Windows Development from a Linux Programmer's Perspective

- 15 mins

I recently had to do a little bit of Windows development after having managed to avoid it for around seven years. This post documents my experiences from the point of view of an experienced software developer from a non-Windows background.

The precise reasoning behind why I needed to do some Windows development isn’t that important for this post but, for the curious, I’ve included a brief summary at the end of the post. The short-version: I wanted to write a server which would advertise itself over Zeroconf and stream depth frames from a Kinect for Windows 2 sensor over the network using ØMQ.

Don’t fight the inevitable

It’s a mistake to try and fight the common culture on a particular platform. My usual tool for writing research software is Python. It is an excellent language and ecosystem for writing scientific research software on Linux-like platforms but there is quite the impedance mismatch on Windows. I decided that it would be best to try and embrace the Windows development culture and write a Kinect 2 streaming server “the Windows way”. This also meant I would avoid the future problem of getting Python to talk to the Kinect for Windows SDK.

The “Windows way” in this case is undoubtedly .NET and Visual Studio. What follows are some of my experiences trying to determine what the Windows way is and following it. I should note that the last time I did any Windows programming was a long time ago in a different job and in a completely different field. It was also in C++. I’ve very little experience with .NET development. This was the project to learn. The code is available. Idiom-fixing pull requests are very welcome.

Visual Studio Express Edition

It’s madness to charge people for the privilege of adding value to your software platform so it’s nice to see that Microsoft make the express edition of Visual Studio available at zero-cost. It is, however, extremely confusing that you need to know that you need the “for Windows Desktop” version in order to actually develop programs; the similarly named “for Windows” edition being good only for writing software for both users of Windows Phone OS.

(Aside: perhaps Apple might want to consider quite how many times people need to pay a $99 bounty to write code for their OS, get their development tools, get something onto one of their phones, etc. Development on Apple used to be a dream in 2004. Ten years later it is a nightmare.)

Visual Studio itself is… OK. I don’t really like tools which hide things from you, particularly if you’re a software developer. Visual Studio skirts the boundary of “too much magic” but in general I didn’t find myself worrying where on disk a particular magic bit of configuration is stored.

I’m not really an IDE guy but I will admit that for an almost complete novice .NET developer, the code-completion is useful. The quality of the MSDN documentation, however, is pretty poor. One line summaries of methods, in particular, are inexcusable. Also the MSDN website is really… slow… to… browse. I’d rather have usage examples and discussion of APIs next to or within the reference. Having them scattered all over MSDN makes quickly learning about something pretty hard.

The MSBuild tool is a welcome change since the last time I touched Windows development. Being able to run tests, build code and even package up the results from the command line or automated scripts is an absolute essential.

C# and .NET

I’d say that C# is a very well designed language in that it is utterly unsurprising. Designing something new to be unsurprising is very difficult and it is a complement to C# to describe it as such. If you can get by in Object Pascal and Java then you’ll make yourself understood in C#. I suspect I was programming with a thick C++ accent but I don’t think I was being too offensive to the C# idiom.

I like the Go-style divorce between namespaces/modules and file names on disk; source code files are best organised for the convenience of the developer of a library whereas namespaces are best organised for the convenience of a consumer. Having this distinction recognised is welcome.

External dependencies

This has traditionally where Windows has been the most painful. Thankfully I only had three external dependencies.

The handling of dependencies was actually the part of this whole project where I was the most pleasantly surprised. NuGet has solved a lot of the problems which I used to have with Windows development.

Source control

Microsoft finally woke up to the fact that git is the source control system which the cool kids are using. And no one more obviously yearns to be one of the cool kids than Microsoft does at the moment. Visual Studio’s git integration is basic but functional. I didn’t try to see how easy it was to clone/push/pull/merge/etc from the GUI because I only used the GUI for simple “commit all the changes” type activity. For everything else, I just used git for windows and Git bash. There’s not much to say about git bash: it’s git and bash. Thankfully vim is included as well. I ended up using vim to edit things like READMEs. Visual Studio’s editor is overkill for editing text files and I just couldn’t get on with things like Notepad++. I’m also not fashionable enough to use Sublime Text. I suspect editors are just too personal a thing to change at the drop of a hat.

While we’re talking about git bash, the terminal (“console” in Micro-speak) is appalling. It’s 2014 and you should be able to a) resize the window and b) copy and paste without resorting to hidden menus. Even Windows PowerShell seems to have been hit with the same ugly stick.

Testing

The unit test framework in Visual Studio is perfectly acceptable. It’s nice that the test runner uses reflection to determine automatically which tests to run. (I’m used to such a thing with testing frameworks on Python.) It’s also nice that each test is run in its own domain meaning that silly mistakes like dangling threads are easy to pick up on.

The final code is less tested than I’d like. Only writing the server-side portion means that you’re missing one of the ends for end-to-end testing. That’s not Windows’ fault though.

Documentation tools

I think the poor focus of Microsoft on documentation is particularly apparent here. There is the most perfuctuary support for API documentation. Essentially you can write arbitrary XML in a comment abover your method, class, etc definition and have it concatenated together into an XML output file. There’s no HTML documentation tool built into Visual Studio and the solutions which exist are clunky at best.

I suspect that the people at Microsoft think that code-completion is a substitute for documentation.

Continuous integration

I love Travis CI. Having a free service which will observe a GitHub repository, check out any new commits and then try building and testing your software in a fresh VM is wonderful. Having had to set up a Jenkins server in a previous job I cannot tell you how nice it is to have a system like Travis. It’s brain-dead and simple but, like Unix, that is a feature in itself. It’s hard to do simple well and Travis does it excellently.

