Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

Internet, Unix and Me

My exposure to the Internet and UNIX was pretty limited before entering university. I had indirect access to Internet email and news via the Fido-UUCP gateway I ran on my BBS. There was an old mini-computer in my junior college. But once in NUS, I picked things up very fast.


Don’t ask me what penguins have to do with Linux. I thought it was strange too, but apparently this logo has been endorsed by Linus Torvalds (the guy who wrote the Linux kernel). Linux is gaining a great deal of popularity these days. I have used Linux since the times before its kernel was even at version 1.0. Linux was pretty simple then. At least it worked perfectly the first time I tried installing it. As development continued, however, things became more complicated and Linux installation had become a challenging task. Things are beginning to look better nowadays as some vendors are trying to push Linux to the masses and corporate users.

At one time I used to disagree that Linux was in any way ready for prime time and that, to me, Linux was not ready. Well, to the credit of some companies like Ubuntu and OpenSuse, some Linux distributions have gotten quite good: easy to install, learn and use.

Still, I don’t think Linux is quite there yet. Nowadays, I think that Linux is overhyped. People are saying so many wonderful things about Linux as if it is the universal magic solution to all problems on earth. There are several areas where Linux lags behind other UNIX systems. In fact, Linux is quite often playing catch-up, and it still has a lot to catch up. Some of the people who promote Linux haven’t got the exposure to other UNIX systems, so they see Linux like magic (you can tell when these people highlight “cutting edge” Linux features that have, in fact, been standard in other UNIX systems several versions ago!).

Some people have said: Linux is the poor man’s UNIX. You use it because you cannot afford the commercial UNIX.

Having said all that… I do use Linux myself. 🙂 I can’t afford to buy an Ultra SPARC running Solaris. The biggest attraction of Linux is that it’s free and there is abundant free support available.

World Wide Web

Some call it the World-Wide Wait. You spend most of the time waiting for information to trickle into your computer. The WWW, nevertheless, has gotten so much attention and spotlight from the media that some people think that the WWW is the Internet.

I didn’t jump onto the WWW until the early 1994. It wasn’t that late actually, the WWW fever hadn’t started yet. As usual, I catch up very fast, and in the same year, I setup and ran two web servers of my own, one of which is SunSITE Singapore. I quickly got well-versed with HTML and CGI programming in Perl. Till today, my favourite HTML editor is still vi (sometimes joe too). I never got used nor taken a liking to those HTML editing toys. That is not to say I don’t use any HTML tools. In fact, I use software like LaTeX2HTML to convert my LaTeX documents to HTML (when it is more convenient to use LaTeX as the master document source type).

By 1995, the WWW revolution was in full swing. Netscape started introducing all sorts of new HTML tags in their browser, a move I’ve been resisting since it violated HTML standards then. But then, they have been influencing the HTML standards anyway. I still don’t use frames though.

Once a medium to disseminate information, the WWW has now become too commercialized. Web pages have become too fancy. Java has mostly been used to add amusement to a web page, not to better convey information or improving information content. And along with all these gimmicks, the World-Wide Wait began.

Sun & Solaris

There are Sun computers all over NUS. SunSITE Singapore ran on a SPARCServer 1000, so did the main UNIX server in my department at one time, and the server for a cluster of Sun workstations at NUS ComCen. There were about 60 SPARC classics and 20 ELC workstations in various parts of my department too. I am, thus, quite familiar with Sun computers and their operating system. In fact, I managed some Sun workstations myself.

I was pleasantly surprised by the ease of installing and setting up a Sun machine. I was amazed at how idiot-proof the Solaris installation was, even on a rather old machine. I “inherited” the machine, so I had no idea what monitor, what video card, what SCSI system, etc, were present or attached to the machine. These were questions you had to find out if you used Linux or any PC based operating system. Well, the Solaris installation figured everything out for me. It asked questions that would otherwise take a human with 6th sense to figure out. That would be questions like what I wanted to name the system.

Configuration was pleasantly straight-forward. While you could get down to the nitty-gritty details if you wished to, you can also settle with simple choices like “OS server”, “data-less client” or “standalone system” for the type of installation. You don’t have to figure out things like having to install nfsd if you wanted a NFS server (which would be required for an OS server).

[A fairer comparison to Linux would be Solaris x86, the Solaris version for Intel x86 CPUs. Yes, it also has to ask you about attached hardware, but at least the rest of the configuration and software installation was simple like Solaris on a SPARC machine.]

Once you’ve managed a real UNIX system… Linux doesn’t really seem all that great.

Cryptography and Secure Communications

My interest in cryptography is primarily in that of its applications, cryptographic protocols, etc. It wouldn’t be cryptology, the math stuff behind the black art of secret communications. They sound like the same thing, but they are distinct.