[nSLUG] Life without root?

George White aa056 at chebucto.ns.ca
Fri Aug 12 21:44:51 ADT 2005

I spend most of my time with emacs, but after that comes a NASA package called
SeaDAS and then the TeX maths typsetting system.  A few years ago, on "real
unix" a dozen users could share SeaDAS and TeX.  When we updated to a new
version of either package, we left the old version and users could switch my
making appropriate adjustments to their PATH variable.

Now NASA has changed SeaDAS so it updates files in application directories, and
expects each user to install their own copy.  Current TeX distros expect to
write version-dependent files (the .fmt files, which depend on the .pool files)
in $HOME/.texmf/web2c.  If you want multiple distributions on one hardware box
you it is suggested that you use separate virtual machines.

If this trend continues, it won't be long before you won't be able to tell the
diffenence between linux and windows. A linux distro will consist of a
kernel and a few daemons while applications all live below $HOME and nobody
will remember what the debian policy manual said.

I know the people who develop SeaDAS at NASA really like OS-X, and I fear TeX
has been corrupted by association with Windows.  Strangely, while
most TeX users run Windows, the core TeX developers are all like "Bill who?"
(but then some of them wouldn't admit to knowing anyone who doesn't have an
earned pure maths PhD, much less a college dropout).  

Security concerns are one of the main forces behind the trend to single-user
applications.  Imagine that booting a workstation consists of wiping the root
partition and installing your site standard mini-distro from scratch. Users
can't write anywhere outside their own home directory and there is no root
login, so all end-user apps are installed separately for each user.

I can certainly see this working for teaching lab situations where you know in
advance what the one app each user gets will be.  You can start with a room
full of bare boxes (no more 72-hour marathons installing the OS and apps on all
the workstations the weekend before the course starts).  

George N. White III
Head of St. Margarets Bay, Nova Scotia


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