posted 9 years ago by Ben Cordero

I've had the Pixel for a few months now. The most surprising thing that I've realised is how much time I have been using this without modifications. In the first month, I immediately dropped into devmode, installed Gentoo, Debian and my own builds of ChromiumOS.

In the end, I decided to use the Pixel with devmode off, while I sacrifice shell access to the local filesystem, the extra security of the verified boot is nice. This isn't that restrictive for me because the crosh shell (ctrl+alt+t) has a ssh client which is enough for me to do my "real" computing on a server somewhere else.

When at home, I have a server at home, at work I have a small cloud and workstation to connect to. But sometimes, I wonder if I really can get away from these support servers and make the most of the ChromeBook environment.

I don't care about picture or video editing. There are some HTML5 games too. What will matter to me most is an IDE and collaboration tools (groupware). I'll save groupware for later.

Introducing Nitrous.IO. This is going to be one of those multi-page blogs.

Much like HTML5 Photo/Video editors, Web IDEs are still finding their feet. A quick Chrome Web Store search has previously pointed me in the direction of Cloud9 and Codeenvy. They are surprisingly not terrible and are even packaged nicely for chrome. In the self-hosted world, there is Adafruit's webIDE which works really well on a raspberry pi.

The latest WebIDE to gain prominence is Nitrous.IO and it has a feature set that is worth taking some time to explore.

1/. It's a throwaway environment

The unit of computation is a "Box", an abstraction over an EC2 instance. You can increase or decrease the resources to a Box by adding or removing N2O which is earned or purchased. Upon signup (you can use your github account if you don't care about memorising another password), there's just enough N2O to create a small Box, but it serves well for a free tier.

If you screw up the environment, just delete it and create a new one. If you need more resources, or want to isolate development then buy more N2O. It's an interesting business model and has some implications for a feature further down.

2/. It's an IDE

It feels like a real IDE. Perhaps not as full featured as Eclipse (oh the plugins!), Visual Studio (despite the platform, still a excellent IDE) or QtCreator (my favourite for mobile app development), but it gives you a text editor, filesystem hierarchy and a console to do those tasks that haven't yet made it into menubar form.

Actually, I find the whole experience very similar to using Kate. On my Pixel, Nitrous is a packaged app and feels like native IDE; except for the active TLS stream to somewhere in Amazonia.

3/. Features and Integrations

One of the pieces that differentiates the WebIDEs is how code is imported/exported, where the files are saved and shell commands run.

CloudEnvy, C9 and Adafruit isolate you to the environment as defined by your Github or Bitbucket repository. Nitrous goes a step further by dropping you in as a non-root user on a heavily modified ubuntu machine (in an AWS region of your choice). From there, you can "git clone", "pip install" or even "virtualenv" the rest of the development environment. GCC 4.6, a good selection of pythons (no pypy), rubies, java, erlang, golang compilers and interpreters along with cmake and qmake round out the most of the needs for developers. Puppet and chef binaries are available, as well as the heroku toolbelt!

It is these devops friendly integrations that really make this environment worth while. With most of the essentials already installed, there is no pressing need for root access.

4/. It's cooperative

I think that the killer feature for Nitrous.IO is what presents itself innocuously to the right of the layout. "Collab Mode" lets you invite other users to the Box. This makes use of the sidebar chat and notifications feed. Changes to files by one user update in realtime.

Collaboration is probably where the Nitrous business model will present itself. Inviting more people to your project means that they will create their own accounts, their own Boxes and use up more N2O. Since the granularity for collaboration is per Box, it makes sense to keep separate projects (managed by separate groups) on separate Boxes.

Full stack for free.

There are some amazing things on the internet for web internet developers at the moment. GitHub to store source code (free if you keep it public). Heroku to host it (750 hours/month free per dyno). Travis-CI to test (free on the public service).

These three alone form the triumvirate of web software. In fact, with Pull Request support and Heroku Deployment, the life-cycle of a patch getting to production is really easy.

Easy, except for composing the patch itself. This is where Nitrous.IO steps in.

  1. Fork on github
    From the github web ui, find a project and fork it to your own namespace.
  2. Create a Box
    This step replaces "open a terminal".
  3. Enable github keys
    There's even a button for this.
  4. Clone from github
    With the handy (literally touch-friendly) shell.
  5. Herokai
    _heroku create_ from inside the git directory
  6. Install travis__

    gem install travis; travis init python travis login && travis enable_

  7. Link to Heroku
    _travis setup heroku
    This step adds an encrypted key to be committed

  8. Push
    Since the original clone was against github, and travis is now watching pushes and pull requests, this will trigger a CI run.
  9. Admire
    If the tests are successful, then travis will also deploy to heroku.

This workflow also works with pull requests. However, there is a difference between a CI run for every pull request (or every branch) and the merge commit in the master branch. There are some useful integrations between travis and github such that successful pull requests (notice the green ticks by the commit SHA) can easily be merged (and branches deleted) and failed patches (with evil red crosses) can be sent for further review.

The Awesomeness Continues

In conclusion, I have managed to create, host and iterate a webapp entirely on a chromebook, an ephemeral environment. If someone comes along with some useful changes, they can fork and submit a pull request and most of the hard work testing is already done for me.

If I like the changeset, then a few clicks of the big green buttons to merge will trigger a build/test run, deploy to heroku which will then swap out the slug and continue serving with zero downtime.

The awesome bit is that this is all available for free!

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