Now that I’ve switched to using my Mac full time for everything, I’ve been pretty happy with the results. I even managed to find time to upgrade to Mountain Lion in the summer. Everything went smoothly with that except for one little hitch with a piece of hardware that I use almost daily.
If you are a CLI jockey like me, you have a USB-to-Serial adapter in your kit. Even though the newer Cisco devices are starting to use USB-to-mini USB cables for console connections, I find these to be fiddly and problematic at times. Add in the amount of old, non-USB Cisco gear that I work on regularly and you can seem my need for a good old fashioned RJ-45-to-serial rollover cable. My first laptop was the last that IBM made with a built-in serial port. Since then, I’ve found myself dependent on a USB adapter. The one that I have is some no-name brand, but like most of those cables it has the Prolific PL-2303 chipset. This little bugger seems to be the basis for almost all serial-to-USB connectivity except for Keyspan adapters. While the PL-2303 is effective and cheap, it’s given me no end of problems over the past couple of years. When I upgraded my Lenovo to Windows 7 64-bit, the drivers available at the time caused random BSOD crashes when consoled into a switch. I could never nail down the exact cause, but a driver point release fixed it for the time being. When I got my Macbook Air, it came preinstalled with Lion. There were lots of warnings that I needed to make sure to upgrade the PL-2303 drivers to the latest available on the Prolific support site in order to avoid problems with the Lion kernel. I dutifully followed the directions and had no troubles with my USB adapter. Until I upgraded to Mountain Lion.
After I upgraded to 10.8, I started seeing some random behaviors I couldn’t quite explain. Normally, after I’m done consoling into a switch or a router, I just close my laptop and throw it back in my bag. I usually remember after I closed it and put it to sleep that I need to pull out the USB adapter. After Mountain Lion, I was finding that I would open my laptop back up and see that it had rebooted at some point. All my apps were still open and had the data preserved, but I found it odd that things would spontaneously reboot for no reason. I found the culprit one day when I yanked the USB adapter out while my terminal program (ZTerm) was still open. Almost instantly, I got a kernel panic followed by a reboot. I had finally narrowed down my problem. I tried closing ZTerm before unplugging the cable and everything behaved as it should. It appeared the the issue stemmed from having the terminal program actively accessing the port then unplugging it. I searched around and found that there were a few people reporting the same issue. I even complained about it a bit on Twitter.
Santino Rizzo (@santinorizzo) heard my pleas for sanity and told me about a couple of projects that created open source versions of the PL-2303 driver. Thankfully, someone else had noticed that Prolific was taking their sweet time updating things and took matters into their own hands. The best set of directions to go along with the KEXT that I can find are here:
For those not familiar with OS X, a KEXT is basically a driver or DLL file. Copying it to System/Library/Extensions places in in the folder where OS X looks for device drivers. Make sure you get rid of the old Prolific driver if you have it installed before you install the OS PL-2303 driver. Once you’ve run the commands list on the site above, you should be able to plug in your adapter and then unplug it without any nasty crashes. One other note – the port used to connect in ZTerm changed when I used the new drivers. Instead of it being /dev/USBSerial or something of that nature, it’s now PL2303-<random digits>. It also changed the <random digits> when I moved it from one USB port to another. Thankfully for me, ZTerm remembers the USB ports and will try them all when I launch it until it find the right adapter. There is some discussion in the comments of the post above about creating a symlink for a more consistent pointer.
Writing drivers is hard. I’ve seen stats that say up to 90% of all Windows crashes are caused by buggy drivers. Even when drivers appear to work just fine, things can be a little funny. Thankfully, in the world of *NIX, people that get fed up with the way things work can just pull out their handy IDE and write their own driver. Not exactly the easiest thing in the world to do but the results speak for themselves. When the time comes that vendors either can’t or won’t support their hardware in a timely fashion, I take comfort in knowing that the open source community is ready to pick up the torch and make things work for us.