Agile Is Dead (Long Live Agility)

March 12th, 2014

In an intriguing post, PragDave laments how empty the word “agile” has become. To paraphrase, I might say he’s put words to a nagging feeling I’ve had: that there are entire books about agile, conferences about agile, hallway conversations I’ve heard about whether somebody is doing this-or-that agile practice correctly.

Which, when it comes down to it, means that they’re not being agile. If process and tools, even if they’re labeled as “agile” processes and tools, are king, then we’ve simply replaced one productivity-impairing dictator with another.

And he makes this bold statement:

Here is how to do something in an agile fashion:

What to do:

  • Find out where you are
  • Take a small step towards your goal
  • Adjust your understanding based on what you learned
  • Repeat

How to do it:

When faced with two or more alternatives that deliver roughly the same value, take the path that makes future change easier.

Those four lines and one practice encompass everything there is to know about effective software development.

He goes on to dive into that a bit, of course, but I think this man has a rare gift of expressing something complicated so succinctly. I am inclined to believe he is right.

Categories: Programming

4 Comments

Good all-day light laptop?

February 24th, 2014

I am trying to find a laptop with all-day battery life that’s fairly light. Perhaps I am dreaming too big here, but I thought I’d toss out my hopes and see if there are any recommendations.

I am hoping for:

  • Battery life around 9 hours powered up
  • Fairly light. 2 or 3 pounds would be good.
  • Small. 10″ to 12″ screen is fine.
  • CPU – needs to be something “real”. No ARM or Atom.
  • Storage – size is less important than performance.
  • Screen – resolution has to be better than 768 vertical lines.
  • Ideally, capable of running Debian well.

The point is that I want to be able to do general web browsing with a real browser (Firefox), run Thunderbird for mail, hopefully even be able to run a VM or two under KVM or VirtualBox (with the understanding that this will kill battery life).

I have been using a Thinkpad T420s for a couple of years now. Its battery life wasn’t great even when it was new, and is worse now, of course. An Asus TF700t tablet has great battery life, but the storage system in it is so slow that I rather suspect that the browser cache is hurting, not helping, performance.

I am also rather disappointed with the Android system. I can’t really develop for it with my usual tools. Enough components are closed that, like Windows or MacOS X, I can’t feel like I can truly trust it with sensitive data. Although it has SSH clients available, the SSH server there wants you to pay to use public key auth, and the SSH clients don’t work all that well. Git can work, sort of. Battery life is great, and the keyboard is fine, but even flashing a different OS won’t fix that terrible performance.

I’ve had people recommend certain Asus laptops, a Microsoft Surface Pro, or a Macbook Air. Any thoughts?

Categories: Uncategorized

32 Comments

Backing up every few minutes with simplesnap

February 13th, 2014

I’ve written a lot lately about ZFS, and one of its very nice features is the ability to make snapshots that are lightweight, space-efficient, and don’t hurt performance (unlike, say, LVM snapshots).

ZFS also has “zfs send” and “zfs receive” commands that can send the content of the snapshot, or a delta between two snapshots, as a data stream – similar in concept to an amped-up tar file. These can be used to, for instance, very efficiently send backups to another machine. Rather than having to stat() every single file on a filesystem as rsync has to, it sends effectively an intelligent binary delta — which is also intelligent about operations such as renames.

Since my last search for backup tools, I’d been using BackupPC for my personal systems. But since I switched them to ZFS on Linux, I’ve been wanting to try something better.

There are a lot of tools out there to take ZFS snapshots and send them to another machine, and I summarized them on my wiki. I found zfSnap to work well for taking and rotating snapshots, but I didn’t find anything that matched my criteria for sending them across the network. It seemed par for the course for these tools to think nothing of opening up full root access to a machine from others, whereas I would much rather lock it down with command= in authorized_keys.

So I wrote my own, called simplesnap. As usual, I wrote extensive documentation for it as well, even though it is very simple to set up and use.

So, with BackupPC, a backup of my workstation took almost 8 hours. (Its “incremental” might take as few as 3 hours) With ZFS snapshots and simplesnap, it takes 25 seconds. 25 seconds!

