Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Windows 8 PC: No Linux?

Posted in botch, computers, linux, microsoft, redmond, windows by commorancy on August 5, 2012

According to the rumor mill, Windows 8 PC systems will come shipped with a new BIOS replacement using UEFI (the extension of the EFI standard).  This new replacement boot system apparently comes shipped with a secured booting system that, some say, will be locked to Windows 8 alone.   On the other hand, the Linux distributions are not entirely sure how the secure boot systems will be implemented.  Are Linux distributions being prematurely alarmist? Let’s explore.

What does this mean?

For Windows 8 users, probably not much.  Purchasing a new PC will be business as usual.  For Microsoft, and assuming UEFI secure boot cannot be disabled or reset, it means you can’t load another operating system on the hardware.  Think of locked and closed phones and you’ll get the idea.  For Linux, that would mean the end of Linux on PCs (at least, not unless Linux distributions jump thorough some secure booting hoops).  Ok, so that’s the grim view of this.  However, for Linux users, there will likely be other options.  That is, buying a PC that isn’t locked.  Or, alternatively, resetting the PC back to its factory default state of being unlocked (which the UEFI should support).

On the other hand, dual booting may no longer be an option with secure boot enabled.  That means, it may not be possible to install both Windows and Linux onto the system and choose to boot one or the other at boot time.  On other other hand, we do not know if Windows 8 requires UEFI secure boot to boot or whether it can be disabled.  So far it appears to be required, but if you buy a boxed retail edition of Windows 8 (which is not yet available), it may be possible to disable secure boot.  It may be that some of the released to manufacturing (OEM) editions require secure boot.  Some editions may not.

PC Manufacturers and Windows 8

The real question here, though, is what’s driving UEFI secure booting?  Is it Windows?  Is it the PC manufacturers?  Is it a consortium?  I’m not exactly sure.  Whatever the impetus is to move in this direction may lead Microsoft back down the antitrust path once again.  Excluding all other operating systems from PC hardware is a dangerous precedent as this has not been attempted on this hardware before.  Yes, with phones, iPads and other ‘closed’ devices, we accept this.  On PC hardware, we have not accepted this ‘closed’ nature because it has never been closed.  So, this is a dangerous game Microsoft is playing, once again.

Microsoft anti-trust suit renewed?

Microsoft should tread on this ground carefully.  Asking PC manufacturers to lock PCs to exclusively Windows 8 use is a lawsuit waiting to happen.  It’s just a matter of time before yet another class action lawsuit begins and, ultimately, turns into a DOJ antitrust suit.  You would think that Microsoft would have learned its lesson by its previous behaviors in the PC marketplace.  There is no reason that Windows needs to lock down the hardware in this way.

If every PC manufacturer begins producing PCs that preclude the loading of Linux or other UNIX distributions, this treads entirely too close to antitrust territory for Microsoft yet again.  If Linux is excluded from running on the majority of PCs, this is definitely not wanted behavior.  This rolls us back to the time when Microsoft used to lock down loading of Windows on the hardware over every other operating system on the market.  Except that last time, nothing stopped you from wiping the PC and loading Linux. You just had to pay the Microsoft tax to do it.  At that time, you couldn’t even buy a PC without Windows.  This time, according to reports, you cannot even load Linux with secure booting locked to Windows 8.  In fact, you can’t even load Windows 7 or Windows XP, either.  Using UEFI secure boot on Windows 8 PCs treads  within millimeters of this same collusionary behavior that Microsoft was called on many years back, and ultimately went to court over and lost much money on.

Microsoft needs to listen and tread carefully

Tread carefully, Microsoft.  Locking PCs to running only Windows 8 is as close as you can get to the antitrust suits you thought you were done with.  Unless PC manufacturers give ways of resetting and turning off the UEFI secure boot system to allow non-secure operating systems, Microsoft will once again be seen in collusion with PC manufacturers to exclude all other operating systems from UEFI secure boot PCs.  That is about as antitrust as you can get.

