Let’s talk about cloud operating systems. This article explores the options and potential of moving entirely “To The Cloud” for developers who normally demand significant offline power from their applications (IDEs, compilers, debuggers, etc). We’ll focus on .NET / Visual Studio developers, but I’m sure you can adapt this to your technology of choice.
I’ve been fascinated with what Google is doing with Chrome OS. I think finding a way to fully “live in the cloud” has a lot of promise. However, in practice Chrome OS is entirely unappealing to me. It’s just a single browser window, maximized. Yuck. I don’t mind doing most things in the browser, but I’d like multiple non-maximized browser windows and a desktop to organize things like shortcuts. That’s OK though because Chromebooks aren’t the only option. We have decent operating systems right now that can function largely in the same way if we set them up with discipline.
What we’re going to do is take a pristine Windows 7 instance and deck it out for the cloud. Even with all the choices these days, Windows 7 is still my favorite OS. I do have a Mac, several iOS devices, and I could always install Linux. Nevertheless, it’s Windows 7 for me so that’s where we’ll start.
Creating a Fresh Windows 7 Instance – Gently
I want to start from the very beginning. I don’t want old apps I’ve already installed encouraging me to “cheat” and work outside of the cloud more than necessary. At the same time I need to be able to fire up Visual Studio and do some work with an unreliable or nonexistent Internet connection So I’m keeping my current “full” Windows system intact. We’ll install a secondary instance of Windows using the awesome Boot to VHD feature in Windows 7 Ultimate. If you haven’t heard of it, I did a video walk-through here:
Boot to VHD Screencast:
Scott Hanselman’s write up is very helpful too.
Less Virtual, More Machine – Windows 7 and the magic of Boot to VHD:
This process takes about 15 minutes. Once you’ve got everything setup, I recommend you activate and then snapshot that VHD file (from your main OS) so you can always get back to “clean”. If you’re really living the cloud lifestyle, than paving your system is much easier than before. I always keep a secondary partition around for data files anyway so that can be shared across OSes.
Now that you’ve got a truly fresh Windows 7 copy, it’s time to install just a few apps needed to set you free (and a few you’d rather not live without).
Installing “The Cloud”
While your fresh copy of Windows 7 does have IE 8 installed, that browser is entirely not up to the task of being where you spend 90% of your time. I strongly encourage you to give the latest Chrome beta a shot as your main browser. The “application shortcuts” feature of Chrome makes it much more immersive than anything IE 9 or FireFox 4 are doing (yes, I know they have pinned sites, that’s not even close).
Got Chrome installed and set as your default browser? Good. Don’t forget to install all your Windows updates and Windows 7 SP1 while you’re at it.
What about Visual Studio?
You may be thinking, “I *NEED* Visual Studio 2010”. Yes, we do need it for sure, but stick with me here. We are NOT installing that beast on our fresh Windows 7 system. Remember, this is your Cloud OS. I even named mine Cloud OS in my boot loader to keep that focused in my mind.
We’ll talk about Visual Studio soon.
Installing Your Web Applications
You may think that you do not need to install your web apps cloud apps. There are a few installers we’ll be running such as DropBox and ChatPast, but even the plain vanilla websites such as GMail are better if you install them. That’s why Chrome is way better than the other browsers.
Let’s suppose you’ll want to use Google Docs to work with documents, presentations, Excel worksheets and so on (you will want this!). Visit https://docs.google.com, then choose “Create application shortcut” in Chrome (see image):
This not only gives you start menu items and desktop shortcuts, but it makes your taskbar truly useful and your web apps behave as regular Windows apps.
In addition, you get the true feel of your websites being applications without all the browser toolbars and other junk around it. For example, here’s how this article (barely written) looks in Google Docs right now. Notice, how it looks like an app rather than a tab buried in a busy browser. It remembers its window size and position. In short, it’s more application-like.
What Cloud Apps Should I Install?
OK, so I hope I convinced you that treating your web apps as true applications is worthwhile. Now which ones do I install? Here are a few I recommend. You may have your own favorite sites. We’ll also need a few apps that do cloudy stuff but run MSI installers on our system.
– GMail: https://mail.google.com/ (obviously :) )
– Google Docs: https://docs.google.com (good Microsoft Office replacement)
– Google Calendar: https://www.google.com/calendar/
– Google Contacts: http://mail.google.com/mail/contacts/u/0/ui/ContactManager
– 37 Signals LaunchPad: https://launchpad.37signals.com (Great web apps for projects)
– Amazon Web Service: https://console.aws.amazon.com/ec2/ (You’ll see why soon)
– Twitter: http://twitter.com/
– Office Online: http://office.live.com (for when Google docs fail you)
– Pandora: http://www.pandora.com/
Here are a few proper apps that are cloud-based in some way or another that require installers.
By using GMail, Google Contacts, and Google Calendar, you obviously get portability from the web. But if you have a modern phone or tablet, chances are you can keep them 100% in sync using Google’s Exchange support. I do that for both my iPhone and iPad.
There are also a couple of light-weight apps that I just didn’t want to do without and still have a solid use in a Cloud OS. I needed a good image editing app (for writing blog posts like this) and one for screen captures. So we have
– Paint.NET: http://download.cnet.com/Paint-NET/3000-2192_4-10338146.html
– Window Clippings: http://www.windowclippings.com/
Finally, there are a couple that I use to just keep an eye on my system such as
– Process Explorer: http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/sysinternals/bb896653
Here is the full list of *everything* I have installed on my system. Just 11 applications installed. Note that I’ve hidden some that Windows installs without asking. For example, using my Microsoft Mouse forces an install of Microsoft’s Intellipoint software when I plug it in. Similarly for the touch-pad on my laptop. To me, those don’t count so I edited them out.
Escape from Outlook
You may be thinking that because you still use your company’s email that you’ll need to install Microsoft Office and the 800-lbs gorilla that is Outlook. Chances are you will not need Outlook. I have several “regular” email accounts I have to check that don’t have reasonable web options.
You can setup your GMail account to automatically pull from your other email accounts as if GMail itself was a POP3 client like Outlook. Just go to Gmail > Settings > Accounts and Import > and configure “Check mail using POP3” as well as “Send mail as”. Here you see my other accounts have recently been checked and received mail.
Sometimes having a “Send and Receive” button for these accounts is handy. Visit the Labs section of GMail and install the “Refresh POP accounts” add-on to make the refresh button propagate a refresh off to your other accounts as well.
While you are in there, you should turn on the keyboard shortcuts and take 5 minutes to learn the important ones. For example, / will take you to search, i to the inbox, e archives, -c composes an email in a separate window, etc.
Where Are the Developer Tools?
You probably didn’t see Visual Studio in that list, because it wasn’t there! In the next blog post, I’ll take you through setting up an Visual Studio 2010 instance in the cloud along with all the other developer tools and servers you might need such as SQL Server, and MongoDB, and LINQPad, and so on. Stay tuned.
When I have that post online, I’ll be sure to add a link here. If you just can’t wait, here’s a hint of where we’re going next.
[Update: Read Part 2 Now]