Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Look At Free/OpenSource Cross-Platform Installers

Software Distribution is an essential part of Software Development and can sometimes be the first impression that can make or break the user's opinion about a software. We, as software programmers forget the importance of easy distribution and easy installation of software that we develop. We do not understand the problems that a new computer user or a non-programmer may face. And I experienced this first hand about 2 weeks back, when a physician friend of mine heard that I was working on OpenMRS.

I was lucky enough to work on OpenMRS this summer and learnt a lot more about Medical Informatics during this period than I expected. Hearing this, my friend openrmswanted to install OpenMRS at his clinic which already used Tally (hehe... isn't that innovative??) for storing patient records, observations and prescriptions. He practices at Kolkata, visits different hospitals and sometimes the patients he attended at a hospital come to his clinic. When I told him that OpenMRS was a webapp, he got all excited and I narrated him all the features that OpenMRS could provide and help him manage his patients better through the web, only if he could host OpenMRS from his clinic. I'll skip the other interesting parts and his extra-terrestrial expressions ;-), since we are actually talking about software distribution.

So then came the day when I was about to leave office and he was in his clinic trying to install OpenMRS. It was Independence Day and the clinic was closed but he was excited to experience the new-age medical informatics :-)) When I first got his call he had downloaded the Windows Installer. I was pretty sure it was for an older version and hence told him to instead download the OpenMRS Appliance, which is a VM Image that can be run from one of the virtual machine softwares. Yaw Anokwa made this wonderful Virtual Image with Ubuntu + All Necessary Stuff (tomcat, mysql, demo data) and OpenMRS running. You just have to have VirtualBox or VMPlayer or VmWare Workstation and load the VMimage and wait for Ubuntu to start. It is simple, fast and safe to play with... But for novice users, I just realized it wasn't easy enough. My friend installed VirtualBox and loaded the image. It booted fine, but the network wasn't working and OpenMRS webapp could not be reached from the Windows host. After being on call for close to an hour, we just couldn't make the networking work!! I advised him to install VMPlayer instead and run the image. This time everything ran fine, but some changes had to be made in the Norton 360 Firewall. He kept complaining that Windows XP was punishably slow and then I realized that his 512Mb wasn't enough to virtualize :-( ... So we were back to where it all started!! The Windows Installer that OpenMRS distributes is based on Bitrock. He first tried the OpenMRS 1.1 Installer, but it is an older version that hasn't been upgraded for a year or so... Everything installed fine and he was happy to use it, but it didn't have the features I talked about that were added in newer releases of OpenMRS. I walked him through the manual installation and finally we managed to get OpenMRS up-and-running at 2am in the morning and he having spent about 8hrs on it. Last week when I asked him, he still wasn't using OpenMRS for his clinic and hospital. May be the first experience made him bitter!!

With that episode in my mind, I pledged him that within the next month or so I'll give him and easy to install setup and he'll be happy using OpenMRS. And that's when began my chase to find an easy to use, cross-platform installer framework. OpenMRS has lots of implementations on different platforms (Windows, Linux and Mac) and hence I wanted the installer to be cross-platform. At my office, we generally use Windows Installer or NSIS for making installers. But those are only for Windows. These 2 frameworks are so simple and extensible to use that I was thinking if there was something similar and cross-platform, I could make an OpenMRS Installer in an hour. But sadly, that wasn't the case... I tried a variety of installer frameworks, but couldn't find any of them as simple as NSIS or Windows Installer (msi). The following are the installer frameworks I tried working on:

Installer Framework Short Description Problems
1.) Antigen Antigen (Ant Installer Generator) is a tool to take an Ant build script, combine it with a GUI and wrap it up as an executable jar file. Its primary purpose is to create powerful graphical installers from Ant scripts. Couldn't get it to execute ant-calls at lots of places. Didn't work in openSuSE 11.0 due to some incomplete ant configurations. Hasn't been updated in a long time
2.) IzPack IzPack-generated installers require Java. They are simple, efficient and fast to use. Simple executable deployment is best done through IzPack. Isn't very powerful. Good for simple image deployment, but isn't highly configurable and powerful.
3.) OpenInstaller A newer cross-platform installer framework that is completely customizable and written in Java. Glassfish uses this installer framework. Not much documentation. Complex to implement and doesn't look native on all platforms
4.) Netbeans Installer (nbi) A completely customizable and powerful installer framework. Configuration Logic is written in Java and can be used to do anything and everything that Java programs can do. Old documentation. Requires some effort to get up and running with all the scripts.

So finally, I decided to work on using the Netbeans Installer. Netbeans Installer already has components like Tomcat, MySQL, Glassfish, OpenESB and their deployment scripts. And I thought it will simplify my effort... Dmitry Lipin of Sun Microsystems, the lead developer of the NBI team has been of great help over the past weeks and has helped a lot in explaining about nbi... While I was building the installer, 2 other colleagues of mine got interested in OpenMRS and have helped build some parts and want to contribute to OpenMRS code in a larger way!!

I have successfully been able to build an Installer/Uninstaller that can deploy Tomcat/Glassfish, MySQL and the OpenMRS web application on Windows, Linux, OSX, Solaris. The demo data set, JRE/JDK and starting the respective servers are yet to be completed.

Update: The OpenMRS Windows Installer based on Bitrock has been upgraded to install the latest version of OpenMRS. Is it useful for the OpenMRS community to have a cross-platform installer?? Or do the Windows guys only need an Installer ??


Ben Wolfe said...

Excellent writeup, Sunny. I hadn't even heard of most of those. Whats the status of your netbeans installer? Does it detect already installed portions (mysql, tomcat)? The gsoc student that wrote the simple bitrock installer that is up there now has an almost finished one that does some detection. Its a race to see who can finish theirs first to "win" a spot on the downloads page. :-)

I know that as a linux user, I would much rather use my package manager to install. I don't really trust the bin scripts that I download and execute to put things in the right places for my distro versus any other.

We have a .deb package for debian/ubuntu for one of the release candidates for 1.3.0. See

What does MacOSX users install with?

Thanks for all the openmrs evangelizing! I can't wait for all these promised coders to start working on some projects! :-)

Saptarshi Purkayastha said...

Yes, currently its detecting if Tomcat and MySQL are installed or not and running or not!!...

The good part about it is that we dont have to maintain separate installers, which means we dont have to have a deb, an rpm, a dmg etc... In the short run having a deb package installing things at the right places for Ubuntu is good, but then a general purpose, all encompassing installer, I think will be more useful.

John medical records said...

Really nice to know about the cross platform. I think that scheduling software is rapidly replacing the traditional paper based notes used by GPs, dentists, hospitals and other NHS departments and services, as part of the Connecting for Health IT programme.

Dr Ashutosh Das said...

Saale mere expression ET jaise the!!But I forgive you for the well written piece... Gr8 to see I figured in ur blog.

Its odd that I have fun reading your blog although im a doc!! ;)

Ellen Ball said...

Looking for the Solaris installer for OpenMRS. Where is this located?

Ellen Ball
Partners In Health
Boston, MA

Anonymous said...

Nvin Installer is also a good open source installer.


Anonymous said...

hai , i am also bundling mysql non install version and tomcat but i find lost of difficulties , atlast i get an exe , but while installing exe my mysql and tomcat folders are in jar type , what i actually need is folder for tomcat and mysql