I’d fully expect to see Microsoft (and possibly some PC makers) in DOJ court over antitrust issues.  It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.  I predict by early 2014 another antitrust suit will have materialized, assuming the way that UEFI works comes true.  On the other hand, this issue is easily mitigated by UEFI PC makers allowing users to disable the UEFI secure boot to allow a BIOS boot and Linux to be loaded.  So, the antitrust suits will entirely hinge on how flexible the PC manufacturers set up the UEFI secure booting.  If both Microsoft and the PC makers have been smart about this change, UEFI booting can be disabled.   If not, we know the legal outcome.

Virtualization

For Windows 8, it’s likely that we’ll see more people moving to use Linux as their base OS with Windows 8 virtualized (except for gamers where direct hardware is required).  If Windows 8 is this locked down, then it’s better to lock down VirtualBox than the physical hardware.

Death Knell for Windows?

Note that should the UEFI secure boot system be as closed as predicted, this may be the final death knell for Windows and, ultimately, Microsoft.  The danger is in the UEFI secure boot system itself.  UEFI is new and untested in the mass market.  This means that not only is Windows 8 new (and we know how that goes bugwise), now we have an entirely new untested boot system in secure boot UEFI.  This means that if anything goes wrong in this secure booting system that Windows 8 simply won’t boot.  And believe me, I predict there will be many failures in the secure booting system itself.  The reason, we are still relying on mechanical hard drives that are highly prone to partial failures.  Even while solid state drives are better, they can also go bad.  So, whatever data the secure boot system relies on (i.e. decryption keys) will likely be stored somewhere on the hard drive.  If this sector of the hard drive fails, no more boot.  Worse, if this secure booting system requires an encrypted hard drive, that means no access to the data on the hard drive after failure ever.

I’d predict there will be many failures related to this new UEFI secure boot that will lead to dead PCs.  But, not only dead PCs, but PCs that offer no access to the data on the hard drives.  So people will lose everything on their computer.

As people realize this aspect of this local storage system on an extremely closed system, they will move toward cloud service devices to prevent data loss.  Once they realize the benefits of cloud storage, the appeal of storing things on local hard drives and most of the reasons to use Windows 8 will be lost.  Gamers may be able to keep the Windows market alive a bit longer, otherwise. On the other hand, this why a gaming company like Valve software is hedging its bets and releasing Linux versions of their games. For non-gamers, desktop and notebook PCs running Windows will be less and less needed and used.  In fact, I contend this is already happening.  Tablets and other cloud storage devices are already becoming the norm.  Perhaps not so much in the corporate world as yet, but once cloud based Office suites get better, all bets are off.  So, combining the already trending move towards limited storage cloud devices, closing down PC systems in this way is, at best, one more nail in Windows’ coffin.  At worst, Redmond is playing Taps for Windows.

Closing down the PC market in this way is not the answer.  Microsoft has stated it wants to be more innovative as Steve Balmer recently proclaimed.  Yet, I see moves like this and this proves that Microsoft has clearly not changed and has no innovation left.  Innovation doesn’t have to and shouldn’t lead to closed PC systems and antitrust lawsuits.

So you want 8GB of RAM in your computer…

Posted in 64 bit computing, computers, linux, windows by commorancy on January 30, 2009

This seems like a simple problem to solve. You know, like opening your computer and putting the RAM sticks into the slots, closing it and turning it on… Seems simple enough, right? But, wait! What’s this? You’ve booted up Windows and it only shows 3.65GB of available memory. How’s that possible? Is there something wrong? Where’s my memory? It’s there, but take a breath, get a cup of coffee and read this…

Welcome to the 32 bit club!

Since RAM costs are, once again, on the downward trend and the size of the sticks are going up, it’s inevitable that you might think of adding 4GB or more RAM to your machine. However, it must be said that 32 bit operating systems have important limitations that need to be discussed, but that no one is really discussing. Note, some operating systems are more affected by the 32 bit limitation than others (due to some 36 bit additions).