So right now, instead of backing up once a day, I back up once an hour. There’s no reason I couldn’t back up every 5 minutes, in fact. The data consumes less space, is far faster to manage, and doesn’t require a nightly hours-long cleanup process like BackupPC does — zfs destroy on a snapshot just takes a few seconds.

I use a pair of USB disks for backups, and rotate them to offsite storage periodically. They simply run ZFS atop dm-crypt (for security) and it works quite well even on those slow devices.

Although ZFS doesn’t do file-level dedup like BackupPC does, and the lz4 compression I’ve set ZFS to use is less efficient than the gzip-like compression BackupPC uses, still the backups are more space-efficient. I am not quite sure why, but I suspect it’s because there is a lot less metadata to keep track of, and perhaps also because BackupPC has to store a new copy of a file if even a byte changes, whereas ZFS can store just the changed blocks.

Incidentally, I’ve packaged both zfSnap and simplesnap for Debian and both are waiting in NEW.

Categories: Linux

Tags: , , , 8 Comments

Migrated from Hetzner to OVH hosting

February 7th, 2014

Since August 2011, my sites such as complete.org have been running on a Xen-backed virtual private server (VPS) at Hetzner Online, based in Germany. I had what they called their VQ19 package, which included 2GB RAM, 80GB HDD, 100Mb NIC and 4TB transfer.

Unlike many other VPS hosts, I never had performance problems. However, I did sometimes have hardware problems with the host, and it could take hours to resolve. Their tech support only works business hours German time, which was also a problem.

Meanwhile, OVH, a large European hosting company, recently opened a datacenter in Canada. Although they no longer offer their value-line Kimsufi dedicated servers there — starting at $11.50/mo — they do offer their midrange SoYouStart servers there. $50/mo gets a person a 4-core 3.2GHz Xeon server with 32GB RAM, 2x2TB SATA HDD, 200Mbps bandwidth. Not bad at all! The Kimsufi options are still good for lower-end needs as well.

I signed up for one of the SoYouStart servers. I’ve been pleased with my choice to migrate, and at the possibilities that having hardware like that at my disposal open up, but it is not without its downside.

The primary downside is lack of any kind of KVM console. If the server doesn’t boot, I can’t see the Grub error message (or whatever) behind it. They do provide hardware support and automatic technician dispatching when the server isn’t pingable, but… they state they have no KVM access at all. They support many OS flavors, and have a premade image for them, but there is no using a custom ISO to install; if you want ZFS on Linux, for instance, you can’t very easily build it into root.

My server was promised within 72 hours, but delivered much quicker: within about 1. I had two times they said they had to replace a motherboard within the first day; once they did it in 30 minutes, and the other took them 2.5 hours for some reason. They do have phone support, which answers almost immediately, but the people there are not the people actually in the datacenter. It was frustrating with a server down for hours and nobody really commenting on what was going on.

The server performs quite well, and after the initial issues, I’ve been happy.

I was initially planning an all-ZFS installation. SoYouStart does offer a rescue environment, but it doesn’t support ZFS, so I figured I better stick with an ext4 root at least. The default Debian install uses RAID1 on md-raid, with a 20GB root partition and the rest of the 2TB drive in /home, and then a swap partition on each drive (mysteriously NOT in the RAID!) So I broke the mirror on /home and converted those into the two legs of a mirrored vdev for a zpool.

I run all of the real work inside KVM VMs, so that should minimize the number of times I have to do anything to the root filesystem that could cause trouble.

SoYouStart includes 100GB of space on a separate FTP server for backup purposes. I have scripts that upload nightly tarballs of the root filesystem, plus full “zfs send” streams of everything else. Every hour, it uploads an incremental “zfs send” stream as well. This all works quite nicely; even if the machine is a complete loss, I’d never lose more than an hour’s work, and could restore it completely from a rescue environment. Very nice!

I’ll write more in a few days about the ZFS setup I’m using, and some KVM discoveries as well.

