Post PC? Developing in the cloud.

Is developing in a cloudless environment a old-fashioned throwback?

After my Post PC post, and with an interest in node.js I decided to see if it was now possible to develop a reasonably complex bit of software, with structure and tests, having nothing more than a Web browser installed. I looked at a few options but decided on cloud9 because it has a Chrome app, supports GitHub, BitBucket and Azure, and they are the custodians of the open source Web text editor formally known as Mozilla Skywriter, and all their server code is available on GitHub. They also give you a bash terminal, which makes git and mercurial feel at home far more than on a DOS prompt. As I will be making this code openly available, I have no privacy concerns with using the cloud, but if this was a commercial project, I may have different concerns, although, since Cloud9 is an open source project, I would be able to create a private install so I could use a netbook or tablet to write, compile and run code on a server.

My first view was that this was a pleasant surprise. I think with software like this, it is entirely possible to do web development on the web, with full support for most of what I do in my day job, up to deployment. Writing native software is still a few steps behind, although with projects like PhoneGap Build, there’s not much of the loop left to close.

As a UNIX developer by default (and a Windows developer by day), I found Cloud9 very familiar, and despite a few refresh bugs, I felt very productive, and was able to quickly code, build, unit test, and deploy to a temporary staging environment without having to learn anything new, creating shell scripts to help me out along the way, which was a great bonus as I was learning node.js. Unlike my laptop, it also has auto-save and hibernate, so if my connection fails, I don’t lose my edit, and can easily pick up where I left off.

Compared to my usual workday environment of Visual Studio + CodeRush, there’s a lot of features that I’m used to missing, such as many of the code templates and refactorings, but node.js needs a lot less typing than c#, so it’s less of a problem than it would otherwise be. It’s not a showstopper, but I do feel slightly at a loss when switching between them.

Going on this experience, I would say that the cloud is ready for developers, at least if you’re developing for the web, and you’re developing in the open. The usual caveats about cloud security and potential loss of services apply (keep a local copy of your repo if you want to guarantee you’ll always have it, for example), but the web definitely is now powerful enough to develop for itself, and that makes it a powerful platform. Hat tip to the Cloud9 team, and I’ll tell you more about my project next time.


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