Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Long Train of Thought with One (1) Cool Idea and Several Tangents

So I've been complaining for months now that I'd like an operating system, or just a desktop manager, that was similar to the kind of thing you've seen in movies like Swordfish and Hackers. Some eclectic, that looks really frigging cool, and allows me to do the kinds of operations that I want to do, quickly and easily (Note to you UX experts out there, I am well aware of the fact that interfaces that look cool aren't usable. I'm not going for market appeal, this is a totally custom job). It seemed obvious that the only way to get this was to build it myself. So, I started small, thinking "What kind of operations/features would I want on a small, portable device, like a Netbook or EEE PC?" (Note: I decided I wanted an EEE PC when I saw Richard Stallman speak earlier this week. It was the only thing I really liked about his talk.) A simple window manager (with really flashy graphics), file system navigator, browser, and IDE. That's pretty much it. Oh, and the whole thing should be built on top of some flavor of Unix, so that I can still use 3rd party apps, etc. Ambitious project, I know, but I'm just fantasizing here. Also, while I was daydreaming about this, I decided to restructure my personal computing setup, but that's another story.

Anyway, I figured I'd start with the IDE, since I had always wanted to make one. This specific idea came up over the summer while I was at work. I really liked the coding features in IntelliJ, but wished it fit better with our continuous integration infrastructure. I came to the conclusion that the best IDE would have the most notable coding features from IntelliJ, but be transparent enough to allow you to plug in whatever tools you might already be using: SVN/Perforce, any JDK, any Ant, etc. Before you start saying "But Rory, Eclipse does ..." or "But Rory, NetBeans blah blah blah...", one of the strongest motivating factors for this idea was that it sounded like a lot of fun, regardless of wheter the requirements have been fulfilled by something else. Also, these heavyweight IDEs are just that, too heavy. For me, their feature set can be at times too full, and having a single application that consumes > 1GB of memory seems a bit silly, when all it really has to do is edit text files and invoke some commands from the system prompt. Also, keep in mind that I enlisted (is that the right word?) in grad school to do just this: redesign developer tools.

I mentioned this to Zak, to which he replied "It sounds like you just need to learn to use Emacs properly." That also doesn't sound like fun. I mentioned this to Aran, to which he replied "Oh my god, me too!" Yay! Someone else wants to make and IDE. Except, Aran's IDE is a Javascript IDE. Written in Javascript. That runs in a browser.

My first instinct was that this idea sounds rather boring. Then I thought more carefully about it. Google has browser based versions of all the other applications you could use on a daily basis: mail, word processor, spreadsheet, image editor, etc. Why not a browser based IDE? Are the UI controls available in a browser less expressive than those on a native client? Probably not.

Now, I had originally thought of this IDE as running in the browser, operating on local files, etc, but what if it were more closely integrated with the web? What if it were a component of an online software portal? It would automatically know which source code repository you're using. It could automatically update documentation (wiki's). It would have strong integration with the portal's bug tracker. Imagine it, you're favorite portal would have a "Code" tab in addition to "Wiki", "Docs", "Browse", "Mail", etc, at the top of the page, and when you clicked it, everything was configured and ready to go.

What can be get if we utilize the cloud for some of the processing, instead of relying on the browser to be the engine of this fantastic IDE? First off, my IDE no longer consumes > 1 GB of memory. What else? Rendering of the controls would still be done on the client, but can the cloud be used for more interesting problems, like static analysis? Anything that could benefit from a bit of parallelization is a good candidate for migration.

Could this include running unit tests? Should the compiled code be run on the server, or in the browser? Security concerns say that it should be run on the client, but if it were run on the server it could possibly be done faster, and run in multiple browsers in multiple environments instead of just the ones installed on the client. To protect security, we could run the build and execute the code in a virtual machine, like a SnowFlock VM for example. Now, as for unit tests, executing these tasks are extremely parallelizable. We could fork a vm for every test, run them all at once. Huzzah!

I may have to rewrite this in a more concise form :P

Also, Aran mentions Heroku and AppJet, which are similar to this.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Hey - I'm a student in Greg's CSC301 class, and stumbled onto your blog.

You probably already heard about this, but did you take a look at Bespin?

http://labs.mozilla.com/projects/bespin/

There's your Web IDE right there.

And it uses Canvas!