Back in Welly!

It’s been just over a week since we returned to Wellington, been great to get home and start making plans for long term!

Was a bit of a mission moving out of our Sydney place – whilst we went over with a total of 4 suitcases, we returned with a much larger unexpected 8 suitcases worth of stuff, which we then had to pay to lug back across the Tasman.

Too much heap space consumed by our luggage :-(

Our luggage reminds me of a Java application and heap space.

Teeny-tiny little 737.

Teeny-tiny little 737 to take us home.

Since arriving, I’ve resumed working for Fairfax as a Systems Architect, looking after both the New Zealand and the Australian systems, including SMH, TheAge, Stuff and another 700-odd sites owned by Fairfax.

It’s a bit of a step up for me, still lots of hands on engineering work, but a chance to grow my skills and take responsibility for designing and building our next generation systems on both sides of the Tasman.

It’s certainly a bit of a change talking with my AU colleagues via Google Hangout video chat rather than sitting in the pub over a beer and it’s sad to lose that closeness, but still glad I can continue working with such an excellent group of people.

I’ve also gained a bunch of friendly NZ colleagues whom I’ll be working with on various projects, seems like a pretty cool bunch.

An important NZ public holiday.

An important NZ public holiday, celebrated by the NZ office.

Meanwhile on a personal front, Lisa and I are staying in a serviced apartment for 6 months whilst we finish putting together our deposit and then go house hunting in Wellington for a place of our own!

The Reserve Bank has made it tricky with banks being limited on the number of low equity loans they offer, but we have enough to get a place in a decent price bracket with a 20% deposit. If we can get approval of a low equity loan, then our options open up even more.

It’s good to be back home again! Once we’ve settled in, will be out and about house hunting and just generally enjoying Wellington.

Wellington CBD from Mt Kaukau

Wellington CBD from Mt Kaukau

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There are no seasons in the datacenter

I always like reviewing the Munin temperature graphs between my co-located server and my home server, the temperature range fluctuations in non-air conditioned rooms is always quite interesting – as much as 25 degrees Celsius over the course of the year, inline with the seasons.

Tmp

Co-location machine (left), home machine (right).

t,p

Co-location machine (left), home machine (right).

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Jethro does Mac: Terminals

With a change in job, I recently shifted from my primary work computer being a Lenovo X1 Carbon running GNU/Linux to using an Apple Macbook Pro Retina 15″ running MacOS.

It’s not the first time that I’ve used MacOS as my primary workstation, but I’ve spent the vast majority of my IT life working in a purely GNU/Linux environment so it was interesting having to try and setup my usual working habits and flow with this new platform.

I’m going to do a few blog posts addressing my thoughts and issues with this platform and how I’ve found it compared to my GNU/Linux laptops. I’m going to look at both hardware and software and note down a few fixes and tricks that I’ve learnt along the way.

 

Part 4: Terminals and adventures with keybindings

I’ve already written about the physical issues with the Macbook keyboard, but there’s another issue with this input device – keybindings.

As mentioned previously, the Macbook lacks various useful keys, such as home and end, instead, you need to use a key combination such as Apple + Left/Right to achieve the same result. However for some inexplicable reason, Apple decided that the Terminal should have it’s own special behaviour, so it does not obey the same keybindings. In any other MacOS program, using these key combinations will achieve the desired results. But with Terminal, it results in random junk appearing in the terminal – or nothing at all.

For an engineer like myself this is the single most frustrating issue I’ve had with MacOS to date – having the Terminal essentially broken out of the box on their own hardware is quite frankly unacceptable and I suspect a reflection on how Apple cares far more about consumer users than power users.

Whilst Apple’s Terminal offers the ability to configure keybindings, it has two major problems that make it unusable:

  1. Whilst there is an entry for keys called “Home” and “End”, these entries seem to map to actual physical Home/End keys, but not the key combinations of Apple + Home/End, which appear as-is to the OS. So any configuration done for the Home/End won’t help.
  2. Instead we need to configure a key combination with a modifier of Apple key. But MacOS Terminal doesn’t allow the Apple key to be used as a modifier.
MacOS stock terminal keybinding configuration.

