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Optimizing a Linux box in-place

Here’s the Linux bit I promised yesterday. I wrote it much earlier, so I might as well throw it out there.
Our test firewall at work is an old Pentium-200 running Red Hat Linux and a commercial firewall app. (No, I won’t disclose which one. Security, you know.) It’s a bit slow. A P200 is severe overkill for the firewall built into the Linux kernel (Steve DeLassus and I made a firewall out of the first PC he ever bought, a 486SX/20 of 1992 vintage, which, save the loss of the original power supply in an electrical storm, has never required any service), but this commercial package does a lot more than the simple firewalls built into Unixish kernels do.

It had 72 megs of RAM in it and swapped mercilessly. Its speed seemed to be OK once it was booted, but seeing as this is a testbed, it tends to get rebooted an awful lot. I needed to do something for it.

So I trekked into the PC graveyard to see what I could dig up. I found a Compaq 386DX/20. I left that alone. That’ll be useful if I ever need to pillage a pair of Compaq drive rails, which has happened before. Unfortunately those rails are worth more than the rest of the computer. I also spotted a Mac SE. That’ll be handy if I ever need a doorstop. Then I found a Pentium-75 and another Pentium of unknown speed. I opened them up. The 75 had a pair of 16-meg sticks. I opened up the unknown Pentium and looked inside. Ugh. Socket 4. That meant it was a Pentium-60, or, at best, a Pentium-66. It had a pair of 8-meg sticks.

I pulled the memory sticks out of the 75. The 60 didn’t have anything usable in it, save a pair of hard drives, both 540 megs, one a Quantum and the other a Seagate. I took the Seagate because it was easier to unbolt. I don’t have any way of knowing at this late date which of those drives was the better performer, and it probably doesn’t make much difference anymore.

The idea was to add some memory, and put in a second hard drive dedicated to virtual memory. Since the likelihood of the machine needing to read data from a drive and simultaneously hit virtual memory was fairly high, I wanted the virtual memory on its own drive. Furthermore, Linux’s partition-read
mechanism isn’t terribly efficient. This doesn’t matter for SCSI drives, which re-order I/O events, but for IDE drives it matters a lot. So getting the swap partition onto a dedicated drive was likely to improve performance a fair bit. (If this were a production system, it would probably have a SCSI
drive in it.)

So I swapped in the 16s for the 4s and found an empty bay to hold the 540, which I put on the second IDE channel as master (another performance trick), and booted Linux. The next trick is to use your favorite disk partitioning tool (I like cfdisk, but I can navigate plain old fdisk) to blow away whatever partition is on the new drive (this one was /dev/hdc) and create a single partition. I just made it the size of the drive, since 2.4 can deal with large swap partitions and Linux is smart enough to use whatever virtual memory it needs, not just automatically use all it has available. Then I set
it to type 82. Linux can do swapfiles, but a filesystemless dedicated swap partition gives better performance.

Next, I edited /etc/fstab. I found an entry for the swap partition pointing at /dev/hda2. I changed that to /dev/hdc1. That means I now have a small swap partition just sitting on the first drive unused, but that’s not a big deal to me. The system’s not using the disk space it has. While I was there, I noticed the CD-ROM drive was pointing at /dev/cdrom. I asked Charlie, our Unix/Linux guru, if Red Hat had some intelligence I didn’t know about. He said /dev/cdrom was just a symlink. I changed the entry to read /dev/hdd, which is where the CD-ROM drive ended up after my shuffle. Better to just code things directly than try to track symlinks, in my estimation.

Next, I issued the command mkswap /dev/hdc1 to initialize the swap partition. Then I rebooted and listened.

Indeed, during boot, the second drive was getting activity. I logged in and ran top, then hit shift-M to have a look at memory usage. The firewalling software was eating up a lot. But swap usage was down.

I decided to try cutting memory usage down a little more. I loaded /etc/inittab into vi. Red Hat by default gives you six virtual consoles. This machine has little need for more than two. Pulling the extras saves you a couple of megs. Near the end of the file you’ll see several lines that look something like this:

1:2345:respawn:/sbin/mingetty 38400 tty1

I commented out the last four of those. Hit the i key to put vi in insert mode, scroll down to those lines, add a # to the beginning of them, then hit ESC, then hit ZZ (shift-Z twice) to rapidly save the file, no questions asked. (I know, vi ain’t friendly, but it’s there.)

Then I had a look at /etc/rc3.d to see what daemons were running. I found apmd, sendmail, and gpm running. That was a waste of a couple megs, not to mention a possible security risk. I vaguely remember all three of them having had security issues in the past, and sendmail is one of those programs that should never be running unless you need it. Yes, this machine’s just practice, but Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench found that if he got sloppy and just let wild pitches go while he was warming up pitchers, he wasn’t as sharp at blocking potential wild pitches during the game when
it counted. So he worked just as hard during practice as he did during the game. Now he’s considered the greatest catcher of all time.

