ago. In a bored moment, I fired it up for the first time and started up the Installer/LiveCD for Ubuntu 7.10.

When I went to install Ubuntu, I got stuck right from the get-go. I couldn't click on 'Next'! The installer screen was way too large, and the high resolution VGA drivers weren't installed yet (as Ubuntu wasn't installed yet) so I couldn't change the resolution.

Classic moment of pure ludicrous idiocy here. Those Linux folks are always so smug, with such attitude, they deserve shame when they screw up this bad. Yay for corporations with coordinated QA teams!!

And yes, I did try using tab + spacebar. Got me to the next screen (time zone map), but tab doesn't work to change button focus on that screen; once the drop-down list has focus it won't let go of it with tab. 

Geek buddy says, "That's normal. Your environment can't support graphical mode installation. Graphical mode installation is for systems that can support it. Yours can't, because your VM video card isn't on the built-in drivers list."

That's crap. Hardware vendors, not OS distros, provide hardware drivers. Generic VGA @ 800x600 is a well-established minimum common standard. You install the hi-res video driver post-install; the fact that OS distros often have the driver bundled is just a bonus. Besides, I am in graphical mode!! If it's not supported because of resolution, it should say, "Sorry, you must reboot and enter Text mode to install, because in graphical mode we want to be promiscuous with your screen real estate when installing, and we don't know how to do that with your hardware." But that would still suck. Best to just scale down these rediculous installation screens! Or, at *least* set a maximum window height to the desktop and insert ugly window scrollbars if the height has max'd out.

Sure, perhaps I can track down valid hardware drivers (in this case VirtualBox drivers) and activate them somehow at runtime, just to get to the Next button. That's not the point. Sure, I can choose install in text mode. That's not the point, either. The point is that this is lunacy. If they just scaled down these windows, the user experience would have been acceptable. It's like these Linux people DEMAND and ENFORCE that you geek out just to get yourself initiated. Yet they keep bragging about how user-friendly Ubuntu and other distros like it are.

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Operating Systems | Linux

Iconize with CacheFile

by Jon Davis 4. December 2007 02:11

I still owe myself that virtual tarball / .mrr app.

Meanwhile, I've been busy with CacheFile.net in other ways.

  • I set up a new dedicated machine to host the site without worrying about others' sites taking the server down. It runs on Fedora / Apache.
  • On the new dedicated machine, I finally enabled gzip and caching.
  • I've been regularly adding popular script libraries as I find and qualify them.
  • The Graphics section now has two new additions:
    • famfamfam, and
    • Iconify

The latter addition, Iconify, is worth noting. http://cachefile.net/graphics/iconize/cachefile/index.html If you just drop this tag on your page:

<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="http://cachefile.net/graphics/iconize/cachefile/iconize.css" />

.. or ..

<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="http://cachefile.net/graphics/iconize/cachefile/iconize_left.css" />

.. you'll instantly get icons to show up on your hyperlinks. No image downloads necessary!

Update: Of course, this doesn't work across different domains when using Internet Explorer. *sigh* 

kick it on DotNetKicks.com

Is anyone QA'ing Samba ??

by Jon Davis 2. September 2007 19:23

We had an old ("old" meaning installed a year ago) installation of Fedora v3 running a CMS that was publishing data to Windows Server 2003 over Samba. Occasionally, at the same time in the middle of the night that the publishing occurred, Windows Automatic Updates would download some patch for Windows and reboot the server. Obviously that was a mistake on our part to let these two actions coincide. But the bigger problem was that the Samba link didn't just drop when Windows rebooted. Instead, it locked up. So by the afternoon the next day, people are pulling their hair out trying to figure out what the @#% is wrong with this stupid CMS server, and why it just starts working again when we reboot Linux. We finally narrowed it down to a Windows server reboot--a Samba failure to drop the link.

http://www.linuxforums.org/forum/servers/98115-samba-mount-does-not-drop-timeout.html

What should happen is a timeout should occur, an error should be raised to the calling application (the CMS service), the service should halt, and then when the Windows server comes back up and the CMS service on Linux reattempts to access the path, Samba should reattempt to build the link and either succeed or fail.

