Sunday Apr 26, 2009

Solaris job trends are up, and other observations about IT's future

A middle school telementor student is interested in pursuing a career in computer science. Her teacher asked the class to clip local job openings in their career choice. Since this isn't a terribly prosperous part of the U.S. midwest, I was surprised to hear that there are a number job opening. But the student learned that inexperienced but highly educated candidates were being brushed aside in favor of those with years of experience. How can I encourage a bright middle school student who intends to pursue an IT career, without being dishonest? I could mention the dearth of IT jobs in the midwest at the beginning of my career and the subsequent boom. I hope career counselors no longer channel students away from their talents towards the "hot job du Jour." My 101 computer science class began with a standing room only crowd, but by the end of the semester it had thinned considerably. Our teacher prided himself on his dropout rate!

I do see enormous untapped potential in IT. For example:

  • We've only hit the tip of the iceberg in the application of data mining to epidemiology, economics and security.
  • Much of the clutter of photos, DVDs, CDs and videotapes will disappear as soon as we can organize this data while keeping the MPAA and RIAA happy.
  • Governments, law, education and medical professions seem slow to adopt information technology. Prescriptions rely on handwritten records, Governments and legal professionals treat FAX (a technology which dates to the mid 1800s) is treated as a secure document transmission medium, while 128bit public key encrypted and signed email isn't!
  • Windows PCs still seem a painful hack. Having watched Microsoft Windows languish nearly a decade behind some alternative OSs (Solaris, AmigaDOS, OpenVMS, OS2, NeXT, BeOS), I have to wonder where we would be if antitrust laws had been enforced before it was too late for these companies? We wouldn't go wrong to redesign PCs from scratch.
  • IT has tremendous applications in transportation and traffic management. Why doesn't my car know what speed I should drive to catch all of the lights green? Why did it take the FAA billions of dollars and more than a decade to replace a dieing air traffic control system?
  • Take advantage of Internet ubiquity. Why are people building datacenters in places with expensive real estate and expensive non-renewable energy sources when Iceland and other places have abundant renewable energy and relatively cheap real estate?
  • Sun Ray has been around almost a decade now yet telecommuting is rare even for those in the IT industry.

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head, but imagine my surprise when, to illustrate data mining, I found's jobsite trawler which showed that jobs in Solaris are on the increase.

How could this be in this banjaxed economy when even Microsoft's Vista seems to have flatlined? Imagine what might happen when we hit the inevitable turn around. Few were prepared for this economic slump even though signs of it have been lurking in the shadows and blogosphere for years. Even fewer will be prepared for the coming boom in technology and eco-efficiency. I wouldn't be at all surprised if by the time this bright student graduates, recruiters will have to work very hard to get her on their team. The same goes for all of the extremely talented ex-Sun employees who've recently entered the job market. There is a very bright future ahead if we can get past these potholes!

Thursday Jan 08, 2009

Anti-destruction destructive dtrace script and y2k9

A while ago I kludged up this ugly, ugly hack which demonstrates a destructive dtrace script which snapshots the filesystem whenever a destructive command is run (e.g. /usr/bin/rm). It isn't useful except maybe for demos, but the idea could be used for something else. For example, you could snapshot every keystroke on Monday mornings or after a particularly happy New Years Eve especially when transitioning to or from years containing a leap day or leap second...1

#!/usr/sbin/dtrace -s
#pragma D option quiet
#pragma D option destructive

  self->interested =0;

/(execname =="rm") && (self->interested == 0) && (dirname(curpsinfo->pr_psargs) != ".")/
  self->interested = 1 ;
  printf("Someone is trying to delete %s\\n",dirname(curpsinfo->pr_psargs +3));
  printf("%s %d",dirname(curpsinfo->pr_psargs+3),timestamp);
  printf("Snapshotting  %s %d",dirname(curpsinfo->pr_psargs+3),timestamp);
  system("/usr/sbin/zfs snapshot rpool%s@%d",dirname(curpsinfo->pr_psargs+3),timestamp);
  system("prun %d", pid);

1Sun's JDS 2 Linux distribution was based on a Linux 2.4 kernel and the following version (JDS3 beta) was to be based on a 2.6.19 kernel before Sun decided to drop the Linux kernel and focus on products based around the Solaris kernel. AFAIK the leap second bug appeared in the 2.6.22 Linux kernel. The 5000 year old time keeper at Newgrange also failed to work properly because of a bug caused by the presence of clouds between itself and the sun.

P.S. Don't ask me why we seem to get reoccurring bugs every decade, millennium, leap year and leap-second in what should have been a few score lines of date related code some of which could have been implemented a couple of thousand years ago Maybe Ptolomy's code was refined over a few hundred years without fear of patent reprisals or maybe he just spent more money on development and QA.

Monday Nov 24, 2008

Good news about a bank

We often teased the shyest member of my family by reminding her of the bad joke about the kid who didn't speak a word until he was eating breakfast on his 7th birthday when he said, "My porridge is cold!" When asked why he never spoke before, he said, "Up until now everything has been alright." This is how I felt about the silence which followed my work on a project which installed and provided support for over 7000 opensource JDS desktops at a bank.1 We called the customer occasionally to see if everything was O.K. We helped them through one upgrade which was necessary because the Linux kernel needed to be upgraded to support modern hardware but didn't have a stable ABI so the entire application stack also had to be upgraded. After the upgrade, one of our customers gave us some upgrades/minute statistics that were well beyond what is possible given network bandwidth limitations so I'll just say that the upgrade went well.

