All posts by chris

Displaying Your Terminal Sessions

We are used to terminal sessions displayed like any other content, i.e. as a video of some kind. The latter comes with two caveats, though. It uses a lot of bandwidth (compared to the actual terminal session) and is often difficult to read. Because many people do not bother to magnify the terminal either during the actual presentation or as part of the post-processing.

A very interesting alternative, especially for blog posts, is asciinema. It works on Linux, macOS and various BSD flavors. What it basically does is open a special shell (Bash-like) that simply records all keystrokes (plus the responses) in a VT-100 compatible format. So you end up with a small text file that can be replayed using a JavaScript snippet.

In addition to using the hosted instance, that supports sharing in multiple ways, you can also run your own server via Docker. For all the details, please go to the website.

You are not faster with an 80% solution

When the schedule is tight for a software development project, one of the first things non-technical people contemplate, is reducing quality and/or scope and go for an 80% solution. This can work but only under particular circumstances.

A recent discussion I had with some folks was about such a situation. A very tight deadline had been issued by senior management and multiple departments had to collaborate on a solution that spawned multiple parts of the organizations and their core IT systems. Those systems (think about something like ERP and CRM) have a multitude of connections, grown over many years without governance, but not for the data that were required now.

The people were all quite supportive and a constructive discussion took off. Not surprisingly, finding a common language took some time. Especially so because only after a while did we realize that in several cases the same term had a different meaning. In the end there was a particular detail where no obvious solution was available.

I was responsible for the technical implementation on one of the two systems involved. My counterpart on the business side and I discussed various options and and eventually he came up with the idea to just safe time by going for the 80% solution. We talked about a number of aspects and it soon became clear to me that this would actually require more time than to just “do it properly”.

This sounds, at the very least, counter-intuitive for most people. So let me illustrate my point with a non-technical equivalent. Many years ago I had to prepare for my then-boss a list with press clippings every day. It basically meant to go through a long list, that was created automatically, and remove everything he was not interested in. This was quite time-consuming and he was genuinely surprised when he found out.

His statement then was “Why do you need so much time, it is only 20 of the 200 articles that are relevant”. That was of course correct. But what he had not thought about was that I had to go through the list of all 200 articles and check some in more detail than just looking at the headline. So it did not really make a difference whether I cut the list down to 100 or 60 or 20 articles, the time required stayed more or less the same. He agreed on the point and quite soon decided there was better use for my time.

It is exactly the same with taking shortcuts during a technical implementation. The easy part is to decide that you want to cut 20% off the next release. But things get tricky when it comes to deciding which 20% to skip without any undesired side-effects. In order to be able to do that, you need to understand in depth what the consequences would be. So quite often you spend more time trying to understand potential ramifications for various scenarios, than it would take to simply do it properly right from the start.

And that is only the beginning of the problem. You need to document the results of your analysis really carefully, if you want to be sure that nothing is missed when the first code change is required. Even a seemingly minor bug fix has an increased potential to break something if the current overall solution is built on a set of assumptions. And adding enhancements or new features will be even more “fun”. Because people have to read through all the documentation and also understand it. Together this is a time-consuming task with considerable risk to still overlook something (or hit an edge-case that was not documented).

But in reality this documentation does not exist anyway because you wanted to save time in the first place. And detailed documentation is not exactly supportive here. So people throw in bits and pieces and you end up with a document that is typically even worse than most project documentation that is out there. So whoever has the pleasure to work on the code without having all the details in mind is really screwed. That includes you, by the way, because you will have forgotten most after only a few weeks.

The solution is usually a re-implementation because it is faster than to fix the broken code. Of course that re-implementation often needs additional logic to handle data migration for transactions that were completed with the 80% solution and now ruin your data quality. But hang on, that might just be 20% effort you can safe right now ….

Visual Studio Code and Bash on Windows

A while ago I started using Visual Studio Code and it is a great tool for many things. Primary use-cases for me are Chef recipes and SFDX at the moment, for both of which there are extensions in the VS Code marketplace. Also, I like to use Bash (the one that came with Git for Windows) in the terminal .

But at least on Windows (this seems to be different on Mac OS) some of the standard keyboard shortcuts for Bash are used by VS Code itself. Relevant for me personally were Ctrl-A, Ctrl-E, and Ctrl-K. To make bash usable for me, I had to “undefine” those shortcuts in VS Code, but only for the terminal.