MacOS stock terminal keybinding configuration – no Apple key option here!

The result is, there’s no way to properly fix the MacOS Terminal and in my view, it’s essentially useless. Whilst if I was using an external keyboard with a physical home/end key it wouldn’t be too much of a problem since I can set a keybinding, there are times I do actually want to be able to use the laptop keyboard effectively!

I ended up fixing it by installing the popular iTerm2 third party terminal application- in many ways it’s similar to the stock terminal, but it offers various additional configuration options.

iTerm2 and MacOS Terminal alongside each other.

iTerm2 and MacOS Terminal alongside each other, configured to use same colour scheme and fonts.

For me the only thing that I really care about is the fact that it adds the ability to setup keybindings with the Apple + Home/End key options.

iTerm2

The killer feature – the ability to set key combinations with the Apple key!

Setting the above and then creating an ~/.input.rc file (as per these instructions) resolved the keybinding issues for me, and made iTerm2 consistent with all the MacOS applications.

"\e[1~": beginning-of-line
"\e[4~": end-of-line
"\e[5~": history-search-backward
"\e[6~": history-search-forward
"\e[3~": delete-char
"\e[2~": quoted-insert
"\e[5C": forward-word
"\e[5D": backward-word
"\e\e[C": forward-word
"\e\e[D": backward-word
set completion-ignore-case On

The key combinations work correct in the local shell, Vim and also via SSH connections to other systems. Perfect! I just wish I didn’t have to do this in the first place…

 

See other posts in this series via the jethro does mac tag as I explore using MacOS after years of GNU/Linux only.

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Heading Home

Wellington CBD from  Central Park.

Wellington CBD from Central Park.

After 2.5 years away, Lisa and I are both heading back home to Wellington! This is a permanent move for us, whilst we’ve enjoyed our time in other places, this is certainly home for us and where we want to base ourselves long term.

At this stage we expect to be in a position to buy a house in Wellington in the next 3-6 months – the government forcing 20% minimum deposits for new loans has certainly been a frustration, but we’re in a position to just scrape in at the price point we’re after.

Meanwhile we need to find a place to live for those months – interested in hearing from anyone keen to lease a room to a couple, or know of any small apartments for lease, or even a longer term house sitter being needed anywhere. Naturally we’re trying to keep the rent low whilst we finish finalising the deposit.

Really looking forwards to being home and seeing everyone again – we get back on 28th March, so once we’ve settled in,  will start lining up catch ups with people! :-)

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The awesome tablet money can’t buy

Most people working in technology and have heard of and formulated some opinion about the Microsoft Surface tablet, now in it’s second generation of hardware. For some it’s a poor attempt to compete with the iPad, for others it’s the greatest laptop replacement they’ve ever seen, destined to bring the brilliance of Windows 8.1 to the masses.

Surface

Whilst I think it’s good for Apple and Android to have some competition in the tablet market, the Windows platform itself is of no interest to a GNU/Linux using, free-software loving individual like myself. What I do find interesting about the Microsoft Surface, is not the software, but rather the excellent high-specification hardware they’ve managed to cram into 980g of handheld excellence.

I’ve been using my Lenovo X201i Thinkpad for about 4 years now and it’s due for an upgrade – whilst still very functional, the lack of AES-NI and a low resolution display and poor GPU is starting to get quite frustrating, not to mention the weight!

The fully speced Microsoft Surface 2 Pro features a Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and 512GB SSD, plus the ability to drive up to two external displays – qualities that would make it suitable as my primary workstation, whether on the go, or docked into larger displays at home – essentially a full laptop replacement.

Since the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 is x86-based and supports disabling secure-boot, it is possible to run GNU/Linux natively on the device, suddenly making it very attractive for my requirements.

It’s not a perfect device of course – the unit is heavy by tablet standards, and the lack of a 3G or LTE modem is a frustrating limitation. Battery life of the x86 Pro series is not where near as good as a low power ARM chip (although the Haswell Core i5 certainly has improved things over the generation 1 device)..

