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Administrative Tools for Everybody

I have always had reservations about graphical tools for system administration. While such tools can be very convenient for experienced administrators, they offer some pitfalls to less seasoned ones. One of the prime advantages cited for these packages is that they allow people to begin performing basic administrative tasks quickly and with a minimum of training; this claim is certainly justified in many cases. However, lurking on the other side of the coin is the possibility that such tools will actually keep new administrators from learning some of the subtleties of the job because the tools hide their existence. In an effort to keep novices from getting in over their heads and causing damage, some of these tools tend to present a rather limited view of what is and isn't possible on the system.

I have always had reservations about graphical tools for system administration. While such tools can be very convenient for experienced administrators, they offer some pitfalls to less seasoned ones. One of the prime advantages cited for these packages is that they allow people to begin performing basic administrative tasks quickly and with a minimum of training; this claim is certainly justified in many cases. However, lurking on the other side of the coin is the possibility that such tools will actually keep new administrators from learning some of the subtleties of the job because the tools hide their existence. In an effort to keep novices from getting in over their heads and causing damage, some of these tools tend to present a rather limited view of what is and isn’t possible on the system.

That caveat aside, this month we will take a look at a recently released set of system configuration tools — the Ximian Setup Tools. Although in a preliminary state as of this writing, these applets are well designed and show great promise as aids to system administrators at all levels of expertise. By the way, “Ximian” rhymes with “simian,” with the initial letter basically pronounced as a “Z” (and they even use a cutesy monkey as their trademark animal).

About the Ximian GNOME Environment








Guru (X Update)
Figure One: The Ximian Setup Tools system update dialog illustrates the attention to attractive detail that characterizes the entire Ximian GNOME environment.

The Ximian Setup Tools are part of the Ximian GNOME desktop environment (see http://www.ximian.com). This package is a “professional” version of the GNOME desktop that has been available on Linux systems for some time (it is still 100 percent free software). The Ximian folks have, in their words, “polished, tested, and packaged,” the GNOME software, also spending quite a bit of effort in making the environment very interesting and attractive to look at (see the dialog in Figure One for an example of the care spent on the appearance of even a small status message). At the same time, they have added a variety of other free software programs to the set: the GIMP graphics program, the gnumeric spreadsheet package, the Mozilla Web browser, and the like.








Guru (Red Carp)
Figure Two: You can use the Red Carpet software updater to keep your system up to date.

The entire Ximian GNOME environment relies on the Red Carpet Web-based software updater. Using this tool, system software is divided into packages that can be updated individually (as usual). The program then keeps track of what packages have been installed on the system as well as their current revision levels. When the tool itself is run, it checks the Internet for the most recent available versions of installed packages as well as newly available ones, and then presents the user with a list of potential updates (as illustrated in the left dialog in Figure Two).

Once the user (or system administrator) has selected packages for installation or upgrade, the Red Carpet software will automatically download the required packages, verify them for integrity, and then install them onto the system. This process is illustrated in the dialog in Figure Two, where we update the LPRng printing facility on this system. Red Carpet can be used to update operating-system-related packages from Red Hat Linux systems as well as the Ximian GNOME software. Note that downloaded packages are saved in the /var/cache/redcarpet/ packages directory, so it is easy to apply them to multiple systems after a single download operation.

The Ximian Setup Tools

The Ximian Setup Tools are a series of applets that may be used to perform various basic system configuration and administration tasks. At this moment, there are seven:

  • Boot Administration: you can use this applet to add and configure lilo-based boot options: kernel image, label, appended options, the default item, and menu timeout period.
  • Disks Administration: you can mount and unmount local filesystems and also add and modify entries in the filesystem configuration file, /etc/ fstab.
  • Network Administration: you can set various fundamental TCP/IP network configuration options (hostname, IP address or DHCP settings, DNS server, and so on), add and modify entries in the host’s file, and configure ppp.
  • Shares Administration: you can define and specify filesystem settings for import and export via the NFS and/or Samba facilities.
  • Memory Administration:you use this applet to add and modify designated system swap partitions and files.
  • Users Administration: you can define and configure Linux user accounts and groups with this applet.
  • Time Administration: use this applet to set the current date, time, and time zone and to specify server for the Network Time Protocol facility (NTP).