Here are the necessary additions to  keybindings.json :

// Place your key bindings in this file to overwrite the defaults

 { "key": "ctrl+a",
   "command": "",
   "when": "terminalFocus" },
 { "key": "ctrl+e",
   "command": "",
   "when": "terminalFocus" },
 { "key": "ctrl+k",
   "command": "",
   "when": "terminalFocus" },
Hope that helps!

Linux and Me

Although it is not a focal point of my professional live any more, Linux and I share a long common history. My first encounter was with “S.u.S.E. Linux August 1995″ (kernel 1.1.12) in October or November of 1995. Until then I had only played around a bit with MINIX 1.5 on a  80286-based PC. But it had been a bit of a disappointment for me and I never really got into things.

This changed dramatically with Linux. I spent many hours trying to get a setup with X11 (only FVWM2 was available as window manager then) to work. This was not as easy as today. There was no, or very little, support from YaST, the setup tool of SuSE. And one had to be careful with the monitor (CRT of course) configuration. Because too high frequencies could physically damage your monitor. I never used the system to actually perform any work, it was solely for learning.

This changed with SuSE 4.4 and even more so with SuSE 6.1. I do not remember the exact dates, but SuSE 6.1 was installed in late 1997 when I ran my own small company as a “side-project” to my university studies. But since the company was highly successful, I soon used things like HylaFax on Linux and of course also ran my local mail server (sendmail can be a challenge, especially when Google does not exist yet). There even was a dial-in modem for terminal connections.

What I always disliked about SuSE, was that the updates from one version to another never really worked for me. So in about 2002 I finally decided to switch to Debian Woody (3.0). That was again a learning curve, but the apt packaging system was vastly superior to what I had seen on SuSE before and I never had problems with upgrades. The experience gained then is also quite helpful these days for the Raspberry Pi.

Things continued with CentOS, Fedora, and Ubuntu – with the last two powering my company notebook for a short while back in 2008. But the experience was mixed and I never liked Linux as a general-purpose desktop operating system. I had used it extensively for writing LaTeX documents (using Xfig a lot for diagrams) during my university time. But other than that, for too many Windows (or later Mac) applications I never found a proper replacement.

But for servers Linux is definitely my preferred OS. And especially so because most of the innovations of the last years, like configuration management systems (e.g. Chef, Puppet, Ansible) and containers (e.g. Docker), came to live on Linux.

Ignoring Warnings in Log Files

I know that many people think along the lines of ignoring warnings in log files. But I am responsible for an environment where we  run applications that are sort-of business critical. So I need to take warnings seriously, especially if their wording is not really clear. The consequence is that any unnecessary warning causes operational problems. Because who can tell me, kind-of “written in blood”, that I can absolutely always and forever ignore this warning? Only in that case could I consider adding an exception to the log monitoring system and of course to the system documentation, the operations manual, etc. So for me, and from my consulting past I know many customer think the same, this is not just a small nuisance but a real issue.

On the other hand I have had many discussions with people who told me that I could just ignore this or that entry. In many cases it turned out after some discussion, that the log level was actually chosen badly and INFO would have been more appropriate. In that respect the semantics of the commonly used log levels deserve a closer look. Here are two good links (link 1, link2) for definitions. When I first read them, my initial thought was that I might have overreached with the first paragraph of this post. But looking at the example from link 1 about WARN a bit closer, I think my concerns are still valid.

So what can be done? Reality is that you rarely have the ability to get a log statement changed. So you do need a scalable approach to deal with log messages that you consciously choose to ignore. It involves primarily two things: Firstly, you need to have documentation why the decision was made that a given log message is not critical. Secondly, there should be an automated link with your log file monitoring system, that configures an exception in it. Depending on your business this whole area might also be regulated, so the legal side may very well play a role as well. But that is outside the scope of this post.

I know this post is not really actionable, but still wanted to share my thoughts.


Starting with Continuous Integration

In this post I look at things to consider when an organization wants to introduce Continuous Integration (CI). As in so many other situations the non-technical challenges are more difficult to solve than some nitty-gritty details.