There’s also the question of cost, the fully speced unit is around $2,600 NZD which puts it in the same bracket as high end expensive laptops.

Remember ads? Before adblocker?

Personally I feel these ads need more design effort other than the product name and the convincing slogan of “Get it”!

Microsoft has certainly spared no expense advertising the Surface. With billboards, placement marketing in TV series and internet advertising, it’s hard not to notice them. Which is why it’s even more surprising that Microsoft made the monumental mistake of not stocking enough units to buy.

I’m not sales or marketing expert, but generally my understanding is that if you want people to buy something, you should have stock to sell to them. If I walk into the Apple store down the road, I can buy an iPad in about 5mins. But if I try to buy the competing Microsoft Surface, I get the depressing statement that the unit is “Out of Stock”:

All models of Surface Pro 2, out of stock on AU online store.

All models of Surface Pro 2, out of stock on AU online store.

In fact, even it’s less loved brother, the ARM-based Windows RT version which can’t run anything other than Microsoft Store applications is out of stock as well.

Even the fundamentally flawed RT-family of devices is sold out.

Even the feature limited RT-family of devices is sold out.

The tablets seem to have been out of stock since around December 2013, which suggests that the Christmas sales exhausted all the stock and Microsoft has been unable to resupply it’s distributors.

Possibly Microsoft limited the volume of units manufactured in fear of ending up with unsold units (like the difficult to shift Surface RT Gen-1 series that got written down) and didn’t manufacture as many units as they otherwise would have – a gamble that has shown itself to be a mistake. I wonder how many missed sales have resulted, where people gave up waiting and either went for a third party Windows tablet, or just purchased an iPad?

Microsoft hasn’t even provided an ETA for more stock or provided an email option to be advised and get first dibs on new stock when it arrives eventually.

Of interest, when comparing NZ and AU stock availability and pricing, the price disparity isn’t too bad. The top model Surface Pro 2 costs AUD $1854 excluding GST, whereas the New Zealand model sells for NZD $2260 excluding GST, which is currently around AUD $2137.

This is a smallish difference of around $283, but this is probably due to Microsoft pricing the tablet when the exchange rate was around $0.80 AUD to $1 NZD.

What I would expect, is that when they (eventually!) import additional stock to replenish supplies, the pricing should be re-adjusted to suit the current exchange rate – which is more around $0.95 AUD to $1 NZD.

Kiwi pricing

Kiwi pricing is a bit more eh bru? 15% GST vs 10% GST in Australia is the biggest reason for the disparity.

Whether they do this or not, remains to be seen – but considering how expensive it is, if they can drop the price without impacting the profit margin it could only help make it more attractive.

For now, I’m just keeping an eye on the stock – in many ways not being able to buy one certainly helps the house fund, but the fact is that I need to upgrade my Lenovo laptop at some point in the next year at the latest. If Microsoft can sort out their stock issues, the Surface could well be that replacement.

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Jethro does Mac: The Apple Input Devices

With a change in job, I recently shifted from my primary work computer being a Lenovo X1 Carbon running GNU/Linux to using an Apple Macbook Pro Retina 15″ running MacOS.

It’s not the first time that I’ve used MacOS as my primary workstation, but I’ve spent the vast majority of my IT life working in a purely GNU/Linux environment so it was interesting having to try and setup my usual working habits and flow with this new platform.

I’m going to do a few blog posts addressing my thoughts and issues with this platform and how I’ve found it compared to my GNU/Linux laptops. I’m going to look at both hardware and software and note down a few fixes and tricks that I’ve learnt along the way.

 

Part 3: The Apple Input Devices

I’ll freely admit that I’m a complete and total keyboard snob and I’ve been spoilt with quality desktop keyboards (Das Keyboard, IBM Model M) and the best possible laptop keyboard on the market – the classic IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad keyboard (pre-chiclet style).

