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Posts Tagged ‘Support’

Last year, I had a great time participating in the Google Summer of Code with the Debian project. I had a neat project with some rather interesting implications for helping developers to package and maintain their work. It’s still a work-in-progress, of course, as many projects in open source are, but I was able to accomplish quite a bit and am proud of my work. I learned quite a bit about coding in C, working with Debian and met some very intelligent people.

My student peers were also very intelligent and great to learn from. I enjoyed meeting them virtually and discussing our various projects on the IRC channel as the summer progressed and the Summer of Code kicked into full swing. The Debian project in particular also helps arrange travel grants for students to attend the Debian Conference (this year, DebConf10 is being held in New York City!). DebConf provides a great venue to learn from other developers (both in official talks but also unofficial hacking sessions). As the social aspect is particularly important to Debian, DebConf helps people meet those with whom they are working with the most, thereby creating lifelong friendships and making open source fun.

I have had several interviews for internships, and the bit of my work experience most asked about is my time doing the Google Summer of Code. I really enjoyed seeing a project go from the proposal stage, setting a reasonable timeline with my mentor, exploring the state of the art, and most importantly, developing the software. I think this is the sort of indispensible industry-type experience we often lack in our undergrad education. We might have an honours thesis or presentation, but much of the work in the Google Summer of Code actually gets used “in the field.”

Developing software for people rather than for marks is significant in a number of ways, but most importantly it means there are real stakeholders that must be considered at all stages. Proposing brilliant new ideas is important, however, without highlighting the benefits they can have for various users, the reality is that it simply will not gain traction. Learning how to write proposals effectively is an important skill and working with my prospective mentor (at the time – he later mentored my project once it was accepted) to develop mine was tremendously useful for my future endeavours.

The way I see the Google Summer of Code is, in many ways, similar to an academic grant (and the stipend is about the same as well). It provides a modest salary (this year it’s US$5000) but more importantly, personal contact with a mentor. Mentors are typically veterans in software development or the Debian project and act in the same role as supervisors for post-graduate work: they help monitor your progress and propose new ideas to keep you on track.

The Debian Project is looking for more students and proposals. We have a list of ideas as well as application instructions available on our Wiki. As I will be going on internship starting May, I have offered to be a mentor this year. I look forward to seeing your submissions (some really interesting ones have already begun to filter in as the deadline approaches).

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Okay, so this is a long-awaited follow-up to my first post on the topic of  Debian Perl Packaging. Some of you might note I was pretty extreme in the first post, which is partially because people only really ever respond to extremes when they’re new to things. When you first begin programming, the advice you get is “hey, never use goto statements” — but as your progress in your ability and your understanding of how it works, what it’s actually doing in the compiler — then it might not be so bad after all. In fact, I hear the Linux kernel uses it extensively to provide Exceptions in C. The Wikipedia page on exception handling in various languages shows how to implement exceptions in C using setjmp/longjmp (which is essentially a goto statement). But I digress.

Back to the main point of this writeup. Previously I couldn’t really think of cases where packaging your own modules is really all that useful, especially when packaging them for Debian means that you benefit many communities — Debian, Ubuntu, and all of the distributions that are based on those.

During a discussion with Hans Dieter Piercey after his article providing a nice comparison between dh-make-perl and cpan2dist. (Aside: I feel like he was slightly biased toward cpan2dist in his writeup, but I’m myself biased toward dh-make-perl, so he might be right, even though I won’t admit it.)

I’m really glad for that article and the ensuing dialog, because it really got people talking about what they use Debian Perl packages for, and where it is useful to make your own.

Firstly, if you’ve got an application that depends on some Perl module that isn’t managed by Debian, but you need it yesterday, then you can either install that module via CPAN or roll your own Debian package. The idea here is to make and install the package so you can use it, but also file a Request For Package bug at the same time — see the reportbug command in Debian, or use LaunchPad if you’re on Ubuntu. This way, when the package is officially released and supported, you can move to that instead, and thus get the benefits of automatic upgrades of those packages.

Secondly, if you’ve got an application that depends on some internally-developed modules, then they probably wouldn’t exist on CPAN (some call this Perl code part of the DarkPAN), except in the rare case that a company open sources their work. But corporations will never open source all of their work, even if they consider the implications of providing some of it to the open source community, so at some point or another you’ll need to deal with internal packages. Previously, the best way to handle this was to construct your own CPAN local mirror, and have other machines install and upgrade from it — thus your internal code is easily distributed via the usual mechanism.