That was Fedora v3. Now were' using RHEL 5, and meanwhile I'm using Ubuntu 7.04 at home on my laptop. I'm expecting a much smoother Samba experience now. But unfortunately, we cannot even seem to get our Samba links to even work, much less behave correctly (i.e. drop) when the Windows server goes down. Now I'm having all kinds of different issues.

The first issue is on my laptop at home, when I use the Network browser in Nautilus to browse my shared folders on my home machines, everything goes erratic. It sees everything really fast one minute, then it locks up for five minutes the next. I click on a folder, it becomes a file. I hit refresh, it can't "see" anything. I go up the tree a couple branches, it finally starts seeing things. I go back into the branch I was in, and it displays it pretty quickly. I copy a folder to the clipboard, and paste to /home/jon, and nothing happens.

Now it could very well be a Nautilus issue, but then here's the other problem ...

At the office, we now have RHEL 5, we have been trying to migrate off the old Fedora 3 system and onto the new system. And now this happens:

http://www.linuxforums.org/forum/servers/102298-samba-cifs-mount-point-wont-allow-read-write-non-root-user.html

Essentially, once the Linux user writes to the Samba share, the share becomes "owned" by root and the user can't do diddly squat. This essentially breaks our publishing plans, rendering the Samba link useless.

Fortunately, Microsoft was kind enough to implement NFS support in Windows Server 2003 R2, and R2 is the build we just erected for the new environment. I'll try that next. But it still makes me wonder, what on earth happened to Samba?? It's only been around for, like, a decade!

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Open Source | Computers and Internet | Operating Systems | Linux | Microsoft Windows

Open-Source Desktop: Giving It Another Go

by Jon Davis 31. August 2007 15:02

A week or so ago I posted a blog entry describing why I felt that Linux simply isn't the long-term answer for the need for an open-source, community-supported desktop operating system. I got some good feedback on this, as well as some not-so-helpful feedback ("here's another troll", "this goes out to everyone ELSE, not to Jon Davis, who has clearly made up his mind", etc). I also commented that Haiku looks beautiful and is quite promising since it is based on (that is, inspired by and compatible with) Be OS, which is the closest I've seen yet to an OS done right, but that Haiku won't be the answer, either, until it gets past R1, which may or may not ever happen. Meanwhile, I brought up ReactOS and how it isn't the answer, either, because if we wanted Windows we can just install Windows. (Couldn't say that about Haiku / Be OS because Be OS is no longer available.) Over the last week I downloaded the latest React OS build and ran it in VMWare. It's not nearly as far along as Haiku is, in terms of stability (not to mention the front-end aesthetic talent). Finally, one of my biggest complaints about Linux--the rediculously arcane file system layout which never seems to go away--seemed to have been resolved in Gobo Linux, until I realized that it's even worse: it's Proper Cased, and since Linux uses a case-sensitive file naming system (which sucks), that makes Gobo Linux nearly unusable for administration, having to constantly check the case of each and every letter rather than just trust that everything will be lower case.

I came across a few interesting tidbits of information since that post. I also received my old laptop from repair (replace the keyboard for a missing 'O' key), an Acer Aspire 5050 that I got at Wal-Mart about ten or eleven months ago, and I decided that since the laptop has since been replaced, before I go pawn it off I should format the drives and actually try installing Ubuntu Linux on it so that no one can say that I've only tried Ubuntu within VMWare. Unfortunately, the latest Ubuntu Live CD doesn't even boot on my newer Toshiba Satellite X205-S9359, so I couldn't even try to install it on my old laptop hard drives that were replaced. Sheesh.