Keeping this snobbery and bias in mind, I’m bitterly disappointed by the quality of the Apple keyboard. It’s a surprising slip-up by a company that prides itself on perfection and brilliant hardware design, I fear that the keyboard is just an unfortunate casualty of that design-focused mentality.

I have two main issues with this keyboard. Firstly, the shallowness and feeling of the keys, and secondly the layout and key selection.

The shallowness is the biggest issue with the keyboard. Laptops certainly aren’t known for their key travel distance, but there have been a few exceptions to the rule – IBM/Lenovo’s Thinkpad series is widely recognised as featuring one of the better keyboards in the market with decent sized keys, good layout and enough key depth to get a reasonable amount of travel when typing. (Side note: talking about the classic Thinkpad keyboards here… I’m undecided about their new chiclet style keyboards on recent models…)

On the Macbook, the key depth and travel distance is very short, there’s almost no movement when pressing keys and I lose the ability to effectively bounce between the different keys. I personally find that repeatedly doing the small motions needed to type on this keyboard for 4 hours or more causes me physical discomfort in my hands and I fear that if I were to use the Macbook keyboard as my primary computer, I would be looking at long term RSI problems.

Having said that, to be fair to Apple I probably couldn’t handle more than 6-8 hours a day on my Thinkpad keyboard – whilst it’s better than the Apple one, it’s still fundamentally a laptop keyboard with all the limitations it suffers. Realistically, for the amount of time I spend on a computer (12+ hours a day), I require an external keyboard whether it’s plugged into a Macbook, a Thinkpad or some other abomination of typing quality.

The other issue I have with Apple’s keyboard is that despite the large size of the laptop (mine is a 15.6″ unit), they’ve compromised the keyboard layout and removed various useful keys – the ones that I miss the most are home, end, insert, delete, page up and page down, all of which require the use of key combinations to be achieved on the Macbook.

The Thinkpad line has always done pretty well at including these keys, even if they have a VERY annoying habit of moving around their positions with different hardware generations, and their presence on the keyboard is very appreciated when doing terminal work – which for me, is a fast part of my day. It’s a shame that Apple couldn’t have used a bit more of the surface space on the laptop to add some of these keys in.

Overall, if I examine the Macbook keyboard as something I’m only going to use when out of the home/work office, then it’s an acceptable keyboard. I’ve certainly used far worse laptop keyboards and it sure beats tapping away on a tablet touchscreen or using something like the Microsoft Surface foldout keyboards.

And of course both the Thinkpad and the Macbook pale in comparison to a proper external keyboard – as long as I have a decent home/work office external keyboard it’s not too much of a deal breaker, but I’d certainly weigh in the keyboard as a negative if I was considering a machine for a role as a travelling consultant, where I could be spending weeks at a client site with unknown facilities and maybe needing to rely on the laptop itself.

 

Despite the insistence of some people that the keyboard is the only thing a computer needs, you’ll probably also want to use some kind of cursor moving thing if you want to effectively make use of the MacOS GUI.

The Macbook ships with a large touchpad centered in the middle of the laptop beneath the keyboard. This is a pretty conventional design, although Apple has certainly been pushing the limits on getting the largest possible sized touchpad on a laptop – a trend that other vendors appear to have been following in recent years.

Personally I hold a controversial opinion where I vastly prefer Trackpoint-style pointers on laptops over touchpads. I’m sure that a case could be made to accuse me of Thinkpad fanboyism, but I’ve used and enjoyed Trackpoints on Toshiba, HP and Lenovo computers in the past with great success.

The fundamental reason I prefer the Trackpoint, is that whilst it takes longer to get used to and feels weird at first, once it’s mastered, it’s possible to rapidly jump between typing and cursor moving with minimal effort.

Generally my fingers are resting on keys right next to the Trackpoint, or sometimes even I rest my finger on the Trackpoint itself whilst waiting, so it’s easy to jump between typing and cursoring. Plus on the Thinkpad design, my thumb rests just above the 3-button mouse, which is fantastically convenient.

http://xkcd.com/243/

http://xkcd.com/243/

Whilst the Macbook’s large touchpad is by far the best touchpad I’ve ever used, it still has the fundamental flaw of the layout forcing me to make a large movement to go between the keyboard and the touchpad each time.

