Saturday, 27 February 2010

Protecting Yourself and Others from Yourself and Others

Nowadays, there's simply no excuse for any computer connected to the Internet, regardless of operating system, not to have both a hardware firewall (usually implemented in your router/broadband "modem") and a software firewall, monitoring both incoming and outgoing traffic.

The software firewall I've been recommending to those "unable"/unwilling to leave the hypersonic train wreck that is Windows has been ZoneAlarm's free firewall. Users of modern operating systems should start off by enabling and configuring the firewall built into their OS (either ipfw on Mac OS X/BSD Unix, or netfilter for Linux). That can be tricky to manage; fortunately there are several good "front end" helper packages out there, such as WaterRoof. Another excellent, popular Mac tool is Little Snitch; the latter two work quite well together.

However, no matter which tools you use to secure your system's Net connection, one of the main threats to continued secure, reliable operation remains you, the user. This has a habit of popping up in unexpected but obvious-in-hindsight ways.

For instance, I recently changed my Web/email hosting service. Long prior to doing so, I had defined a pair of ipfw rules that basically said "Allow outgoing SMTP (mail-sending) connections to my hosting provider; prevent outgoing mail-sending connections to any other address." Thus, were any of the Windows apps I ran inside a VMware Fusion VM to become compromised (as essentially all Windows PCs in Singapore are), they couldn't flood spam out onto the Net – at least not using normal protocols. This didn't do anything to protect the Net from other people's Windows PCs that might sometimes legitimately connect to my network, but it did ensure that the Windows VM (or anything else) running on the Mac was far less likely to contribute to the problem.

A few days after I made the change, I noticed that my outgoing mail server configured in my email client wasn't changed over to the new provider, so I fixed that. And then, I couldn't send mail anymore. It took an embarrassingly long time (and a search of my personal Wiki) to remember "hey, I blocked all outgoing mail except to (the old provider) in my software firewall." Two minutes later, WaterRoof had told ipfw to change the "allowed" SMTP connection, and I soon heard the "mail sent" tone from my client.

Mea culpa, indeed. But why bother blogging about this? To reinforce these ideas to my reader(s):

  1. First, that if you aren't already using a software firewall in addition to the hardware one you probably have (especially if you're not aware of it), you should be. It will make you a better Net citizen; and

  2. Use a Wiki, either a hosted one like PBworks or one running on your own system. (I use Dokuwiki; this page on Wikipedia has a list of other packages for the host-it-yourselfer.)

  3. Use your Wiki to record things that you'd previously think of writing in a dead-tree notebook or a bajillion Post-it® notes stuck to all available surfaces. This specifically and emphatically includes details of your system configuration(s).

Of course, if using a public, hosted wiki, you'll want to make sure that you can secure pages with sensitive data, like system configurations; why make Andrei Cracker's job easier than it already is?

This whole rant is basically a single case of the age-old warning, "if you don't write it down (in a way that it can be found again at need), it never happened." As the gargantuan information fire-hose that is the Internet continually increases the flow of information as well as increasing the rate of increase, this becomes all the more critical for any of us.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Again, Standards Matter

People who I've worked with, or worked for, or read my writing here and elsewhere, have probably figured out that I'm a huge fan of standards just about everywhere they make sense: data formats, user interfaces, and so on. After all, why should we have to relearn how to drive a car simply because we buy a new Ford in place of a Toyota that the Government doesn't want us driving anymore? (You see very few old — or even fully-paid-for — cars in Singapore.) The steering wheel, pedals, and other controls are in a familiar layout; any slight differences are quickly adapted to.

Not so with the Western world's most widely-sold word processing software (for instance); when Microsoft Word 2007 for Windows shipped with a different, unique ('innovative', whether or not you find it debatable, is beside the current point) interface. Bloggers bloviated, many users were deeply confused, and corporate help-desk calls (and support/training costs) spiked. People running Windows PCs were very rarely neutral about the change.

A year later, Microsoft shipped Word 2008 for the Mac. Although there were some interface changes, the points of loudest discussion in the Word:Mac user community seemed to be

  • the omission of Visual Basic for Applications as an attempted cross-platform macro language; and
  • the new semi-proprietary document format, which allowed flawless interchange with Windows users (VBA notwithstanding).

