Building Windows VirtualBox machines

I started this post in January originally, but after a couple of paragraphs I realized I’m writing a more generic post – Believe in build automation. Now you know why I believe in automation and we can get straight to it. I’m a Linux guy, I’d rather work with Linux, I always prefer UNIX/Linux on servers, but I run Windows desktop to be conformant. After all I can run anything in VirtualBox when I need it.

And sometimes what I need is just another Windows. But I don’t want to manually prepare the box all over again after it expires (evaluation), not to mention I want a repeatable process (because I believe in it :-)). You may snapshot your virtual machines, but you cannot avoid eventual end of evaluation period.

State of affairs in Windows automation

Couple of years ago I got a new computer with Windows and I wanted to put all my favourite tools on it. Of course I didn’t have a list. But I had a feeling I’m repeating myself. I also wanted to disable some Windows features. I had experimented with PowerShell before, so I turned to it with faith. I found out that there are some PowerShell modules that allow to add/remove features or applications, but they are limited only to Windows Server. Couple of ugly words ran through my head and I postponed my dream.

Now I know this was a hasty decision, because Microsoft does not offer just one good standard way how to do it. As explained here, you can use one of two PowerShell modules. ServerManager module was the one that made a bit angry because of its restrictions to server versions of Windows, but there is also Dism module available on any recent platform, not to mention dism.exe itself, that works for older Windows incarnations as well.

While this all is just a minor episode, it documents how difficult it may be to find the right way how to perform various tasks on the command line (and preferably PowerShell) for a newcomer. And I wasn’t even that new on Windows.

But after this it was easier and easier to use the right words and ask the right questions the right way to get my answers. Most of them were on StackOverflow, but I have to praise Microsoft’s sites too. Sure, sometimes you have to go over couple of Microsoft pages, but in overall you can find the answers.

Back to Windows virtual machine creation

Here you go, I nearly did it again! Wrote a different post than I wanted, that is. So back to the topic. Of course, you need to know your options for automation, so learning more about PowerShell and about ways how to (un)install various Windows features is still important. But we also need to know the general workflow how to bring Windows virtual machine to life. I decided to use Vagrant because it aims for developers and is praised by them.

When it comes to Windows there is one big trouble – because Windows is big. The same trouble exists for Linux too, but is smaller. We’re talking about automated installation. Good news is that both systems can be installed automatically. It comes as no surprise for Linux, but Windows also features so-called “unattended installation” which aims for corporate world where admins don’t want to sit through installations for all the computers in a big company.

It works in a simple way – you provide an XML file with this unattended configuration for the computer and Windows finds it during installation. It can be found on a floppy or USB drive.

I don’t know all the options how to install Windows in an automatic fashion, but this one is good for virtual machines. All you need to do is provide the booting virtual machine DVD with Windows ISO image and Autounattend.xml file on a virtual floppy disk.

Can Vagrant do it? Ok, now you got me. 🙂 Probably it can, but a brief investigation on the Internet revealed that instead of doing this installation with Vagrant I should first use Packer. And – what a surprise – both tools are developed by the very same company/guy (HashiCorp/Mitchell Hashimoto, sorry for leaving out any other participants from the company). I was not the only one confused about the differences between Vagrant and Packer.

Shortly (and maybe not 100% precise), Packer is good in creating virtual machine base images and Vagrant is good to use them in your development process. Base image is not installation ISO, it’s rather a snapshot of a virtual machine after installation with everything you want to have there for the start. Not with everything possible though, that’s why it’s called base image. Packer can build base images for various virtualization platforms, but we will focus on VirtualBox only.

My idol Matt Wrock

I decided to install the Windows somehow automatically using Vagrant and prefer PowerShell as much as possible. Searching for a solution I somehow found the post called In search of a light weight windows vagrant box by Matt Wrock. I read a bit of it but I was also intrigued by the link to the updated version using Packer and Boxstarter. Already by this time I was overflowed by new terms, but it was worth it, I promise!

Matt definitely knows his stuff, his Windows and automation experience is extensive and he can explain it properly as well. Just a day before that I wasn’t ready to add Packer to my arsenal, not to mention Boxstarter – and soon I learned about Chocolatey as well. Now, honestly, I still don’t get Boxstarter, so for me it’s just “some extension for PowerShell” (disregard at will), but I absolutely fell in love with Chocolatey, because with it the management of programs feels like on Linux.