So I applied the Johnny Bench principle and disabled them with the following command sequence:

mv /etc/rc3.d/S26apmd /etc/rc3.d/K26apmd
mv /etc/rc3.d/S80sendmail /etc/rc3.d/K80sendmail
mv /etc/rc3.d/S85gpm /etc/rc3.d/K85gpm

I rebooted to find memory usage down by about 4 megs and the system booted a little faster. It was also more secure.

Total downtime: About 45 minutes.

That was time well spent. I may end up having to just bite the bullet and get some memory, but the system will perform better with these changes no matter how much memory is in it. And, more importantly, performing this exercise made me notice something I hadn’t noticed before. It let me tighten up security.

Had I blindly just ordered some memory to put in the system, or a new PC, like some people unfortunately advocate, I wouldn’t have necessarily noticed that as quickly.

Speaking of Linux, I did finally get Apache, PHP, and MySQL all talking together on my church’s 486. I used phpWeblog, which is an awfully nice package. Pages load in an acceptable two seconds. I notice the machine is paging, so a little more memory will probably help that. It’s amazing that people are throwing away Pentium-class machines when even a 486 has enough power to be a decent intranet server.

Not everyone’s so fortunate as you and me. Give ’em to someone who can use them if you don’t want them.

Back to the old grind again.

You are my addiction
My pleasure and my pain
You’re my infection
Disease, you burn my brain
–Pale Divine
That song was either talking about a girl or about cigarettes. I’m not sure which. But my addiction is something else. You’ll understand in a minute.

Conversation with Gatermann. “Something big came out this week,” I told him.

He took a few shots in the dark. Ridiculous things, like Windows XP.

“What are the necessities of life?” I asked.


“More important than women,” I said.

“More important than women!? What’s more important than the advancement of mankind?”

“You’re getting warm,” I said.

He stumbled around a really long time. He even said the settlement with Microsoft, which really got me going. Microsoft deserved to be run over by a steamroller. Very slowly. What they got wasn’t even a slap on the wrist. It was more like a warm caress. Excuse me while I gag. I dropped hints so he’d quit saying such repulsive things. It involves a computer but not an operating system. It’s not hardware, it’s software. Unfortunately, it only runs under Windows for the moment. Finally he started getting warm.

“Something to do with Railroad Tycoon?” he asked.

“Railroad Tycoon is indeed one of the necessities of life,” I pontificated. “You’re getting close.”

“More important than women and Railtycoon…”

“No, on par with Railtycoon,” I said. “And I’ll give you another hint. It’s not Baseball Mogul.”

He stumbled around some more.

“C’mon, Tom! What other games do I play?”

The answer is, of course, Civ3. I remember when I bought Civ2. The cashier was female, a year or two younger than me probably. “I love this game,” she said as she checked me out. Er, as she rang me up. I don’t know if she checked me out or not.

But because I’m a real dipstick, I didn’t propose to her on the spot. I didn’t even ask her out. Yeah I know. I coulda dated someone whose idea of a good time was a Civ bingefest.

Other stuff. If you ever put a parallel scanner on an NT4 workstation and run into all sorts of problems like bluescreens and service/driver failures at startup, check to make sure your parallel port and your sound card aren’t using the same interrupt. Better yet, get a real–I mean SCSI–scanner and use parallel ports for what they were designed. That’s printers, not Zip drives. If the interrupt’s free, the scanner will work, but you can forget about any other process getting any CPU time while you’re scanning.

I found a nice groupware app at www.phprojekt.com. It requires PHP, Apache, and MySQL. Not quite an Exchange killer but the price is sure right. And Exchange sure hurt Notes, because it’s cheaper, even though Notes is completely in another league.

And if someone complains about banner ads on your corporate intranet, check and see if Gator is installed. Then slap the hand of the dolt who installed it. (Probably the same dolt who went and bought a parallel scanner at CompUSA for 25 bucks and came in and told you to make it work.)

Linux and PC cubes

PC cubes! Yes, I want a cube-shaped computer, because it’s small. No, I don’t want one made by Apple, or an obsolete NeXT (I used those in college when I couldn’t get time on an SGI). I want something small and cheap, and if it’s reasonably good looking, that’s a bonus.
Enter the Shuttle SV24.

Unlike Apple’s cube, it has a brushed-alumninum case, so it won’t crack. Just like Apple’s cube, it generates extreme reactions, and not everyone who likes Apple’s cube likes Shuttle’s.

I admit, it doesn’t have Apple’s styling. But I like Lian-Li’s styling a lot better. I wouldn’t put this in Lian-Li’s league either. But it’s certainly no uglier than any of the PCs I own now, and it’s small and light. So yeah, it has me thinking.

