Martin @ Blog

software development and life.


Using Boxen to manage your machine

What is Boxen

Boxen is a framework developed by Github to automate the initial installation of a new laptop for development (or any other task which requires a fixed set of tools). It is developed by Github and was initially called The Setup. The philosophy behind Boxen is that development is production which means that it should be automated like a production environment. Boxen is opinionated in some choices made by the developers who created Boxen, but it is also very pragmatic.

Boxen is basically a wrapper around Puppet, and should be used to manage your installed applications and tools. The nice part is that, since it is open source and used by quite a number of companies already, there are many modules available to automatically install and setup a wide variety of tools, ranging from MySQL to Skype and from Caffeïne to Minecraft. It is also highly configurable and it is very easy to made custom changes for individual developers or machines.

Initial installation of a laptop basically only requires you to install Xcode (which is very trivial since Mavericks) and cloning the our-boxen Git repository and your laptop will be installed within minutes. The best thing is that the latest changes and updates are also pulled automatically when you run boxen, so it is not only useful for when you have a brand new installation on your laptop.

Why Boxen

A while ago I looked into using Boxen to manage my laptop, especially because it would be a very easy way to setup laptops of new colleagues as well. Before I heard about Boxen, I created an install script for MacBooks which is used quite a lot within our company, but has a lot of issues. The main problem with an install script are:

  • Hard to make it idempotent (i.e. to re-run it once it has ran once)
  • Very hard to make it fail-safe. This is because every slight difference in configuration can make the script fail and impossible to recover. You have to cater for almost every possible setup which exists.
  • It doesn’t handle changes in configurations nicely.
  • It is a awful lot of work to keep it up-to-date

With Boxen, all those points are addressed.

Another nice thing is that Boxen is taking the pragmatic approach, so you can basically change everything and still benefit of the fact that a lot of code is reused and it will always be possible to re-run the script to automatically adopt changes in configurations required by your projects.

There are some downsides to Boxen as well. I started experimenting with Boxen around a year ago, at which point the documentation was not very abundant. That is a bit improved now, but many things still have to be deducted from the source. When you have problems, it is not always easy to find the cause and it requires some painfull debugging now and then. Fortunately, since quite some developers are using it nowadays, many issues are somehow covered in issues in Github, so this problem is less prominent then in the beginning.

The main issues I had where because we are using GitHub Enterprise (which means that we have our own GitHub installation running on a private server), and in the beginning that wasn’t really supported (or at least not documented). That is fixed now. Another issue is that our MacBooks are logging in on the Windows Active Directory stuff we have running internally, which causes some issues with user groups. This has been addressed in this issue.

Recommended way of starting with Boxen

Initially, I thought to create an our-boxen repository, tweak it and try it on a fresh VM installation of Mac OS X. While that sort of works, it is quite ellaborate and not very ‘eat your own dogfood’. As a result, I thinkered with the setup for over a year, without really using it. So that is definitely not the recommended way.

The way to get started with Boxen I recommend is to just start using it on your local development environment. For me, that meant that I had to delete my existing Homebrew installation and dump my rvm RVM setup. While that is not always a realistic option, in my experience it is the best one to get started with Boxen. It requires that you fix everything as quickly as possible in order to get a running environment ASAP and also ensures that everything actually works. Because of the fact that I wouldn’t have a running environment for at least a couple of hours, I decided to do this in between Christmas and New Year, because we’re not working that much at our office and it is not a problem that you’re not able to run everything locally anyway.

Don’t do everything with Boxen

Initially, I thought it was a good idea to basically do everything with Boxen, including checking out all the required repositories to run our services on your local machine. However, after a while I discovered that would be pretty much unmaintainable (our setup is quite dynamic, even more dynamic than I expected). So instead of that, I decided that it would be a better idea to make sure all required tools, like Play, Thrift, Scala, Maven, Java, IntelliJ, Skype, etc. would be managed by Boxen and the actualy projects (checking out, starting, stopping, executing database migrations) by the tools which are specialized in that. While we didn’t have a proper tool for those tasks, I decided to create that first (also while using it myself, so it forces me to have it in a working state). This turned out to work quite well and basically allowed me to improve the time to convert a freshly installed MacBook into a completely working environment from a couple of days to around an hour. Having the tools for updating, starting, stopping services to be separate also makes it a lot faster to keep my development machine up-to-date.

Distributing Boxen

There is a project called Boxen-web available which makes it easy to distribute a Boxen setup. However, as far as I could see, that uses Heroku. I didn’t really try it yet, but for now I opted to create a simple script which does the initial setup required for Boxen.

Some things we had to fix

We were still manipulating /etc/hosts file to actually get development domains point to your localhost. With Boxen it is relatively trivial to let everything ending in .dev point to your localmachine. This blogpost has a nice explaination on how to do this.


