Oct 102020
 

One of the big names in the opensource world – Eric Raymond – has declared that Windows will soon be effectively a Linux distribution. Which seems like a ridiculous notion; except technically it might make a lot of sense.

How?

It seems impossible for Microsoft to replace Windows with Linux, but actually it could be done. Windows itself consists of a bunch of software applications which call Windows “APIs” which in turn make calls to the legacy NT kernel. If all that software is written cleanly (it won’t be, but bear with me), it should be possible to make modifications to both (or either) the Linux kernel and the Windows APIs to allow Windows software to run natively.

Impossible? Nope – it has already been done to a certain extent – Wine and Proton allow a considerable amount of Windows software (and games!) to run under Linux.

Why?

So it’s not impossible, but surely it is a lot of work. So why?

Microsoft has a bit of a problem – they don’t make a huge amount of money selling the Windows operating system, and maintaining it is hugely expensive. All those security fixes, all those bug fixes, and all those new features they want to introduce.

Now most of this is done to the “userland” rather than the kernel itself, but the kernel does still need to be maintained. But what if you could use the Linux kernel and get some level of maintenance supplied by those not employed by Microsoft?

Would that save Microsoft money? It seems quite possible, and you can bet someone in Microsoft has estimated whether it would or not.

Will It Happen?

There are those who point to certain actions by Microsoft – the Linux subsystem for Windows, the Edge browser for Linux, the rumour of an Office build under Linux, etc. as indicators that Microsoft is planning this.

I think they’re wrong to the extent that those actions don’t say whether Microsoft is planning to make Windows a Linux distribution or not. There are plenty of reasons why Microsoft is releasing Linux software not least because they will almost certainly have developers that believe that porting software is a good way of finding bugs.

The real answer is that the only people who know are inside Microsoft.

The Join
Sep 102018
 

If you have not heard, Steam have added a compatibility layer to Steam which allows a limited number of Windows games to run. The “compatibility layer” is in fact a fork of WINE called Proton.

Peered at from 500 metres away, Proton allows Windows software to run (or not infrequently crash and burn) by translating the Win32 API into Linux APIs, and translating the variety of graphics APIs into Vulkan. That is a really difficult thing to do.

I have taken a very quick look at the new Steam client (and “Proton” is no longer part of a beta release of the Steam client – it’s in the standard client). It works perfectly adequately, although you will have variable experiences running Windows software.

For some reason this news has captured the imagination of a number of ‘tubers who are more gamers than Linux users, which has lead to some misunderstanding :-

  1. This is not Linux gaming; it is Windows gaming under Linux. If you have a bad experience with Steam under Linux, you are not experiencing a bad time with Linux gaming. Linux gaming involves native Linux software, and yes there is some out there.
  2. Problems with Steam could well be down to the Proton compatibility layer with unsupported API calls or buggy usage of the Win32 API which relies on Windows behaving in a certain way for undefined parameters.
  3. In addition problems with Steam could be due to the hardware you are running; take a game that works perfectly fine with an Nvidia card. It may behave problematically with an AMD card or even a different Nvidia card. Or the other way around.

The important thing to remember when looking at videos about Steam is that the person looking at Steam may not be the most experienced Linux user out there. That is not necessarily bad – the whole purpose of Steam is to be able to run games easily without a whole lot of Linux experience.

But they may not be understanding properly what is going on – for example the first thing I would do as a professional game-orientated ‘tuber would be to try out a selection of games with an nvidia card, and then repeat using an AMD card – just to see if things work better, worse, or at least differently.

And again, this is not about Linux gaming but about allowing easy access to old Windows titles that someone may have bought in the past. 

Pentland Hills
Jul 302018
 

Alternatively, why does Windows use drive letters? Because if you are coming from an old unix background, drive letters are just as weird as the lack of them if you are coming from a Windows background.

I mean, why is Windows installed on drive C? What ever happened to drives A and B?

Technically Linux does have the equivalent of drive letters but they are rarely used directly (unless you’re weird like I am). For example I currently have an SD card plugged into my desktop system, and it has the path /dev/disk/by-label/EOS_DIGITAL (or /dev/sdo1).

Historically, Unix (which is loosely the predecessor of Linux) ran on large minicomputers where system administrators would decide what disks were “mounted” where.  The Linux equivalent of drive C is effectively “/” (root), and you can attach (or “mount”) disks at any point underneath that – for example /home.