Where can you get one? Two of my favorite vendors have it, at a price of $250: Newegg.com and Mwave.com.

I also saw on Ars’ forums that MSI makes a slimline PC called the 6215. Newegg has it (search for “6215”) for $210. It’s tiny, but has two PCI slots and is more conventional-looking. I’m thinking the 6215 would be great for a server appliance, seeing as it has two PCI slots so you could put a SCSI card in it. You could also disable the onboard Realtek NIC and replace it with a card like an Intel EtherExpress Pro that uses less CPU time.

More Linux. The biggest thing holding me back from migrating to SupaSite is its requirement of the Apache, MySQL and PHP trio. I’ve tried to get those three to work together before, and the setup wasn’t exactly trivial, especially when trying to do it from RPMs. It looks like it’d be a whole lot easier to just compile it yourself. But this past week I found Apache Toolbox, which downloads the source for those three, plus bunches of Apache modules and compiles them for you. It sounds like it even helps out with configuration. I’ve gotta give this one a shot.

Mail server successful!

A lightweight Windows web browser. Windows!? What’s that? Yes, I still use it at work, even though my Windows time at home is dwindling. A couple of weeks ago I told you about Dillo, a superfast, minimalist Web browser for Linux that’s in development. It’s still considered alpha-quality; I’ve had absolutely no trouble with it but some readers report it crashes on them occasionally. I’ve had enough success with it that I want it at work.
Well, I didn’t get my wish exactly, but yesterday at work after following a link to a link to a link while looking for something else (you know how that goes–you never find what you’re looking for when you’re looking for it, on the Web or in real life) I found Off By One a free standards-compliant HTML 3.2 browser. Its executable is a full 1.1 megs in size. There are sites it won’t render quite right, because it lacks Java and JavaScript and it’s an HTML 4.0 and CSS world out there these days, but it’s the fastest browser I’ve ever seen on Win32. If I had to live with Windows 9x on a 486 or a slow Pentium, this is the browser I’d want.

A nice-looking Weblog package. I found a blogger on Freshmeat called Supasite. It doesn’t look like it does a nice calendar by default like Greymatter, but it does categories, natively. And it looks like nothing would stop me from changing the system date and putting in entries from way back when, so I could start moving content in from this site’s previous incarnations (including some stuff that hasn’t been online for most of this year). Greymatter breaks when you try to do that.

The downside? Setup is much more difficult, since it relies on PHP and MySQL, in addition to Apache and Perl.

Local mail server revisited. I figured out what I was doing wrong. To get exim, procmail, fetchmail, and courier-imap all working together, I had to do a couple more steps. First, I had to create a maildir for my non-priveliged account with the maildirmake command. Next, I created a .forward file:
# Exim filter
save $home/Maildir/new/

Next, I created a .procmailrc file:

Then I ran fetchmail manually. It pulled down three messages from my SWBell account. I connected to the experimental server with Sylpheed and… I had mail! Suh-weeet!

Now if I can just get one of those canned spam filters running, I’ll be a very happy camper…


More on the election. This seems to be the topic that just won’t die. As Natalie Merchant would say, “Hey, give ’em what they want.” I’ll talk politics if people want me to talk politics. I’m just not used to people wanting a 25-year-old’s opinion on anything but computers and maybe music. Hopefully this sequel is better than most sequels coming out of Hollywood. I gave them a head start with a dumb title.

So, the dialogue with my British editor continues. Chris first:

I take your point on a lot of the things that are going unreported, and I realise that a lot of my problems and fears are ideological and nothing to do with democratic irregularities. We’ll have to agree to disgree. However, I find a couple of things hard to deal with.

DF: But I think my greatest lament is there was a time when the two major presidential candidates and parties trusted one another enough to politely step aside and transfer power. They did not truly believe that the other party, or at least one politician, could destroy the country in 2, 4, or 6 years (whatever their term might be).

Surely the whole point of politics is that you are supposed to think that your opponents are wrong and not just “trust” them and concede power to them at the earliest opportunity. Not only is morally dubious, it is arguably undemocratic – surely you are letting down the people who voted for you (especially if they are in the majority!). If you concede when you think you have won, you might as well not have run in the first place.

DF: History has proven that. We have plenty of infamous presidents who were caught breaking the law or doing (or trying to do) things of questionable legality under the Constitution: Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton… None of them destroyed the country. Some of them changed it very dramatically. But Harding may have been the most corrupt of the bunch (at least his administration was), and no one’s ever heard of him today.

Lawbreaking is relative. Your greatest presidents, Lincoln and Roosevelt, bent the rules for the greater good, unlike the corrupt administration of Harding (an ineffectual, incompetent moron who should never have been President – sound familar?).
DF: Bush did win the larger number of states, and a much larger geographic area. Gore’s support is very much concentrated along each coast and mostly in metropolitan areas.