Matt’s instructions how to use Packer and Boxstarter were pretty cool, he provides Packer files (configurations, or sort of recipes, for Packer, written in JSON format) for Windows Server 2012, Windows Nano (very interesting addition to Microsoft’s arsenal) and Windows 7 (here you need license key, as there is no evaluation ISO, shame). I definitely utilized Windows Server 2012R2, as the server edition always comes handy during development when you want to experiment with a domain controller, etc. But I also wanted packer template for Windows 10 – and I had to create the one myself.

Windows 10 experiments

Actually, the biggest problem with Windows 10 wasn’t the Packer template, but with the Autounattend.xml file. I found some generator, but it didn’t deliver without some errors. I’m still pretty sure that XML is far from flawless, it’s not cleaned up properly and so on – but it works. Diving into every detail in a field that is mostly new for me (the whole world of Windows automation) would probably stop me before I got to the result, so take it as it is, or make it better if you can.

I highly recommend to read that Matt’s article Creating windows base images using Packer and Boxstarter as it is a very good introduction into the whole pipeline. His packer templates also provided a great starting point for more experiments. I also liked the way how he minimized the images by removing many Windows components, defragging the disk, zeroing empty space, etc.

I summed up my experiments in a markdown file and looking at it, it definitely is not perfect and finished. But does it have to be? In a week I played with it I probably installed Windows 10 forty times. Most of these test I commented out the slow parts that were mere optimization steps mentioned above (minimizing the size of the image). I played a lot with some preinstalled software (using Chocolatey, of course) and tried to pre-configure it using registry changes where necessary. This is, however, in vain, as the sysprep.exe step wipes registry changes for vagrant user. Talking about vagrant user, be extra careful to spell it everywhere the same way. Once I messed it up, had vagrant in Autounattend.xml and Vagrant in postunattend.xml (which is used as C:\Windows\Panther\Unattend\unattend.xml by sysprep.exe) and had two Vagrant accounts – you don’t want that. 🙂

I tried hard to perform some installation and configuration steps after sysprep, I tried to change it from Packer’s shutdown_command to windows-restart provisioner step but I wasn’t able to overcome some errors. After a while I settled with a script I just copied to my Vagrant working environment directory and then ran it from initialized box where it appeared in c:\vagrant directory.

Sure I could do even better with full automation, but when things resist too much sometimes it’s good to step back, rethink the strategy and focus on quick wins.

Other options?

There are definitely more ways how to prepare Windows 10 box, or any Windows for that matter, with or without Packer, but even when we focus on Packer solutions there’s a wide spectrum of approaches. Some don’t bother to use sysprep.exe to generalize their installation – after all if it’s only for personal needs it really is not needed. People on GitHub seem to agree on using PowerShell as a Packer provider, but one of the solutions used no provider at all (all part of the build section). Also widen the search for other Windows versions and you’ll see much more variability.

Conclusion

Using Packer as a first step in the pipeline is very practical. You can prepare base image once and save a couple of hours any time you need a fresh environment (partially you can do the same with snapshots in VirtualBox, but it’s not the same).

I use Boxstarter in the process as recommended (although I’m not able to appreciate it fully) and Chocolatey to install/remove programs – during Packer steps and also anytime later. When my evaluation Windows runs out I simply refresh the packer image from ISO and I’m done for the next 90 or 180 days (depending on the OS version).

Following the installation enthusiasm I went on to install SQL Server 2014 Express from Chocolatey package, configure it using PowerShell bits and pieces found across many blogs and stackoverflow questions and wrote it down on GitHub. I actually got used to writing technical notes I may need later into these markdown files and it works very well for me. Now I have automation hiatus, but I’m sure I’ll get back to it and it’s good to find all the notes at hand, including unresolved problems and ideas.

Good luck with Windows automation!

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Last three years with software

Long time ago I decided to blog about my technology struggles – mostly with software but also with consumer devices. Don’t know why it happened on Christmas Eve though. Two years later I repeated the format. And here we are three years after that. So the next post can be expected in four years, I guess. Actually, I split this into two – one for software, mostly based on professional experience, and the other one for consumer technology.

Without further ado, let’s dive into this… well… dive, it will be obviously pretty shallow. Let’s skim the stuff I worked with, stuff I like and some I don’t.

