Linux System Administration in the New ERA

The success of Mozilla's Firefox and's productivity suite has breathed life into people's aspirations about Desktop Linux. As a result, the vast majority of articles published today focus there and ignore the strides made on the Linux server. Unlike the Linux server of the past, today's version supports rocket science and its gains far exceed those of the Desktop.

As a former editor-in-chief of a Linux news site, I had the unusual privilege of finding out from our own logs and from colleagues the approximate number of unique visitors dropping by the major US Linux news wires each month. Back when I started using Linux, John Hall of Linux International estimated that the operating system had two million deployments globally. At the time we thought the number a little high, but we accepted it.

Today, we see twice that number or approximately four million unique IP addresses reading articles on Linux news sites. That does not include sites outside the US, Slashdot or Digg. So, a significant number of people read articles about Linux and they represent only a percentage of all its users.

Unfortunately, we failed to determine the demographics of Linux readers. We simply had difficulty finding out what kind of readers came to our site. We didn't know if our visitors represented CIOs, CTOs, developers, Linux users or the just curious.

We did find out that pure Linux articles received more than triple the number of page views as articles about Open Source companies and their technologies. We also made a living off of another kind of story. Anything that appeared as a threat to that monopoly in Redmond garnered ten times the number of page views as the most read Linux articles.

Getting to the point, when we sorted out the type of Linux articles that went through our queue, Desktop Linux had a whopping 90 percent of the stories. Either people stopped writing about the server or Linus has it in hiding. The Linux server's press agent let it get over shadowed by the desktop.

What about the server?

I refer to the current Linux infrastructure play as the "New Era". Linux has matured rapidly and far surpassed the expectations of the smartest analysts I know. Basically, the Linux server kicks butt.

The advancements also come quickly. Some long-time Linux system administrators I know, have some difficulty keeping up with all the advancements and innovations today. Sometimes, they argue with me about why I would do things the way I do them. Inevitably, they go ahead and try something new with an accompanying "wow, that's neat!"

When I began using Linux as a system integrator, we had only a few places to operate. Those included serving web pages with Apache, managing DNS, relaying email as a MTA, interfering with NT 4.0 using Samba and developing applications with Richard Stallman's wonderful compilers, tools, etc.

We had a mature 2.035 kernel and from where Linux started that seemed remarkable. But, we did not have a journaling file system, had lousy multi-processor capabilities and little to no desktop. We lacked deployment tools, a real web browser, a reasonable productivity suite and our hardware compatibility stunk. That's not to diminish the remarkable efforts of the people who gave a big part of their lives to Linux. It's just where we stood in comparison to AIX, Solaris, HP-UX and some others back then.

So, as I discuss the applications and tools freely available for Linux now, please understand where I started. The old days of pride around the 2.035 kernel look continents away from here.

What's new?

Linux has a dominant position in enterprise computing. Many mainstream applications used on Solaris, for example, have made their way to Red Hat and Novell Linux. Aside from the scientific tools you see on the Space Shuttle and 256 node clusters that run sonar arrays on nuclear submarines, Linux runs the largest web sites in the world. The problems that plagued distributed directory services have gone away and run on large blade server farms. These represent a tiny fraction of the uses of Linux.

Linux not only works for enterprise computing, it also gives smaller users a decided advantage in the marketplace. Linux levels the playing field for small to medium-sized businesses and lets them compete with the big boys. Everything from ERP systems to customer service apps run on Linux and puts those applications in reach of the little guy. That's what helps propel its adoption, which analysts put at 40 million deployments.

To exemplify my point about the little guy, just recently, I configured a Debian server with Xen 3.01 getting it production ready in two hours. The majority of that time involved compiling code. I doubt I could have afforded the software if I used proprietary goods. And I got to use some advanced computing applications.

So why did I need Xen virtual machines?

I needed to deploy several applications including a secure LDAP directory with mail, a secondary DNS server, several virtual web sites, a content management system and a database driven federated identity management system. The virtual servers helped me put those into production without having to buy expensive hardware.

In the old era, I would have dedicated a separate server to each of those applications considering the number of users involved. In the new era, we can use commodity hardware add gigabytes of RAM and additional disks to achieve higher CPU capacity on a single machine without creating more server sprawl. Xen made it affordable for me to get into business.

Last month, a friend of mine, Falko Timme, wrote a howto about setting up a load balanced high-availability Apache cluster using free software. He used Debian Sarge, Ultra Monkey's Heartbeat and ldirectord. Ultra Monkey uses software primarily from Linux Virtual Server and Heartbeat. Falko set up a five node cluster and to keep from having to match hardware, he used Xen on different kinds of server hardware. In March, Falko wrote another tutorial for building a five mode MySQL load balanced cluster using the same technology. He did all of this with commodity hardware.

Falko also writes howtos on about technology like MyDNS, a server that uses a MySQL database as a backend instead of Bind or djbdns flat files. MyDNS simply reads DNS records from a database and does not require a restart when DNS records change or when you create, edit or delete zones. MyDNS provides a major advantage to organizations that deal with massive numbers of domains. It runs on Linux.

Just two years ago, we faced a number of problems in the Linux community deploying large numbers of Linux systems. We felt like paupers attempting take on even medium-sized projects like the City of Munich. If you wanted deployment tools, you had to buy the expensive closed source tools. Today, all that has changed.