This is utterly irrelevant. Wow, Bush won the whole of the West from North Dakota to Arizona. Democracy is rule by the people, not by land mass.

DF: There’s enough question with the absentee ballots to make it really doubtful who truly won the popular vote.

But you have to accept the official figures surely. Although these gave Florida to Bush – hold on, I’m not undermining my own argument – surely the members of the electoral college ought to follow the democratic decision of the people and switch their votes, which I believe they have the right to do.

My main concern, though, is still the suitability of Bush, about whom I read ANOTHER damning article this weekend, which said that he was an utter failure in business (as well as a drunk) until 1994 – when he used tax money to make the Texas Rangers a success. (Admittedly I read the left-wing press, or what passes for it in Britain.) I understand people’s concerns about the ‘dynastic’ Gore in a sense, but it shouldn’t be an obstacle if you are competent and deserving. And Bush’s father had some success in politics too, I believe.

My interest might seem over-keen as I don’t even live in your country, but it’s undoubtedly a fascinating episode in US history, and in the end it will probably affect all of us. The election of Bush might actually mean we move closer to Europe, so something positive might come out of it…

Yes, the point of politics is to do what you believe is the right thing, and chances are your opponent’s opinion will differ. Gore conceding now is hardly “concession at the earliest possible moment.” It usually happens on election night.

I think where we differ is whether Gore has reason to believe he won. Bush won Florida. He won the recount. He won the hand recount. He’s winning the court cases. Gore speaks of “thousands of uncounted ballots,” but those thousands of ballots aren’t uncounted. They do not register a vote for president. I don’t know if Gore believes he won, or if he believes he can win on a technicality. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know the difference. What he is accomplishing is making the United States into more and more of a laughingstock, and in doing that, he’s not doing himself, his party, or his country any favors (favours).

The story nobody’s talking about with the popular vote is the absentee ballots in other states. Those results aren’t all certified. Nor have I seen a count yet with 100% of precincts reporting. If the popular vote mattered, Bush could do the same thing in other states that Gore has done in Florida. He has chosen not to do so. The figures now are not yet official, but I do concede that the official figures could look much like these do.

The electoral college can indeed change their votes if they want to. In 1988, one of Michael Dukakis’ electors voted for Lloyd Bentsen, his running mate. It’s not terribly uncommon for one of the Republican electors to vote for the Libertarian candidate. One year (I wish I could remember when it was), one of the Democratic electors cast his vote for Harry Truman. Truman was dead. The elector said, “Yeah, but even dead, Truman’s better than either of these clowns!” (Sounds like today.) But generally the closer the race, the less likely the electors are to vote differently.

This is rarely a problem. The electoral college was intended to give smaller states a little more power. The United States isn’t government by land mass, as you say, but it is government by a combination of population and land mass. There’ll be tremendous pressure for change. I’m torn on whether we should. I’m pretty sure that we won’t. The smaller states won’t want to give up the power, so there won’t be enough votes to ratify the necessary constitutional amendment.

As for comparisons to Harding, he sounds like two of the candidates we ran. And I’m not talking Nader and Buchanan. For all of Bush’s inadequacies, Gore fares no better. He may be worse. Gore couldn’t finish law school or divinity school (and the hard part of both of those is getting in in the first place–I know because I’ve looked into both myself).

I went out for a drink Monday night with a couple of Democrats, both very politically active. One has a brother who ran for a state office this year and aspires to run herself one day. The other worked on a couple of campaigns. Of course I asked what they thought of where the election stood. Both said that we’d be much better off if Gore conceded, and that we’d be better off with Bush as president-elect than with the current situation. When I see that Gore has lost the support of these two, I can’t help but conclude he’s doing the wrong thing.

I’ve updated my portal, and it seems to work consistently now. Sorry for the broken link. I put this up mostly for me, but you’re of course welcome to use it. You can get there by clicking Links over there on the left, if you’re interested in where and how I get information.

Communication. I see JHR doesn’t like Weblogs. I don’t like everything about them myself, but I moved here out of necessity. Keeping my site up the old way was just getting too difficult, and I was out of space. Here was a nice, elegant solution–someone offering me space and a no-strings-attached search engine, plus the ability to edit either HTML or WYSIWYG from a browser, no matter where I go. And offering ways to promote it, to boot. All without charging me a cent.

It was just too attractive. I don’t like that it requires login for discussion groups. Part of me doesn’t like the discussions taking place on their own pages. It makes it easier to avoid them if reader comments don’t interest you, but it makes it harder to read them–and chances are, if you’re reading, reader comments do interest you. I did notice that an active discussion is a great way to rack up page reads. But that may be a price too high to pay.