Compiz-Fusion seems to be for Linux what Aero is for Windows, at least in theory. I still have not gotten it to work; "GL Desktop", which I assume is related, doesn't seem to do anything when I turn it on from the System menu. OpenGL stuff does work--I ran the OpenGL implementation of Tux Racer, worked beautifully. I tried the drivers from ATI/AMD but the stuff won't execute. Changing the Compositing option in the xorg.conf file doesn't help. *sigh* Oh well I'll keep tinkering.  UPDATE: I did get it to work, partially. At least, I get the wobbly windows. Not much else, though, like I can't get the Emerald themes to turn on. Seems there's some limitations on my video card chipset such that they disabled 3D support (even though my video chipset fully supports high-performance 3D).

Device support for Linux at install-time is improving, as are the tools for device support, but it is still an awful mess. I have never seen so many files fly across my terminal screen in my life just to try to install the ALSA audio driver. And with it installed, there's still no sound. Hello, guys? If there's no sound, the audio control panels shouldn't behave like everything's hunky dory. For the specific sound card driver I've scoured Google and Ubuntu forums regarding ALC883 support and it's clear that other people are having trouble with this sound card, so I'll have to keep tinkering with this. But that's not the point with regard to it being a mess. Scanning the forums for support, it confounds me how comfortable people are with opening up configuration files and toying with them, the only difference now is that they use gedit instead of vi. Holy cow, someone needs to give these Linux developers a lesson on UX! It has nothing to do with editing in a Windows-like editor--I have actually finally gotten used to vi, and prefer not to have to move my hand to a mouse to reach the scrollbar.

The ideal desktop operating system should not use antiquated techniques like service-proprietary configuration files, or configure / make / make install, not even if that stuff is hidden from view using some wrapper shell which in the long run only makes things more complex. In fact, compiling anything outside of a JIT'er seems rediculously arcane to me. Call it a matter of opinion, but that's one thing I really like about having a central authority (like Microsoft) to basically say this is exactly how hardware drivers should be deployed. Don't get me wrong, Windows is a mess of its own with its Registry mess, etc. But then why do you think the notion of open source desktops has gotten me curious (and critical) lately?

On that point, yes, I get it, I get that Linux's advantage is that, being an open system, it is necessary for stuff to be "recompiled into the system" but really makes me wonder why Bill Gates, rather than Linus Torvolds, is given the Borg treatment, when assimilation is done in Linux at a technical level at runtime in much the same way Microsoft traditionally did using business agreements. For that matter, what's so wonderful about a system being "open" for some source code to compile against any of its many flavors and then (crossing fingers) maybe run, as opposed to having just a few "flavors" and putting time and energy (and, yes, money) into making sure that the stuff has already been compiled, is already known to run, and will almost certainly "just work", assuming that there are no device hardware driver conflicts.

Wouldn't it be ideal if there was a cleaner pluggable hardware abstraction model that the operating system exposed and that drivers could just plug into in a cleaner fashion than the nerdy way the stuff is managed now? Isn't that essentially what a kernel is supposed to do, along with executing user-level applications? Virtual device drivers suddenly popped into my head, a la VMWare and its virtual machine and virtual devices. Abstraction is so cool. Say, why can't each basic hardware function that software expects to be able to use--file system I/O, video card / display, audio, keyboard, mouse--all be cleanly tucked into a clean API that the hardware manufacturers' drivers sit on top of, rather than vice-versa. Why can't we put them into a virtual hardware sandbox? Why can't hypervisors be taken to such an extent as to allow for physical base-level hardware to be virtualized, so that each hardware device driver "sees" a virtualized reality?

Of course, then performance and virtualization management become the huge issues.

More importantly, this isn't particularly a realistic notion since currently hardware drivers literally read/write to/from memory spaces that the kernel maps to the physical device, and execute by way of things like IRQ events. Sometimes I wonder, though, why even that shouldn't be rethought. But now I'm getting into real physical hardware design space, so it's not like I can just pull up a trusty C compiler and recompile a new motherboard. Besides, putting hardware device manufacturers into a software sandbox certainly stifles their opportunities to innovate.

