Sunday Sep 25, 2005

Bootloaders and order of OS installation

There is a tremendous amount of information on bootloaders available on the web. And a lot of the information is good. But some of it isn't, and the assumptions (and limitations that are suggested) can make this a lot more difficult than it needs to be.

So some very quick observations.

GRUB (the Grand Unified Bootloader) is the easiest to use of all of the bootloaders. It provides all that we need to boot Windows, Linux, and both of my Solaris instances. GRUB will be the final bootloader in the master boot record (MBR) when we are finished, but it won't get there right away.

The Windows bootloader, which is in the MBR at the moment, is very well suited to boot Windows. Making it boot other operating systems is almost an unnatural act. I may blog about my experiments in this area in the future, but the short version is that we want to get rid of it as quickly as we can.

Now, the Solaris 10 bootloader is a good intermediate step (which suggests that Solaris might be the next operating system to install). It will boot both Windows and Solaris (well one instance of Solaris) but doesn't work well with Linux distributions in the extended partition. Before we call this a deficiency or bug, we should note that we are now operating well outside of the design center, so a bit of tolerance will help get us through this step.

OK, so we have Windows, we'll do Solaris 10 next, but what about the two Linux instances ? Hmmmm, that's worth a bit of thought.

The Java Desktop System is more of an end user type of system, so things like kernel updates will come out on a regular schedule, but it won't be too frequent. It is also based on SuSE, so new kernels will be symbolically linked to /boot/vmlinux so that the GRUB configuration doesn't change.

Fedora Core, on the other hand, is a rapidly evolving developer snapshot and kernels can be expected quite frequently. And since it was derived from the original Red Hat consumer distribution, the deployment method is to drop in a new kernel (or kernels) and then modify the GRUB (and Lilo) configuration as part of the installation.

Putting all of this together suggest that the most maintainable solution is to end up with the Fedora Core bootloader in the MBR and add the static bits required to boot JDS, Windows, and the two Solaris instances. This would suggest that JDS would be the best choice for installation after Solaris 10. Fedora Core after that - and with some edits to /boot/grub/menu.lst we will be a flexible multi-booting system.

Oh, what about OpenSolaris ? Good question. I have it on good authority (OK, I've already installed it on a couple of systems) that it will leave the MBR alone, so it will go in last. I also know that we will have to do some serious partition manipulation to keep the two Solaris instances out of each others way - and GRUB from Fedora Core will do exactly what we need.

Next time, the Solaris 10 installation.

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Carving up the disk

Now that we have a plan, time to get to work.

Resizing the NTFS partition is our first challenge. Using a commercial partition tool like Partition Magic would violate the prime directive, so let's see what's available in the land of free software.

The GNU project qtparted seems like a good choice. It is a lightweight graphical front end tool that calls back end worker primitives such as resize_ntfs to do the actual work. Since it is a small application it is very well suited for CDROM based Linux distributions such as Knoppix and the System Rescue CD. Since I'm downloading this over my home DSL line, I'll opt for the somewhat more compact System Rescue CD.

note: We have experienced a few troublesome notebook computers in various installfests and the more complete Knoppix distribution helped us solve some tricky issues. If you run into a situation where the CDROM distribution fails to boot (locks up or panics) then try things like passing fb1024 or noacpi, noapic to the kernel.

Before we break out the sharp tools, let's think about one more thing. If I've booted XP on this system, it is likely that either the disk has become fragmented or perhaps something like a pagefile or suspend file may be in a really inconvenient place (like at the end of the partition). qtparted does a good job of adjusting the file system boundaries, but it wont reorganize the file system (since NTFS writes aren't considered safe). So let's boot up XP in safe mode, run a disk defragmentation, and delete the pagefile.

Time to boot the System Rescue CD (or Knoppix if you prefer). Once booted and configured, start up qtparted. For the non-graphical System Rescue CD, there is a shell script called run_qtparted that will start up a minimal graphical environment.

The first task is to resize the NTFS partition. The Toshiba OEM configuration is a single large NTFS partition, so I select it and set the new size to 12GB. Since fragmentation isn't a problem, this operation succeeds. Now you are left with another big decision, do you carve the rest up now, or do it later when you install the various operating systems. If this wasn't such a lab experiment I would suggest that you leave the unallocated storage as free space and let the installers gobble it up as needed. But we're going to push a couple of boundaries here, so I am going to carve up the rest of the disk now. I'll mark all of the partitions (except for the extended) as Linux, but we can change that later.