I could code a Daynoting/Weblogging solution myself, using PHP and MySQL on a Unixish box, that would do what I need, and only what I need. But there’s no way I could have done it in the time frame necessary. And I don’t know if my health would have held up. I prefer to spend my time and keystrokes doing content development, rather than software development, and Manila works pretty darn nicely.

I don’t mean to seem impersonal. The e-mail link is there, and I don’t mind if you use it. You don’t have to be logged in to read anything here, and you of course don’t have to be logged in to click the mail link. I don’t always respond as quickly as I would like, and it takes time for Di or me to post the mail–often longer than I would like. But this isn’t a commercial operation, so it doesn’t bother me so much. And questions regarding something I wrote that people paid money for–be it a book or a magazine article–generally do get answers within a day, even if they aren’t posted that day. I do try to maintain that level of service at least.

I’m sorry that I may have alienated one of my most loyal and longest-running readers. Seeing as the alternative was probably closing up shop and concentrating on just books and/or magazine articles (and sacrificing quality and promotion ability by becoming a hermit), I didn’t see that I had any choice. I was hoping that Dave-with-strings-attached would be better than no Dave at all. Judging from the increasing traffic, I may have been right.

Mac mice, PC data recovery

A two-button Mac mouse!? Frank McPherson asked what I would think of the multibutton/scroll wheel support in Mac OS X. Third-party multibutton mice have been supported via extensions for several years, but not officially from Ye Olde Apple. So what do I think? About stinkin’ time!

I use 3-button mice on my Windows boxes. The middle button double-clicks. Cuts down on clicks. I like it. On Unix, where the middle button brings up menus, I’d prefer a fourth button for double-clicking. Scroll wheels I don’t care about. The page up/down keys have performed that function just fine for 20 years. But some people like them; no harm done.

Data recovery. One of my users had a disk yesterday that wouldn’t read. Scandisk wouldn’t fix it. Norton Utilities 2000 wouldn’t fix it. I called in Norton Utilities 8. Its disktool.exe includes an option to revive a disk, essentially by doing a low-level format in place (presumably it reads the data, formats the cylinder, then writes the data back). That did the trick wonderfully. Run Disktool, then run NDD, then copy the contents to a fresh disk immediately.

So, if you ever run across an old DOS version of the Norton Utilities (version 7 or 8 certainly; earlier versions may be useful too), keep them! It’s something you’ll maybe need once a year. But when you need them, you need them badly. (Or someone you support does, since those in the know never rely on floppies for long-term data storage.) Recent versions of Norton Utilities for Win32 don’t include all of the old command-line utilities.

Hey, who was the genius who decided it was a good idea to cut, copy and paste files from the desktop? One of the nicest people in the world slipped up today copying a file. She hit cut instead of copy, then when she went to paste the file to the destination, she got an error message. Bye-bye file. Cut/copy-paste works fine for small files, but this was a 30-meg PowerPoint presentation. My colleague who supports her department couldn’t get the file back. I ride in on my white horse, Norton Utilities 4.0 for Windows in hand, and run Unerase off the CD. I get the file back, or so it appears. The undeleted copy won’t open. On a hunch, I hit paste. Another copy comes up. PowerPoint chokes on it too.

I tried everything. I ran PC Magazine’s Unfrag on it, which sometimes fixes problematic Office documents. No dice. I downloaded a PowerPoint recovery program. The document crashed the program. Thanks guys. Robyn never did you any harm. Now she’s out a presentation. Not that Microsoft cares, seeing as they already have the money.

I walked away wondering what would have happened if Amiga had won…

And there’s more to life than computers. There’s songwriting. After services tonight, the music director, John Scheusner, walks up and points at me. “Don’t go anywhere.” His girlfriend, Jennifer, in earshot, asks what we’re plotting. “I’m gonna play Dave the song that he wrote. You’re more than welcome to join us.”

Actually, it’s the song John and I wrote. I wrote some lyrics. John rearranged them a little (the way I wrote it, the song was too fast–imagine that, something too fast from someone used to writing punk rock) and wrote music.

I wrote the song hearing it sung like The Cars, (along the lines of “Magic,” if you’re familiar with their work) but what John wrote and played sounded more like Joe Jackson. Jazzy. I thought it was great. Jennfier thought it was really great.

Then John tells me they’re playing it Sunday. They’re what!? That will be WEIRD. And after the service will be weird too, seeing as everybody knows me and nobody’s ever seen me take a lick of interest in worship music before.

I like it now, but the lyrics are nothing special, so I don’t know if I’ll like it in six months. We’ll see. Some people will think it’s the greatest thing there ever was, just because two people they know wrote it. Others will call it a crappy worship song, but hopefully they’ll give us a little credit: At least we’re producing our own crappy worship songs instead of playing someone else’s.

Then John turns to me on the way out. “Hey, you’re a writer. How do we go about copyrighting this thing?” Besides writing “Copyright 2000 by John Scheusner and Dave Farquhar” on every copy, there’s this.  That’s what the Web is for, friends.


