Blog Archive

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay


I've recently read up on Docker and the coming integration with the next Windows Server. Docker, generally speaking, is a framework to encapsulate server-applications and their dependencies into containers and orchestrate their deployment. I have a limited experience with a more client-oriented but similar concept: application virtualization, where you create a package that contains all the files, registry keys and whatnot that make up a program and deliver it to a client to run. The benefit of both solutions is that you don't have to install an application in the static conventional manner, but instead leave it packaged. When there's an update you install it once into your package and the redeploy that centrally, without having to touch the machines that run it. You also don't have to uninstall, as it was never really installed in the first place. Through encapsulation, dependencies like specific versions of Java are bundles up with the applications themselves and do not collide with whatever else you're running. That's a good thing.

Both technologies make a lot of sense for many scenarios, especially when it comes to large deployments. However in my personal experience, I've never seen them applied. In many environments, there is a multitude of very specific applications that the operational tech department (maybe even outsourced) has only a vague understanding of and only does the first few levels of support, but leaves deeper issues to the vendors' support teams. When you introduce a technology that directly affects the application you're running, vendors will always point to that first when there's an issue that isn't transparent, i.e. "it runs fine with others customers and they don't use this technology". Some vendors go as far as explicitly not supporting the deployment of their programs in this way because their developers have no idea about these technologies, did not verify them and can't greenlight their use. From a dev standpoint, it takes a lot of QA effort to actually test applications in this additional way, and if there is not an explicit request from many or important customers, they won't make that investment and take the risk. Instead it is recommended to somehow automate the conventional installation.

The moment you're not installing applications the conventional way, your systems are the first that will be second-guessed. You introduce a new source of uncertainty and thus risk into a layer that is usually no concern for conventional IT. I have made the experience that although it makes a lot of sense to deploy applications both server- and client-sided to a network in this manner, customers will most often refuse because it makes things more complicated and risky. Instead they will much rather have you create a new virtual server to run this service, which of course means more overhead. For the person managing the IT budget, it is easier to ask for more hardware to run additional systems (CEOs can understand that) than to spend more budget on application-related services (creating the containers). Solving software problems with hardware solutions has always been popular. 
Of course this seems bad for service providers, as budgets chunks go to hardware vendors instead, but often customer satisfaction seems higher if they don't need to wrap their head around new concepts and instead invest in something they can both understand and touch. Also service providers are also happy to comply, because new hardware means new licenses (operating systems, SQL, backup...) and thus more revenue for them. The technologically best solution is not always in the best interest of IT service providers.

Therefore, Docker-like containers and application virtualization are two technologies that I would like to use more often in my line of work, but apparently doing it the conventional way requires less know-how and is more easily sold to the customers. For cloud providers this is very different of course, there I can see these methods much more readily applied.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Grand Theft Auto 5 on PC


First released in 2013, GTA5 has finally made it onto the PC this month. You could either download the 60GB or buy the boxed seven DVDs and still download 5GB of updates from completely overloaded servers that left many unable to start the game on release day. After these idiotic hurdles however, the PC version worked surprisingly good for me, gone are the popups and missing textures of the predecessor. It runs perfectly smooth and while it's not as pretty as the linear shooters of recent months, it looks fine.


Like the previous titles, GTA5 is huge and offers loads of side activities to endulge in, but is at its best when you're doing the missions and get involved with the ensemble of characters. The gameplay hasn't changed much when compared to GTA4, but then again it doesn't have to. There's now cover based combat, but if you've played any other GTA title, you'll instantly get going. What bugged me most about GTA4 was that although the characters were the over the top silly parody characters that make the franchise so great, Liberty City was the most boring thing they could do. I was worried that the return to their Westcoast Metropolis would be equally uninspired, but was positively surprised. The drive to the rural outskirts takes up a little too much time, but both the desert and the green landscapes are a welcome contrast to the city.

The biggest twist might be the deviation from a single protagonist to three: upstart thug Franklin, professional bankrobber Michael and the psychopathic wreck that is Trevor play surprisingly well together and are all interesting, it's only until later in the game that the dynamic trio looses their edge when Franklin becomes less relevant to the story. Switching between the three works great though and really gives you a feeling that you're just a small part of this large environment. In regards to the story, the delivery is consistently perfect, but the writing left the ending somewhat anticlimactic and starts several threads that don't go anywhere (Tanisha, Simeon).