Java case – Java 8 (verdict: 5/5)

This time I’m adding my personal rating right into the header – little change from previous post where it was at the end.

I love Java 8. Sure, it’s not Scala or anything even more progressive, but in context of Java philosophy it was a huge leap and especially lambda really changed my life. BTW: Check this interesting Erik Meijer’s talk about category theory and (among other things) how it relates to Java 8 and its method references. Quite fun.

Working with Java 8 for 17 months now, I can’t imagine going back. Not only because of lambda and streams and related details like Map.computeIfAbsent, but also because date and time API, default methods on interfaces and the list could probably go on.

JPA 2.1 (no verdict)

ORM is interesting idea and I can claim around 10 years of experience with it, although the term itself is not always important. But I read books it in my quest to understand it (many programmers don’t bother). The idea is kinda simple, but it has many tweaks – mainly when it comes to relationships. JPA 2.1 as an upgrade is good, I like where things are going, but I like the concept less and less over time.

My biggest gripes are little control over “to-one” loading, which is difficult to make lazy (more like impossible without some nasty tricks) and can result in chain loading even if you are not interested in the related entity at all. I think there is reason why things like JOOQ cropped up (although I personally don’t use it). There are some tricks how to get rid of these problems, but they come at cost. Typically – don’t map these to-one relationships, keep them as foreign key values. You can always fetch the stuff with query.

That leads to the bottom line – be explicit, it pays off. Sure, it doesn’t work universally, but anytime I leaned to the explicit solutions I felt a lot of relief from struggles I went through before.

I don’t rank JPA, because I try to rely on less and less ORM features. JPA is not a bad effort, but it is so Java EE-ish, it does not support modularity and the providers are not easy to change anyway.

Querydsl (5/5)

And when you work with JPA queries a lot, get some help – I can only recommend Querydsl. I’ve been recommending this library for three years now – it never failed me, it never let me down and often it amazed me. This is how criteria API should have looked like.

It has strong metamodel allowing to do crazy things with it. We based kinda universal filtering layer on it, whatever the query is. We even filter queries with joins, even on joined fields. But again – we can do that, because our queries and their joins are not ad-hoc, they are explicit. 🙂 Because you should know your queries, right?

Sure, Querydsl is not perfect, but it is as powerful as JPQL (or limited for that matter) and more expressive than JPA criteria API. Bugs are fixed quickly (personal experience), developers care… what more to ask?

Docker (5/5)

Docker stormed into our lives, for some practically for others at least through the media. We don’t use it that much, because lately I’m bound to Microsoft Windows and SQL Server. But I experimented with it couple of times for development support – we ran Jenkins in the container for instance. And I’m watching it closely because it rocks and will rock. Not sure what I’m talking about? Just watch DockerCon 2015 keynote by Solomon Hykes and friends!

Sure – their new Docker Toolbox accidentally screwed my Git installation, so I’ll rather install Linux on VirtualBox and test docker inside it without polluting my Windows even further. But these are just minor problems in this (r)evolutionary tidal wave. And one just must love the idea of immutable infrastructure – especially when demonstrated by someone like Jérôme Petazzoni (for the merit itself, not that he’s my idol beyond professional scope :-)).

Spring 4 and on (4/5)

I have been aware of the Spring since the dawn of microcontainers – and Spring emerged victorious (sort of). A friend of mine once mentioned how much he was impressed by Rod Johnson’s presentation about Spring many years ago. How structured his talk and speech was – the story about how he disliked all those logs pouring out of your EE application server… and that’s how Spring was born (sort of).

However, my real exposure to Spring started in 2011 – but it was very intense. And again, I read more about it than most of my colleagues. And just like with JPA – the more I read, the less I know, so it seems. Spring is big. And start some typical application and read those logs – and you can see EE of 2010’s (sort of).

That is not that I don’t like Spring, but I guess its authors (and how many they are now) simply can’t see anymore what beast they created over the years. Sure, there is Spring Boot which reflects all the trends now – like don’t deploy into container, but start the container from within, or all of its automagic features, monitoring, clever defaults and so on. But that’s it. More you don’t do, but you better know about it. Or not? Recently I got to one of the newer Uncle Bob’s articles – called Make the Magic go away. And there is undeniably much to it.