Over last weekend I thought it would be cool, if naive, to actually spawn off YAOS (Yet Another Operating System), derived from nothing, but appended with virtual support for Win32 (like WINE) and Linux (like Cygwin), but inherently have its own system. After all, that is essentially what hypervisor operating systems propose to do. The difference is that it would be ideal if the hypervisor operating system itself could be a viable operating system.

VMWare ESX and Xen, being hypervisor operating systems, run on the Linux kernel variants.

Windows Server 2008, having hypervisor support (however limited, I'm not sure), runs on, well, Windows.

Good starts on hypervisor concepts, but why not take the opportunity to flush out this legacy stuff and build a hypervisor-supporting system that can also be a new OS? Oh how I would love it if, once R1 stablizes, the Haiku operating system added hypervisor support!

I'll post to my blog here at http://www.jondavis.net/blog/ as I continue to tinker with Ubuntu on real hardware.

Gobo Linux: My Wish Has Come True!

by Jon Davis 20. August 2007 21:39

Over the weekend I was whining (a lot) about the lame directory structure in Linux and how rediculously impossible the gobbligook is to understand at a glance. Someone pointed me to this link, which explains the mess that it is, and when I looked at it I discovered exactly what I was dreaming of: a version of Linux that has the whole structure cleaned up and making sense!!!

Gobo Linux! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GoboLinux  ...   http://www.gobolinux.org/

Downloading now!!

Too bad, though, the directory names are in Mixed Case. Since Linux is case-sensitive, this'll be cumbersome... 

UPDATE: Poking around at it now. Yeah, those Mixed Case names are a real bear. The concept is precisely what I had in mind -- refactor the whole directory structure, and then just use symbolic links for the old system in order to have compatibility. But not THESE file names, not Mixed Case. This makes me wish I could just go and run with GoboLinux and make a distribution of Gobo that goes back to lower-case names....

Why Linux Isn't The Open Source Desktop Answer

by Jon Davis 19. August 2007 01:59

On the PC, Windows wins, Linux loses, and I'm not even cheering for either side. The Mac is just off on the side, looking pretty like a squad of cheerleaders, but I have my eyes fixated straight up at the stars above. Even though I am sitting on the Windows side of the field, with my money invested in the team only because that's where I know the money will come back to me, I'm feeling bummed out, if more than just bored with this two- or three-sided competition.

Let's face it, there are only three major computer operating systems having any relevance in the modern personal computer markeplace: Mac OS, *nix, and Windows. And since Mac OS is, as of OS X, a rewrite built on Mach, a variant of *nix, there are actually only two, but since so much originality remains invested in the Mac environment it deserves recognition of its own.

And then there was BeOS, a truly original operating system that was complete, thorough, fast, cool, beautiful, happily geeky yet user friendly enough for my mother to use, but tragically lost to a failure to win the market. The intellectual assets of its demise went the way of mobile computing, which reminds me a great deal of the exact same process that was experienced by GEOS (my first exposure to a *real* user operating system) a decade prior, which in my view was the most innovative output of pure genius ever to execute on 64k bytes of silicon. GEOS gave the early Macintosh a run for its money, much like BeOS did ten years later, but both and especially the latter struggled to retain (or, for all I know, even obtain) profitability.