This is technically a Macbook air, but the keyboard and touchpad is the same across the entire product line.

This is technically a Macbook air in the picture, but the keyboard and touchpad is the same across the entire product line…. this laptop was closer to my camera. :-)

It also has the issue of then sitting right in the way of my palm, so it took me a while to get used to not hitting the touchpad with my palm whilst typing. I’ve gotten better at this, although it still happens from time to time and does prevent me from resting my palm in my preferred natural position.

Admittedly I am nitpicking. To their credit, Apple has done a far better job of touchpads than most other vendors I’ve ever used. Generally laptop touchpads are too small (you can see how tiny the one on my Thinkpad is – I just disabled it entirely in favour of the Trackpoint) and even vendors who are busy cloning Apple’s design haven’t always gotten the same feel of sturdiness that Apple’s touchpad offers.

The gesture integration with MacOS is also excellent – I’ve found that I’m often using the three-finger swipe to switch between workspaces and the two-finger scrolling is very easy to use when doing web browsing, nicer and more natural feeling than using the cursor keys or a scroll wheel even.

 

Overall it’s a decent enough machine and beats most other laptop vendors in the market. I’d personally still go for the Thinkpad if all things other than keyboard were identical, simply due to how much I type and code, but the Macbook keyboard and touchpad is an acceptable second place for me and a good option for most general users.

See other posts in this series via the jethro does mac tag as I explore using MacOS after years of GNU/Linux only.

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Jethro does Mac: GPU Woes

With a change in job, I recently shifted from my primary work computer being a Lenovo X1 Carbon running GNU/Linux to using an Apple Macbook Pro Retina 15″ running MacOS.

It’s not the first time that I’ve used MacOS as my primary workstation, but I’ve spent the vast majority of my IT life working in a purely GNU/Linux environment so it was interesting having to try and setup my usual working habits and flow with this new platform.

I’m going to do a few blog posts addressing my thoughts and issues with this platform and how I’ve found it compared to my GNU/Linux laptops. I’m going to look at both hardware and software and note down a few fixes and tricks that I’ve learnt along the way.

 

Part 2: Dual GPU Headaches

Whilst the Macbook line generally features Intel GPUs only, the flagship Macbook Pro 15″ model like mine features dual GPUs – the low power Intel GPU, as well as a high(er) performance Nvidia GPU for when graphical performance is required for certain business applications (*cough* Minecraft *cough*).

MacOS dynamically switches between the different GPUs as it deems necessary, which is a smart idea – except that MacOS seems to get led astray by malware such as Flash Player which launches in the background of some webpage somewhere and proceeds to force the GPU to run on Nvidia only, chewing up battery yet not even rendering anything.

To be fair to Apple, this is a fault with the crapiness of Flash Player and not MacOS. It certainly gives ammunition to Apple’s decision to ditch having Flash Player pre-installed on MacOS systems in 2010 to conserve battery life, the Nvidia GPU certainly shortens my laptop’s battery life by about 30mins when just sitting idle.

Annoyingly the only way I found out that my Mac wasn’t using the Intel GPU most of the time, was by installing a third party tool gfxCardStatus which shows the apps blocking low-power GPU selection and also allows forcing a particular GPU manually.

Not content with hogging CPU, Flash Player found itself wanting to hog GPU as well.

Not content with hogging CPU, Flash Player found itself wanting to hog GPU as well.

The other issue with the dual GPU design, is that it makes running GNU/Linux on these models of Macbook complex – it can be done, but you have to use MacOS to select one GPU or another before then booting into GNU/Linux and sticking with that selected GPU.

This may get better overtime, but it’s worth anyone who’s considering ditching MacOS to keep in mind.

 

See other posts in this series via the jethro does mac tag as I explore using MacOS after years of GNU/Linux only.

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Jethro does Mac: Retina Display

With a change in job, I recently shifted from my primary work computer being a Lenovo X1 Carbon running GNU/Linux to using an Apple Macbook Pro Retina 15″ running MacOS.