I have just started using Boxen on my own laptop and besides some testing in VM’s, it is not used yet to install fresh laptops (that will happen this week), so we don’t have much experience yet, but so far it looks very nice.

Java Date and Time API and JSR-310

Dutch version can be found at the Finalist IT Group weblog.

Since the start of the development of JDK 7, there is quite some discussion on the API’s in the standard Java libraries which covers date and time. In the current Java version (1.6) there are roughly three major (groups of) classes which are responsible for handling date and time: Date and Calendar, the formatting classes, and the classes in the java.sql package, including java.sql.Date, java.sql.Time and java.sql.Timestamp. Most developers agree that these classes are far from perfect.

In order to resolve this issue, JSR-310 is started to improve the date and time API in the standard Java libraries. However, due to lack of developers and slow progress, it became very uncertain if the JSR would be ready for inclusion in JDK 7 (which will eventually become Java 7, the name I will use in the rest of this article). JSR-310 is lead by Stephan Colebourne and Michael Nascimento Santos. Colebourne is the original author of the increasingly popular Joda Time project, which is a replacement for the default Java date and time API’s. At Devoxx 2009, taking place last November, Mark Reinhold of Sun announced that Java 7 will be delayed until September 2010 at the earliest. Stephan Colebourne sees this as a opportunity to release at least a partially complete JSR-310 in time for the upcoming Java release. Read the rest of this entry »

Encoding in Scala interpreter

One of the nice things of Scala is the availability of a command line interpreter based on the REPL principle (Read-evaluate-print loop). Last week, for a particular project, I wanted to generate a string containing a part of the UTF-8 character table.
Thanks to Scala’s concise syntax, this would not be very difficult:

(0x20AC until 0x20B6).foreach { x => print(x.toChar + " ") }

This example will print characters 0x20AC (euro symbol) up to 0x20B6 (an unknown symbol to me :) ).

However, the result I got on my system (Mac OS X 10.6.2 using Scala 2.8 nightly) was not really what I expected:

? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

Read the rest of this entry »

Update of Weblog

My weblog was not very active lately. Mostly, this is because I’m posting a lot on Twitter (in Dutch however) and post some articles on the weblog of the company I’m working for. Especially the post on Devoxx is an interesting read in my opinion.

However, I’m planning to change this. It is not that I don’t like writing, and in my experience, when I write an article on a specific subject, I have the habit of do some research on it which increase my knowledge on the subject on the go. I have some articles in draft and some others planned to write. With the new year approaching, increased writing sounds like a good intention for the upcoming year.

In order to mark this change, I’ve decided to change the look of my site a bit and add some additional features on it (especially a Mobypicture widget). The new look is not yet finished, but that will come over time.

My blog was hacked

So, if anybody is visiting this weblog (probably that aren’t many people anymore, partly because I didn’t post anything recently…) they definitely noticed that I was a victim of one of the many exploits that are available for WordPress weblogs. The frontpage looked alright, but if one tried to view a single post or clicked some random link on my weblog, the page didn’t work. Of course, I was running an old version of WordPress (2.5 actually…). Read the rest of this entry »

JDK 7: new developments

Java 7: new developments and rumours

As promised in my last post, I will write some more on the Java 7 developments. Since my last post, there are not that many new developments, but since I’m reading a bit more on the subject there are some things I want to mention here. Read the rest of this entry »

Java 7: new coffee

Last week, I wrote an article for our corporate weblog on the development of Java 7. Since the article was in Dutch, I didn’t post it on my personal blog. But I wanted to post some follow ups, and since it is not very easy to do this on the weblog of Finalist, I decided to translate the article to English and post it here. The translation is done pretty quickly, and thus very likely a bit rough on the edges. I think it is also interesting for non-Dutch readers. Read the rest of this entry »

Really amazing on YouTube

In my opinion, most of the stuff on YouTube is not very interesting. However, today I stumbled upon a post on Slashdot which contains a link to a really inspiring video created by somebody with a lot of time, but most of all, a very creative and musical mind. What he does, basically, is gathering music-related video’s from YouTube and edit them in such a way that a new song is created. You should watch some of these:

There are at least six others, just take a look here: All the original video’s are linked as well.

New Safari 4 beta

Today Apple introduced the first beta version of Safari 4. While I didn’t read much about this new upcoming browser, I am really enthusiastic about the new features of this browser. I was waiting for Google Chrome to come to the Mac, since I really like lightweight browsers, but Safari made the waiting unnecessary. Read the rest of this entry »

XMPP in Java

I wrote this article a while ago, but never published it. Since it is mostly finished, I decided to put it online anyway. Unfortunately it is in Dutch, maybe I will translate it into English in the near future. Read the rest of this entry »