Saturday, 6 July 2013

My Top Technical Tools

I find that during my technical work on Oracle and Performance Tuning there are a few key pieces of software that I keep coming back to again and again. They are not directly related to databases, and are really more like technical tools that help me do my work better. Each does a unique thing, and does it so well that they have become standard tools I use all of the time one way or another.

So my top technical utilities that I could not do without, in no particular order, are:
  • TiddlyWiki - a great personal Wiki for keeping together all the bits of useful information I come across
  • Mercurial - source code control, great for tracking the history of all my SQL scripts
  • VirtualBox - virtualised environments for testing multiple Linux and Oracle versions
  • Trello - an online list tool, great for do lists and following mini projects
I'm not trying to say that each of these is the best possible for each thing. I'm saying that they are so easy and straightforward to use that I use them again and again. And their feature set is great in each case - just what I want, no more, no less. Each of these tools has advantages that makes it more useful than other options out there or just not using anything at all.

TiddlyWiki is a self contained Wiki in a single HTML file, with a built in editing capability. So you can carry around your own Wiki on a memory stick as a single HTML file, and keep adding to it any time you want to. As ever it uses a bit of meta-syntax to embed formatting and hyperlinks. But that is it - no complicated set up or configuration, or other dependencies. Its portable - I use Firefox as my browser, but on Windows or Linux or anything else.

Mercurial tracks changes to text files i.e. source code versioning. Great for tracking changes to all of my numerous SQL scripts over time. Again, no complicated set up, though you do need to install it first (either build from scratch or as an installable package if available for your operating system). It keeps a record of what you changed in each file whenever you do a commit (an update to the history in its repository). It is dead easy to see the history of changes to any given file (often difficult for some tools) - specifically what changed and when. I've used it for all kinds of "source code files" on projects and been able to debug bad changes by working out when certain changes were made and by whom. You might never need to go "back in time" to see old versions of scripts, but when you do need to it is invaluable. And for just a little disk overhead of keeping the change history.

I'm sure many of you know about VirtualBox for creating virtual machines. I can easily create a new virtual machine, install what variant of Linux I want, and do any testing I want - all in isolation from other things. Really useful for creating sandpit test environments, and throwing together specific combinations of software without needing a dedicated system.

Trello is my latest discovery from about 2 years ago. I've always wanted a "good enough" do list tool, but nothing too complicated or over the top - not full blown project management. I want to add new items easily, add new lists, move things between lists, order them as I want to within a list, and mix lists and items together nesting them in each other. Trello lets me do this. Although web based and requiring registration, it has a great GUI with drag and drop of items - within lists and between lists. Again, they have made it really easy to use. Click for a new item, type it in, and save. Editing is just a case of clicking twice (once to open, then edit). Trello kind of has 4 levels of hierarchy within it, so you can work out which combination of levels works best for you. There are boards (separate sets of lists), lists within a board, items within a list, and items can also have a checklist within them which is useful. So you either have one board with multiple lists and items, or multiple boards (one per project?) with lists of sub-projects and task level items. Or mix it another way. I like the checklists because they only appear when you open the item (keeping the main display less cluttered), and they work well for task lists as you tick them off as complete.

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