The obvious reason for their failure is perhaps because the Macintosh and Windows operating systems already had their foot in the door, and consumers couldn't handle choosing between more than two systems. But I tend to think it had more to do with hardware. GEOS ran on the Commodore 64 when the C64 was already proving itself antiquated, and except for the Commodore 128 (technically, the MOS Technology 6502, till 16-bit GEOS came about for x86) it didn't really have enough hardware on which to install itself, at least not soon enough to matter. The Be operating system, meanwhile, started out on the PowerPC CPU. In fact, it was the true power of the PowerPC that initiated the dream of Be. Be's founder was a former Apple employee who was frustrated with the fact that the Macintosh operating system simply wasn't taking advantage of the hardware, and Be OS was intent on harnessing that power. Meanwhile, PowerPC chips were manufacturered by IBM and Motorola, but they weren't exactly easy to come by on a PC except in Apple Macintosh hardware and proprietary systems. (Said proprietary systems included Be OS's own hardware, the BeBox.) When that proved to limit the Be OS market too heavily, Be OS re-targeted itself to the i386 platform, but by then it was too late; the excitement of a fresh new geeky operating system had waned, and now it was only a novelty.

To be more precise, and accurately agree with the observations of the general public, there was just too little reason for people to switch to Be. Not enough hardware driver support. Not enough software. Windows and Mac met those needs fine. Be had something for everyone, be sure, but by the time corporate funds ran out, it just wasn't nearly enough. Being a closed-source system on a commercial budget, the project simply dried up. An operating system of that magnitude really needs a decade to develop in order to take on the industry.

Then comes along Linus Torvalds. The guy slaps together (okay, that's harsh, he carefully knits together) a Unix kernel that runs on the i386 platform and makes it open source. The Linux operating system is birthed. Suddenly, the UNIX crowd--a huge crowd in the computing realm--have a zero-budget operating system for their microcomputer workstations that is stable, clean, fun, and cool (and isn't FreeBSD).

A decade later, we have a gajillion Linux "distros" (customized distributions of the Linux operating system, typically branded), a whole lot of eye candy, development tools, rediculously commonplace mention in geek and business tabloids, and a ubiquitous following by the non-Microsoft geek community. And if there isn't a day that I don't hear the word "Ubuntu" cross my web browser window at least two or three times per day, it will just be another distro to replace it.

So here I am now with VMWare, playing once again with an instance of Fedora (another Linux distro), and scratching my head wondering why in one day I have had to delete the entire thing and start over three times just to get everything installed and up-to-date when it has been made to be so click-easy. I wonder why I have lost at least three non-consecutive nights at the office to setting up Linux distros at the office, if tools like 'yum' make it so quick and simple.

And of course the answer to my wonderings is consistently the same as it was many years ago when Linux first showed itself in my living room: despite the limitless extent of scripts, quick commands, and distribution GUI tools, it's still the same geek operating system that demands flawless geek sequencing of configuration and implementation. What do you do when RPM dependency trees get out of sync or outta whack? Spend many hours rebuilding it, or start over from scratch. What do you do when the VM gets suddenly reset (because a whole frickin gigabyte of physical RAM didn't get allocated to it) while 'pup' extras are downloading and installing? Either go back and uninstall everything that got (half-)installed and then go back and reinstall everything, or just start over and format the drive. Then there's the matter of the whole stack of libraries for things like mySql. And, oh, the pain of getting MonoDevelop to just install on Fedora 7, with missing GtkSharp libraries leading me to a hell-hole path of looking for GTK+, Pango, GLib, atk, cairo, configure this, make that, oh I give up, please just kill me now!!

In fact, there is a laundry list of reasons why I think this whole operating system is just not the answer for converting Windows developers.

1. The directory structure isn't. It isn't a structure. It's a mess. I mean, what is the *real* difference between, oh, let's see, opt, usr, and var? I realize that some things just start trickling together into the same place, like putting configuration bits into a directory called "etc". But, I mean, for goodness sake.. Putting configuration files into a folder that is named the abbreviation for "etcetera"? Putting system-wide executable programs into a directory that is named after the user ("/usr/bin")? Putting the user's files into a directory called "home"? There is no rhyme or reason to this. It just is. And it is, because the geeks are used to it, they know where to put this stuff like they know how to deal with their siblings. But the so-called structure is maintained by memory and familiarty, not by sensibility.