This allowed people to use an old Unix machine without worrying where this disks were; and allowed system administrators to add and remove disks as and where they were needed. These days we are all system administrators as well as users – that little voice you hear from time to time saying things like “When would be a good time to update the operating system?” and “I must clean up those temporary files all over the place” are your inner system administrator speaking up.

And if you don’t hear that inner voice, cultivate it!

With device paths, Linux has the opportunity to create sensible friendly names for disks, but a historical accident has resulted in almost every kind of disk being identified as a SCSI disk – SATA disks (a normal hard disk), SAS disks (server hard disks), Fiber Channel disks (SAN hard disks), and even USB storage devices all use SCSI commands.

So nearly all Linux disks are identified as /dev/sd followed by a letter (a “drive letter” – we can’t get away from them) and a number indicating the partition. Fortunately there is also the relatively new /dev/disks directory that has slightly friendlier names for disk devices. If you are getting into low-level disk management, learn these directories; in particular if you are looking into enterprise disk management look at WWNs (each disk has a unique “world-wide-number”).

Now back to Windows. Windows is the descendent of DOS, which goes back to the time when PCs may not have had hard disks and by default would have booted off a floppy disk in drive A with a data disk in drive B. Later PCs came with hard disks which used drive C on the assumption that you would have one or two floppy drives.

Windows has been updated over the years and there is a great deal of sophistication under the surface, but it does act a bit conservatively when it comes to drive letters – A and B are by default reserved for floppy drives even though I haven’t seen one of those on an ordinary system for years. You can use A and B for other purposes such as mapping network drives – A makes a good drive for a NAS drive.

If we get away from the terminology of “drive letters” and “device paths” and instead refer to them as “storage device names”, both Linux and Windows have “storage device names” but Linux prefers to hide that level of detail.

Personally I prefer the Linux way, but whatever floats your boat.

Feb 082018
 

Some time ago, I wrote about using new (for the time) partition tables to create a memory stick with 100 partitions; each with a mountable file system on. And decided the time was right to have another look to see if things have improved … or degraded. After all, things have moved on, and everything has been updated.

I also improved the creation script slightly :-

#!/bin/zsh

disk=/dev/sdb

parted $disk mklabel gpt
for x in {1..99}     
do
  echo Partition: $x
  parted -s $disk mkpart FAT $(($x * 100)) $((x * 100 + 99))
  sleep 0.2
  mkfs -t vfat -n DOOM${x} ${disk}${x} 
  sleep 0.2
done

And I used a zsh-ism – so shoot me.

The script ran fairly well, but :-

  1. The load average shot up through the roof as copies of systemd-udevd started, worked, and closed.
  2. Strangely the links in /dev/disk/by-label (and presumably elsewhere) kept disappearing and re-appearing. As if on each partition change to the disk, all of the disk’s devices were removed and re-created. This is probably not dangerous, but harmful to performance.
  3. Given that I used sleep within my script, it is hard to criticise performance, but it did seem slow. However this is not an area worth optimising for.
  4. Unlike last time, Linux did not refuse to create any file systems.

Now onto trying to stick the memory stick of doom into various systems…

Ubuntu 17.10

This was of course the machine I ran the script on initially.

This did not go so well, with the machine initially freezing momentarily (although it is a cheap and nasty laptop), apparently silently refusing to mount half the file systems, and “Files” (or Nautilus) getting wedged at 100% processor usage.

After some 10 minutes, Nautilus was still stuck with no signs of making any progress.

After I lost patience and restarted “Files”, it came up okay showing the mounted file systems and showing the file systems it had failed to mount. On one occasion the additional file systems were shown as unmounted (and could be mounted) and on another they were shown as mounted (even though they weren’t).

So both “Files” gets a thumb down for getting stuck, and whatever else gets a thumb down for trying and failing (silently) to mount all the file systems.

This is definitely a serious degradation from the previous try, although probably GNOME-specific rather than Linux-specific. Especially as a later mounted all the file systems from the command-line on a different system without an issue.

Windows 10

Windows 10 became unusually sluggish, although it may have been in the mysterious “we’ll run Windows update at the most inconvenient time possible” mode. It did attempt to mount the file systems, and failed miserably – it mounted the first set until it ran out of drive letters.

