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More on lessconfig: Package Management, Customization, and Context

The notion of lessconfig is still young. But there is some great discussion going on around it.

Package Management

Jaime Cardoso added some great detail to the lessconfig conversation, smartly pulling in Steve’s recent discussion of package management as well.

A few years ago, upgrading the machine where Messaging was running, implied making a tar, moving the tar and extracting it. It was *that* simple. Having two versions of Messaging Running on the same box would require to have 2 folders to drop the binaries and the config files (and making sure the port numbers wouldn’t conflict). Now, we have packages, it’s all a lot simpler, any 2 days are enough to migrate an instance to another machine.

As Juliao suggests in the comments, this is the same theory with package management in OS X. To an extent. If your application is packaged as a “bundle”, users install the application by dragging the app’s icon to the desired folder.

This seriously weirded me out at first — no Wizards seemed kind of weird. But, after a little while, I had the opposite reaction: I got annoyed when there were Wizards (which still occurs in Mac land, esp. with more traditional “packaged” applications).

And to speak to the point even more, one of the main things that annoys me about OS X is how embedded some services in the system are. For example, Apache is very firmly built into the system instead of being nicely partitioned off into it’s own directory.

But I digress. The point is well taken: when it comes to lessconfig, unzipping an application (or dragging it for GUI-whimps like me) is about as good as it gets until we get digital telekinesis.

In fact, it was only yesterday that I told one of our clients that getting a simple zip file as the initial setup for a project directory (with directory structures and stubbed out maven, ant, etc. build files) would be a wet dream for me.

The Zip file (or tar…whatever) is an underappreciated means of package management. It’s been the work-horse for years, and it’s ready to pull more freight before glue- or pasture time, depending on economic conditions at the time.

lessconfig Doesn’t Mean lesschoices, or, A Systems Management Example

I am a big fan of having my cake and eating it to. Otherwise, why order it? With that understanding: in my mind, having lessconfig doesn’t mean there’s less choices that you, the user, can make.

My initial thoughts about lessconfig come from the world of systems management where there is hellaconfig. Let’s say you’re monitoring your corporate network with, say, 500 servers and “devices” (routers, load balancers, that box no one knows what does anymore, etc.) that host 376 applications. Typically, with most systems management applications, you have to go and configure all those devices by hand. That is ohpoopiethisisgonnatotakeforeverconfig.

Sure, if you want to shell out a few more bucks, your systems management system can help you out a little. Some of the forward looking services built around CMDBs are a fantastic gesture in this direction.

From my lessconfig mind-set, however, what’s shocking (as in, “needs to change”) is that this discovery is not an assumed function of all systems management applications.

Put another way, if I were a systems management product manager, my #1 green-field (for new users) concern would be discovering the entire network and application topology.

Once you do that, of course, you have to layer on making “sensible defaults” as Dan Davies Brackett put it.

That use case is the one that kicked off the lessconfig think.

The Secret Door to Config

While I’m a big fan of the command line, there are times when I don’t want to bother with it. I just want to surf the web, or record a podcast. On the other hand, there are other times when I want to, and benefit from, twiddling around with my software.

To use Jaime’s example, take Firefox. Instead of popping up new windows all the time, I configured Firefox to simply open a new tab. I love that feature. The other thing is, if I really want to go all power-user on Firefox, I can go to about:config and do serious brain surgery. Hell, I could just Greasemonkey the crap out of it if I really wanted to.

Configuration Spelunking

I like those options, though I rarely use them. In my younger days, when I was dork in high school and I the computer was too often my “date,” I would spend hours right-clicking all over and into Windows just to see what I could configure. Nowadays, if there is content-creation involved, sure, I dig around, but I’m less interested in OS internals for their own sake.

The point is: there is pleasure (for some, including me) in open-ended configuration spelunking. I spent hours fiddling around with Smart Playlists in iTunes when I first found them, and as the BMC-crew will tell you, few things excite me more than a new SNMP agent to explore and play with.

Telling a computer-geek that they can’t configure is like telling and artist that they can’t sketch. It’s the play that results in “real work.”

To pile on another example (and to conflate lessconfig with lesscode): I write everything in HTML. Tagging up my text, esp. adding in links, feels more natural to me than plain-text or, even worse, WYSIWYG editing.

(As I type this, I’m thinking, “I need to go through all my old posts and add in some mad-rel’ing to all my links.”)

Again with the quick and easy…

My thinking is not that I want there be less configuration options available, but that I want the software to be a proxy for configuration when I’m wearing my lazy-admin (which is most of the time, as mray will attest to). I don’t want Firefox to ask me what security levels I want up front, or to pop-up Windows.

In the same way, I don’t want to tell my systems management software about all the 876 things it needs to worry about (of, course, it’d be even better if could tell me why I only need to care about a 409 of those and can ignore the rest unless they’re on fire).


There are two configuration concerns here:

  1. “What you have to do to get the thing you have to work the way you want.”
  2. Enabling your software to be context aware enough to make wise configuration choices on your behalf.

It’s the second that takes more time than fixing the first: not only do you need to worry about your software, you need to worry about software it will be running along side of and how your software can benefit from that software.

As a simple, yet another OS X, example: the pictures you assign people in Address Book are used in Adium (an IM client) as the buddy icons. So, instead of having to assign pictures to those people, Adium is context aware enough to suck them in from Address Book.

lessconfig with Profiles

Here is one that I would like solved: creating new profiles at every God damn site I create an account on (like today). A profile to me includes my name, a URL, a picture, and maybe some “about me info.” My dream is that one day I can just give the new site the URL to something like my hCard enabled page, and the site will suck in all the data without me having to enter it. Perhaps I’ll have to click “OK” to submit the form. Even that’s pushing it.

Now, that, is an exciting, cross-silo, lessconfig idea that’s actually possible today. There is your muck for all this fuzzy utopia.

For those interested in continuing the conversation, you can now go to, which simply drops you into our wiki (Just a URL redirect; how’s that for lessconfig?). Of course, there are also comments here and all your lovely blogs ;>

Disclaimer: BMC is a client.

Categories: Enterprise Software, Ideas, Programming, Social Software, Systems Management.

Comment Feed

3 Responses

  1. that hCard thing could work like a favicon, only it triggers off the URL that you put in as your blog/website URL.

  2. Hello everybody, I want to make friend with you. Nice to meet you.

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