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Norman Feske avatar

Pending Sculpt user-interface changes

During our road-map discussion, I vaguely mentioned my plan to change the administrative user interface of Sculpt OS. This post is a response to John's inquiry for more details.

Current state of Sculpt OS

The daily use of Sculpt OS has become natural for us Genode developers at Genode Labs. The administrative user interface - named Leitzentrale - has its quirks but it is flexible enough to be useful. In my perception, it does not stand in our way by any means. But with the goal of capturing a broader user base, we are not there yet.

Whereas a few graphical dialogs assist us to perform frequent tasks like installing and deploying components or setting up network connectivity, many one-off configuration tasks - like changing the keyboard layout - rely on the manual tweaking of files on the config file system. The management of all configuration aspects of the system via the config file system is certainly one of the most empowering concepts of Sculpt. But of course it relies a suitable user interface for manipulating files.

Everyone of our team lives in the Unix terminal for most of the day. E.g., reflecting my computer use, I feel right at home with the Unix utilities and Vim while generally avoiding interactive programs, in particular rich GUI applications. So when it came to the question of how to manipulate files on Sculpt's Leitzentrale, the addition of Genode's readily available Unix runtime (Noux) required no second thought.

Tearing it down

Even though it works well for us - just like anticipated - I plan to abolish it, for the following reasons:

  • Let's face it, not everyone loves the Unix command-line interface as much as we do. Quite the opposite, actually. When presenting Sculpt, I can clearly sense that people with non-Unix background are put off by it. The audience generally loves the runtime graph, visual cues, discoverability. In contrast, a command-line interface is not cheesy at all. It's more like a slap in the face.

    Many computer users outside our nerd bubble think of command-line interfaces as being an archaic relic. The IT industry has moved past the era of MS-DOS, right? Even though I personally favor textual user interfaces, they are perceived as impenetrable by many computer users who are otherwise perfectly happy with the notion of files and directories.

  • A Unix-based command-line interface may still be fine for a relatively large crowd of users. But as soon as Vim comes into play - which is inevitable when using the current version of Sculpt - we have just lost another portion of potential users. Familiarity with Vim should definitely not be a prerequisite for using an operating system! So let's drop it. Let us instead employ a simple notepad-like editor that does not require any learning curve.

  • The file-manipulation tasks performed in the Leitzentrale are rare and simple. Relying on Unix for those basic tasks is like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. On average, the Leitzentrale is used in just a few moments a day for basic things like

    • Browsing a file-system hierarchy,

    • Looking at the reports stored the report file system,

    • Deleting or copying a file or two, or

    • Tweaking a configuration file.

With these observations, I plan to replace the terminal-based inspect window with a simple custom file browser, file viewer, and editor. Why custom, you may ask? First, to keep the footprint low. A commodity GUI library like Qt would unreasonably inflate the boot image. Second, I want to stick to one coherent design language shared between the runtime graph and the new tools. The unique look and feel is the branding of Sculpt OS after all. Third, I think the feature set is simple enough to be implemented without a complex tool kit.

Note that even once the Unix terminal is removed from Sculpt's Leitzentrale, you will still be able to manipulate Sculpt's config file system via a Unix runtime deployed as a regular component, similar to the use of the noux-system package we already have today.


The current layout of the Leitzentrale is not entirely logical. Especially the switching between the runtime graph and the inspect window is not obvious. Here is a summary of improvements I have in mind:

  1. A new panel at the top of the screen contains two centered tabs for switching between the runtime graph and the file-system browser.

  2. The storage-management functionality will be moved from the storage dialog into the respective nodes of the runtime graph. E.g., to format a block device, the user should be able to select a block-device driver to get a menu of block-device-level operations for the selected device.

  3. The network-management will be moved from the network dialog into a drop-down menu that can be toggled via a button at the right side of the panel. The button could reflect the current network state just like any civilized operating system does.

  4. A new button on the left side of the panel will allow the user to toggle a drop-down menu for GUI settings like the screen resolution or the keyboard layout. The button must be at the top-left of the screen to make sure that the menu remains visible on all screens regardless of the display configuration. Think of the mirrored view of multiple displays of different sizes.

  5. Settings like keyboard layout or the wifi password will be accompanied with a small lock symbol that allows the user to "fix" the setting. That means, the setting will be preserved across reboots. No need to manually copy files around.

  6. At the bottom of the runtime graph, there will be a save button so that the current deploy configuration is re-created at boot time automatically. There could also be a restore button that resets the state to the previously saved one. This way, the user can make temporary changes in the component graph and just go back to the saved default with a single click.

  7. The log-message view will be hidden in another drop-down menu that can be toggled via a panel button. So when starting the system, the user is greeted with only the runtime graph.

There are still a view open questions:

  • Where should we best present the messages about the progress of the installation, or about diagnostics? Currently those messages are shown in the runtime part of the menu dialog. May the bottom-left corner of the runtime graph a suitable place?

  • With the menu dialog gone, where should the Genode logo go? The bottom right corner of the runtime graph comes in mind...

Please do not hesitate to tell me what you think of those changes. But I'm not overly cautious. It is an exploration. We can iterate.