Start Small Right Now

If ever there was a place for the proverb “the better is the enemy of the good” it is here. Waiting days, weeks, or months because you have not sorted out all details is the worst you can do. Instead you should start immediately by just installing a CI server (Jenkins is the de facto standard) and set up a simple job that does nothing but check out the source code from the VCS and compile it.

More advanced stuff like test automation, setting up delivery pipelines, integration with binary repositories like Artifactory or Nexus is not needed in the beginning.

Agile Automatically?

Most development teams that have not used CI so far are probably operating in a more or less non-agile fashion. That is fine and can stay as it is! Because while CI is virtually a prerequisite for agile development, that does absolutely not mean that teams following a waterfall model will not benefit considerably from CI.

So establishing CI can but does not have to be the first step of moving towards agile development. In fact I would argue that introducing CI is a large-enough step for an existing development organization. Only when this has been “digested”, you should think about moving towards agile. Otherwise too many things would be changed in parallel, similar to combining a new release of your own software with an upgrade of the underlying platform, e.g. the database server.

Frequency of Builds

This is the only part where I strongly recommend that you start at full throttle. What I mean by that is that you resist the temptation to run your builds only once a day or even less frequently. Ideally, every commit into the VCS triggers a build via a post-commit hook (here is more information for Git and Subversion). But polling the VCS every e.g. 10 minutes is a good-enough approximation in most cases. And it is also a little bit easier to set up when you just start on the whole topic.

Why am I so adamant on this particular point? I think that almost-instant feedback is at the very core of CI and the only way to deliver it is by running the build. All the points below change the amount of details that are provided or reduce the risk of introducing bugs into the code. But this hugely powerful feeling you get after your first commit triggers a build, is the important aspect for successful adoption in my view.

Test Automation

Start with “compilation works” as the lowest common denominator. When you want to start adding the use of “proper” test frameworks, feel free to do so. But is nothing you need on day one.

When you are ready to do more, you need to focus on those parts of your code that are most relevant for the business. Resist the temptation of striving for large test coverage of your code for the sake of it (having a KPI on this is a really bad idea). Otherwise people will start writing test for trivial helper functions, testing which on their own is of low relevance.

Instead take the critical parts of the business logic and develop a way to test them end-to-end (if possible without the GUI yet). With this approach you will implicitly cover all the lower-level stuff underneath automatically. Unless you have someone on your team with practical experience on integration testing frameworks (e.g. Citrus), I would not start with a full-blown approach but rather develop a few custom scripts.

The point in time when to start with more advanced topics, especially automated performance tests, depends on your individual situation and I will not make recommendations about it here. But what you should do as soon as possible, is read up on the subject and get an understanding about the different types of test and what they are good for. You do not need to implement everything now, but this will allow you to make informed judgements about the path you choose.

In Closing

You should now have an idea how to get started with CI quickly and in a way that delivers positive results pretty much from day one. Gaining traction in the organization should be your first priority in the beginning. There is a widespread misconception that things like CI, while theoretically the right to do, slow developers down. Nothing could be further from the truth. But unless you fight this impression fiercely, sooner or later management will ask for by-passing that “nice new thing” and get code out of the code faster using the old way.

Related posts:

How to Implement Test-Driven Development

Test-Driven Development (TDD) is something I have long had difficulties with. Not because I consider it a bad concept, but found it very difficult to start doing. In hindsight it appears that the advice given in the respective books and online articles was not suitable. So here is the approach that finally worked for me.

It boils down to deviating from the pure doctrine. Instead of writing a test before starting on a new piece of code, I start with the actual code right away. Yes, that violates the core principle, although only for a while. But I have found that in most cases my understanding of the problem is still somewhat vague when I start working on it. So for my brain it is better if I do not have to split its capacity between solving the actual problem and thinking about how to devise a proper test and what all that means for the structure of the future code.

Once the initial version of the working code is there and manually validated, I do add the test. From then on I am in a position to refactor the code without the risk of breaking something. And of course this refactoring is needed because the first version of any code is never really good. While you could write “better” initial code, this would require spending more time upfront than you otherwise need for refactoring later. And it also ignores the fact that you only really understand the problem, when you have finished implementing the solution.

What I later realized was that my approach also helped me to write more testable code. But instead of consciously having to work on it, this sneaked in as a by-product of my modified way of doing TDD. For me this is a more natural way of learning and the results are typically better than following some formal approach.