Note: I post this letter without comment, since it’s a response to a letter I wrote. My stuff is in italics. I’m not sure I totally agree with all of it, but it certainly made me think a lot and I can’t fault the logic.

From: John Klos
Subject: Re: Your letter on Jerry Pournelle’s site

Hello, Dave,

I found both your writeup and this letter interesting. Especially interesting is both your reaction and Jerry’s reaction to my initial letter, which had little to do with my server.To restate my feelings, I was disturbed about Jerry’s column because it sounded so damned unscientific, and I felt that he had a responsibility to do better.
His conclusion sounded like something a salesperson would say, and in fact did sound like things I have heard from salespeople and self-promoted, wannabe geeks. I’ve heard all sorts of tales from people like this, such as the fact that computers get slower with age because the ram wears out…

Mentioning my Amiga was simply meant to point out that not only was I talking about something that bothered me, but I am running systems that “conventional wisdom” would say are underpowered. However, based upon what both you and Jerry have replied, I suppose I should’ve explained more about my Amiga.

I have about 50 users on erika (named after a dear friend). At any one moment, there are anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen people logged on. Now, I don’t claim to know what a Microsoft Terminal Server is, nor what it does, but it sounds something like an ’80s way of Microsoft subverting telnet.

My users actually telnet (technically, they all use ssh; telnet is off), they actually do tons of work is a shell, actually use pine for email and links (a lynx successor) for browsing. I have a number of developers who do most of their development work in any of a number of languages on erika (Perl, C, C++, PHP, Python, even Fortran!).

Most of my users can be separated into two groups: geeks and novices. Novices usually want simple email or want to host their domain with a minimum of fuss; most of them actually welcome the simplicity, speed, and consistency of pine as compared to slow and buggy webmail. Who has used webmail and never typed a long letter only to have an error destroy the entire thing?

The geeks are why sixgirls.org got started. We all
had a need for a place
to call home, as we all have experienced the nomadic life of being a geek
on the Internet with no server of our own. We drifted from ISP to ISP
looking for a place where our Unix was nice, where our sysadmins listened,
and where corporate interests weren’t going to yank stuff out from underneath us at any moment. Over the years, many ISPs have stopped
offering shell access and generally have gotten too big for the comfort of

If Jerry were replying to this now, I could see him saying that shells are
old school and that erika is perhaps not much more than a home for  orphans and die-hard Unix fans. I used to think so, too, but the more novice users I add, the more convinced I am that people who have had no shell experience at all prefer the ease, speed, and consistency of the shell
over a web browser type interface. They’re amazed at the speed. They’re
surprised over the ability to instantly interact with others using talk and ytalk.

The point is that this is neither a stopgap nor a dead end; this IS the
future. I read your message to Jerry and it got me thinking a lot. An awful
lot. First on the wisdom of using something other than what Intel calls a server, then on the wisdom of using something other than a Wintel box as a server. I probably wouldn’t shout it from the mountaintops if I were doing it, but I’ve done it myself. As an Amiga veteran (I once published an article in Amazing Computing), I smiled when I saw what you were doing with your A4000. And some people no doubt are very interested in that. I wrote some about that on my Weblogs site (address below if you’re interested).

I am a Unix Systems Administrator, and I’ve set up lots of servers. I made
my decision to run everything on my Amiga based upon several
One, x86 hardware is low quality. I stress test all of the servers I
build, and most x86 hardware is flawed in one way or another. Even if
those flaws are so insignificant that they never affect the running of a
server, I cannot help but wonder why my stress testing code will run just
fine on one computer for months and will run fine on another computer for
a week, but then dump a core or stop with an error. But this is quite
commonplace with x86 hardware.

For example, my girlfriend’s IBM brand FreeBSD computer can run the stress testing software indefinitely while she is running the GIMP, Netscape, and all sorts of other things. This is one of the few PCs that never has any problems with this stress testing software. But most of the other servers I set up, from PIIIs, dual processor PIIIs and dual Celerons, to Cyrix 6×86 and MII, end up having a problem with my software after anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. But they all have remarkable uptimes, and none crash for any reason other than human error (like kicking the cord).

However, my Amigas and my PowerMacs can run this software indefinitely.

So although I work with x86 extensively, it’s not my ideal choice. So what
else is there? There’s SPARC, MIPS, m68k, PowerPC, Alpha, StrongARM… pleanty of choices.

I have a few PowerMacs and a dual processor Amiga (68060 and 200 mhz PPC 604e); however, NetBSD for PowerMacs is not yet as mature as I need it to be. For one, there is no port of MIT pthreads, which is required for MySQL. Several of my users depend on MySQL, so until that is fixed, I can’t consider using my PowerMac. Also, because of the need to boot using Open Firmware, I cannot set up my PowerMac to boot unattended. Since my machine is colocated, I would have to be able to run down to the colocation facility if anything ever happened to it. That’s
fine if I’m in the city, but what happens when I’m travelling in Europe?