Interface changes, per se, didn't spark nearly as much angst as had the Windows version of the year before. While a certain amount of this should no doubt be attributed to Microsoft's experience with the earlier release, the main reason was both different and obvious.

When developing Mac applications, it's much easier and better to follow the Apple Human Interface Guidelines than to "roll your own" interface. Developers, including Microsoft, are well aware of the ways in which the Mac development tools make your life easier if you structure and style your app to meet the Guidelines (and user expectations), as opposed to how much scutwork needs to be reinvented from scratch to do things differently. Users benefit even more, as the amount of learning needed to use a new app, or a new version of an existing app, are much less than is the average under Windows or Linux. And, unlike far too many Windows programs, Mac programs are usually highly discoverable; the user may not know how to accomplish a desired action, but there is one (and preferably only one) obvious path to follow, and mis-steps are generally not heavily penalised.

Right, "everybody" knows this, so why did I spend five paragraphs restating the reasonably obvious? Because the real intent of this post is to draw your attention to a phenomenon which is a necessary outcome of that standardisation and discovery: it is much easier to switch from one Mac app that performs a given task to another than it is on Windows. Most Mac users periodically switch between different applications for a given purpose, even keeping two or three installed on their systems. When you ask them why, they don't (generally) point to bugs or deficiencies in one product over another; they merely switch between them as their use cases change. For example, though I have both Microsoft Office and Apple iWork on this Mac, I will often create or open smaller Word documents in a simpler application such as AbiWord instead. It doesn't have all the features of Word or Pages, but it has the basics, and it loads more quickly and uses fewer resources than its two "big brothers."

The average Mac user is also generally more willing to try new applications, and generally owns more applications, than is the average for Windows. Since she is confident in her ability to pick up and use a new program, generally without resorting to a manual or even online help, there is a much more open discussion between users and developers, since both have seen a good bit of "the competition" and know what they like and don't like.

More rarely than is the case elsewhere, but not rarely enough, this easy migration from one app to another is due to real or perceived defects in a previously-used program. This happened to me recently; the program I had been using for a few months as my main Twitter client was not showing me all the tweets of people I was following in the "mainline" stream that I would see when I looked at each person's stream individually. Once you start following more than about two or three people, the mainline becomes absolutely indispensable; you simply don't want to have to take the time to look at each stream in isolation. So, I moved to another client, Nambu (now in "private beta" for a new release; version 1.2.1 can be found via web search).

Two immediate observations: I already know how to use this, even though Nambu has a far more dense presentation than my earlier client. And, because of that "dense presentation", it now takes me about a fifth as much time to get through my morning and afternoon Twitter catchups as it did previously. (Multi-column view is the killer feature, guys; there's only one little thing I'd like to see different...)

Again, why make noise about this? Simple: I've been a Windows user (usee?) and developer quite literally as long as there's been a "Windows"; I ran across my 1.0-beta developer kit floppies (5-1/4", of course) a couple of weeks ago (thinking about having them bronzed...or mounted on a dartboard. Maybe both.) But the nasty truth is, I very rarely change applications that perform a given task in Windows. The pain level and the (hopefully temporary) hit on my productivity aren't worth it until the pain becomes absolutely excruciating. I don't have that problem with the Mac, at all. I can try out new applications at will, even daily-workflow applications, secure in the knowledge that

  • I already know how to use this, at least well enough to get started, and
  • I can go back — or on to another candidate — any time I want to.

There's a word for the feeling that having that kind of freedom, that control over your computing experience gives you:

Empowerment.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Companies Lose their Minds, Then their Partners, Then their Customers, Then...

Following is a comment which I posted to Jason Kincaid's article on TechCrunch, "Why Apple's New Ban Against Sexy Apps is Scary". I don't know why Apple seem to be deliberately shooting themselves in so many ways on the iPhone recently; I am sure that they are leaving golden opportunities for Palm, Android and anybody else who isn't Apple or Microsoft.

Even if you're not developing for the iPhone or even for the Mac, this whole drift should concern you — because its most likely effect is going to be that you have fewer choices in what should be a rapidly-expanding marketplace.