Both the Macintosh operating systems and Windows operating systems make sense with their system directory structures. Or at least, the Macintosh I once knew with System 6 and System 7 (I haven't seen OS X closely yet.) The operating system was in a directory called "System". Fonts were put into a pseudo-directory (a "suitcase") in the System directory called "Fonts". User documents were put into "Documents", applications into "Applications". And on Windows, it's a bit messier but still makes more sense than opt/var/usr. The operating system files go into "Windows", the name of the operating system. Software applications go into "Program Files" (with a space in the name that has driven us all crazy, I know, but at least it's obvious what it's for). Shared DLLs now go into Program Files, in a subdirectory called "Common Files". User documents and preferences once went into a horrible place called "Profiles" in the Windows directory, but that was moved to "Documents and Settings" in the root directory, and then in Windows Vista it moved again to just "Users". A lot of moving around, but always in the pursuit of sensible structure. And inside the user's profile directory, you have a whole new world, especially in Vista, with organized directory structure, between documents, multimedia files, temp files, app settings, and more. Each directory is sensibly named, no geeky bull. As Microsoft so annoyingly puts it, it's "people-ready".

And don't get me started on how brilliantly simple, perfect, readable, yet sufficiently geeky (terse and lowercase) Be OS's directory naming convention was...

2. It's consistent in things that users don't want to see, and inconsistent in things that they do. So many distros, each one having its own touches. So many window managers, each one having its own capabilities and layouts. But no one is cleaning up the ugly bits. All that stuff is tucked away, swept under the bed, hidden, with a nice GNOME/KDE/other user interface that attempts (and fails, miserably) to shield the novice end user from being exposed from the senseless geekiness that is the UNIX underpinnings of a very old operating system. When the shielding does work, it doesn't work. For instance, Fedora 7 has a GUI configurator for the Apache web server, but if you use it you will break Apache because you'll get two different configuration files in the "etc" directory and between the two of them you'll get two bindings to Port 80. This doesn't just get fixed through the update pipeline (or hadn't when this bug bit me) because Fedora's contributors are busy working on so many other bugs. This is the big problem with having so many distros, all the efforts are forked across a couple hundred repeat efforts to provide a custom solution to the same problem and no one is ultimately accountable for leadership except the volunteers on behalf of a particular instance.

3. It is bound to its legacy. Despite very careful and successful handiwork of incredibly smart software programmers, the ancient operating system has evolved with total support for both legacy and modern architectures. That fact should bring a smile to any Linux geek's face, but it is not a good thing. Think Windows 95. Windows 98. Windows ME. Each of these was an evolution of a really, really poorly architected operating system that seemed as though Microsoft was using bubble gum and tape to expand the operating system's capabilities. (In actuality, bubble gum and tape were not used. Microsoft had a bit more money than that to afford caulk and nails--of the brittle sort. The problem was a broken foundation, that was ultimately replaced with the NT4/2000 reworked codebase.) Linux fortunately has a very stable foundation on which to add all these new evolutionary features, but the support it has for legacy software and the great multitude of development libraries is also the undying foundation that can never become declared as antiquated because so much depends on it.

I'm glad that the Linux foundational underpinnings are constantly improving; I know that the Linux kernel team(s) are working hard to stay up to date to support the latest and greatest support for things like new chipset hardware, multiprocessing (years ago), and now hypervisor support (recent). But it still walks and talks like a penguin--as in, like a geek who knows how to use Emacs and can explain what the big difference is between '/var' and '/usr', or why we use 'init 3' to break out of the GUI. Evolution has come in the form of additional software libraries that run on top of this awkward wave-bouncing boat that miraculously stays afloat without sinking.

4. The revised GUI applications are improving dramatically, but the classic software itself doesn't make sense. Look at text-mode Emacs. If you know how to use Emacs, skip this, but if you don't, look at it. Can you figure out how to use it just by looking at it? Poking at it? No? OK, try "man emacs", or google for help. What's that? Going to take you days to get started? Okay, then, let me know when you can start being productive. I expect to hear from you next week. Hopefully that's not too soon.