What didn't quite work out as well as I thought is the first person perspective due to the very limited field of view, even when set to the maximum. It makes the whole experience more immersive, but it's not really practical. However, when you just need to get from one place to another, there is nothing more amazing than getting a superbike, switching to first person and racing there at breakneck speed.
The radio stations turned out as great as always, of course I put in some extreme metal at "Self Radio", but I often found myself listening to Soulwax, Channel X and some of the others. When you're flying a fighter jet and "Danger Zone" comes on, you just HAVE to try a few idiotic stunts and when you're driving a speedboat at sunset and Phil Collins comes on, it feels just a little like Vice City.


So all in all, GTA5 does a great many things right and while it could have been even better with a more conclusive writing, it delivers an atmospheric trip through the most authentic world in any videogame yet. It took me roughly five days of doing nothing much else to finish the main story and several of the sidequests, and I was well entertained through almost all of it.
GTA5 is also the basis for GTA Online, which takes place on the same stage as the singleplayer game. In GTAO, you get to fight and race other players and run heists together. I've only played a little of that and while I don't intend to spend too much time on it, it's pretty much a standalone title that comes bundled with the game. So if you don't have any idea what to do with the loads of spare time you have, GTA5/GTA Online is a fun non-productive way to spend a gross of hours.

[Update 25.04.:] There is a good part that is only available online, including races and heists that would work just was well in singleplayer. I think it would have been better if Rockstar had made this content available for the story mode as well.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Soundtrack to the Antisphere

Gruesome - Savage Land [2015] []
The "Death to All" Tour, which plays Death songs and features former band members as well as genre-pros from Malevolent Creation and Exhumed, spawned this project. Both the cover (by Ed Repka of course) and the songs are intentionally very reminiscent of Death's Leprosy. Thus, you get eight tracks plus two covers (Death+Slayer) of competent late 80s/early 90s Florida Death Metal, attentively recreated in every detail. And while Gruesome succeed to emulate the tone of Leprosy and Scream Bloody Gore (and in some songs Spiritual Healing), there is one thing you can't recreate, and that is the writing genius of Chuck Schuldiner himself. It's an enjoyable record that brings an abandoned sound back to life and pays a dignified tribute to their idol, but it lacks the instant hook you got from the classics.


Sulphur Aeon - Gateway To The Antisphere [2015] []
And they said Death Metal was stagnant. Sulphur Aeon from Germany have only been around since 2010, but their second full length release feels as refined as the latest Behemoth album, which is also an approximate description of their sound. There is a bit of Hypocrisy-like melodies sitting on top of the crushing heavyness of their vocals and instrumental parts, like a gleaming fringe of foam atop a towering wave. Thankfully, the guys from NRW never abandon their songs for pointless droning or instrumental masturbation, instead every part works for the respective track. There are heavier, more technical and more atmospheric albums, but few find a competent balance between all three aspects like Gateway to the Antisphere. One of the best releases of this year so far and an urgent recommendation for all Death Metal folks.


Trudger - Dormiveglia [2014] []
The Brits from Trudger have released their first full record Dormiveglia on bandcamp for "pay whatever you want". The album starts out as a post-something doom ambient album, but quickly turns into a heavy sludge doom metal beast. Black Cobra comes to mind, however Trudger feel a bit darker and harsher than the slightly polished former band. There's also a small resemblance from death/black metal as played by Mutilation Rites or Tombs. However as opposed to Sulphur Aeon, this doesn't feel as professional yet. There are some parts that feel like filler material, and there is still development necessary in terms of the vocals and riffs. Nevertheless, for a debut album, Dormiveglia does rather well and if this young band keeps at it, they might put out some killer records in the future.


The Chasm - Farseeing The Paranormal Abysm [2009] []
This is another Death Metal Record and I have to admit that I struggle with it quite a bit. The reason is that it starts out as this atmospheric, heavy, enchanting, complex yet tight dynamic masterpiece, but dulls down considerably in the end. I had never heard of this Mexican/American band and was quite impressed for the first songs, but it lost me somewhere later on. The greatness comes from playing heavy material at high speed with a great production that lies somewhere between Vexovoid and Altars of Madness. The weaker parts are when the band slows down and tries its hand at a more majestic tone and pace in 11min songs, which doesn't quite work out. If you were to cut this album down quite a bit, it would truly live up to the Morbid Angel comparison. I strongly recommend the first half of it.


