The exploding computer test

I came across an article about the exploding computer test. The gist of it is this — if you’re current computer met with some sort of catastrophic failure and was irrecoverable, how long would it take you to get up and running on a new machine? For me the test is a bit less demanding since I have multiple computers set up that could be pressed into service at a moment’s notice. But for argument’s sake let’s say that I am given a fresh new machine. Here’s what I’d do.

Install OS X or Linux

If I got a blank OS X machine things would go a bit faster. But if I got a stock Windows machine (like both my main computers were) then I’d start by putting Linux on it. If I was in a rush it would be Ubuntu which AFAIK has the fastest, simplest install. If I had a little more time I’d install Arch Linux since that’s what I’m more comfortable with, even though it has a longer initial setup time.

Install Git, Emacs and Chrome/Firefox

These are the three basic programs I need to get work done. I’m supposing that I already have some kind of terminal program since both Linux and OS X have them by default. On Ubuntu or Arch all of these are just a few commands away. They’d take a bit longer in OS X, but not really long enough to make much of a difference. With that done I can move on to retrieving all my data.

Cloning git repositories or getting stuff off Dropbox

Once I have Git getting back to a working state is mostly a matter of just cloning the repositories I need from my server. Everything I work on alone is in a Git repository and all my groupwork is in Dropbox. Getting all this back is just a few minutes work at most. If I was going to be working a lot on stuff living in Dropbox I’d install the client too. If nothing else, I would definitely get my system configuration repo and my Emacs setup repo since I consider them both absolutely essential to getting work done quickly.

Install compilers, interpreters, debuggers etc.

By this point I have my generic setup done. The last part is installing whatever project specific things I need. For example, if I need to work on my thesis I’d get GCC, GDB, Flex, Bison and Ruby. If I wanted to work on one of my JavaScript experiments, I’m all set because all I need is a browser my js2-mode for Emacs. But most of these are things I’d installed as I needed and I could get started on work again without waiting to have everything installed.

How long would it take?

The biggest variable here is the OS install time. For a Mac it’s basically zero, while for Arch it could be an hour or two. But like I said, if I was in a hurry I’d just install Ubuntu and be done with it. But even factoring in that uncertainty, it shouldn’t take more than a handful of hours. I’m hesitant to give an exact amount, but if I started right after lunch I would certainly be getting work done well before dinner time. Without having to do an OS install I could probably be up and running within the hour.

It’s been a long long time since I’ve actually had to set up a work machine from scratch. I’m a bit surprised as to how little I need to get to a work setup again. I remember when I was in high school getting back to working meant installing Windows, Office, Firefox, a Java environment called BlueJ and a bunch of other little things all of which took a good amount of time to install. I’m definitely at the stage when where my tools and workflow are very different from the average users. As the days go by I’m only becoming better and faster at getting stuff done, but that’s a matter for another blog post.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

One thought on “The exploding computer test”

  1. I recently got a new laptop (for redundancy and for some other experiments, which I should just say, is probably the best way to survive the exploding computer test: have a computer that you can switch to in about 5 minutes that’s running just fine,) but the experience of setting this up provides a pretty good test of this problem.

    I’d say, from putting the install disk in to having a system that was fully functional in every way, it was probably 2 full days, maybe 2.5 days. This includes getting weird things ready like Bluetooth teathering to my cell phone, automatic suspend and resume, and all of that magic. This time it took me a bit longer because the last release of arch didn’t have some of the necessary drivers/firmware that my machine needed (so I had to use an Archboot iso) and I was doing an LVM-based system, which I had never done before. I could probably narrow that down to about half a day if it weren’t for these problems, and the bluetooth teathering wasn’t a hard requirement.

    I also, must confess that my usual method of installing a new system these days is to rsync /home and /var/cache/pacman/pkg… and duplicate systems from there…

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