What is the 32 bit RAM limitation?

A 32 bit operating system that’s installed can only address a maximum of 32 bits of memory address space. That is, the amount of total memory that can be installed and visible to an operating system. In a 32 bit operating system, that amounts to a total of 4GB of RAM (no matter where that RAM is). Note, that this space includes such installed RAM as system memory, cache memory, video card memory and any other incidental memory that the operating system has direct access to. So, for example with Windows, if you install 4GB of RAM, you may see 3.62GB available. The amount of missing RAM that makes up the difference to 4GB total is video RAM and other RAM caches installed in other hardware devices. So, the more RAM in your video card or USB controller, the less you’ll will see in available memory to use for applications.

Windows 32 bit vs Linux 32 bit

As of Windows Vista 32 bit (any home edition), Microsoft has not addressed this 4GB limitation. Thus, installing more than 4GB RAM in your 32 bit Windows system is not only wasteful (take the extra RAM back to the store if you still have the receipt or read on for the other alternative), but it won’t let you use more than 4GB on home editions of Windows 32 bit systems (Vista included). Windows server operating systems have been designed to allow addressing more RAM (like Linux 32 bit), but that’s an expensive operating system to run at home just to overcome that limitation.  I’ll reiterate, non-server Windows operating systems (Vista, XP Pro, etc)  haven’t been fixed to allow installation and use of more than 4GB of RAM.  Only Windows systems with the ‘Server’ moniker address more than 4GB of RAM.

Through Intel chip extensions and the Linux (and Windows Server) 32 bit operating systems, this has allowed for up to 36bit of addressable RAM space. So, that extends the 4GB maximum of RAM installed to up to 64GB of RAM space. While this does allow installation of up to 64GB of RAM, there are other important operating system limitations that can prevent full utilization of that installed memory.

PAE

The extension from 32 bit to 36 bit addressable RAM space is called Physical Address Extension (PAE). Intel added this extra bit space to allow for just this eventuality in RAM. But, the underlying operating system needs to be able to support it. As of this writing, only Linux 32 bit fully supports PAE.  As far as Windows, not all versions of Windows support PAE even though this MS developer article states that Windows does support it. True, Windows does support it, but only Windows Server versions.  So, the lack of support includes all versions of Vista and below (XP Home/Prof, 2000 Prof and 2000 server). I believe that PAE was added to 2003 server and above.

If you pick up one of the most recent versions of Linux 32 bit (in the last 1-2 years), you should be good to go for PAE.

As far as Mac OS X, it appears that from user complaints I’ve found through Google, that 32 bit Mac OS X does not support PAE (or doesn’t support it fully). On the other hand, there is a 64 bit version of Mac OS X. We’ll come to 64 bit editions shortly.

What about the applications?

Applications are also a problem. 32 bit applications can only address up to 4GB of RAM space. So, even if you manage to get all 64GB of RAM visible to your operating system, each 32 bit application itself can only use a maximum of 4GB when running (even when running on a 64 bit platform with 32 bit compatibility). But, when would an application need more than 4GB of space? Well, if it’s a database server, a 3D rendering application loading lots of texture maps with high res 3D meshed objects or even Video editing suites such as Vegas or Pinnacle studio where you have lots of video and audio media. Even gaming may begin running into this important limit as 3D worlds get larger and more complex. So, expect this issue to become even more important as applications grow bigger and more complex.

Ok, what’s the solution?

The resolution to this issue is a 64 bit (or higher) operating system. Linux 64 bit or Windows 64 bit breaks these 32 bit barriers down. A 64 bit operating system can address 16.8 million terabytes (16 Exabytes) of RAM. That’s so much RAM, at this point, it’s effectively unlimited as of today. In 15-30 years with technology progress, we might be able to purchase a 1 Exabyte stick of RAM and come close to the 64 bit limitations. But, not today.