Now that we have our disk configuration, time to boot back to XP (maybe for the last time) to run a file system check to make sure things are OK. qtparted marks the file system as dirty so this should happen automatically when you reboot, but if not you can start it manually.

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Getting Started

It doesn't matter whether you call it living the Open Source lifestyle or creating a Microsoft-free zone, the notion of build a fully functional mobile user environment out of openly available technologies has its appeal.

Before we get started, let's be clear on a number of requirements. This has to be a real functioning system that can do real work while on the road (which also means that some entertainment value must be found). Some of this is going to be easy, some may require a bit of thought.
So what are the minimum requirements ?
  • A fast graphical display (that uses hardware acceleration)
  • Ability to connect an external projector for presentations and workshops
  • Easy to use Personal Information Management (PIM) tools
  • Document interoperability with the rest of the world
  • Easy user configuration of wireless and wired networking
  • A working DVD player for those long trips across the country
  • A software development environment

Some things that would be nice to get working might include
  • Bluetooth
  • Emulation of other popular application environments (wine, QEMU, Xen, etc)
  • Suspend/resume support

Oh - one very important caveat. I'm not afraid to try some strange unsupported things, so consider this a "do not try this at home" warning. That said, you probably will do some of these things, so I might as well share what worked and what didn't.

Let's see how far we can take this experiment without spending any money.

For this particular example, I am starting with a pretty basic Toshiba Tecra-M2 laptop system (for no other reason than it was readily available). This particular system came with Windows XP Home Edition pre-installed. It also has an 80GB internal disk which should allow some creative configurations.

The first step is to carve up the disk for the various operating systems and data partitions  that we will need. Since I don't know where this is going, flexibility will be the primary requirement.

For my operating systems I have decided to leave Windows XP on, at least for a while. Yes, it's a crutch, but until I get everything working I want to be able to fall back and play a little Alpha Centauri while I work through troublesome spots.

I'm also interested in looking at both Solaris and OpenSolaris, so I'll plan for both.

And I might as well put on a Linux distribution or two - and like XP, the space may well be reclaimed later. For the Linxux distributions I have selected Fedora Core 4 (as my Xen dom0) and the Linux version of the Java Desktop System.

I'm suddenly feeling like 80GB of storage might not be enough.

My disk partition plan is beginning to look like

Mount Point
Window XP C:
Read-only access under Linux using Linux-ntfs kernel modules
No access from Solaris
Solaris UFS

s0 - Solaris root (10GB)
s1 - swap (2GB) - available to Linux as  /dev/hda10
Solaris UFS

s0 - Solaris root (12GB)
s1 - swap (2GB) - available to Linux as /dev/hda10
s7 - /export (10GB)

Windows XP E:
/pc on Solaris and Linux

Linux (ext3)
Fedora Core root

Linux (reiserfs)
Java Desktop root

Linux (ext3)

Ahhhh, but what about Linux swap you ask ?

The Solaris slices are available to Linux, so I will take advantage of that and share swap partitions between Solaris and Linux. It also means that I will have to create the same swap slice in both of my Solaris partitions. As a safeguard, Linux requires that the swap partition be properly formatted, so we will do that later when we install our first Linux distribution.

Good grief, this is starting to sound complicated. You might be saying something like "with something like VMware I don't have to thing about any of this, I just create things and they run." And that might be true, but remember the prime directive - this is to explore just how far we can take commodity system that can be built out of free parts. So VMware is out, but perhaps Xen can perform that role - we'll certainly explore that idea with vigor.

So much for the plan. Next time we'll carve up the disk and get started installing some software.

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Tuesday Sep 20, 2005

Mini trucks are monster fun

When Losi unleashed the Mini-T, it expected that the 1/18 scale class would take off in a big way. And what's not to like ? Low cost of entry for reasonable Ready-to-Run products, the trucks are manageable by a newcomer to R/C, run times with a good battery pack (1100mah) are long, and you can somehow justify having several (for bashing reasons of course).