Thanks for reading.


Exactly; they're pulling a Singapore here. They're saying "we're better than anybody else" because they've got this App Store with hundreds of thousands of titles, and hundreds of useful apps. Then they turn around and say "we're the only game in town; we're not going to let you sell your apps to customers any way except through us — and oh, yeah, we can be completely arbitrary and capricious before, during and after the fact."

Let me be clear: up until very recently, I've been an unalloyed Apple fan; the only sensible response to 25+ years of Windows development and user support and 10 years hitting similar but different walls in Linux. I'm typing this on one of the two Macs sitting on my desk. I've got logs and statistics that prove I'm far more productive on my worst Mac days than I ever was on my best Windows days. And I've had several Switcher clients over the past few years who say the same thing.

I can write and sell any app I want on the Mac; Apple even give me all the (quite good) tools I need right in the box. I can use any app I want to on my Mac; the average quality level is so far above Windows and Linux apps it's not even funny. In neither of those do I need the permission of Apple or anyone else outside the parties to the transaction involved. Apple do have good support for publicising Mac apps; browse http://www.apple.com/downloads/ to see a (far earlier) way they've done it right. But developers don't have to use their advertising platform.

With the iPhone, and soon the iPad, they're doing things in a very untraditionally-Apple way: they're going far out of their way to alienate and harm developers. You know, those people who create the things that make people want to use the iPhone in the first place. And a lot of us are either leaving the platform or never getting into iPhone development in the first place.

And that can't be healthy for the long-term success of the Apple mobile platform (iPhone/iPad/iWhatComesNext). As a user, as a developer, as a shareholder, that disturbs me, as I believe it should disturb anyone who cares about this industry.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Simple Changes Rarely Are

I want to say "thank you" to the anonymous commenter to my post, XHTML is (Nearly) Useless, who said "Paragraphs would be useful."

Google's Blogger software, by default, separates paragraphs by an "HTML break tag" (br); this preserves the visible separation as intended, but destroys the structural, semantic flow. I recently discovered this, found the feature to turn it off ("don't put "break" tags in unless I bloody tell you to!), and set it. I naively thought that this would apply only to new posts, and posts that had previously been saved in the old, "broken", format would stay as is.

Oops.

I must now go back and hand-edit every post over the last nearly five years so that their paragraph flow is properly marked up. Since I do in fact have other demands on my time, this is not likely to be completed immediately; it is, however, a very high priority.

It's enough to make you seriously consider migrating to WordPress — which is apparently trivially easy.

NIH v. An Embarrassment of Riches

One thing most good developers learn early on is not to "reinvent" basic technology for each new project they work on, The common, often corporate, antithesis to this is NIH, or "Not Invented Here." But sometimes, it's hard to decide which "giants" one wants to "stand on the shoulders of."

I've recently done a couple of mid-sized Web projects using PHP and the Kohana framework. A framework, as most readers know, is useful a) by helping you work faster b) by including a lot of usually-good code you don't have to write and maintain (but you should understand!). Good frameworks encourage you to write your own code in a style that encourages reuse by other projects that use the same framework.

One task supported by many frameworks is logging. There have also been many "standalone" (i.e., not integrated into larger systems) logging packages. The most well-known of these, and the source of many derivatives, is the Apache log4j package for Java. This has been ported, also as an Apache project, is log4php.

Log4php has saved me countless hours of exploratory debugging. I stand firmly with the growing group of serious developers who assert that if you use a reasonably agile process (with iterative, red, green, refactor unit testing) and make good use of logging, you'll very rarely, if ever, need a traditional debugger.

What does this have to do with Kohana? Well, Kohana includes its own relatively minimalist, straightforward logging facility (implemented as static methods in the core class, grumble, grumble). There's a standard place for such logs to be written to disk, and a nice little 'debug toolbar' add-on module that lets you see logging output while you're viewing the page that generated it.

So I ought to just ditch log4php in favor of the inbuilt logging system when I'm developing Kohana apps, right? Not so fast...