64 bit natively compiled applications also allow for addressing 16 Exabytes of space within the application’s memory footprint. This also opens up doors to much larger databases, video games, editing softwares and any other very memory intensive applications.

Growing pains and adoption

To date, our softwares are still firmly entrenched in the 32 bit world. This is a world that’s rapidly approaching its end of life. Yet, we are not taking any steps to make it obsolete in favor 64 bit. The issue, however, is that we have not had a pressing need as yet. But, this is the time when it should happen. We need to make the move today when it’s NOT going to be painful. We should not wait until it becomes a major issue and then have to force everyone to move because of a major 32 bit failure (like the millenium clock thing).

Microsoft has made moving to 64 bit Windows much less painful than it used to be. The 32 bit subsystem in 64 bit Windows operates nearly every 32 bit application seamlessly. The only real issue with 64 bit Windows is drivers. Many drivers for 64 bit Windows are still way unstable for everyday use. No, the 32 bit Windows drivers do not work under 64 bit Windows.  So, if you bought Adobe Acrobat, for example, you cannot install the PDFWriter printer driver from your 32 bit media.  You’ll have to upgrade to the 64 bit software edition (if they even make it).  So, this driver issue is a substantial roadblock for Windows. This is partly because of the driver manufacturers, but it’s also partly because Windows Vista’s driver system is broken. Perhaps Windows 7 will be the correct step moving forward, but it’s way too early to tell. Suffice it to say that Windows Vista 64 bit can be used successfully with 32 bit applications.

Linux transition to 64 bit has been far more painful than Windows. While Linux does offer a 32 bit system to run 32 bit applications, compiling applications for the 64 bit environment can be quite a challenge.  Installing 32 bit applications on a 64 bit Linux system can also be a challenge.  Many source code trees use hard coded 32 bit integers that prevent easy compilation and, thus, cause many compilation errors that must be fixed. So, getting something like Firefox compiled on 64 bit Linux (or any other 64 bit OS ) is a challenge. Worse, the Adobe issue (see below) makes using a 64 bit compiled browser painful (for both Linux and Windows).

I haven’t had experience with Mac OS X 64 bit directly. So, someone else will have to speak of compatibility. However, according to Apple’s website, Mac OS X 64 also has a full 32 bit subsystem for running Mac 32 bit apps.

32 bit applications on 64 bit operating systems

Some important things to note about this issue. 32 bit applications running on a 64 bit operating system don’t gain any real benefit by running under 64 bit OS. The only notable exception to this is that the application will have access to the full 4GB of RAM space rather than the lesser amount if running under a 32 bit operating system. 64 bit users should encourage developers to create 64 bit editions of their favorite softwares to ensure that the native 64 bit applications that can take full advantage of the 64 bit architecture (and memory space).

Adobe and 64 bit

Adobe has been, to date (and for many years) opposed to creating 64 bit editions of their applications. I don’t know why. But, they still have not released Flash or Shockwave for 64 bit edition browsers for either Linux or Windows. I’m unsure why Adobe has decided these are not important. But, these types of arbitrary decisions prevent widespread 64 bit adoption. Either that, or 64 bit users will simply do without Adobe products (more likely the case). Since other open source alternatives to Adobe’s products are available, these products may out mode Adobe’s product in a 64 bit world.

So, how do I get 8GB in my computer?

You have several options:

  • Run Linux 32 bit with PAE (lets your system address 64GB)
  • Install Windows 2003 Server (expensive)
  • Install Windows 64 bit edition: Vista or Windows 7 (less expensive)
  • Install Linux 64 bit version (free or thereabouts)
  • Wait for Windows 32 bit (lesser versions) to finally support PAE (perhaps Windows 7)
  • For Mac OS X users, upgrade to Mac OS X 64 bit

64 bit (or larger) is the future of computing and it’s high time that companies and users start to realize this.

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