The Workaround Trap

Let me begin by telling you a little story. Some time ago I needed to run a script at work once a day. We had tons of machines ranging from big Unix servers to Linux desktops. Due to various reasons the script could only be run on a desktop machine. However using cron was disabled on desktops. All other machines allowed cron.

I contacted the IT guys and asked them to allow cron on desktop
machines. A long and arduous battle followed. Among the issues said to
me was that allowing cron on desktop machines would be a security
issue (apparently because then people would actually use it).
When I replied that cron is freely usable on all other machines I got
a bunch of other comments, including a “helpful” way to work around my
problem with a complicated combination of xnest and ssh port

All I wanted was to get cron working. Eventually I was told that
“you can code your own cron program with Python really easily, just
run it under screen and you’re all set”

End of line!

I had come face to face with the workaround trap. I’m sure
most readers have faced some mutation of this phenomenon where an
obvious problem does not or will not get fixed because you can hack
around it somehow. Workarounds by themselves are not a bad thing.
Problems arise when workarounds prevent the so-called real (or
“correct”) solution from emerging. This problem is especially
prevalent on UNIX type systems, which have traditionally had a strong
culture of DIY whenever the basic tools don’t do exactly what is

Some examples might illustrate the nature of the workaround trap.
The first one deals with binary relocation and the second one with
email protocols.

Where am I, asked the little program

One of the cool things about OS X is that most programs come in
self-contained bundles. Those can be placed anywhere in the file
system and run. Similarly Windows programs can be installed in any
directory whatsoever. In contrast rpms and debs have hardcoded install
locations and simply will not work anywhere else. At least most of the

There are several reasons for this but one of the main ones is that
there is no standardised way for a UNIX program (or a dynamic library)
to ask where is the file it is being run from. Windows and Mac both
have this feature.

Suppose we have a C program that consists of two different files: a
binary called foo and a user-editable configuration file
called foo.conf. These files are placed somewhere in the
filesystem (say /opt/myprog/foo and
/opt/myprog/foo.conf) spesified by the install system. The
user then runs the program, which begins by reading its conf file.
What filename should it pass to fopen to access its conf

Simply passing foo.conf would try to open the file in
the directory the program was launched from (usually the user’s home
directory). Opening the correct file would require some way to know
where the executable file currently resides.

This is where the workaround trap springs into action.

The common solution is that the build system #define:s
a string constant such as INSTALL_PREFIX as the path
where the program will eventually get installed. Then accessing the
data file is simply a matter of string concatenation
(INSTALL_PREFIX + "foo.conf"). This works and is
relatively simple, but the downside is a severe static dependency: the
files must be in the spesified directory or else nothing

You can do all sorts of cool things with relocatable binaries, like
allowing users to install non-official rpms (such as daily
snapshots of Firefox 3) to their own home directories in a safe and
reliable way. But these things will never get explored since there is
no way for a UNIX program to ask where is the file it is currently
being run from.

Note: this is one of the problems being tackled by the Autopackage team. They have a working solution
but it is quite hackish and works only on Linux.

“My great-great-great grandfather used SMTP so that’s what I’ll

An oft-repeated wisdom about design is that you have reached
perfection not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s
nothing to remove. Email is one area where this rule has definitely
not been followed.

Have you ever wondered why you need to define both an incoming mail
server and an outgoing mail server? You’d think that a server that can
transport mail in one direction would be smart enough to know how to do it
in the other direction as well. And in fact those server can do that, but
you can not send mail through IMAP.

And why is that, you ask?

Because mail is sent using SMTP. Mail has always been sent using
SMTP. Mail will always be sent using SMTP. To not use SMTP is

This causes a lot of unnecessary work. Mail client developers have
to code and debug two different protocols instead of one. You need two
different authentication steps, one for incoming mail and one for
outgoing. Basically you need two of everything when one would suffice.
A committee has even developed a way for an SMTP server to communicate
with an IMAP server to retrieve attached files from sender’s IMAP
mailbox so that they can be attached to the current outgoing message.
I kid
you not!
I hope they patented the hell out of that 5-phase email
sending process of theirs so that no-one will ever have to use it.

There is a simple solution to this mess. The IMAP server shows
clients a virtual folder called, say, OUTBOX. The client composes a
message and writes it to this folder. The IMAP server takes the
message, possibly checks that it is valid and passes it on to an SMTP
server. Mail sent. With 50 percent less cruft, even.

Sounds too simple to be true? Can’t possibly work? There must be
some critical thing missing?

The Courier mail server
has had this feature for ages. But should you suggest that this
feature be added to other programs, you’ll probably get some blank
stares followed by instructions on how to properly set up an SMTP


Have you ever wondered what Steve Jobs actually does at work?
Looking at his public performances you can clearly see that his most
important task is aggressively seeking and destroying workaround traps
that lie in Apple’s products.

Take for example the iPhone. Almost everything it does has been possible for ages. Telephone exchanges have had the support to make
conference calls since the 80s. However I don’t personally know a
single person that would have used this feature. Mostly because to get
it working you had to enter long magical keysequences with zero
feedback. Smartphones may have this feature in their menus somewhere. On
the iPhone you just push one button. The same holds true for most of
its other features. Some of those features required changes to
Cingular’s telephone exchanges. No-one else was willing to do those
changes because they kept saying “you can already do that by …”.

The free software community does not and can not have one person like
Jobs who would force people to fix needlessly complex systems and
eradicate harmful habits. We must do it ourselves. Therefore I encourage
all readers to think of one example where a complicated and crufty hack is
being widely used today even though creating a more elegant solution would
make everyone’s life easier.

Then post it in the comments. Back your assertion with solid
technological facts.

Because the first step to recovery is admitting your problems.

About the author:

Jussi Pakkanen is a long time Linux user. He has had the dubious
pleasure of beating his head against most corners the personal
computing world has managed to build. The doctors are optimistic
that, given time, he may yet become a productive member of society.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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