Log4php, as does log4j, has far more flexibility. I can log output from different sources to different places (file, system log, console, database, etc.), have messages written to more than one place (e.g., console and file), and so on. Kohana's logging API is too simple for that.

With log4php, I have total control over the logging output based on configuration information stored in an external file, not in the code itself. That means I can fiddle with the configuration during development, even deploy the application, without having to make any code changes to control logging output. The fewer times I have to touch my code, the less likely I am to inadvertently break something. Kohana? I only have one logging stream that has to be controlled within my code, by making Kohana method calls.

Many experienced developers of object-oriented software are uncomfortable with putting more than one logical feature into a class (or closely-related set of classes). Why carry around overhead you don't use, especially when your framework offers a nice extension capability via "modules" and "helpers"?. While there may sometimes be arguments for doing so (the PHP interpreter is notoriously slow, especially using dynamic features like reflection), I have always failed to understand how aggregating large chunks of your omniverse into a Grand Unified God Object™ pays dividends over the life of the project.

So, for now, I'll continue using log4php as a standalone tool in my various PHP development projects (including those based on Kohana). One thing that just went onto my "nice to do when I get around to it" list is to implement a module or similar add-on that would more cleanly integrate log4php into the surrounding Kohana framework.

This whole episode has raised my metaphorical eyebrow a bit. There are "best practices" for developing in OO (object-oriented) languages; PHP borrows many of these from Java (along with tools like log4php and PHPUnit, the de facto standard unit-test framework). I did a fairly exhaustive survey of the available PHP frameworks before starting to use Kohana. I chose it because it wasn't a "everything including several kitchen sinks" tool like Zend, it wasn't bending over backwards to support obsolete language misfeatures left over from PHP 4, and it has what looks to be a pretty healthy "community" ecosystem (unlike some once-heavily-flogged "small" frameworks like Ulysses). I'm not likely to stop using Kohana very soon. I may well have to make time to participate in that community I mentioned earlier, if for no other reason that to better understand why things are the way they are.

But that's the beauty of open source, community-driven development, surely?

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

I thought OSS was supposed to break down walls, not build them.

Silly me. I've only been using, evangelizing and otherwise involved in open source software for 15 or 20 years, so what do I know?

In reaction to the latest feature article in DistroWatch Weekly, I'm angry. I'm sad. Most of all, I feel sorry for those losers who would rather keep their pristine little world free of outside involvement, especially when that involvement is with the express intent of not making it easy for non-├╝bergeeks to use open source software — in this case, OpenBSD. OpenBSD, like its cousins FreeBSD and NetBSD, is one of the (current) "major" base versions of BSD Unix. While the latter two have had numerous other projects that have taken their software as a base, fewer have branched from "Open" BSD, as can be seen in this comparison on Wikipedia. Recently, two OpenBSD enthusiasts have attempted to address this, only to be flamed mercilessly for their trouble.

The DistroWatch feature previously mentioned concerns GNOBSD, a project created by Stefan Rinkes, whose goal plainly was to make this highly stable and secure operating system, with a lineage that long predates Linux, accessible to a wider audience (who don't use Mac OS X - based (indirectly) on both FreeBSD and NetBSD).

For his troubles, Mr. Rinkes was the subject of repeated, extreme, egregiously elitist flaming, this thread being but one example. He was eventually forced to withdraw public access to the GNOBSD disc image, and adding a post stating that he did not "want to be an enemy of the OpenBSD Project."

Reading along the thread on the openbsd-misc mailing list brings one to a post by one "FRLinux", linking to another screaming flamewar summarized here, with the most directly relevant thread starting with a message titled "ComixWall terminated. Another hard worker with the intent of creating an OpenBSD-based operating system that was easy for "ordinary people" to use, promptly incurred the wrath of the leader of the OpenBSD effort, Theo de Raadt, with numerous other "worthies" piling on.

WTF?!?

OK, I get it. The OpenBSD folks don't want anyone playing in their sandbox providing access to the OpenBSD software (itself supposedly completely open source, free software) that might in any way compete with "official" OpenBSD downloads or DVD/CD sales. They especially don't want any possibility of the Great Unwashed Masses™ — i.e., anyone other than self-professed, officially-blessed übergeeks — from playing with "their" toys.