Torche - Harmonicraft [2012] []
So much for the brutal grim trve kvlt death metal, here's a record with pink and rainbows on the cover! I had lost interest in Torche after the great Meanderthal when their album covers started to look like this, but Torche's core values brought me back to this: Super-downtuned guitars in fast, fun songs, and while I wouldn't call it pop sludge, it's a joyful heavy rock album. Highlights include the title track, Walk it off and most importantly the rampaging "let's play powercords as fast as we can" Sky Trials. Although their style has remained virtually unchanged, Harmonicraft doesn't quite reach the memorability of their first record, but it holds a number of good songs. If winter is Mayhem season, then spring is Torche season. Recommendation for anyone who can't quite get into the previous albums of this article. 


Further listening:
Crystal Age - Far Beyond Divine Horizons: I need to stop listening to albums because of their coverart.
Timeghoul - Discography: Doesn't go anywhere. 
Fates Warning - The Spectre Within: Made me reconsider my opinion of the band in a positive way.
Nas - Illmatic: Sure it's good, but not as perfect as it's made out to be.
Metalwave compilation - Altars of Synthness: FUN!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Frontlines


I'm a sucker for military Sci-Fi in the vein of Starship Troopers, Old Men's War or The Forever War. Two such novels are Terms of Enlistment and Lines of Departure by Marko Kloos, who comprise the first two novels of his "Frontlines" series. As usually, our protagonist joins the military, goes through bootcamp, makes some friends and enemies and rises through the ranks, all against a backdrop of an interstellar military conflict. The North American Commonwealth is up against its own rioting impoverished population at home and the Russian/Chinese troops in the terraformed colonies, when an unyielding alien civilization bursts onto the scene and mercilessly takes over one colony after the other. The space military is caught between brittle support from home, an equal human enemy and superior alien hostiles at the same time.

Both novels aren't exactly original, but well crafted snacks for genre-fans. Marko Kloos was both a soldier and an IT-guy and it shows, the picture he paints of the processes and procedures the protagonist is subjected to feel more insightful than in most other novels. Just the simple fact that all systems can be controlled remotely through a computer network instead of there being terminals the hero has to run to is a welcome burst of sensibility.
However, this notion of pseudo-realism with the smart treatment of technology and the bureaucratic apparatus clash with the simplistic trajectory of the protagonists career. It feels like the hurdles are overcome too easily, that our hero succeeds with little effort. There is also very little to his character, the biggest card he plays is the escape from poverty, but what fascinated me so much about Starship Troopers, the main character's realization that his personality (not just his status) has changed and how he deals with it, is completely absent here. Kloos is competent in describing the environment the characters are in, but he focuses so much on the backdrop that it drowns out the characters, which is fine for some stories, but the point of a story like this is how an individual is lost in the vastness of a conflict while still maintaining his personal view and character. If you can't hold onto the identity of a character in the colossal dimensions of space war, the reader is washed away.

The premise especially of the second book is that humanity is on the ropes, one of the major reasons I wanted to read this. However in the interest of variation, the author chooses to drop his protagonist into different scenarios on each deployment - close combat against rioting civilians, battle against the Russians/Chinese, then battle against the aliens, then mutiny in their own ranks, then the aliens again, etc. Such alternating threads works well enough in a long and sequential format like a TV show, but given the limited length of both books, it is disruptive enough to seemingly diminish the importance of either conflict. What is meant to present problems on every front reduces the weight of each struggle.

Thus, the two Frontline books are entertaining genre fiction and do many things right, but they are too impersonal to leave a lasting impression. I enjoyed reading both novels, but I probably won't look into the third of the series.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Better Call Saul


In the fantastic Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) was introduced as a shady showman of a lawyer with surprising competence in shoving his dubious customers through legal loopholes. In the last two months, the character has become the protagonist of his own spin-off "Better Call Saul", which serves as a prequel to the events of Breaking Bad from the perspective of "Saul" and his (later) associates. The first season of ten episodes just finished and because of the great critical reception and large viewership (largest series premier in US cable TV history), a second one is scheduled for next year.