Travis CI only supports Linux test machines. (Or, at least, the free service only support Linux.) That’s not going to fly for Windows. Luckily someone clearly saw a gap in the market and set up AppVeyor. It’s not quite as nice as Travis but it’s also a lot younger. It’s also not quite as simple to use but it is opinionated. That means that you’ll have a nice time if you don’t fight the “Windows way”. A project which is laid out in the usual Visual Studio way will Just Build (TM).

All of my external dependencies are either NuGet-able or are packaged as re-distributable .msi instalers. After some Googling for the correct PowerShell incantation, getting Bonjour and the Kinect SDKs auto-installing on the test boxes was easy enough and the NuGet packages are downloaded automatically by MSBuild.

I chose to have the non-NuGet dependencies in a separate repository. Having big binary blobs in your source repo is a Bad Idea. It’s also a needless waste of bandwidth for someone who clones your repo when they already have the appropriate SDKs installed.

Packaging

This is a little frustrating. For some reason, Microsoft saw fit to not ship the support for packaging projects with the express edition of Visual Studio. There is only support for publishing a “ClickOnce” package. It’s OK as a mechanism but I’m reserving judgement until I actually try to deploy this software onto a separate machine.

GUIs

The way that Windows Forms does GUI designing is a little dirty. I prefer a more explicit separation between UI layout and logic. (WPF seems to be better in that regard but, from what Googling I performed, it looks like WPF is a bit of a dead-end for developing GUIs.) As it was, there would be the tiniest of tiny bits of GUI development for the server. I wanted most of the guts to live in a library (or “assembly” in Micro-speak) and have the GUI basically be a start/stop button and a log window. See below:

I’m a firm believer in separate modules and composable software and so the GUI shell is just that: a shell. The core logic is very small. There’s also a console version of the server in the repository which is actually how I run it most of the time. Since there is so little of it, having the GUI code be a bit ugly isn’t a problem.

Summary

If you are willing to do things the “Windows way” then writing software on Windows is relatively painless. The packaging and dependency management story is a lot better nowadays but it still is lacking far behind Linux. Debian has had apt-get for over 15 years now and NuGet is not a lot better than apt was back then.

It’s still too hard to set up a project in a way which encourages others to build it; you need to jump through some hoops to lay it out in a way where your development machine isn’t special and NuGet is only a partial solution to dependency hell. It is better than it was though and shows that the Microsoft ecosystem is becoming a little more friendly to the “Open Source” model of small projects shared widely.

Overall, I think this little experiment is a success and I’m well placed to add actual real Kinect support to my code once the Windows 8 machine arrives. With the CI system and GitHub, maybe I could even get a student to do it?

Addendum: the problem

Below I’ll describe the actual problem I was facing and why I decided to learn an entirely new platform, new language and new IDE to solve it.

Firstly, a little context: this year I will have some Masters’ degree students working on a robotic project which hopes to use a Microsoft Kinect for Windows version 2 sensor. (This is the one that comes with the XBox One console.) The project is a research project and, to make life easier for the students, we will be using the ROS to wire together the various algorithms we will be using and to control the robot arm.

When using ROS, the path of least resistance is to use Ubuntu Linux. While there are some very capable drivers for the original Kinect sensor, there are unfortunately not currently any drivers for the Kinect version 2 sensor which I consider stable enough to let students loose on. There is a reverse engineering effort which may bear fruit but, as of writing, it is not mature enough for our uses.

Being a fan of the simplest (a.k.a. “laziest”) solution, I decided that it would be best to have a dedicated Windows 8 computer with the Kinect plugged into it. (This is proving a challenge, however, since any spare machines at work tend to be running Linux. The number of Windows 8 machines is quite small.) The computer would then stream the depth buffer into the rest of our Linux-based pipeline. The precise nature of the research project means that sub-100 millisecond latency isn’t really required.

Similarly it isn’t a requirement that the depth stream be completely uncompressed. A quick back-of-envelope calculation reveals that a 1080p60 16-bit depth buffer is around 400 megabytes per second. This is far more than the network at work can deal with. Some brief experimentation showed that one can non-linearly quantise a depth buffer to 8-bit precision using something like the μ-law algorithm and then compress it with JPEG in real-time to get the required bandwidth down to a more manageable 1 or 2 megabytes per second.

All of this experimentation was done in Python and the code is available if you want to take a look. The experimental code also includes a simple client/server pair. The server advertises itself over Zeroconf and uses ØMQ to stream depth frames over the network. The idea being that we don’t want to spend time configuring IPs, subnet masks, etc, etc. Ideally we can just plug the Windows 8 machine into the ROS machine with a network cable and “magic” will happen. Every required configuration option is another potential point of failure.

So far, so good. All of the development at this point had been done in Linux with Python and a little bit of code which mocked up the depth stream I’d be getting from the Kinect. This allowed some rapid development and the ability to actually test the client and server bits by having the test suite start both on the same machine and provide a “mock” Kinect device.

I was vaguely aware that the received opinion is that Python development on Windows is a little hard but when I finally got around to finding a Windows box to try installing the software on I found out how bad it was. Firstly, the “official” Python is almost unusable. For anything other than the bleeding-edge Python 3.4 release, installing simple tools like pip is a pain. Getting all the pieces in line to actually pip install a C-backed module like pyzmq is even worse. Continuum Analytics’ Anaconda installer makes life a lot easier but it still requires quite an extensive amount of fiddling to get a machine set up for development.

This goes against my natural inclination against “special snowflake” machines. One of the advantages of having pip-like tools in the first place is that one can use generic VMs in the cloud to build-test your code on each commit. Then you have an explicit, repeatable and automated recipe for turning your GitHub repository into installed software. Having to set up a special development machine will come back to haunt you the first time you need to get someone else to build (or install) your software.

Rich Wareham

Rich Wareham

You know, programming is fun!

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