X window interface (long)

Francis Rysavy x3292 frysavy at mrc-crc.ac.uk
Thu Apr 16 10:06:05 EST 1992


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Sender:	        Francis R.Rysavy, Head, Computing Services,
Organisation:	Medical Research Council-Clinical Research Centre &
                Human Genome Mapping Project Resource Centre
Address:	Watford Road, HARROW, Middlesex, U.K.  HA1 3UJ
Phone:	        081-869 3291, Internat. + 44 81 869 3291
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Janet:          f.rysavy at UK.AC.CRC
Internet:       f.rysavy at CRC.AC.UK
Earn/Bitnet:	f.rysavy%CRC at UKACRL
Usenet:         ...!mcsun!ukc!mrccrc!F.Rysavy or F.Rysavy at mrccrc.uucp
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We have been running a large client/server network for now about 1000
users. Details of the UK Humane Genome Mapping Project online computing service were just published in CABIOS, Vol.8.no2.1992,Pages 149-154.
 
> X windows seems to be replacing VT100/Tektronix as the new de facto 
> "standard" environment for molecular biology (and other) programs.  I
> don't want to discuss the technical merits of this trend, but I think
> that a little thought should be given to the cost, both for
> hardware/software and for effort integrating these applications.  I'll tilt
> this discussion towards X window programmers and system managers (ie, those
> of us who have to make software accessible to a group of users.) 

Facing and evaluating the same problem.
 
> Background.  This is how things are here: we've got around 100 Macs
> and PC's, one (B&W) VaxStation console, and one (B&W) SPARCstation
> console. One or two of the labs have their own Unix boxes.  So,if any
> significant number of these users are to have access to this new
> generation of X based software using existing hardware, they are going
> to need Mac and PC X window servers. At the moment, these users
> utilize VT100/Tektronix mode emulation for 99% of the software that
> runs on the Vax, but we've got a couple of people running MacX to use
> ACEDB on the SPARC. 

We are running X applications such as databases  of  interest  to
molecular  biology  and genetics scientists that have  already have an
X version, including the cDNA database and  the Mouse  Backcross
database.  The Genome Data Base (GDB) is  expected to  get the  X
graphical interface soon.  Other examples of  currently available  X
programs  include  xrn  which provides  a  comfortable  environment
for  reading  network  news bulletins, the  X version  of the  Staden
software,  the  nematode genome database  system (acedb)  and others.
We are using the eXceed X display software for IBM and IBM compatible
PC's, do not know enough about something similar for Macs.

> And now a few questions:
> 
> 1. Can your existing Unix and VMS machines support as many
>    simultaneous X client applications as needed to keep the users
>    happy? 

Started doing some measurements, however the first guess is that a
separate processor will be needed. How big for how many people we dinot
know yet. Are prepared to share insights in due course.

> [Here, no way. We've only got a Sparc 1 and a VAXstation 3100m38,
> that's plenty for VT100/Tek, but not nearly enough horsepower for lots
> of simultaneous X sessions.] 
> 
> 2. How many of your users' existing Macs and PCs could run X servers? 
> 
> [Here, about a third.  A lot of the existing systems either are too
> underpowered (Mac Plus, Original PC's) or don't have enough disk or
> memory.  They can pretty much all run VT100 emulators and around 90%
> can also do Tektronix emulation.] 

Similar situation if not worse. A "reasonable" configuration of a
personal computer should  have a colour screen of the highest quality,
size 17 inches and resolution 1024 by 768  is recommended; an
appropriate graphics card;  an ethernet card; not less than 4 Mbytes,
preferably 8 Mbytes of memory and a three button  mouse. Not many of
those around.  Very little if any experience with Macs.
 
> 3. How are you going to put X servers on all of those Macs and PCs? 
> 
> [Putting _legal_ copies of commercial X server packages on all of our
> PCs and Macs is going to cost serious money. To give you a clue on the
> environment, a lot of ours are running NCSA Telnet, MacIP, or Kermit,
> ie, their owners either were not willing or not able to pay for
> commercial terminal emulators.] 

We have a site deal for eXceed.
 
> 4. Do any of your users dial in to use your systems? 
> 
> [Here, fewer and fewer since we've finally got the ethernet into all
> of the labs.  However, quite a few people work on papers and such at
> home.  Things are already pretty slow for them at 2400 baud in
> character mode.  Maybe they could run X windows over SLIP, but I bet
> that they wouldn't like it.] 

Yes and this might cause problem in due course. Any insights welcome.
 
> 5. Have you ever seen public domain X window servers for PC's running
>    DOS and Windows, and Mac's running System 6 or 7? 
> 
> [I've not encountered these programs, but I'd love to have them if
> they already exist.] 

The answer is no.
 
> Now that I've grumped about the cost of the interface, here are my
> suggestions to X window program developers to help us minimize these
> costs: 
> 
> 1.  ALWAYS put in a character mode interface.  This should be in two
> versions, instead of, and in addition to, the X interface. Your
> program will run on practically anything and TO practically anything. 
> It will also be possible to access it via scripts.  We can migrate to
> its X window capabilites as our budget permits.  Yeah, I know, low
> tech, stone age, etc., but guess what, a lot of us still have to work
> at this level. 

Might be to expensive for the developers. 
 
> 2.  When you add graphics, have some way for the character mode to
> send graphics to a file and to the screen.  It doesn't matter so much
> if it is Tektronix, GKS, or whatever.  If we can get our hands on it,
> then we can reformat it enough to look at it.  Obviously, this isn't
> for interactive graphics applications.  But then, how much interactive
> graphics does one _really_ need in a database? 
> 
> 3   Have mercy on those users who have B&W or 4 bit grey scale
> screens.  Ditto for those without 1000 x 1000 screens. 
> 
> 4   Mice come with 3/2/1 buttons.  Using option up-arrow mouse-button
> is a miserable way to access a program option.  Set it up so that your
> program works reasonably with the number of physical buttons on the
> user's mouse.  Also, stay away from weird control key mouse button
> combinations - they are user hostile. 
> 
> 5   How about next time you get an urge to write a graphical DNA
> editor, write a public domain X server for either the PC or the Mac
> instead?  Yeah, it's not a trivial undertaking (I know that I couldn't
> do it), but it would be really nice to have this software around. Just
> think, if you write this then you will have increased the "market" for
> your other X window software by about 10x !
> 
> 
> That's enough gasoline on the fire for one day.
> 
> David Mathog
> mathog at seqvax.caltech.edu
> manager, sequence analaysis facility, biology division, Caltech
> 
> 
We stay in touch and when we have more experience, we will share it.

Kind Regards
Francis




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