It’s not the first time that I’ve used MacOS as my primary workstation, but I’ve spent the vast majority of my IT life working in a purely GNU/Linux environment so it was interesting having to try and setup my usual working habits and flow with this new platform.

I’m going to do a few blog posts addressing my thoughts and issues with this platform and how I’ve found it compared to my GNU/Linux laptops. I’m going to look at both hardware and software and note down a few fixes and tricks that I’ve learnt along the way.

 

Part 1: The Retina Display

Apple is known for their hardware quality – the Macbook Pro Retina 15″ I am using is a top-of-the-line machine with a whopping Core i7, 16GB of RAM and 512GB SDD, Nvidia GPU and the massive 2880×1800 pixel Retina LCD display. Whilst the hardware is nice, it’s something that can be found with other vendors – what really makes it interesting, is the massive high resolution display.

Shiny shiny

Shiner than a Thinkpad. But is it just a showoff?

Unfortunately for all the wonderfulness that Retina advertises, it’s given me more grief than happiness so far. My main issue, is how Apple handles this massive high resolution display.

Out of the box you get a scaled resolution that looks like any standard MacOS laptop, rather than the full native resolution of the display. Apple then does some weird black magic with their UI layer, where the actual display is rendered on a massive virtual 3360 x 2100 resolution virtual display and is then scaled down to the actual display size of 2880 x 1800 pixels.

The actual resolutions available to the end user aren’t real resolutions, but rather different modes that essentially look/feel like 1920×1200, 1680×1050, 1440×900 (the default for Retina), 1280×800 and 1024×640, but in the background MacOS is just scaling application windows to these sizes.

There’s some more details about the way the Retina display and MacOS work on the AnandTech review here.

If you come from a Windows or GNU/Linux world where the screen resolution is what it says on the box, it’s a really weird mindshift. You’ll quickly find this approach is common to the Apple ecosystem – so much stuff that I understand about computers is difficult to figure out with MacOS due to the way Apple hides everything and instead of using the technical terminology, hides it behind their own terminology designed to make it “easier” for normal users. And maybe it does… but for me, it’s more of a hindrance, rather than a help.

Apple's Settings window isn't that helpful at explaining the real resolutions underneath. Use

Apple’s Settings window isn’t that helpful at explaining the real resolutions underneath, in my case I had to get “screenresolution” from Brew in order to figure out what resolution this machine was actually displaying.

So which size and mode do I use? The stock screen resolution is OK for a laptop and maybe you’ll like it perfectly if you’re using Retina optimised applications (eg Aperture) where having a lower effective resolution, but high DPI for the content is useful.

Default scaled mode - effectively 1440x900

Default scaled mode – effectively 1440×900

However for me, where most of my use case is email, terminal and a browser, I wanted the ability to fit the most possible information onto the screen, so I ended up using the “More Space” resolution, which drives the display at a 1920×1200-like scaled resolution.

The "More Space" mode is handy for fitting decent amounts of console output.

The “More Space” mode is handy for fitting decent amounts of console output.

Whilst the Retina display is an excellent equal to a 24″ monitor (which have a resolution around 1920×1080, almost the same as the “More Space” mode), it doesn’t quite meet my dream hope which was that it would equal a 27″ monitor.

27″ monitors are the holy grail for me, since they have a resolution of 2560 x 1080, which is big enough to fit two large A4 sized windows on the screen at the same exact time.

Good, but not as good as a nice 27" panel.

It’s functional, but not as natural-feeling as doing the same on a 27″ monitor – still feels like trying to squeeze everything in.

It is possible to bypass Apple’s limitations on resolution get a higher resolution using third party tools, but I can only just read the 1920×1200 comfortably. I tried DisplayMenu (as suggested by Kai in the comments), but whilst the resulting resolution is amazing, I find reading text on it just a bit too small for prolonged periods.

The full 2880x1800 is lovely, but I might need glasses to read it...