Categories: Linux, Uncategorized

Tags: 5 Comments

VirtFS isn’t quite ready

February 7th, 2014

Despite claims to the contrary [PDF], VirtFS — the 9P-based virtio KVM/QEMU layer designed to pass through a host’s filesystem to the guest — is quite slow. I have yet to get it to perform at even 1/10 the speed of the virtual block device (VBD). That’s unfortunate, because in theory it should be significantly faster. At this rate, I suspect even NFS will be significantly faster.

Beyond that, it seems impossible to use VirtFS as the root filesystem in a VM, at least with Debian; initramfs-tools doesn’t know how to build an initrd in that situation, and the support is just not there.

It would make a great combination with btrfs or zfs, but unfortunately looks to be just not ready yet.

Categories: Linux

9 Comments

How to fix “fstrim: Operation not supported” under KVM?

February 6th, 2014

Maybe someone out there will have some ideas.

I have a KVM host running wheezy, with wheezy-backports versions of libvirt and qemu. I have defined a guest, properly set discard=unmap in the domain XML file for it, verified that’s being passed to the guest, but TRIM/DISCARD is just not working.

Mounting the ext4 filesystem with discard has no effect, and fstrim / always reports:

fstrim: /: FITRIM ioctl failed: Operation not supported

Every single time.

I’ve tried with the virtio, IDE, and SCSI (both default and virtio-scsi) backend drivers. The guest is also running wheezy (i386 version; the host is amd64) and I’ve tried the latest 3.12 backported kernel for it. No dice.

If I shut down the VM and mount the filesystem on the host, fstrim works fine.

Everything says this should work. But it doesn’t.

Any ideas?

Categories: Linux

9 Comments

Why and how to run ZFS on Linux

January 23rd, 2014

I’m writing a bit about ZFS these days, and I thought I’d write a bit about why I am using it, why it might or might not be interesting for you, and what you might do about it.

ZFS Features and Background

ZFS is not just a filesystem in the traditional sense, though you can use it that way. It is an integrated storage stack, which can completely replace the need for LVM, md-raid, and even hardware RAID controllers. This permits quite a bit of flexibility and optimization not present when building a stack involving those components. For instance, if a drive in a RAID fails, it needs only rebuild the parts that have actual data stored on them.

Let’s look at some of the features of ZFS:

  • Full checksumming of all data and metadata, providing protection against silent data corruption. The only other Linux filesystem to offer this is btrfs.
  • ZFS is a transactional filesystem that ensures consistent data and metadata.
  • ZFS is copy-on-write, with snapshots that are cheap to create and impose virtually undetectable performance hits. Compare to LVM snapshots, which make writes notoriously slow and require an fsck and mount to get to a readable point.
  • ZFS supports easy rollback to previous snapshots.
  • ZFS send/receive can perform incremental backups much faster than rsync, particularly on systems with many unmodified files. Since it works from snapshots, it guarantees a consistent point-in-time image as well.
  • Snapshots can be turned into writeable “clones”, which simply use copy-on-write semantics. It’s like a cp -r that completes almost instantly and takes no space until you change it.
  • The datasets (“filesystems” or “logical volumes” in LVM terms) in a zpool (“volume group”, to use LVM terms) can shrink or grow dynamically. They can have individual maximum and minimum sizes set, but unlike LVM, where if, say, /usr gets bigger than you thought, you have to manually allocate more space to it, ZFS datasets can use any space available in the pool.
  • ZFS is designed to run well in big iron, and scales to massive amounts of storage. It supports SSDs as L2 cache and ZIL (intent log) devices.
  • ZFS has some built-in compression methods that are quite CPU-efficient and can yield not just space but performance benefits in almost all cases involving compressible data.
  • ZFS pools can host zvols, a block device under /dev that stores its data in the zpool. zvols support TRIM/DISCARD, so are ideal for storing VM images, as they can instantly release space released by the guest OS. They can also be snapshotted and backed up like the rest of ZFS.