The files corresponding to these utilities are located in the /usr/share/ gnome/ximian/Programs/Utilities directory. There is also a printer configuration applet included in the current distribution of the Ximian Setup Tools that was built as part of the package but not installed.

What impresses me most about these GUI administration utilities is that they seem better thought-out and planned than other packages of this type. For example, with typical tools, date/time administration is limited to setting the current date and time (and possibly the time zone). In this package, however, you can also specify the external timeservers you want to use for time synchronization with ntpd. In this case, the Ximian Setup Tools have brought together several related items that are configured quite differently into a single administration dialog.

The Ximian Setup Tools have been designed for people with varying levels of experience. The tools are all capable of two operating modes, one of which presents only the most basic options (designed for use by relatively unsophisticated end users). The more advanced mode allows a qualified person access to the more advanced, trickier, and potentially more dangerous settings. You switch between the two modes with the More/Fewer Options button.

For example, in the limited option mode, the User Administration applet shows only a list of users added with the tool (rather than all defined users, including administrative users whose settings a novice ought not to be altering), and the user addition process asks for the minimum input necessary to do the job.








Guru (X Users)
Figure Three: Specifying user account settings with the more sophisticated mode of User Administration applet.

In the more sophisticated mode, all password file settings are available for entry/modification. This mode is illustrated in Figure Three. The top dialog in the figure illustrates the process of adding a new user in this mode.

Here we are adding user chavez, and the top dialog allows us to specify her full name, office location, and phone numbers — the contents of the password file’s GECOS field, in other words. The other tabs in this dialog allow her primary and secondary group memberships to be set and her password value and settings to be specified.

As we add user chavez, we use the Admin profile to specify certain characteristics of her account. This profile is selected in the Identity panel of the User Account Editor dialog we just examined. Profiles serve to establish default values for various user account settings; an individual profile is simply a name given to a set of account setting default values.








Guru (X Swap)
Figure Four: The Ximian Setup Tools Memory Administration applet.

The bottom two dialogs in Figure Four illustrate the User Administration applet’s Profile Editor. In the left dialog (showing the Security tab), we are specifying the password aging settings for the profile named Default; passwords must be changed after six months, and users will be warned seven days before their password expires. In the right dialog (showing the System tab), we are setting values for various password file fields for the Admin profile: user home directories are located under /home, the default shell is /bin/tcsh, and the default primary group is staff. UIDs and GIDs will be selected automatically for new accounts, with numbering beginning at 400 and ending at 499.

Figure Four illustrates another setup tool, the Memory Administration applet, which controls system swap space. The illustration shows the applet in the context of the Ximian GNOME desktop as a whole.

The list box in the upper dialog lists all currently configured swap areas, indicating each one’s location, size, priority level (used to determine the order in which the various swap spaces are used), and whether or not the space is currently active.

The lower dialog shows a second swap space (this time, a regular file), which is in the process of being added to the system. It indicates that the file /1/swap will be used as a 32 MB swap area having the default priority level.

Looking Ahead

In their current, preliminary state, the Ximian Setup Tools are useful and relatively bug-free (we are looking at version 0.6). Hopefully, by the time this column appears, an updated version will have been released, as there are a few glitches at the moment. For example, you can specify a nonexistent file to the Memory Administration applet, but the applet will not warn you that this is a problem.

Nevertheless, despite these few glitches, the Ximian Setup Tools are already a pretty useful set of utilities for administrators who prefer a GUI administrative tool to the traditional command and text editor-based Unix administration procedures. In addition, due to their high-quality design and applicability to a wide class of administrators, this package is one that bears watching as time passes.



Æleen Frisch is the author of Essential System Administration. She can be reached at aefrisch@lorentzian.com.

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