28 January 2010

Deep-Sky Planner 5 Is Shipping

I was talking recently to the CEO of a company that sells critical power systems. He asked 'why is software never on time? Why do engineers always want to add another feature?' I responded that feature creep isn't instigated exclusively in engineering. We went way down the rabbit hole from there...

After two and a half years of development which was preceded by quite a bit of requirements gathering, DSP5 is shipping - in January 2010 as advertised. I like punctual, but I realize releases don't always go as planned. I've been involved with software projects that were late and some that never shipped. Those were unpleasant episodes.

Hard to do
I've corresponded with some other developers of astronomical software on various issues, and it's pretty clear that releasing software on schedule is pretty hard to do. Part of the reason is feature creep, but there are other reasons beyond developers' control: changes in operating environments (e.g. Windows), advances in hardware and the complexity of the application itself all conspire against the calendar. Fortunately Microsoft did a much better job with compatibility in Windows 7 than in Vista. Testing with different hardware is getting formidable - there are 32 and 64 bit computers in different configurations. Heck, the office is overflowing with computers and astronomy gear. As for the complexity of the application, all programmers use that excuse, right? Maybe so, but I'm always assessing different methodologies to help manage the complexity. Parts of Agile Development look promising. The idea is to develop and release smaller increments of functionality. The desired end is to release feature updates to version 5 on a 6 to 9 month cycle. Bug fixes remain highest priority, with these updates released ASAP. We'll see how it goes.

So version 5 is ready. As I review the features that have been requested, I'm pleased with the number that are implemented now. Others need to be implemented after other pieces are in place, but they are on the development plan. I guess I'm guilty of the engineering mentality that my CEO friend talked about: there are lots of features and enhancements on the drawing board.

17 January 2010

Windows 7 and UAC - Can Do

Windows Vista has been quite the adventure for Windows users and software developers. Years of experience with previous versions of Windows taught us a set of rules that changed with Vista, attributable to improved security. This author's experience indicates that Windows 7 has retained the new rules introduced with Vista while improving the 'user experience'. Stated plainly, I like Windows 7 a lot better than Vista.

Pain Free UAC
Deep-Sky Planner 5 is designed to 'play nicely' with the new security scheme that appeared in Vista and continues with 7: it can run from either an administrative or standard user account with User Account Control turned on. Three features require administrative privileges to run:
choosing the ASCOM driver for your telescope, setting system time using a time service or a telescope mount, and using Starry Night with Deep-Sky Planner. I can understand why the Starry Night plug-in or setting system time should be limited to administrators, and the ASCOM driver chooser is not actually a part of Deep-Sky Planner. Other than these situations, UAC stays happy.

Multiple Install Modes
Deep-Sky Planner 5 supports 2 installation modes: one for all users and one for individual user(s). In all users mode, one copy of the program and data files is shared by each user of the computer. In individual user mode, a copy of the program and data files is accessible to each user account for which it is installed. This means that account(s) do not share code or data - a private copy belongs to each installation.

Individual mode is good for most users. It is essential if you need separate files for multiple users. Separate files includes the database where observations, equipment definitions and locations are stored. This option can be maintained (patched) by the individual user without the need for an administrator to apply the patch.

All Users mode is ok for most users too. The program can be run from any account on the computer, but the files are shared. Any maintenance (patching) must be done by an administrator.

The bottom line is pretty simple
Microsoft is taking steps to diminish security problems in Windows, and software developers need to follow the recommendations to make the end user's product work within the new guidelines. Deep-Sky Planner 5 is ready for these changes and it gives you several options for using the product securely with the latest version of Windows.