SPARC is nice, but expensive. If I could afford a nice UltraSPARC, I
would. However, this porject started as a way to have a home for
geeks; coming up with a minimum of $3000 for something I didn’t even plan to charge for wasn’t an option.

Alpha seems too much like PC hardware, but I’d certainly be willing to
give it a try should send me an old Alpha box.

With MIPS, again, the issue is price. I’ve always respected the quality of
SGI hardware, so I’d definitely set one up if one were donated.

StrongARM is decent. I even researched this a bit; I can get an ATX
motherboard from the UK with a 233 mhz StrongARM for about 310 quid. Not too bad.

But short of all of that, I had a nice Amiga 4000 with a 66 mhz 68060, 64
bit ram, and wide ultra SCSI on board. Now what impresses me about this
hardware is that I’ve run it constantly. When I went to New Orleans last
year during the summer, I left it in the apartment, running, while the
temperatures were up around 100 degrees. When I came back, it was
fine. Not a complaint.

That’s the way it’s always been with all of my Amigas. I plug them in,
they run; when I’m done, I turn off the monitor. So when I was considering
what computer to use as a server when I’d be paying for a burstable 10
Mbps colocation, I wanted something that would be stable and consistent.

 Hence Amiga.

One of my users, after reading your letter (and, I guess, Jerry’s),
thought that I should mention the load average of the server; I assume
this is because of the indirectly stated assumption that a 66 mhz 68060 is
just squeaking by. To clarify that, a 66 mhz 68060 is faster per mhz than
any Pentium by a measurable margin when using either optimised code (such as a distributed.net client) or straight compiled code (such as LAME). We get about 25,000 hits a day, for a total of about 200 megs a day, which accounts for one e

ighth of one percent of the CPU time. We run as a Stratum 2 time server for several hundred computers, we run POP and IMAP services, sendmail, and we’re the primary nameserver for perhaps a hundred machines. With a distributed.net client running, our load average hovers arount 1.18, which means that without the dnet client, we’d be idle most of the time.

If that weren’t good enough, NetBSD 1.5 (we’re running 1.4.2) has a much
improved virtual memory system (UVM), improvements and speedups in the TCP stack (and complete IPv6 support), scheduler enhancements, good softdep support in the filesystem (as if two 10k rpm 18 gig IBM wide ultra drives aren’t fast enough), and more.

In other words, things are only going to get better.

The other question you raise (sort of) is why Linux gets so much more
attention than the BSD flavors. I’m still trying to figure that one
out. Part of it is probably due to the existance of Red Hat and
Caldera and others. FreeBSD gets some promotion from Walnut
Creek/BSDi, but one only has to look at the success of Slackware to
see how that compares.

It’s all hype; people love buzz words, and so a cycle begins: people talk
about Linux, companies spring up to provide Linux stuff, and people hear
more and talk more about Linux.

It’s not a bad thing; anything that moves the mainstream away from
Microsoft is good. However, the current trend in Linux is not good. Red
Hat (the company), arguably the biggest force in popularising Linux in the
US, is becoming less and less like Linux and more and more like a software company. They’re releasing unstable release after unstable release with no apologies. Something I said a little while ago, and someone has been using as his quote in his email:
In the Linux world, all of the major distributions have become
companies. How much revenue would Red Hat generate if their product was flawless? How much support would they sell?

I summarise this by saying that it is no longer in their best interest to
have the best product. It appears to be sufficient to have a working
product they can use to “ride the wave” of popularity of Linux.

I used Linux for a long time, but ultimately I was always frustrated with
the (sometimes significant) differences between the distributions, and
sometimes the differences between versions of the same distribution. Why
was it that an Amiga running AmigaDOS was more consistent with Apache and Samba docs than any particular Linux? Where was Linux sticking all of
these config files, and why wasn’t there documentation saying where the
stuff was and why?

When I first started using BSD, I fell in love with its consistency, its
no bull attitude towards ports and packa
ges, and its professional and
clean feel. Needless to say, I don’t do much linux anymore.

It may well be due to the people involved. Linus Torvalds is a
likeable guy, a smart guy, easily identifiable by a largely computer
illiterate press as an anti-Gates. And he looks the part. Bob Young is
loud and flambouyant. Caldera’s the company that sued Microsoft and probably would have won if it hadn’t settled out of court. Richard
Stallman torques a lot of people off, but he’s very good at getting
himself heard, and the GPL seems designed at least in part to attract
attention. The BSD license is more free than the GPL, but while
freedom is one of Stallman’s goals, clearly getting attention for his
movement is another, and in that regard Stallman succeeds much more than the BSD camp. The BSD license may be too free for its own good.