5. Without authoritative decision makers, you end up with chaos. And that's exactly what Linux is--organized chaos. Or is it chaotic organization? The stuff "just works", when it does. But wow is it a mess of gobbligook, with no one to account for the mess that it is. With the old Macintosh System 6 / 7 (again, I don't know what OS X looks like), applications were cleanly organized into a self-dependent, fully consolidated application file. Preferences were dropped into a Preferences directory. In Windows, applications are cleanly tucked into "Program Files\Company\App Name" or "Program Files\App Name". Shared libraries are pretty much always .dll's, and DLLs are always either 'C' invokable libraries (which may or may not be COM invokable) or CLR assemblies. App settings go into a pseudo file system, created just for configurations--the Windows registry--and follow standard path conventions like HKCU/Software/[App]/@setting=value. And when software is installed, it must be registered as an installed app and be uninstallable from "Add/Remove Programs" (or "Programs and Features" in Vista). Linux does have RPM, but the dependency trees as well as the potential corruption thereof are too painful to deal with.

A clean design starts with a designer, and consistency with a clean design depends on an authority figure who can sign off on it. With Linux, which has no one designer, you have all sorts of kinds of files, in all kinds of different "languages" (.o, .class, .pl, .bleah), no file typing ("chmod +x bleah"), and can put /any/thing/any/where/.and/yet/it/will/make/sense/to/some/geek. Everything that works, works to the people that established it and to the people who learned it to build dependencies upon it. But the fact that any one thing might work fine doesn't change the fact that the combination of the sum of all of its parts is more akin to a zoo than an organization, which makes it extremely difficult for the average person to adopt.

6. The GUI subsystem (X Window) is hardly performant and is erratic. Macintosh rebuilt its GUI subsystem based on PDF technology for crisp anti-aliasing, yet its down-to-the-metal optimizations make it a clean, fast, and beautiful environment. Microsoft Windows Vista's Aero subsystem takes it to the next level and channels everything through Direct3D, taking advantage of video card optimizations to make the user experience very smooth and responsive. But Linux? From what I can tell, it still pushes everything through the TCP/IP network stack, which is one of the slowest (if most versatile) computer communications channels on an operating system. The advantage is that you can redirect windowing instructions to another machine (like you can with Windows' Remote Desktop) even through SSH, but the down side is that you have limited performance, and you have to minimize the instructions and make the instruction set "smarter" to do things like OpenGL or other graphics-intensive work. In the end, whenever I use Linux locally I feel like I'm using Remote Desktop. The mouse is slow and erratic, and everything feels a few milliseconds slower than me. Everything seems like it's bound by elastic bands. Whereas, when I'm in Windows doing the same things, everything is very responsive; the mouse, in particular, feels flawless and perfectly optimized to bind to my hardware and physical movements. (The Windows kernel seems to manage the mouse in an isolated, high priority system thread, seperate from everything else, which is why no matter how slow other things are, it is always very responsive and true to physical movement.) And I don't suppose I can ever dream of getting VMWare to resize the client OS screen resolution at runtime without unloading X Window and restarting it.

But there are some things I like about Linux.

I like that there is a "clean" command-line environment where administration can be performed without a GUI. I still miss Windows 95/98 being able to "boot into DOS mode", switching straight to MS-DOS 7 on which Windows 95 was still built on top of. Windows NT/2000/XP/2003/Vista forces you to have a useless mouse in your face even if you're booting into "Safe Mode with Command Prompt".

I like the support for significant development languages and tools, like Java and Python. I can learn such things in Windows and deploy to Linux. (Why I would want to if it runs in Windows, though, I don't know, but some stuff I have to support is built on that crazy zoo of a foundation that Linux is, such as Perl and Apache and lots of Linux-specific add-on modules that get dropped into those weird directories.)

