Sunday, February 04, 2007

From Linux to OS X

I just read the announcement announcing free device driver development by kernel developers. My only surprise has been why it took so long for anybody to get tackle the root of the issue and articulate the solution so well. It also took me on a trip of nostalgia.

I've been involved with Linux and open source since 1999 (about the time I started my engg), when my friend first installed Redhat 5.2 "Apollo" on my new computer from a PCQuest CD. I then discovered that the X Windows didn't work because I had a notorious video card - SiS 6326. At that time, I found out that the college server (www.pes.edu domain) was administered by students, and hence I met Kalyan Varma and Sushanth and they introduced me to Linux India and BLUG. I found out over LI lists that I wasn't the only one having an SiS hangover, and there was a lot of traffic created by 2 SiS cards - 6326 and 6215c. Redhat 6.1 was released along with PCQ November 1999 issue and one of the tricks that somebody had discovered for getting X on the SiS card was to specify the card as "Diamond Speedstar A50" (a google search tells me that the advice is still online ), and it worked ! I quickly became the "SiS expert" - getting X configured on the PESIT lab comps and friends' computers. I knew the XF86Config file inside out, but all that changed when the new X11 version (version 4 ?) was introduced.

In the meantime, I wasn't sitting idle. I became the master of the shell - I read man pages with enthusiasm, discovered arcane options to arcane commands, and kept screwing up the comp time and again. Did you know that mailing your hard-disk to yourself could (atleast on RH6.1) overwrite the partition ? Or that the fastest way of (unsafely) rebooting a comp is yes > /dev/mem and the fastest way of shutting down the comp is shutdown -nh now ? Did you know that by chattr /.fastboot, fsck doesn't run on startup .... ever ? I used Debian Potato as my OS with WindowMaker as window manager for more than a year. Go figure :)

Anyway, I also found out that my sound card wasn't working. Those were the early days of ALSA and the traditional sound system was OSS. Getting ALSA going meant recompiling the kernel and all the related headaches. I learnt more about internals of an operating system by messing around with Linux than by reading any book or attending any course. Seriously. It helped me tremendously in my job at Netscaler - I was the first to use kernel modules to develop code, I was the first to use Evolution 1.4 to connect to Exchange server, I was the first to use Linux in Asia-ops for development, I was probably the 2nd to use (X)Emacs in the entire company.... I was the first to use rsync to sync source code from my development machine to the compilation boxes... I was definitely the first to use remote X instead of VNC... I was also the first developer to install and configure BIND, DJBDNS, Squid and Tux kernel accelerated HTTP server on my test-bed. My proficiency with Apache configuration file meant that porting and maintaining of an Apache 2.0 module (mod_ipmagic) was thrust upon me !

All in all, it was incredible fun ... "fun" defined in a perverse way. The biggest difference I found with Linux from Windows was that easy things were difficult, difficult things were also difficult. All you had to do was set it up once (and that took weeks of reading man pages, mailing list archives, /usr/share/doc documentation) and it ran like clockwork. In Windows, easy things were very trivial, but difficult things were impossible.

When I was about to start my MBA, I was looking for something that would just work, for simple use as well as power use. I didn't want to compile kernel modules or edit configuration files. A lot of Linux distros are almost there - Ubuntu, Suse ... but the gulf between "almost there" to actually being there is pretty wide. Not wanting to get into a mess with Windows, I looked out and found the ideal OS for me. Mac OS X. It has its limitations, but so far, its greatest feature is that it doesn't interfere with my work. Apple has been consistent in its innovations and more importantly, getting the innovations simple enough for people to use it. I bet ya the next version of OS X will overwhelm Vista - watch out !

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