Although it is often considered a server filesystem, ZFS has been used in plenty of other situations for some time now, with ports to FreeBSD, Linux, and MacOS. I find it particularly useful:

  • To have faith that my photos, backups, and paperwork archives are intact. zpool scrub at any time will read the entire dataset and verify the integrity of every bit.
  • I can create snapshots of my system before running apt-get dist-upgrade, making it easy to track down issues or roll back to a known-good configuration. Ideal for people tracking sid or testing. One can also easily simply boot from a previous snapshot.
  • Many scripts exist that make frequent snapshots, and retain the for a period of time as a way of protecting work in progress against an accidental rm. There is no reason not to snapshot /home every 5 minutes, for instance. It’s almost as good as storing / in git.

The added level of security in having cheap snapshots available is almost worth it by itself.

ZFS drawbacks

Compared to other Linux filesystems, there are a few drawbacks of ZFS:

  • CDDL will prevent it from ever being part of the Linus kernel tree
  • It is more RAM-hungry than most, although with tuning it can even run on the Raspberry Pi.
  • A 64-bit kernel is strongly preferred, even in low-memory situations.
  • Performance on many small files may be less than ext4
  • The ZFS cache does not shrink and expand in response to changing RAM usage conditions on the system as well as the normal Linux cache does.
  • Compared to btrfs, ZFS lacks some features of btrfs, such as being able to shrink an existing pool or easily change storage allocation on the fly. On the other hand, the features in ZFS have never caused me a kernel panic, and half the things I liked about btrfs seem to have.
  • ZFS is already quite stable on Linux. However, the GRUB, init, and initramfs code supporting booting from a ZFS root and /boot is less stable. If you want to go 100% ZFS, be prepared to tweak your system to get it to boot properly. Once done, however, it is quite stable.

Converting to ZFS

I have written up an extensive HOWTO on converting an existing system to use ZFS. It covers workarounds for all the boot-time bugs I have encountered as well as documenting all steps needed to make it happen. It works quite well.

Additional Hints

If setting up zvols to be used by VirtualBox or some such system, you might be interested in managing zvol ownership and permissions with udev.

Categories: Debian, Linux

Tags: , , 15 Comments

Debian-Live Rescue image with ZFS On Linux; Ditched btrfs

January 22nd, 2014

I’m a geek. I enjoy playing with different filesystems, version control systems, and, well, for that matter, radios.

I have lately started to worry about the risks of silent data corruption, and as such, looked to switch my personal systems to either ZFS or btrfs, both of which offer built-in checksumming of all data and metadata. I initially opted for btrfs, because of its tighter integration into the Linux kernel and ability to shrink an existing btrfs filesystem.

However, as I wrote last month, that experiment was not a success. I had too many serious performance regressions and one too many kernel panics and decided it wasn’t worth it. And that the SuSE people got it wrong, deeply wrong, when they declared btrfs ready for production. I never lost any data, to its credit. But it simply reduces uptime too much.

That left ZFS. Before I build a system, I always want to make sure I can repair it. So I started with the Debian Live rescue image, and added the zfsonlinux.org repository to it, along with some key packages to enable the ZFS kernel modules, GRUB support, and initramfs support. The resulting image is described, and can be downloaded from, my ZFS Rescue Disc wiki page, which also has a link to my source tree on github.

In future blog posts in the series, I will describe the process of converting existing Debian installations to use ZFS, of getting them to boot from ZFS, some bugs I encountered along the way, and some surprising performance regressions in ZFS compared to ext4 and btrfs.

Categories: Linux

Tags: , , , 9 Comments

Married!

January 21st, 2014

One week before the wedding, to Laura: “Mono won’t just clear up right away.”

One week before the wedding, to me: “That’s going to need stitches.”

Yes, not long before the wedding, Laura had come down with mononucleosis and I had cut into my finger with a very sharp knife while cutting bread requiring a trip to the emergency room to get stitches. Two days before we got married, instead of moving furniture, I was getting stitches out of my finger.

It wasn’t the kind of week we had planned.

But it was the happiest, most amazing occasion I could have ever imagined.

As I wrote last month, I am richly blessed indeed.

