Saturday, September 26, 2015

The pesky capslock and inserts keys on Windows computers

It is a complete mystery to me why computer keyboards even have a capslock key. Old timers like me have a theory that in the old fashioned days of typewriters there was a practical reason, but surely there is no reason for it now. See capsoff for a history lesson. Nowadays it is just a key that you hit by accident. At home I use the Happy Hacking keyboard. That's right, I spent extra money to get a keyboard that doesn't have the capslock key!

For several years I have using registry hacks to disable the capslock key. It is one of the first things I do when setting myself up on a new machine. But until recently I didn't know what to do about another pesky key: the insert key. That's the key that makes typing either insert or overwrite according to the current setting. The current setting is not displayed so you only find out if you have hit it by accident when you notice that the last few characters you typed overwrote instead of inserting. Unlike the numlock key, the insert key has no feedback to tell you its current state. So this is another key you might want to disable. I couldn't find a registry hack for that but recently I found a great program for Windows called SharpKeys. This does allow you to turn off the insert key and, of course, the capslock key. So I now resolve to use SharpKeys whereever I go from now on. I hope you find it useful too.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

The death of Purify

Purify is a memory debugger program used by software developers to detect memory access errors in programs, especially those written in C or C++. It was originally written by Pure Software.

My first experience of purify was way back in the days Motif programming around 1992. I used it to track down memory corruption and leakage bugs in my code for a complex oil and gas graphics program. After I had fixed my bugs I found that purify complained about loads of bugs in Motif. Over the next few years Motif got cleaned up dramatically, thanks in no small part to purify. I have been a keen user ever since and as time went on it was ported from Solaris to other flavours of UNIX and to Windows. A GUI was added, better support for multi-threading, it just got better and better.

Why was purify so good? Because at the time there was little else you could use that would do the same job in a completely comprehensive way. The other tools typically required access to the entire source of your product as recompilation was necessary. Other approaches included interposing special versions of new/delete and malloc/free which required special linking as sometimes special compilation as well. I saw one attempt at using a virtual machine, from IBM, but IMO it was a failure. I broke it with a simple 3 line program almost immediately. So I was very skeptical in the early days that emulation would ever work. Boy, was I wrong when it comes to valgrind. But valgrind wasn't around then. Remember, we are talking about how to debug legacy C++ that was written before valgrind was invented or linux was popular.

Pure Software acquired by Atria but the product continued to be good at that point and spread mainly by word of mouth. There were fully functional but time-limited trial versions. I used to say it was the next tool you should get right after the C++ compiler. But then it was acquired by Rational where it stayed for many years. It languished under the ownership of Rational who didn't seem particularly keen to sell it. One had to jump through hoops when one had finally won the argument to purchase licenses. These were not cheap but purify was so vastly superior to the other tools that the case could be made. Then the Rational purchase obstacles kicked in. One had to be determined. Then IBM acquired the product. If it was hard to buy from Rational it was almost impossible with IBM. And they neutered the demo/trail version, effectively making it so that it only spread by word of mouth. One could no longer use the trail version to evaluate it.

Fast forward to January 2015. IBM sold Purify to UNICOM. This sale has been disastrous for all users of purify. UNICOM no longer sell it. Instead they sell a product called PurifyPlus, which is a bundle of other tools developed by Pure Software and extended by subsequent owners. These tools are Quantify and PureCoverage, for performance and code coverage analysis respectively. These are and have always been good powerful tools. For some users it made sense to bundle them because if all three were desired the overall license fee was cheaper. Now there is no choice and buying all three is most definitely not for everyone. But there's more. You used to be able to purchase as many licenses as you wanted, from a single license to site-wide. Now UNICOM have made it so that the minimum number of licenses is FOUR. This makes it very expensive. Also a years support fees is compulsory. I recently got a sales quote for a client of mine and the quote was for over TEN THOUSAND dollars. Needless to say at that sort of price it was game over.

After discussion with some of my colleagues I have come to conclusion that UNICOM want to kill the entire product suite off. Why else would they only sell it to large enterprise outfits to whom tens of thousands of dollars for software purchases are as nothing? Effectively purify is dead. This is a serious problem for the development and maintenance of legacy C++ programs.

It's not a problem for any new C++ software development. Just start developing it on LINUX where valgrind is available. But valgrind will never be available for Windows. The problem is trying to purify a large Windows C++ program that cannot be ported to Linux (and where there may not be any need or desire to do so).

So I no longer recommend purify. It is consigned to the dustbin of history. What a pity, it was a fantastic tool right to the end.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

The wonders of semantic versioning

Many years ago, in the dim and distant past, I used to work for Prime Computer Inc. They don't exist any more. They had a very good policy when it came to versions of their operating system. They used the familar major.minor.fix convention for denoting the version but were very strict about what this meant. The version numbers were always numbers, never strings, and you could and were supposed to infer things from the numbers. These inferences told you what versions were compatible with what other versions. They also told you about scale and kind of changes between versions. Sadly the industry as a whole doesn't do any of this in general. In fact, until recently, Prime was the only case I knew of that ever did this properly. Then I came across something called Semantic Versioning. See the web site at This describes exactly what was done at Prime. How jolly sensible. Let's hope this catches on.