OK, fine. It has been a large part of my business and passion to evangelize open source and otherwise free software as an enabler for the use of open data standards by individuals and businesses. I have supported and/or led the migration, in whole or in part, of several dozen small to midsize businesses from a completely closed, proprietary software stack (usually Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office for Windows) to a mix of other (open and proprietary) operating systems and applications. OpenBSD has historically been high on my list of candidates for clients' server OS needs; if you can manage a Windows Server cluster with acceptable performance and stability, your life will be easier managing almost anything else — provided that you're not locked in to proprietary Windows-only applications and services. In these days of "cloud" computing and "software as a service", the arguments against Ye Olde Standarde are becoming much more compelling.

I just won't be making those arguments using OpenBSD anymore. And to my two clients who've expressed interest in BSD on the desktop for their "power" developers over the next couple of years, I'll be pitching other solutions to them...and explaining precisely why.

Because, out here in the real world, people don't like dealing with self-indulgent assholes. That's a lesson that took this recovering geek (in the vein of "recovering alcoholic") far too many years to learn. And people especially don't like trusting their business or their personal data to such people if they have any choice at all.

And, last I checked, that was the whole point of open standards, open source, and free software: giving people choices that allow them to exercise whatever degree of control they wish over their computing activities. I'd really hate to think that I've spent roughly half my adult life chasing a myth. Too many people have put too much hard work into far too many projects to let things like this get in our way.

Changing Infrastructure - and "Mea maxima culpa *thwack*"

(which I remember from a Monty Python sketch but can't find attribution. Oh well; please feel free to comment and enlighten me.)

About a week ago, I switched my domain hosting for my Web/mail domain, seven-sigma.com, from Simplehost Limited of New Zealand to WebFaction, based in the UK. Now, Simplehost are a good bunch of guys; their customer service is very responsive and you get knowledgeable, thoughtful answers to questions. On most things, they're very willing to work with people to help them resolve issues. If you're looking for a host in this general slice of the planet, put them on your list of providers to have a good look at.

The deal-breaker for me, though, after two years or so with them, was that I need to be able to develop and demonstrate Web sites using the latest and greatest variety of tools, in particular PHP 5.3.x, which introduces important new features (in addition to fixing numerous bugs).

WebFaction, on the other hand, offer PHP 5.3 support (as well as numerous other tools, such as Ruby on Rails, have good pricing on their shared-hosting packages (as does Simplehost, honestly), and fantastic self-help and support options - video tutorials, Twitter feeds, and so on. Also, doing the obligatory Googling for dissatisfied-customer reactions mostly brings up hits like this one, talking about how (except for a couple of brief periods), the only hits were from reviews pointing out how few hits there were. Chatting on IM and IRC with a few customers also helped.

So, a process that I'd been poking at for a couple of months, with three weeks of serious effort, is done with, hopefully for several years to come.

However, there was a silly-me postscript to all of this: For several days after I made the switch, I just wasn't able to get email working. I went onto the WebFaction email-support forums, flipped through a few messages that described solutions to problems other users had had, tried them, and no luck. Then, tonight, I came across the answer that had been staring me plain in the face from the very first message telling me that my account had been set up.

You folks who have your own domains can probably imagine what went wrong; suffice it to say that the difference between what I was reading and what I was thinking was sufficient that over 1,300 email messages have downloaded in less time than it took me to write this post. So if you've been emailing me and wondering why I haven't answered, I apologize. It's unlikely to happen again — hopefully for several years.

And to the Simplehost support guys, thanks very much for your help. This was not in any way at all Simplehost's fault.

So why would I write something like this, showing a fairly major screwup? Because... I'd rather deal with people who admit their faults and publicly commit to do better, than with people who are infallible legends in their own mind. This industry has far too many of the latter sort. I'm hoping that enough other people feel the way I do that I can continue to do great work for my clients.

Thanks for reading.

EDIT:Years on, never mind how many, I discovered that I'd mistyped "WebFaction" when I meant "Simplehost" three paragraphs earlier. Heartfelt apologies to both. Mea maxima culpa *thwack!*