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Apple iPad: A Linux Administrator’s New Assistant

Will the iPad gain acceptance among staunch Linux supporters or will the mere mention of such cross-species contamination stir up thoughts of lighted torches and pitchforks? Truth be told, it's a great device for some administrative tasks.

Linux fans are second only to Appleheads for their undying, and often blind, support for their beloved operating system. So, how can these two warring factions peacefully coexist in the same support space? If you can turn your attention away from Angry Birds for a moment, you might learn that your iPad is more than an expensive slab of electronic crack and that it’s possible to work with and manage Linux systems by tapping and raking your digits on its fingerprint-prone surface. This article describes how to do just that using SSH and VNC.

The iPad used in this article is an Apple standard issue* 32GB WiFi version using Apple’s iOS version 4.2.1.

To follow along, you’ll need an iPad, any model or version, but it’s recommended to use the 4.x operating system release so that you can enjoy the pleasures of iPad multitasking. There are several SSH clients from which to choose in Apple’s App Store. Some are free, others are inexpensive and one is a bit pricey for an app at $9.99 but its extensive list of features clearly justify the extra money you’ll pay for it. The app referenced here is iSSH from Zingersoft.

The iSSH app is not only a capable SSH client but it’s also a VNC client, telnet client and X Server. Additionally, you can open more than one SSH connection and switch between them with a finger swipe. There is a limitation of a single X connection, though so you can’t run an X session in one window and a VNC session in another. The developers actively upgrade this application and regularly expand its feature list.

It’s simple to setup a new SSH connection. Tap the iSSH app, then select General Settings to configure the global attributes of the application. The configurable attributes include: terminal colors, SSH key generation, tunnel setup, X Server setup, and font. When you’re finished making your choices, you won’t find a Save button, so tap the iSSH button in the upper left of your screen to return to the original iSSH setup screen. To setup a new connection, select Add Configuration and fill in the blanks as shown in Figure 1 for your system.

Figure 1: Configuring a New SSH Connection Profile in iSSH
Figure 1: Configuring a New SSH Connection Profile in iSSH

Minimally, enter a description of the connection (KVM Server), the hostname (192.168.1.215), and a valid login name (khess) for the system to which you wish to connect. You can optionally save your password for the system on this screen. Default is to prompt you for the password when you connect. Tap the Save button to save the configuration and return to the main screen. Your new connection will appear in the list. To use the connection, tap the name. Tapping the green button or arrow will return you to the Configuration Edit screen. The Edit button that you see in the upper left of your screen in Figure 2 is to edit the system list but not individual configurations.

Figure 2: iSSH Profile List, Edit and Configuration Screen
Figure 2: iSSH Profile List, Edit and Configuration Screen

Tap your new system’s configuration entry, accept the host key, enter your password, and enjoy your new remote Linux console. After you’ve had a few minutes to convince yourself that you’re really logged into your system by issuing top, who, and a ps command or two, it’s time to make it more interesting. Enter your favorite X application at the command line. As you’ll see, nothing happened. Actually, something did happen but not in the current window. Tap the X** in the upper right corner of the screen to switch to a list of active connections. Tap the new X in the upper right corner of the screen that now looks like the x.org logo. Doing so takes you to the X session screen where you’ll see your X application xcalc, for example as shown in Figure 3, the X cursor (not shown in Figure 3) and an odd multifunction applet.

Figure 3: iSSH X Session with Xcalc, the Multifunction Application and Keyboard.
Figure 3: iSSH X Session with Xcalc, the Multifunction Application and Keyboard.

To move the X cursor, tap the screen where you want to direct it to. You don’t need to tap the X cursor first and you can’t drag it as you would a mouse cursor. The applet contains a right and left mouse click, an arrow key applet and a keyboard applet. To use the mouse part of the applet, choose a location for your X cursor and then tap the left (darker gray) or right (lighter gray) mouse button area to activate that functionality.

Figure 4: The Multifunction X Session Application
Figure 4: The Multifunction X Session Application

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