So when the Mini-T came out, I did the noble thing: I bought one for my daughter. And she had a blast with it. But street racing wasn't all that fair against my Stampede (and don't even think about going up against a T-Maxx or comparable buggy/truggy). What to do ?

Well, another 1/18 scale truck, of course. And now there are lots of choices: ready-to-run, pro-team kits with lots of aluminum and titanium bling, 4 wheel drive, super articulated (the Tamiya rock crawlers).

I'm a huge XRAY fan, but didn't have the patience to wait for their M18T (based on the successful 1/18 scale touring car). Since this will eventually be a racer, the Team Associated RC18T was the best choice. Now that the M18T is available I suspect that I will be adding another stall in the garage.

While building the RC18T pro team kit, I gave in to temptation and added the RC18MT monster truck variant. All I have to say is that this little truck is a whole lot of fun. And we're talking T-Maxx kind of fun.

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Boot Camps, Deep DIves, and Workshops

So what's the different between a Solaris Boot Camp, a Solaris Deep Dive (aka Boot Camp II), and a Solaris Workshop ? The question comes up frequently, so here is how I approach each of these different events.

A Solaris Boot Camp is a thorough overview of Solaris 10, much more complete than you might get in a typical customer briefing that is usually limited to 45 minutes or so.

A Boot Camp agenda might look something like
  • Operating System Strategy and Update
  • Dtrace Overview & Demo
  • Solaris Containers Overview & Demo
  • Predictive Self Healing (SMF & FMA)
  • Role Based Access Control (RBAC) and Process Rights
  • ZFS

Each of these topics is generally limited to 30 minutes, so the discussions lean towards concepts: from a practical perspective to be sure, but concepts nontheless. The idea is that this is a good way to be exposed to the vast technology set that we call Solaris. It also makes the Deep Dive (aka Boot Camp II) more interesting as we can dispense with the concepts, for the most part.

So that brings us to the Deep Dive. A typical agenda looks like
  • Overview of Solaris 10
  • Solaris 10 Performance Features
  • Migration of a Legacy RC service to an SMF managed service
  • Server Consolidation with Solaris Containers including Best Practices for Container Use
  • Solaris Dynamic Tracing (DTrace) Overview
  • DTrace Performance Scenarios (aka How to use Dtrace in the real world)

Each of these discussions are a bit longer, 45 minutes to as long as 90 minutes for the combined Dtrace overview and use cases. With the expanded time and the assumption that this follows a Boot Camp, we jump right into the details. For example, the Service Management Facility (SMF) module is a complete migration of a legacy service - which makes sense if you understand the concepts of SMF.

So what's this thing called a Workshop ? It builds on the Deep Dive and goes farther, potentially much farther. For each Deep Dive modules there is a corresponding one day Workshop session. These are highly interactive and best done in a hands-on lab environment where each participant has their own system. It does not replace instructor led training and it will not adequately prepare you for passing the Solaris Cerification exam, but the modules are designed to help customers understand how to take advantage of key Solaris technologies.

So now you know what to expect when a Solaris Boot Camp or Deep Dive comes to a city near you. We hope to see you at a future event.

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Sunday Sep 18, 2005

NEARfest 2006 looks good so far!

Every year I'm amazed at the linueup Rob LaDuca and Chad Hutchison put together for the NorthEast Art Rock Festival (NEARfest). Even though only a few bands have been announced, next year's lineup already looks one of the best.

I'm particularly happy to see that Akihisa Tsuboy's band KBB will make an appearance. Tsuboy has lent his amazing talents to a number of fine Japanese bands and KBB is one of the better ones. With a sound reminiscent of the fine 80's band Midas, KBB offers instrumental symphonic fusion featuring loads of violin excursions supported by lush keyboards - and the occasional Theremin (remember all those 1950's science fiction B-movies????). KBB can kick up the pace a bit, so comparisons to some of Jean-Luc Ponty's better works isn't out of order.

But the big news so far are French legends Ange. It took me a long time to warm up to the French symphonic scene, and Ange in particular. But an amazing performance by Mona Lisa at Progfest 2000 (captured on both CD and DVD by Musea Records) opened up the scene in a big way. On a recent road trip I brought along the 1977 live recording Tome VI, just to get into the mood. If they can pull of anything close to this, it will be a memorable show indeed.