Our wedding was three days after Christmas. The church was still decorated for Christmas, with the tree in on corner, glittering stars suspended in mid-air on cables from the walls, wreaths and candles in the windows, and it was a joy-filled day.

Before the ceremony, we took pictures — the only part of the day Jacob and Oliver weren’t thrilled with. Nevertheless, we got some fun ones.

Laura and I seem to know quite a few pastors between us – and not just because Laura is a pastor. My brother officiated with the wedding vows, his wife with scripture and a prayer of blessing, and the church’s pastor gave the message.

Laura and I wrote in our wedding program, “Music has long been a thread running through both our lives. We have enjoyed singing together, playing piano and pennywhistle duets, attending concerts, and even exploring old hymnals. Music is also one of the best ways to have a conversation – even a conversation with God.” We wrote a page in the program about each of the hymns that were a part of the wedding, and why we picked them. The combined church choirs of my home church and Laura’s church sang John Rutter’s beautiful arrangement of For the Beauty of the Earth (click here to listen to a different choir). Hearing “For the beauty of each hour”, “For the joy of human love”, and “Lord of all, to thee we raise this our joyful hymn of praise” was perfect for the day.

It was with such great happiness that we walked out of the sanctuary, a married couple, to the sound of the congregation singing Joy to the World!

Jacob and Oliver were so very excited on our wedding day. They happily explored the church while waiting for things to happen. We had them help us light our unity candle, and they were pleased with that. Jacob loved his suit, which made him look just like me. And they were, of course, delighted with the cake and in the middle of it all.

For our honeymoon, we managed to get two weeks of vacation, and spent about half of it at home. We had looked at various options for retreats in the country, but eventually concluded that our house is a retreat in the country, so might as well enjoy it at home.

We also went to the Palo Duro Canyon area near Amarillo in the Texas panhandle, staying in a small B&B in Canyon, TX. Palo Duro is the second-largest canyon in North America, and quite colorful year-round. What a beautiful place to go for our honeymoon! By the time we got there, Laura was getting past mono, and we went for hikes in the canyon on two different days — hiking a total of 10 miles, including a hike up the side of the canyon.

After we got back home, on the last weekday of our honeymoon, we went back to the Flint Hills of Kansas, to some of the same places we had spent our third date. We climbed the windy staircase at the Chase County Courthouse, the oldest courthouse still in use in Kansas.

And peered out its famous oval window.

We found the last remnant of the old ghost town of Elk, ate at the same restaurant we had that day. It brought back wonderful memories, and it was a good day in itself. Because even though it was a gold, drizzly, overcast day in January, this time, we were married.

And this year, Thanksgiving is all year.

Categories: Family

7 Comments

Richly Blessed

December 26th, 2013

“It’s wedding week! Wedding week! Wedding week! Wedding week! Oh, also Christmas. Oh dad, it’s wedding week! I can’t believe it! It’s finally here! Wedding week!” – Jacob, age 7, Sunday

“Oh dad, this is the best Christmas EVER!” – Jacob, Wednesday

“Dad, is the wedding TODAY?” – Oliver, age 4, every morning this week

This has certainly been a Christmas like no other. I have never known something to upstage Christmas for Jacob, but apparently a wedding can!

Laura and I got to celebrate our first Christmas together this year — together, of course, with the boys. We enjoyed a wonderful day in the middle of a busy week, filled with play, family togetherness, warmth, and happiness. At one point, while I was helping the boys with their new model train components, Laura was enjoying playing Christmas tunes on the piano. Every time she’d reach the end, Jacob paused, and said, “That was awesome!”, beating me to it.

That’s a few days before Christmas — Jacob and Oliver demanding snow ice cream, and of course who am I to refuse?

Cousins opening presents

After his school Christmas program, Jacob has enjoyed singing. Here he is after the Christmas Eve program, where he excitedly ran up into the choir loft, picked up a hymnal, and pretended to sing.

And, of course, opening of presents at home.

Sometimes I think about how I didn’t know life could get this good. Soon Laura and I will be married, and it will be even better. Truly we have been richly blessed.

Categories: Family

5 Comments

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