Prequels always suffer from the foregone conclusions inherent to them, but so far the show lets you forget that completely. Under his real name James "Jimmy" McGill, "Saul" is a struggling public defender with little experience, even less credibility and a personal history of fraud. He slowly becomes entangled in bigger cases, but is constantly overshadowed by the law firm of his older brother (Michael McKean, yes the guy from Spinal Tap). He also gets in contact with Mike (Jonathan Banks), whose background is revealed (in an episode equal to Ozymandias).
"Better Call Saul" feels like Breaking Bad in terms of the looks and style and even if you didn't know the connection, you'd associate the two looks. Which is a good thing. To my surprise, the show has its own identity and legitimacy without grappling too hard for the huge Breaking Bad crowd. It is also much more serious than some of the marketing leads you to believe. Odenkirk does a fantastic job at portraying his character and the series is done with the competency one expects from Vince Gilligan. 
There is still lots of build-up necessary to bring the character they've presented in the first season to where he is when Walter White and Jesse Pinkman meet him and the real challenge they have brought upon themselves is finding a proper balance between moving forward without too much filler and having a proper development for Saul/Jimmy. If they pick up the pace in the following season(s), this show will step out of the gigantic shadow Breaking Bad has cast over it.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Cyanogenmod 11 on Huawei Ascend Y201 Pro


I've only ever owned one smartphone, a Huawei Ascend Y201 Pro (U8666E) for 99 EUR (at the time). It is far from the fancy flagship phones many people spend a small fortune on but I don't use it much and don't need a golden plated phablet as a status symbol. This phone came with Android 4.0 and a bunch of bloatware (Google Hangouts, Facebook, etc.). Because of the lack of updates and speed, I decided to switch over to Cyanogenmod, probably the most popular free (as in free beer) Android fork for smartphones. The latest available version for the U8666E system uses the 4.4.4 "KitKat" version of Android - Cyanogenmod 11.

I found some useful guides for the individual steps of the process, but had to piece together what I needed from several places, especially when it came to finding the correct package files. I could re-do the whole thing in less than one hour, on my first attempt it took me about four. Here is essentially what I did, summarized in logical order and leaving out the dead ends:


Step One
I prepared a microSD card with the Cyanogenmod "cm-11-20141031-UNOFFICIAL-u8666E.zip" file (had to re-download because the file from the French mirror was broken), the CWM package "recovery-clockwork-6.0.5.0-aries-20140718-signed.zip" (see step four) and the gapps package "pa_gapps-modular-micro-4.4.4-20140629-signed.zip", (see step six). I installed the Android SDK on my PC to have access to the adb CLI tool later on. 

Step Two
I got root access, unlocked the bootloader and installed CWM, which is a recovery and installation environment sort of like a bootmanager. I followed this simple guide, but wasn't able to download the zip files because ul.to wouldn't let me, so I googled the filenames and found a download somewhere else. 

Step Three
Now that I had root access, I installed the free edition of TitaniumBackup and performed a full backup of all available options onto the SD card.

Step Four
I connected the phone to my PC via microUSB. Using the adb tool with parameters "reboot recovery" will get you into CWM. You can check if the device is found with adb devices, otherwise you'll need to install drivers I searched out. My CWM was in major release 5 and I found out you need at least version 6 to install Cyanogenmod 11, so I downloaded the version 6 release of CWM from here. Using the fastboot CLI tool with the flash parameter, I updated CWM from 5 to 6.

Step Five
I followed the steps as described here to remove the previous Android 4.0 operating system and installed from the Cyanogenmod 11 file. It would boot up fine and everything would work, and after tapping through the simple setup dialogue you could already tell how much the phone responded more quickly. However at this point, you don't have the regular Google Play Store available to install more applications. 

Step Six
I installed the gapps package from CWM, which is trivial. However after installing them, the Android keyboard would always crash and the known fixes (deleting application data/cache for it) didn't work. I then re-installed Cyanogenmod 11, and after the reboot the contents of the minimal gapps package were still there, but the keyboard was apparently set back to the C11 default version. 


With Cyanogenmod 11 up and running, I installed some of the apps I had before from the Google Play Store. I haven't had much time to use it much since then, but I am rid of all unnecessary applictions, have a more recent (and slightly more secure) operating system on my phone, the whole device feels noticeably faster and more responsive, it looks better than before and all my known apps are still working. I read that a few functions don't work in this combination, like tethering, but I never use that from my phone anyway. 
In summary: All my goals were met, my tiny smartphone was noticeably improved and I'm really glad I did this. Finding the correct working files to download was harder than understanding the process. If you have a basic technical understanding and an old Android phone, I recommend at least considering the switch to Cyanogenmod.