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

Comments on "Apple iPad: A Linux Administrator’s New Assistant"

savoy9020

I’m using my iPad 16gig 3G with iSSH and love it. Using the iBook app to hold all my reference Linux Magazine PDF’s and documentation is great as well.

The 3g let’s me access my servers from nearly anywhere as well. (non-jail-broken)

Reply
jcasman

Great article, thanks for all the details and screenshots. It seems like a straightforward ssh client should be free. I’ve looked at the free or cheaper ssh clients available, but they all seem fairly limited.

Jesse Casman
San Francisco, CA

Reply
aivanise

AFAIK, none of the iOS ssh clients supports port forwarding, which makes the devices pretty useless for serious administration. Very rarely you will have a WiFi connection in the enterprise that is not firewalled, as this is the first requirement of any security certification (e.g. PCI DSS)

Reply
harmscon

I can also highly recommend iSSH. I’ve only used it on the iPhone but that has saved me a trip to the office several times.

It is also worth mentioning that iSSH can forward TCP ports. Combined with IOS multitasking, I use this feature and the RDesktop app to access microsoft terminal servers.

Best of 3 worlds.

Reply
sllik

I’ve only recently purchased iSSH (prior to reading this article, but only by a couple of days), so the irony of seeing an article about it here at Linux-mag.com is chuckle-worthy on a personal level.

It should also be noted that the latest version of iOS allows for bluetooth keyboard use with iPad, iPhone4, and 3rd generation iPods. I think mouse functionality might also be available, but I’m still investigating. What’s unclear, based on some of the articles and comments related to this functionality, is whether Ctrl, Alt, and Escape keys work properly (which would severely limit the functionality of mainstays like tmux/screen, vim/emacs, awesome/dwm, etc). Some comments made it sound like those keys were only available and functional when using Apple bluetooth, others implied that they didn’t work at all. iSSH has a last-resort option of remapping what should be the Option key to whatever’s needed, but that still only addresses half the problem (because that’s only one modifier key and both are often heavily used). Someone else may have more details or can confirm this issue for me, as I haven’t had the opportunity to put it all to the test yet, but even with that limitation, an external keyboard would turn the iPad + iSSH combo into a genuine portable powerhouse of Linux goodness.

Reply
gerlos

This seems more a ssh client review for the sysadmin than an iPad review: I mean, any tablet with network access and an ssh, vnc and/or x server should be as good or better of the iPad for a sysadmin, and surely it will be cheaper, and maybe it could provide an ethernet port, that iPad doesn’t provide.

Anyway, nice to know of iSSH.

Reply
chdslv

Well, I am waiting for a pad that works in Linux. There is no reason to fall for Steve Jobs narrative abilities, and when such new pads come out, they’s be much better than iPad…just like the clones of iPhone!

Reply
papaspence

I am using a company purchased iPhone4 (aka small ipad ) with a combination of the juniper VPN app (free), iStat app ($.99) and Wyse PocketConnect RDB/VNC client app (free) to connect over 3G network and view status of all my linux servers and get an X-11 display of VNC sessions when I want direct access to terminals or other X-apps. Also iStat does pings and traceroute when needed as well. So yes ipad/iphone can be a nice portable tool for systems admins. I imagine that andriod versions of simular apps can be just as effective on andriod pad/phones as well.

Reply

Real administrators know that X-11 display is in 99% of the cases, useless. In the other hand, a RDP client is much more usefull for administration of windows machines.
A good article would show that first you need to connect to a VPN before starting any administration task. And of course, present the VPN options available in the iOS.
As for administration of non-windows devices, SSH and telnet(!) are the protocols used, and that calls for a good ssh client with port forwarding, automation tools, public key authentication support. (or as many features you can get)
Well, often administration can be made via HTTP(S), which doesn’t call for any specific application.

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