The perfect academic computer?

I’ve been doing some reflecting lately on my computer setups, and have come to the conclusion that I may well have created a perfect university computer, at least for computer science students and academics.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s a Mac. One of the things that makes it perfect is that it’s not any particular model or configuration of Mac… just a Mac. Mine is a 2012 17in MacBook Pro, but a Mac mini would work, as would any of the newer macs including the macbook pro and air lines. That’s because it’s finally NOT about the hardware.

Sure, you still need decent hardware, but almost any Mac will now suffice.

No, what’s critical is the operating system. In the case of the Mac, it’s OSX, which is really a variant of FreeBSD, which is a flavor of Unix based of the Berkley strain. What makes OSX very nice is that it’s been tailored ‘out of the box’ to run very well on the  Mac hardware, but it’s still a full-blown Unix. For me, that’s key as I really still am not a big fan of the Linux variants. Linux isn’t BAD, it’s just not… Unix. Most people don’t care, but I’m old enough to have grown up with true Unix and I still prefer it.

The mac and OSX have lots and lots of software that runs well on the box. Most any PC (a.k.a. Windows) software has a Mac variant, or at least most of the good stuff does. I have Adobe software (Lightroom, Photoshop, Premier) that came with both Mac & PC versions, and both run almost identically on either platform. There are perhaps even better native OSX programs for photo/video work as well if you wish. In addition, as a programmer, the XCode support for C++ and IOS programming is excellent, plus it supports source code version control via GIT out of the box. Other languages, such as Java, can be easily installed and work seamlessly. Command-line  tools offers additional support for C++ and other languages if you don’t want the graphical environment.

With open software such as OpenConnect you can connect to any VPN (virtual private network) solution. Loading additional software can be very easy and painless with tools such as Homebrew.

But, that’s not the best part.

The best part is Virtual computer support.  With Oracle’s VM Virtualbox, you can install almost any operating system on the Mac that you desire. This can be a real godsend if you need to use a program only available for a specific operating system, or if you need a specific operating system for some class work.

For example, I’m currently playing with C++. Again, the XCode command-line tools offers excellent C++ support. But I’m working through a text that uses Microsoft’s Community edition of the Windows C++ compiler (Visual C++). It won’t install on a Mac. In fact, it’s designed to run “best” on Windows 10, which is something I don’t want to install on my primary PC.

Enter Virtualbox, and I can easily install the educational edition of Windows 10, followed by the community edition of Visual C++. I’ve tested them and they work perfectly on the Mac under Virtualbox. I also have Virtualbox OS installations of Solaris 10, OpenBSD, Windows XP (for Lego Mindstorms work) and Windows 7. They all work perfectly on the Mac.

So at the present time, it seems that the Mac would be perhaps the perfect academic computer?

GreenMail – a most wonderful email test server

As part of my COMP348 “Java Network Programming” course at Athabasca University, the students complete a research/development project that involves researching and using the Java mail API.

Most students test their email programs using a gmail account, as these are relatively easy to obtain. However, gmail has now implemented connection security as have most email servers. This is to prevent or at least reduce ‘spoofing’ of emails – sending emails pretending to be someone else. On the whole, it’s a good thing, but it does make connecting and testing email programs a lot more complex.

Today I marked a COMP348 project that took a different turn. The student researched open source email server test programs, and chose GreenMail – a free, open source mail server that  runs in a tomcat instance.

It looked good enough that I just had to try it, and it worked exactly as advertised. I am most impressed with this small footprint mail server that I will be doing more work with it in the near future. For  now, simply mark this web page as something of value if you need a test mail server.

Robot Builder (a new book)

I just received a new book from the publisher yesterday.

Robot Builder – The Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots

John Baichtal

Que books, 2015. ISBN-13: 978-0-7897-5149-2  ISBN-10: 0-7897-5149-6

Cost (back cover) $39.99CDN, $34.99US

I found it to be a very good resource for all aspects of robot building, and has some really innovative ideas for robots that I have not seen in course projects to date. A good source of supplies as well.