I like the geek love that Linux enjoys. Windows doesn't get that love. It only gets hate, from the Linux lovers. Then again, the local user's group for Microsoft technologies definitely enjoys some Windows and .NET love, so nevermind.

I like the network orientation of Linux. It's not the answer, but it does set a precedent.

I like the artistic contributions for the more recent UI elements, like GNOME. I think the fonts are lame, but more for inconsistent display behavior between windows and programs than for the font designs.

But I can totally live without those things. I'd much rather live without those things than have to put up with the mess that Linux is. Let's face it, Linux isn't the open-source answer for a sensible operating system.

The ReactOS project isn't the answer, either. If we wanted Windows, we'll get Windows. We don't need an open-source look-alike of Windows. What this is about is the need for an innovative and original open source operating system that is not bound by legacy constraints.

Be OS came ever so close, if only it was still available and open source! But Haiku OS (not Linux-based, and inspired by Be OS) seems REALLY interesting. Could it be the answer??

With the advent of virtualization with VMWare, Virtual PC, Parallels, and Xen now being commonplace, I can't help but wonder why people in the geek community haven't gone back to the drawing board already to rethink operating systems.

Microsoft gave me a glimmer of hope with their Singularity project. Singularity is a fresh, from-scratch operating system that Microsoft built using a little bit of assembly and C/C++ but mostly a variant of C# all the way down to the metal. It completely drops all ties to legacy support, and instead focuses on the future. It's so multi-threaded oriented that hypervisors are a moot concept. It is Microsoft's opportunity to take two decades of lessons learned with Windows and try to prototype an OS with no legacy constraints and lessons learned now applied. And although it's not tuned for inherent performance (which is why assembly and C++ lovers will inevitably hate the Singularity project idea), it's still performant, and runs circles around modern OS's when it comes to inter-process communications.

Sadly, the Singularity project isn't open-source. That is, Microsoft Research did "open" it up to a few professors in a few select universities, but this isn't an open source operating system intended to be consumed by the general global geek community.

This is why I'm getting a bit excited about the idea that maybe it's time for the geeks to get a clue. VMWare has debugger support to the hardware level and even rewind and replay support. The tools are ripe for dreaming, building, and playing with a whole new operating system, one that is sensibly designed, responsibly organized, and yet open for community contributions. This would be an opportunity for people to learn how to organize and delegate community representatives, to provide the world a fresh, clean, newly design operating system that is free to use, freely consumable, free to break apart, free to extend, but having a single, organized, moderated, carefully planned public "distro", all the way down to the metal, with no legacy constraints, and with sights set for the future. If the open source community really wants to compete with Microsoft, they should pay attention to what Microsoft is doing beside duplicating Windows Explorer with Nautilus, and look at how Microsoft is constantly rethinking and refactoring its core design, from the kernel (dropping Win9x for WinNT) to the directory structures to the windowing subsystem being channeled straight through Direct3D (with Aero).

Believe it, you can have your GNU and OSI (open source initiative), and lose your *nix. It's okay if you do. I'll be cheering you on. Even if I'm the only one on the stands who is doing the wave. But not until we get away from usr/var/etc, and stop taking geeky, old-school, antiquated foundations for granted. They're expensive and they're not worth keeping around.


 

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About the author

Jon Davis (aka "stimpy77") has been a programmer, developer, and consultant for web and Windows software solutions professionally since 1997, with experience ranging from OS and hardware support to DHTML programming to IIS/ASP web apps to Java network programming to Visual Basic applications to C# desktop apps.
 
Software in all forms is also his sole hobby, whether playing PC games or tinkering with programming them. "I was playing Defender on the Commodore 64," he reminisces, "when I decided at the age of 12 or so that I want to be a computer programmer when I grow up."

Jon was previously employed as a senior .NET developer at a very well-known Internet services company whom you're more likely than not to have directly done business with. However, this blog and all of jondavis.net have no affiliation with, and are not representative of, his former employer in any way.

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