The Linux Killer Application (Beta 2?)

The Linux Killer Application (Beta 2?)

Summary: The basic proposition: if there's a proven GUI tool, it's silly not to use it.

I usually draft these blog entries on Sunday afternoons, but today is a Monday - Canada's Thanksgiving holiday and one of the things I'm thankful for is intelligent reader feedback via the talkback columns on these blogs.

Unfortunately this means that readers sometimes get to tell me that I'm, well not wrong - that could never happen -:) but maybe somewhat less right than the flat earth society.

In the particular case of my September 27th blog "The Linux killer application" I have to admit that even George Ou, who delights in telling me his version of the brutal truth at every opportunity, got it right when he said nobody understood what I was getting at.

So, herewith, another run at it -

The basic proposition: if there's a proven GUI tool, it's silly not to use it.

The corolary: that means you should always administer Unix via a big graphics display - not a character based tool like telnet (or ssh, or putty, or any other tool of that kind.)

And a consequent argument: since the cheapest, most reliable, big screen GUI tools are X-terminals and/or workstations running Unix, that's what should be on the Unix sysadmin's desk.

Notice that this says nothing about using the command line. You're going to do that -within an X-window. This is all about using the right tool, in the right context, to achieve the right results.

In the original blog I told the sad, but true, story of a command line slinging consultant who took about a week too misconfigure two HP machines -something any veteran user of HP's volume manager can testify is pretty easy to do- and compared the time required and the results obtained to what happened when we started over using two simualtaneous SAM sessions on my 21" workstation screen. The point, of course, is that SAM doesn't make mistakes, get confused, or lose track of physical disk names on directly connected storage.

There's a simple bottom line: if the right tools exist, use them.

But, of course, there's more to it than simple efficiency. The overwhelming majority of people who have Unix system administration responsibilities execute those from Windows PCs using a dumb terminal interface - effectively seeing 2005 Unix (whether Linux, BSD, or Solaris) through a 1982 filter.

In most cases that toolset is foisted on them by management - and it's beyond stupid: it knowingly gives away more than twenty years of progress in the development and use of system administration tools in favor of a prejudice that says everyone's desktop should meet the same corporate standard -no matter how ineffective that is.

That's why telnet, or its clones whether imagined to be more secure or merely prettier, is The Unix Killer application - the refusal to use available graphical interface tools increases error, invites misuse, and grossly misrepresents the state of the product.

Topic: Operating Systems

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  • GUI tools are great

    for those who are new to Unix administration, but you're just not going to get a 20-year system admin to give up the command line. Graphical tools are great for certain things, but nothing replaces the speed and comfort of a command line. I know you're talking about enterprise Unix, but I'll give you an example form home Linux administration of why I prefer the command line:
    Running Ubuntu, a debian-based distro, typing "sudo apt-cache search gcc-3.4" and "sudo apt-get install gcc-3.4-base" is about 150 times faster than using Synaptic, the GUI front end to apt. The same is trun for updates. I have disabled automatic updates on my Ubuntu box (a large seeling feature of the distro), because I prefer to run a simple shell script every time I boot up.

    I get what you're saying, but who are you trying to sell? It sounds like you're trying to sell Unix based on it's resemblence to Windows. Who's your target, MCSEs?
    Real World
    • speed vs. convenience

      There are exceptions to the rule, if you have ever administered a large HPUX or Solaris based disk array or SAN I would sooner piss on a spark plug than try to perform an initial configuration using the command line. Trying to relocate a logical volume to a different physical volume, for example, would be actually slower because of the incredible path names involved. Perhaps if I typed accurately at 60wpm then is faster...
      • What's a GUI doing on a server anyway;-)

        "The basic proposition: if there's a proven GUI tool, it's silly not to
        use it."

        What's a GUI doing on a server anyway;-)
        Richard Flude
        • X client on server, X servers on people's PCs?

          That's what we're doing here. Not that I'm doing any sysadmin work, mind.
      • Cut and Paste

        I prefer the command line. I use it in Windows all the time and use it Solaris where I have a desktop. Path names are simple with a text editor where cut and paste the commands. It is faster if you know the commands and if you have to do this to on multiply servers.

        A GUI is great if you don't know what you are doing exactly but you have the general idea. Also if it's a task you will only do once it's also great.

        Using the command line also allow you to a record of what you have done so if you ever need a rebuild you just grab that notepad doc with all the commands ready to pasted into a console and away you go.
        • Or you could learn csh -

          I'm planning to launch a comment or two on shells sometime... meanwhile: X, of course, does cut and paste pretty well - in fact you can cut and paste between OSes and applications.