The full 2880×1800 is lovely, but I might need glasses to read it…

The other issue with the Retina displays, is that due to the way Apple does the scaling, some applications just end up looking bad and fuzzy due to bitmap stretching and other nastiness – this impacted me with KeepassX, as well as some company-internal web applications.

But when you do get a properly Retina compatible application, things do look beautiful – Google Maps both in vector map and also satellite view look incredibly sharp and clear.

Vectorised graphics were made for Retina

Vectorised graphics were made for Retina

If I was choosing between a laptop with a high resolution display like this and one without, I’d be choosing the former all other factors being considered equal. But I’m not convinced that it’s worth splashing lots of cash on for my particular requirements of terminals and browsing – the Retina screen probably wouldn’t add much for me over a laptop that features a resolution like 1920×1200 native instead of downscaling.

 

See other posts in this series via the jethro does mac tag as I explore using MacOS after years of GNU/Linux only.

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Fedora x86_64 installer hanging on KVM hosts

Had an annoying problem today where a Fedora x86_64 guest wouldn’t install on my CentOS KVM server. Weirdly the i386 version had installed perfectly, but the x86_64 version would repeatedly crash and chew up heaps of CPU at the software package selection screen.

I hate being stuck here...

Stuck here, unresponsive console, no mouse, etc?

Turns out that 512MB of RAM isn’t enough to install Fedora x86_64, but is enough to get away with installing Fedora i386 on. Simply boost the RAM allocation of the VM up to 1GB, and the installation will proceed OK. You can drop the RAM allocation down again afterwards.

Unsure why the installer dies in such a strange fashion, I would have expected Linux’s OOM to terminate the installer and leave me with a clear message, but maybe Anaconda is doing something weird like OOM protection and just ends up with the system running out of memory and hanging.

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linux.conf.au 2014

I’ve just returned from my annual pilgrimage to linux.conf.au, which was held in Perth this year. It’s the first time I’ve been over to West Australia, it’s a whole 5 hour flight from Sydney -  longer than it takes to fly to New Zealand.

Perth’s climate is a very dry heat compared to Sydney, so although it was actually hotter than Sydney for most of the week, it didn’t feel quite as unpleasant – other than the final day which hit 45 degrees and was baking hot…

It’s also a very clean/tidy city, the well maintained nature was very noticeable with the city and gardens being immaculately trimmed – not sure if it’s always been like this, or if it’s a side effect of the mining wealth in the economy allowing the local government to afford it more effectively.

The towering metropolis of mining wealth.

The towering metropolis of mining wealth.

As usual, the conference ran for 5 full days and featured 4-5 concurrent streams of talks during the week. The quality was generally high as always, although I feel that content selection has shifted away from a lot of deep dive technical talks to more high level talks, and that OpenStack (whilst awesome) is taking up far too much of the conference and really deserves it’s own dedicated conference now.

I’ve prepared my personal shortlist of the talks I enjoyed most of all for anyone who wants to spend a bit of time watching some of the recorded sessions.

 

Interesting New(ish) Software

  1. RatticDB – A web-based password storage system written in Python written by friends in Melbourne. I’ve been trialling it and since then it’s growing in popularity and awareness, as well as getting security audits (and fixes) [video] [project homepage].
  2. MARS Light – This is an insanely awesome replacement for DRBD designed to address the issues of DRBD when replicating over slower long WAN links. Like DRBD, MARS Light is a block-level replication, so ideal for entire datacenter and VM replication. [video] [project homepage].
  3. Pettycoin – Proposal/design for an adjacent network to Bitcoin designed for microtransactions. It’s currently under development, but is an interesting idea. [video] [project homepage].
  4. Lua code in Mediawiki – the Mediawiki developers have added the ability for Wikipedia editors to write Lua code that is executed server side which is pretty insanely awesome when you think about how normally nobody wants to allow untrusted public the ability to remote execute code on systems. The developers have taken Lua and created a “safe” version that runs inside PHP with restrictions to make this possible. [video] [project homepage].
  5. OpenShift – RedHat did a demonstration on their hosted (and open source) PAAS platform, OpenShift. It’s a solution I’ve been looking at before, if you’re a developer whom doesn’t care about infrastructure management, it looks very attractive. [video] [project homepage].