One of the advantages of using CPAN to distribute things is that it’s available on most platforms, builds things and runs tests automatically on many platforms. CPANPLUS will even let you remove packages, which was one of the main reasons I am so pro-Debian packages anyway. However, it does mean you’ll need to rebuild the package on other systems, which is prone to failures that cost time and money to track down and fix. CPAN and CPANPLUS are the Perl tradition of distributing packages.

If you are using an environment mostly with Debian systems, however, you may benefit from using a local Debian repository. This way, you only need to upgrade packages in your repository, and they’ll be automatically upgraded along with the rest of your operating system (you do run update and upgrade periodically right?). There is even the fantastic aptcron program to automate this, so there’s really no excuse not to automatically update.

In either case, creating a local package means you will be able to easily remove anything you no longer need via the normal package management tools. You can also distribute the binary packages between machines — though it sometimes depends on the platform (for modules that incorporate C or other platform-specific code that needs to be rebuilt). Generally, most Perl modules are Pure Perl, and thus you can compile and test it once, on one machine, and distribute it to other ones simply by installing the .deb package on other machines. You can copy packages to machines and use dpkg to install them, or better yet, create a local Debian mirror so it’s done automatically and via the usual mechanism (aptitude, etc.)

In conclusion: if you’re going to make your own Debian packages, do so with caution, and be aware of all the consequences (positive and negative) of what you’re doing. As always, a real understanding of everything is necessary.

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For my Google Summer of Code project, I have been working with PerlQt4 bindings, which requires that I have Qt4 installed. While this is technically possible under a Win32 environment. Lots of people in the free software community vehemently oppose Windows, but while it has its flaws, I think overall the hardware support is still much better than Linux. True, this is because of Microsoft’s shady business practices, and because many companies keep their driver source code closed. I’m still using Windows XP Professional and quite happy with it, stability-wise and feature-wise.

As an Engineer, many applications we use on a regular basis are simply not available on Linux. They’re simply not replaceable with the current state of open source software, though there is some great stuff out there. Nonetheless, we’re still far from a point where engineers in general can switch to Linux — the application support is as important to an operating system as the kernel. Linux would be nothing without GNU’s binutils, for example.

I tried to install Debian first, as this is an environment I’m very familiar with. I use Debian on my development server, and it has worked wonders there. But everything I do on that server is command-line stuff. When trying to install a desktop environment, I followed the KDE Configuration Wizard, which isn’t too bad, but it expects an Internet connection throughout the process. The problem was that I didn’t have enough Ethernet cables to have both the desktop computer and my laptop plugged in at the same time, even though I had a wireless router set up, which meant I had to unplug the computer while updating packages, etc. Some of the updates took quite a bit of time, which was inconvenient for everyone else.

I eventually got the system to install, and told tasksel to set up a desktop environment. It was installing stuff, I typed ‘apt-get install kde’ and assumed everything would Just Work. After installing a whole bunch of stuff (which included a local install of mysqld, on a desktop machine?! — turns out it was due to one of KDE’s recommended packages, it starts with an A, I forget which). Anyway, then the environment didn’t “just work” as I had expected. Upon booting up my system, it just dropped me to a command line prompt. Fine, I thought, I’ll just use startx. But that was broken too. So after another few hours of fiddling I just gave up altogether.

While trying Ubuntu (the last time I had done so was probably in version 7 or so), I downloaded a recent image of Kubuntu 9.04, the Ubuntu flavour using KDE as a default desktop environment. It’s surprising that there has been lots of progress in Ubuntu and Linux in general. I have found that driver support is much better than it used to be, as it now detects my network card – a Broadcom 43xx chip – and does everything it needs to do. For the most part, my operating system “Just Works.” Great. This looks like something I might be able to slowly transition toward, completely replacing Windows except inside WINE or a Virtual Machine container.

Has Debian and Ubuntu made lots of progress? Sure. I can definitely see that Ubuntu is geared a lot more to the average user, while Debian provides bleeding-edge features to the power user. Unfortunately, despite being involved in packaging Perl modules for Debian, I fall into the former category. I’d really just like my desktop system to just work. Oh, and dual monitor support out-of-the-box would be nice too — I hear the new KDE and Gnome support this.

One thing Windows handles rather well is changing hardware profiles – when my computer is connected to its docking station, a ton of peripherals are attached. When I undock, they’re gone. Windows handles this rather gracefully. In Kubuntu, I got lots of notification boxes repeatedly telling me that eth2 was disconnected, etc. This sort of thing is undecipherable for the average user, so I’d really just like for these operating systems to be more human-friendly before they are ready for prime time on the desktop.

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