Archive for January, 2006

Virtual wundermachines

Saturday, January 14th, 2006

I’ve spent a few hours this afternoon playing with VMWare and an old copy of Windows XP. What a cool experience.

Installing VMWare 5.5.0 on my bleeding edge Kubuntu Dapper desktop was pretty straightforward, even with this morning’s latest 2.6.15-12 kernel image (the one which supports the dual-core G5′s for those of us who are also into the PPC thing). It’s proprietary software only right now, though there is a free “player” with good Ubuntu support. I needed to patch the kernel slightly, details are on Kerneltrap at http://kerneltrap.org/node/6040 if you want to do the same. I will ask Ben Collins, the Ubuntu kernel maintainer, to make sure VMWare is a supported module during the rest of the Dapper test and release cycle so it should Just Work for others.

After you install the VMWare software you can create a new virtual machine. You then “power up” the machine, and watch it “booting” in a window on your desktop. It has its own BIOS (“Press F2 for setup, F12 for boot options…” etc) and initially it was failing to boot because its “disk” was blank. I told it to boot from the CD-ROM and up came the Windows XP Professional installer.

Interestingly, the Windows installer is pretty basic compared to modern Linux installers. I would like to see how the Windows VIsta installation goes. XP was smooth, mostly, though it got stuck and needed a restart at one point. Not all that impressive. But an hour or so later I was looking at a Windows desktop, in a window on my Kubuntu desktop. Everything seemed to work well, including Windows Activation. Charmingly, there are no security updates for Windows until you activate it (cough splutter choke).
For what it’s worth, some things do work very well under windows. The theming is consistent and classy, control panels are tight and the Windows Update service is pretty slick now.
I’ll be using the VM for cross-platform testing, and so that I can give my old Windows laptop away and still retain an ability to run Windows apps. Sorting out the details will have to wait till the end of the Asia trip.

So does anybody have comments on the current state of Xen, especially for running multiple OS’s? It’s also interesting the extent to which modern hardware seems to want to provide all the core virtualisation services – SUN talk about this a lot with their Niagara chips, POWER5 is big on virtualisation and Intel says it’s in the pipeling on x86 too. How long before running multiple OS’s with little or no performance penalty is the main order of the day?

I’ll also ask Colin about publishing VMWare images of the regular test releases (“Flight’s” during the Dapper cycle) we make in Ubuntu. That would allow people to download and test a virtual image without having to burn a CD or reboot a computer. Would only really be of use for installed images, not for the installer itself, although with the new Ubuntu Express GUI installer based on the Live-CD, perhaps its possible to test it under a VM as well. Hmm…

Riser helmet mods

Friday, January 13th, 2006

For the snowboarder in all of us, I’ve been working on the ultimate ski/snowboard personal voice communications system.

The idea is to get hifi music, handsfree cellphone conversations, and walkie-talkie radio access all neatly integrated. I would like to be able to go boarding, listening to my music, and receive a call without fumbling for the phone (of course, the phone is optional for those days when silence is golden). Then I would like to be able to talk to my buddies on the other side of the valley without reaching into a pocket for the walkie-talkie.

I looked around on the net and found a partial solution: The Giro Fuse helmets with what they call “TuneUps”. This fits my standard Fuse helmet and does allow for music and a walkie-talkie OR cellphone, but won’t handle all three at the same time. Also, it has one of those tiny little microphones-on-the-string that will produce verage sound and be a pain to activate in thick gloves. I need something a little more industrial. Maybe not throat-mic industrial, but something tougher definitely.

A little more research took me into the motorcycle world, I thought perhaps something like this might exist for bikers. And that led me to the StarCom1, a cool little device that does almost exactly what I need. It supports two headsets (one for the driver and one for a passenger) which is a bit of a waste in my case, but everything else is perfect.

Placing the order was a little confusing. Their site could be better laid out in terms of the kits and the options. But the company was really responsive and both sets arrived promptly. We need to do some custom installation magic, fitting this gear to skiing helmets rather than the usual biking kit for which it is designed, and we will need to setup a special box for the comms unit, the battery pack (I still don’t know how I’m going to create a 12V battery).

This evening Marianne and I got the first part of it done. We had to slice open the neck and ear padding on the helmet. The microphone is on a flexible boom, so the tricky part was figuring how to attach that to something that is basically made of sponge. I was going to try to superglue a piece of rigid plastic to the frame of the ear padding, but Marianne suggested just stitching the boom straight to the fabric. That seemed to work fine. The earpieces fit in nicely, and I glued the PTT (“push-to-talk”) button to the outside of the right ear cover. Doh, I glued in the place where the chinstrap comes down from the helmet, but it’s fine and the helmet fits snugly.

So now we have one modded helmet with the microphone and speakers in place and two cables hanging out the back. So far, I’ve tested the cellphone connection and music interface and it works perfectly. The walkie-talkie isn’t, yet, perhaps there’s some incompatibility between the cable and the radio. Will look into that next week.

The big issue right now is power. The device needs a 12V supply. I have the connector cable, I just don’t have anything to connect it to. On a bike, there would be a 12V supply handy, but I guess I will need to make up some sort of battery pack. Anybody know how to do that? Where can I get a battery pack into which I can plug 4 normal 1.5V batteries in series to make up 12V, and get a simple cable out? Any and all suggestions welcome.