 

Evolution of Linux

  1. D-Bus in the Kernel – Lennart Pottering (of Pulseaudio and SystemD fame) presented the efforts he’s been involved in to fix D-Bus’s shortcomings and move it into the kernel itself and have D-Bus as a proper high speed IPC solution for the Linux kernel. [video]
  2. The Six Stages of SystemD – Presentation by an engineer who has been moving systems to SystemD and the process he went through and his thoughts/experience with SystemD. Really showcases the value that moving to SystemD will bring to GNU/Linux distributions. [video]
  3. Development Tools & The UNIX Philosophy – Excellent talk by a Python developer on how we should stop accepting command-line only tools as being the “right” or “proper” UNIX-style tools. Some tools (eg debuggers) are just better suited for graphical interfaces, and that it still meets the UNIX philosophy of having one tool doing one thing well. I really like the argument he makes and have to agree, in some cases GUIs are just more suitable for some tasks. [video]

 

Walkthroughs and Warstories

  1. TCP Tuning for the Web – presented by one of the co-founders of Fastly showing the various techniques they use to improve the performance of TCP connections and handle issues such as DDOS attacks. Excellent talk by a very smart networking engineer. [video]
  2. Massive Scaling of Graphite – very interesting talk on the massive scaling issues involved to collect statistics with Graphite and some impressive and scary stats on the lifespans and abuse that SSDs will tolerate (which is nowhere near as much as they should!). [video]
  3. Maintaining Internal Forks – One of the FreeBSD developers spoke on how his company maintains an internal fork of FreeBSD (with various modifications for their storage product) and the challenges of keeping it synced with the current releases. Lots of common problems, such as pain of handling new upstream releases and re-merging changes. [video]
  4. Reverse engineering firmware – Mathew Garrett dug deep into vendor firmware configuration tools and explained how to reverse engineer their calls with various tools such as strace, IO and memory mapping tools. Well worth a watch purely for the fact that Matthew Garrett is an amazing speaker. [video]
  5. Android, The positronic brain – Interesting session on how to build native applications for Android devices, such as cross compiling daemons and how the internal structure of Android is laid out. [video]
  6. Rapid OpenStack Deployment – Double-length Tutorial/presentation on how to build OpenStack clusters. Very useful if you’re looking at building one. [video]
  7. Debian on AWS – Interesting talk on how the Debian project is using Amazon AWS for various serving projects and how they’re handling AMI builds. [video]
  8. A Web Page in Seven Syscalls – Excellent walk through on Varnish by one of the developers. Nothing too new for anyone who’s been using it, but a good explanation of how it works and what it’s used for. [video]

 

Other Cool Stuff

  1. Deploying software updates to ArduSat in orbit by Jonathan Oxer – Launching Arduino powered satelittes into orbit and updating them remotely to allow them to be used for educational and research purposes. What could possibly be more awesome than this? [video].
  2. HTTP/2.0 and you – Discussion of the emerging HTTP/2.0 standard. Interesting and important stuff for anyone working in the online space. [video]
  3. OpenStreetMap – Very interesting talk from the director of OpenStreetMap Team about how OpenStreetMap is used around disaster prone areas and getting the local community to assist with generating maps, which are being used by humanitarian teams to help with the disaster relief efforts. [video]
  4. Linux File Systems, Where did they come from? – A great look at the history and development cycles of the different filesytems in the Linux kernel – comparing ext1/2/3/4, XFS, ReiserFS, Btrfs and others. [video]
  5. A pseudo-random talk on entropy – Good explanation of the importance of entropy on Linux systems, but much more low level and about what tools there are for helping with it. Some cross-over with my own previous writings on this topic. [video]

Naturally there have been many other excellent talks – the above is just a selection of the ones that I got the most out from during the conference. Take a look at the full schedule to find other talks that might interest, almost all sessions got recorded during the conference.

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