Shortly after the upgrade, we helped solve a peculiar focus bug whose root causes were spread across gtk, Java, Firefox and Star/OpenOffice. But overall things were very quiet. Sun was also quiet about this deployment, first of all because we hadn't yet finalized the disclosure agreement and later because Sun decided to drop our Linux-based desktop product and focus on OpenSolaris. So between our "are you still there?" pings to the customer's 2 person technical support staff, I was left wondering if no news is good news?

Then when I gave my presentation at the Irish Opensource Technology Conference, I noticed that two knowledgeable IT managers from this bank were giving presentations on their opensource desktop (a.k.a. JDS) roll out. I finally had the opportunity to be the "fly on the wall" and hear how things really went. I don't have links to their presentations, but these gentlemen said that the project was a success, that the deployment saved money and IT support costs compared to traditional Microsoft Windows based desktop solutions. They said the project completed ahead of schedule and under budget and that they were telling other banks the secrets of their success. I don't know if the other banks were paying attention to the potential savings in deploying opensource alternatives back when easy money was still flowing, but I would think they should take a hard look at such cost-effective alternatives now. In any case, it seems likely that the number of successful cost-saving "invisible" opensource deployments is understated.

"The art and science of interface design depends largely on making the transaction with the computer as transparent as possible in order to minimize the burden on the user" -- S. Joy Mountford

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic!"
-- Arthur C. Clarke.

1 The deployment was of Sun's linux based "Java Desktop System." If we were to do it now, the obvious choices in Sun's product portfolio would be Solaris 10 or OpenSolaris. Since the customer's network is now fast enough to support Sun Ray over WAN, we could potentially save them another $500,000 in annual electricity costs by deploying their desktop via Sun Ray clients instead of X86 PCs.

Friday Jun 20, 2008

My OpenSolaris for Developers talk at the Irish Opensource Technology Conference

I should thank the sponsors and organizers of the Irish OpenSource Technology Conference (IOTC) for giving me the opportunity to present OpenSolaris as an Open Source Developer Tool to some of Ireland's brightest and most energetic open source developers. There were quire a few university attendees and Barry was able to bring in people from small and midsized Irish companies such as openApp and hosting365 as well as multinationals such as Microsoft, IBM, RedHat, Sun and AIB (more about this later!)

My talk seemed to be well understood by the audience and I managed to empty out a heavy backpack full of ¨Free as in Free" OpenSolaris 2008.05 CDs afterwards. I didn't have enough time to talk about SMF or PKG(5) in detail, but I did spend some time on ZFS and Dtrace; both of which I'm certain would be useful to any Open Source developer. Even if your pointy-haired boss demands that you must code your application in VisualBasic and deploy on Redhat 3.5 via Wine, you can sneak OpenSolaris onto one of your QA department's test boxes and run your software in a zone where you can dtrace it. Or you could set up an OpenSolaris file server with ZFS snapshots as frequently as necessary (perhaps every keystroke for some UIDs?) I won't tell anyone... honest ;-)

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Thursday Nov 01, 2007

Wrong Keyboard US<->UK Solaris install

Wrong Keyboard

I appreciate the new look and improved common sense defaults behind the new installer that appeared in Solaris Nevada build 70. But it isn't yet foolproof. Because I often switch between a laptop with a U.K. keyboard, a Sun Ray with a U.S. keyboard and my home P.C. with a U.K. keyboard, I often go too fast through the "Default layout?" choice in the installer and choose U.K. when I should choose U.S. or vice versa. I'm left with a system which almost works perfectly except that the " and @ are swapped, sometimes #, $ and / aren't where they belong and | is nowhere to be found.

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Thursday Apr 19, 2007

An economic analyst vs Microsoft Windows Vista

Lets face it, most operating system installers aren't fun. If Microsoft Windows weren't pre-installed on more than 90% of desktop PCs, I suspect more than a few PCs would be sitting at BIOS boot prompts. But if the experience of my favorite blogging economist is any indication, even when you have a monopoly and your OS is pre-installed on 90% of new PCs, you can still screw up the initial user experience. Michael Shedlock is a economic analyst with an interesting view on everything from global property bubbles to currency carry trades to the goofy and dangerous actions of the Federal Reserve board. But give him a new laptop with Windows Vista pre-installed and pretty soon there's blood on the floor (literally!)

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Monday Mar 19, 2007

About those SunLive07 Tech Days London public access terminals

For anyone who attended the SunLive07 Tech Days conference in London and attended talks and demos of Looking Glass, Wonderland and other cool new technology, you might have been disappointed in the look and feel and performance of the public access terminals upstairs. I can only say that the kiosk mode CDE running on what appeared to be an old version of Solaris with an old version of Sun Ray server does not look or perform nearly as well as anything beyond Solaris 10 with SRSS 3.0+. Here in Ireland I get about 1 Megabit broadband only when there is a tailwind. Yet the GNOME based JDS desktop in Solaris 10 or any recent Nevada build looks and works fine on a Sun Ray at my home. Some long time Solaris advocates perfer CDE on Solaris 8, but I'd put it in the same category as orange T-shirts. It would be really cool to have trusted JDS running on the public terminals. It's one of those technologies (like dtrace, ZFS...) that doesn't make for a flashy passive demo but once you've used it, you get it!



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