          And, of course, there are shell capabilities - try
          % man csh
          sometime (but use ksh on HP-UX or AIX)
          and I think you might see that using notepad just isn't that efficient...
  • avoiding X hardware probs

    For remote administration it is sometimes handy to have a virtual gui on a server, and since most are headless in rack cabinets and run at init 3 level you can just start up a vncserver session and have it run infinitely in the framebuffer and not worry about your video card (or lack of one). Then just connect from your quiet thin client on your desktop... A good use for the $100 laptop?
    • Yes, this is what I do - with wintel

      I generally recommend exactly this approach to unix people whose bosses insist on storing the passwords etc in excel or word docs.. (Don't ask - but I see this all the time)

      Just put vnc on a wintel server, a vnc client on the unix desktop. Works well with Sun Ray (can anyone tell me what the point of tarantella is?), with the Mac desktop, and with both Linux and solaris. Comes in reasonably secure variants for remote access too...
    • Caution

      The biggest historical problem with VNC for administration is security: it's just not as secure as X tunneled over ssh. The newer versions aren't bad, but they're still not quite there for the truly paranoid.

      The really [b]good[/b] thing about it is that it's very well supported on just about every platform out there. I haven't met an X server for Microsoft yet that doesn't have some "issues," and a few can corrupt your session.

      The biggest obstacle for applications is that VNC is slow. Being a pixel-transport protocol, it doesn't take advantage of accelerated vector rendering. Not a big deal for most admin tasks, but I don't advise doing engineering work that way.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
      • vnc and ssh

        if you are going to access a vnc server via dialup, unless you have a high threshold of pain, you should be tunneling the conection with ssh.

        what i do when i have to dial up is from a terminal window set a tunnel port forward and then open krdc referencing localhost.

        ssh compression, -C, is set to a default of 6, but can be as high as 9.

        there are other command line tweaks that can be done to address the rfb when starting your vncclient of choice. i just happen to like Krdc.

        to start the ssh tunnel:

        $ssh -C -o CompressionLevel=9 -L 5900:localhost:5900 username@your_ssh_target_server

        then within Krdp for the host type:


        thus, one have secure encryption and what I consider to be a 'tolerable' connection not like broadband of course but the ssh compression makes a BIG difference.

        Ok, then! Thanks Paul!
        D T Schmitz
  • 1982 filter

    "But, of course, there's more to it than simple efficiency. The overwhelming majority of people who have Unix system administration responsibilities execute those from Windows PCs using a dumb terminal interface - effectively seeing 2005 Unix (whether Linux, BSD, or Solaris) through a 1982 filter."

    Umm, no.

    Maybe my company is unique, but Exceed is everywhere. Windows machines are being used as "smart" terminals all over. SysAdmins use it. Software developers use it. Engineers of all sorts use it.

    Sure, people use dumb terminal windows on occasion, but only when they don't feel the need for more.
    • Tried that, sorta halfway..

      I've used Exceed on XP, and multiple other x-emulators for windows - but I've never been happy with them.

      First they seem to fail more often then they should (by comparison I've got 15 year old X-terms that haven't had their first failures yet) and, more importantly, the fonts and windowing just seem hokey after years of working with "native" X/PS windows on Macs and Suns.

      On the other hand, if you've got big screens and enough resolution to make X work on your PCs, it's infinitely better than telnet and its relatives.
    • We tried using Exceed

      But the package is just too bloated and expensive. For simple console access to a *nin machine why would anyone need more than VNC? VNC's client is tiny, works well without eating all of the system resources on a Windows machine and the best part is that I can log in somewhere else and my desktop and all of it's running sessions, including long compile jobs, continue running. You should try it.

      VNC will even work as a server on a Windows machine, but if you are using a windows machine to access a windows machine then Remote Desktop is better.
  • You don't necessarily need an XWindow

    The reason admins shy away from XWindows is because that's a complex piece of software with potential security risks. They figure why add a potential security risk when there are other options.

    Certainly there is webmin, and while that is usually used in a GUI web browser, a text based web browser (like lynx) will do as long as it accepts cookies. You still have point and click, which I would think is the advantage you wanted in the first place, not the pretty colors.
    Michael Kelly
    • Limitations of non-X text windows

      My biggest gripe about vanilla text windows (e.g. even a good telnet session) is that they just aren't as readable as a good xterm (my favorite is [b]konsole[/b]) -- face it, the graphical tools add a good bit via things like scollbars.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Try using VNC

      Easy to set up on the server and on the client, you can use SSL to access it through a firewall (if you have decent bandwidth) and your desktop and all of it's sessions and running jobs continue working even if you long in somewhere else, the screen just relocates to where you are.
  • Thank you...

    ...for not saying "The Linux Killer Application 2.0". It seems like labelling everything "2.0" is the newest fad in the IT media. :)

    Carl Rapson
  • Doing somthing a gazillion times

    A GUI is "fun"
    doing the same thing
    the first dozen or so times.

    Then you feel the urge to script it.
    • If you have to do it a gazillion times

      You're not doing it right.

      In Unix, once is usually enough. (and if you have a brazilian machines, it's usually easy to automate replication.)
  • Mommy, George hurt me and I'm tellin'

    Sheesh, grow a spine and learn to dance with the big boys. Linking to a Talkback post in one of your "blog" articles to highlight how mean and cruel Georgie is just seems, well, pathetic. Besides, after enough Pewee-Herman comparisons, who can blame George if he gets a bit testy at times?