Yes, there aren’t many “figureheads” for BSD; most of the ones I know of
don’t complain about Linux, whereas Linux people often do complain about the BSD folks (the major complaint being the license).

I know Jerry pays more attention to Linux than the BSDs partly because Linux has a bigger audience, but he certainly knows more about Linux than about any other Unix. Very soon after he launched his website, a couple of Linux gurus (most notably Moshe Bar, himself now a Byte columnist) started corresponding with him regularly, and they’ve made Linux a reasonably comfortable place for him, answering his questions and getting him up and going.

So then it should be their responsibility, as Linux advocates, to give
Jerry a slightly more complete story, in my opinion.

As for the rest of the press, most of them pay attention to Linux only because of the aforementioned talking heads. I have a degree in journalism from supposedly the best journalism school in the free world, which gives me some insight into how the press works (or doesn’t, as is usually the case). There are computer journalists who get it, but a g

ood deal of them are writing about computers for no reason in particular, and their previous job and their next job are likely to be writing about something else. In journalism, if three sources corroborate something, you can treat it as fact. Microsoft-sympathetic sources are rampant, wherever you are. The journalist probably has a Mac sympathy since there’s a decent chance that’s what he uses. If he uses a Windows PC, he may or may not realize it. He’s probably heard of Unix, but his chances of having three local Unix-sympathetic sources to use consistently are fairly slim. His chances of having three Unix-sympathetic sources who agree enough for him to treat what they say as fact (especially if one of his Microsofties contradicts it) are probably even more slim.

Which furthers my previous point: Jerry’s Linux friends should be more
complete in their advocacy.

Media often seems to desire to cater to the lowest common denominator, but it is refreshing to see what happens when it doesn’t; I can’t stand US
news on TV, but I’ll willingly watch BBC news, and will often learn more
about US news than if I had watched a US news program.

But I think that part of the problem, which is compounded by the above, is
that there are too many journaists that are writing about computers,
rather than computer people writing about computers.

After all, which is more presumptuous: a journaist who thinks that he/she
can enter the technical world of computing and write authoritatively about
it, or a computer person who attempts to be a part time journalist? I’d
prefer the latter, even if it doesn’t include all of the accoutrements
that come from the writings of a real journalist.

And looking at the movement as a whole, keep in mind that journalists look for stories. Let’s face it: A college student from Finland writing an operating system and giving it away and millions of people thinking it’s better than Windows is a big story. And let’s face it, RMS running
around looking like John the Baptist extolling the virtues of something called Free Software is another really good story, though he’d get a lot more press if he’d talk more candidly about the rest of his life, since that might be the hook that gets the story. Can’t you see this one now?

Yes. Both of those stories would seem much more interesting than, “It’s
been over three years and counting since a remote hole was found in
OpenBSD”, because it’s not sensationalistic, nor is it interesting, nor
can someone explain how you might end up running OpenBSD on your
appliances (well, you might, but the fact that it’s secure means that it’d
be as boring as telling you why your bathtub hasn’t collapsed yet).

Richard Stallman used to keep a bed in his office at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab.

He slept there. He used the shower down the hall. He didn’t have a home outside the office. It would have distracted him from his cause: Giving away software.

Stallman founded the Free Software movement in 1983. Regarded by many as the prophet of his movement (and looking the part, thanks to his long, unkempt hair and beard), Stallman is both one of its most highly regarded programmers and perhaps its most outspoken activist, speaking at various functions around the world.

Linux was newsworthy, thanks to the people behind it, way back in 1993 when hardly anyone was using it. Back then, they were the story. Now, they can still be the story, depending on the writer’s approach.

If there are similar stories in the BSD camp, I’m not aware of them. (I can tell you the philosophical differences between OpenBSD,  NetBSD and FreeBSD and I know a little about the BSD directory structure, but that’s where my knowledge runs up against its limits. I’d say I’m more familiar with BSD than the average computer user but that’s not saying much.) But I can tell you my editor would have absolutely eaten this up. After he or she confirmed it wasn’t fiction.

The history is a little dry; the only “juicy” part is where Berkeley had
to deal with a lawsuit from AT&T (or Bell Labs; I’m not doing my research
here) before they could make their source free.

Nowadays, people are interested because a major layer of Mac OS X is BSD, and is taken from the FreeBSD and NetBSD source trees. Therefore, millions of people who otherwise know nothing about BSD or its history will end up running it when Mac OS X Final comes out in January; lots of people already are running Mac OS X Beta, but chances are good that the people who bought the Beta know about the fact that it’s running on BSD.

And it’s certainly arguable that BSD is much more powerful and robust than Windows 2000. So there’s a story for you. Does that answer any of your question?

Yes; I hope I’ve clarified my issues, too.

Neat site! I’ll have to keep up on it.

John Klos