Which is just about understandable, as there aren’t 100 drive letters. However :-

  1. Where was the message saying “There are 100 partitions in this silly USB stick. You can see the first 22; additional ones can be mounted within folders if there is important data on them.”.
  2. Why is Windows still limiting itself with single letter device names? Okay it is what we’re used to, but when you run out of drive letters, start using the file system label – “DOOM99:”. Hell, I’d like all my removable disks treated that way under Windows.

As for the whole “ran out of drive letters, so don’t bother with the rest”, how many people are aware that drives can be mounted (as Unix does) in directories?

macOS 10.13 (OSX)

Oddly enough (but perhaps sensibly), macOS refused to have anything to do with the memory stick. Indeed it popped up a dialog suggesting initialising the disk, which is perhaps not particularly sensible with a disk that could contain data.

The “Disk Utility” happily showed the disk – increasing the size of the window inconveniently wide in the process – and happily indicated 99 partitions.

At the Terminal prompt, it was apparent that the operating system had created device files for each of the partitions, but for some reason wouldn’t mount them.

Summary

Inserting a “stick of doom” with 100 partitions on it into any machine is still a risky thing to do. It’s also a dumb thing to do, but something operating system developers should be doing.

Linux (or rather GNOME) performs significant worse this time around than previously, and my suspicions are that systemd is to blame.

But however bad Linux does, none of the operating systems actually do sensible things with the “stick of doom”. macOS arguably comes closest with refusing to have anything to do with the disk, but it also encourages you to reformat the disk without saying that it could be erasing data.

Ideally, a gooey would pop up a window listing the file system labels and ask you which you want to mount. That’s not even a bad idea for a more sensibly set up memory stick.

Pebble On Steel

Aug 272017
 

Every so often, somebody (or organisation) proclaims that this year is the year of Linux on the desktop. Given the number of times this has occurred, you would have thought that the Cassandras of the Linux world would stop trying to predict it. In fact I am not entirely sure what it is supposed to be – everyone using Linux on the desktop, or just some? And if it is just some people, how many?

It is essentially nonsense – if you use Linux on the desktop, every year is the year of Linux on the desktop; and if you do not, it isn’t.

Assuming you are someone who has more than two brain cells to rub together and are prepared to do some learning, it is perfectly possible to run Linux on the desktop. You can do pretty much everything with Linux that you can do with Windows. In fact the one area that Linux is traditionally weak – upgrading firmware of third party devices (such as media players, wireless mice – is beginning to change with LVMS and fwupd.

To give an example, I was recently upgrading some Logitech wireless mice to eliminate a serious security flaw, and I tried with Windows, OSX, and finally Linux. Both the Windows and OSX methods failed, whereas the Linux method just worked.

In fact even if the Windows method had worked, it would have been a lot more complex. I had to download the Logitech software (admittedly this step would probably be unnecessary if I was used to using the wireless mouse under Windows), know that a firmware upgrade was necessary, download the firmware upgrade, and finally load it into the upgrade tool.

Under Linux? Assuming I had been using some gooey tool like GNOME Software, it would have notified me that an upgrade was available and after a request would have upgraded it for me. I (of course) chose to do it the geeky way from the command-line, but even so running :-

# fwupmgr refresh
# fwupmgr update

… is a great deal simpler than the Windows way. And that is before you consider that with Windows, you need to download a firmware update tool for every device whereas the Linux way it is just one tool.

Of course in practice, the Linux method only works for a handful of devices – of the innumerable Linux machines I run only one has available updates for the desktop computer’s firmware (the Dell at work), and of the peripheral (or not so peripheral) devices only a tiny handful can be upgraded today.

But it is not inconceivable that in the not too distant future, the sensible way to upgrade the firmware of various devices will be to install Linux, and let it do it for you. Particularly if device manufacturers realise that by adopting Linux as the firmware upgrade delivery method, they can save time and effort.

“But I know Windows” – actually you know Windows 7, or Windows XP, or Windows 10; each of which is very different from each other. And whilst Linux has even more variability at first glance, there is actually more commonality between different versions of Linux. Or in other words, the effort of learning Linux in the first place is rewarded by less of a need to completely re-educate yourself every time you upgrade.

This is not intended as encouragement for you to switch to Linux (although if you are involved in IT you should at least be familiar with Linux), but intended as a criticism of the concept of a year of the Linux desktop. It isn’t useful, and what is worse it leads to the false impression of failure – if everyone is not using Linux on the desktop, then Linux has failed.

Linux on the desktop has not failed because I use it on the desktop.

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