Spring developers do their best, but the truth is that many developers just adopt Spring because “it just works”, while they don’t know how and very often it does not (sort of). You actually should know more about it – or at least some basics for that matter – to be really useful. Of course – this magic problem is not only about Spring (or JPA), but these are the leaders of the “it simply works” movement.

But however you look at it, it’s still “enterprise” – and that means complexity. Sometimes essential, but mostly accidental. Well, that’s also part of the Java landscape.

Google Talk (RIP)

And this is for this post’s biggest let down. Google stopped supporting their beautifully simple chat client without any reasonable replacement. Chrome application just doesn’t seem right to me – and it actually genuinely annoys me with it’s chat icon that hangs on the desktop, sometimes over my focused application, I can’t relocate it easily… simply put, it does not behave as normal application. That means it behaves badly.

I switched to pidgin, but there are issues. Pidgin sometimes misses a message in the middle of the talk – that was the biggest surprise. I double checked, when someone asked me something reportedly again, I went to my Gmail account and really saw the message in Chat archive, but not in my client. And if I get messages when offline, nothing notifies me.

I activated the chat in my Gmail after all (against my wishes though), merely to be able to see any missing messages. But sadly, the situation with Google talk/chat (or Hangout, I don’t care) is dire when you expect normal desktop client. 😦

My Windows toolset

Well – now away from Java, we will hop on my typical developer’s Windows desktop. I mentioned some of my favourite tools, some of them couple of times I guess. So let’s do it quickly – bullet style:

  • Just after some “real browser” (my first download on the fresh Windows) I actually download Rapid Environment Editor. Setting Windows environment variables suddenly feels normal again.
  • Git for Windows – even if I didn’t use git itself, just for its bash – it’s worth it…
  • …but I still complement the bash with GnuWin32 packages for whatever is missing…
  • …and run it in better console emulator, recently it’s ConEmu.
  • Notepad2 binary.
  • And the rest like putty, WinSCP, …
  • Also, on Windows 8 and 10 I can’t imagine living without Classic Shell. Windows 10 is a bit better, but their Start menu is simply unusable for me, classic Start menu was so much faster with keyboard!

As an a developer I sport also some other languages and tools, mostly JVM based:

  • Ant, Maven, Gradle… obviously.
  • Groovy, or course, probably the most popular alternative JVM language. Not to mention that groovsh is good REPL until Java 9 arrives (recently delayed beyond 2016).
  • VirtualBox, recently joined by Vagrant and hopefully also something like Chef/Puppet/Ansible. And this leads us to my plans.

Things I want to try

I was always friend of automation. I’ve been using Windows for many years now, but my preference of UNIX tools is obvious. Try to download and spin up virtual machine for Windows and Linux and you’ll see the difference. Linux just works and tools like Vagrant know where to download images, etc.

With Windows people are not even sure how/whether they can publish prepared images (talking about development only, of course), because nobody can really understand the licenses. Microsoft started to offer prepared Windows virtual machines – primarily for web development though, no server class OS (not that I appreciate Windows Server anyway). They even offer Vagrant, but try to download it and run it as is. For me Vagrant refused to connect to the started VirtualBox machine, any reasonable instructions are missing (nothing specific for Vagrant is in the linked instructions), no Vagrantfile is provided… honestly, quite lame work of making my life easier. I still appreciate the virtual machines.

But then there are those expiration periods… I just can’t imagine preferring any Microsoft product/platform for development (and then for production, obviously). The whole culture of automation on Windows is just completely different – read anything from “nonexistent for many” through “very difficult” to “made artificially restricted”. No wonder many Linux people can script and too few Windows guys can. Licensing terms are to be blamed as well. And virtual machine sizes for Windows are also ridiculous – although Microsoft is reportedly trying to do something in this field to offer reasonably small base image for containerization.

Anyway, back to the topic. Automation is what I want to try to improve. I’m still doing it anyway, but recently the progress is not that good I wished it to be. I fell behind with Gradle, I didn’t use Docker as much as I’d like to, etc. Well – but life is not work only, is it? 😉

Conclusion

Good thing is there are many tools available for Windows that make developer’s (and former Linux user’s) life so much easier. And if you look at Java and its whole ecosystem, it seems to be alive and kicking – so everything seems good on this front as well.

Maybe you ask: “What does 5/5 mean anyway?” Is it perfect? Well, probably not, but at least it means I’m satisfied – happy even! Without happiness it’s not 5, right?