Since Ange aren't headliners, how can Rob and Chad top Ange ?

Well, one headliner has been announced, Ozric Tentacles. I can't say that I'm overly excited about that - and given their downward spiral of late, they hardly seem worthy of a headliner slot. 2004 Sunday opener Hidria Spacefolk seem to be thefront runner of the space rock scene at the moment (although Giant Hogweed Orchestra and Scarlet Thread aren't to be overlooked), but maybe Ed and crew can throw together a show worthy of their past reputation.

For now we'll just have to wait for the next band announcement, which should be real soon now.

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Tuesday Sep 13, 2005

Santa Clara Solaris Deep Dive - Sep 8, 2005

I had the great pleasure of delivering a Solaris Deep Dive with Linda Kateley and Benoit Chaffanjon. We had a great turnout at the Santa Clara campus. Lots of great questions and some interesting discussions during the breaks. A great big thank you to those of you that were in attendance - I hope that it was a good use of your time.

You can get the Migrating a Legacy RC service module here. This was the first time this information was presented in the Solaris Deep Dives, so thanks for being a test audience. Since this is new material, any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

The Dtrace Overview and Use Cases can be found here. Large portions, particularly the use cases, were derived from work by Jim Fiori and Tom Gendron.

Benoit has posted his Solaris Performance presentation here

If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, please post a follow up comment or send me email.

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Wednesday Sep 07, 2005


I am one of the fortunate ambassadors that get to travel around the country delivering workshops and boot camps for various technologies, such as Solaris 10. If you have attended one of these sessions, or perhaps one by a colleague, I would like to say thank you for attending. I hope it was a good use of your time.

As you can imagine, the content developed for these workshops isn't the work of one or two individuals, but rather the collected efforts of a large technical community.

It would be impossible to credit everyone involved, so for the entire community I offer my most sincere appreciation.

What's this thing called Prog

A nearly compulsive collecting of unusual items is commonplace in the technical community. In my case it is obscure and forgotten progressive rock music.

If you aren't familiar with the term progressive rock, think back to the early to mid 1970s when theatric (often quite over the top) bands like Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes, and King Crimson filled concert halls. Complex compositions, side long suites, unusual instrumentation including flute, violin, and the unbiquitous Mellotron ruled the day.

As disco reigned and the technically sophisticated art rock gave way to punk, many of us in English speaking countries thought the prog was dead. Fortunately, quite the opposite. Not only was it migrating all over the world, it was also evolving into dozens of new musical classifications, some of which are quite far removed from the basic symphonic rock bands of those early days.

In the early 1990s, email discussion lists were forming, eventually being replaced by Usenet news groups such as and it's successor While it may never reach the widespread (commercial) popularity of the 1970s, the Internet has helped connect collectors and artists. Without major label support, there is certainly a renewed interest in this musical style.

As with many Usenet groups, spammers and flamewars have driven many of the contributors away. Topic specific discussion lists have popped up, many of them taking advantage of the "free" hosting by Yahoo.

Without hesitation, the finest general discussion group about progressive rock is the Progressive Music Society. At the time of this posting, there were about 600 members, including artists, collectors, labels, and distributors. Newcomers as well as old-timers (that we will affectionately call prog-o-saurs) discuss all sorts of music. There is a weekly chat as well as some other fun activities (guess the album cover, etc).

If your tastes run to the avant garde then consider the avant-progressive discussion list, hosted by Cuneiform Records and Wayside Music's Steve Feigenbaum. This is a very active community including artists, labels, distributors, and collectors. While there is an occasional mainstream prog conversation, most of the discussion is about the more challenging musical genres, such as Rock in Opposition, Post Rock, Zeuhl, Chamber, and other things that may be hard to classify.

Progressive Ears is a large community, and has essentially replaced as the "large" prog board.

For more information on the amazing amount of music that we can call progressive, visit the Gnosis Project. I'll post more about this fascinating project soon.

For an encyclopedic approach, the Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock (GEPR) is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, network compendiums on this subject.

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Bob Netherton is a Principal Sales Consultant for the North American Commercial Hardware group, specializing in Solaris, Virtualization and Engineered Systems. Bob is also a contributing author of Solaris 10 Virtualization Essentials.

This blog will contain information about all three, but primarily focused on topics for Solaris system administrators.

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