From a project started at VA Linux a few years ago, Brian Finley and his team has produced a robust tool for automating Linux installs, software distribution and production deployment. The tool known as SystemImager allows deployments of ISP and database server farms, high performance clusters, computer labs, and corporate desktop environments. SystemInstaller, a related project, can install a system with any Linux distribution. It works with SystemImager and SystemConfigurator, an installation and management application framework. Together the tools work to build clusters. Oh, did I mention it's free software?

Linux also shines in the area of high performance, high availability computing power. For example, the NASA Center for Computational Sciences (NCCS) at the Goddard Space Flight Center deploys HPC Linux clusters designed to increase throughput for applications ranging from studying weather and climate variability to simulating astrophysical phenomena. Linux supplements NCCS architecture designed to scale to as many as 40 trillion floating-point operations per second (TFLOPS) in its full configuration.

According to Forbes, Linux runs more of the world's top supercomputers than any other operating system. In fact, at this writing Linux runs 60% of the top 500 super computers on the planet. According to departments heads at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., Linux runs ten of their machines, which are all on the Top 500 list, including Blue Gene/L, the world's most powerful supercomputer, and Thunder, which ranks fifth.

And that's just the start of the conversation about the Linux server. It manages water wells in Jordan, provides logistics and supply chain applications for governments and businesses and more. From a small server running the ext2 file system with supposedly zero scalability, the Linux server has come a long way. And while I use Linux for my desktop, the server intrigues me most.


Ask yourself if you would like to work with any of the above projects or technologies. Demand exists for the skill sets involved. Do you consider yourself trained and ready to get started? Do you have the system administrative skills to function in the new era in the above environments? If not what should we do?

The game has changed and if we want to move forward we will need some familiarity with the new advances and innovative technologies emerging from the Linux camp. Since most of us Linux guys learn this stuff ourselves, perhaps the time has arrived for some mid-career change over.

I don't see any of the folks at the Open Source Development Lab slowing down, so time's a wastin! To use a term we probably invented in Texas. OK, back on topic.

Moving forward in the new era requires a choice. If you choose to move forward, remember that free software only requires a download. If it's free you can use it and you do not have to ask anybody's permission. Great documentation exists to get started. So as many people say, enjoy!


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Linux Server vs. Desktop

Anonymous's picture

I'm not so sure of Linux taking more time to accomplish things versus Windows on the desktop. But, then people's habits have a lot to do with it.

I work a lot with Linux servers and also have years of experience with Windows server-side. I don't like much (if anything) about the 2003 server. I liked NT 4.0 better, in fact.

People's preferences differ, I guess.


Paul Hubert's picture


I'm trying to contact the Phil Angelides campaign (governor, California) and wonder if you would be willing to provide a contract address for yourself -or someone else you would consider appropriate- to advise on OSS in government issues.

I don't know how well this or any campaign might comprehend either the concept of OSS or its potential, but you know Mr. Windmill Tilter Hubert... I MUST at least TRY.

If you go to Nick's site, you can get my email address.




not logged in's picture

Sorry, I don't do government any more. Petty thieves go to jail, the big ones seek higher office.


I understand...

Paul Hubert's picture

But you know I'm not one to ever give up hope... and there HAVE been honest people in elective office... they're just a bit harder to find!


Paul Hubert's picture

CONTACT address, not "contract" ...
(always was a lousy proofreader...)

Mr. Tom:

dinotrac's picture

It's true that Linux servers keep getting bigger, better, and easier to manage.

I wonder if the desktop excitement is a flip of Microsoft's old sales pitch for NT:

Cut costs by leveraging the same skills you already have for desktop management (and/or development) to run your servers.

Would have been slick if Microsoft could have delivered the goods and weren't a bully-boy monopolist that like to beat up on its own biggest and best clients.

Mr. Tom:

Anonymous's picture

I have to disagree with you on a couple of points. First, Microsoft has hardly anything to do with Linux in any way. Who cares what they do? Not me. Secondly, I don't think they do many slick things. Regardless, using Microsoft as a baseline to compare Linux is a waste of time.

The Linux desktop is a different animal from the server and until the desktop aficionados provide support for common commercial video and audio products the desktop is going no where fast.

Request for links....

Steven M's picture

You mention that your friend wrote about setting up a load balanced high-availability Apache cluster using free software. Do you have links to where I can learn about how to do that? I need to set up a GSLB (Blobally Server Load Ballanced) Apache and Tomcat server. Any help would be GREATLY apreciated. The toughest part seems to be finding a clustered WAN able file system that can tollerate the loss of a node.
Thank You,
Steven M.

Request for links....

Tom's picture

nit: "in the New ERA"? Or "in the New Era"?

collin's picture

Irregular capitalization in the title confuses; I thought it was about an advocacy group for a new Equal Rights Amendment (for servers?) or something.

Minor correction

Alexandru U.'s picture

"... MyDNS, a server that uses a MySQL database as a backend instead of Bind or djbdns flat files..."

Just for the record, Djbdns does NOT use flatfile for the actual DNS data, but uses instead a speciat data format that is optimized for speed for speed.
You can read more here


Linux is not dominant anywhere

Luke Kanies's picture

Linux has a dominant position in enterprise computing.

I understand that this is a site dedicated to Linux, but please, that's just silly. It's becoming more than the bit player it was a few years ago, but dominant? Hah!

FORBES topic

Kirill's picture

i strongly recomend read topic about Linux in FORBES (last number)

Linux is dominate

kahamri's picture

Not only is linux dominate in the coporate industry, but it has also passed apple os X as the number 2 desktop used. Show some documentaion where linux insnt the most used os (This includes unix) and i'll show you countless articles and companys that run the linux/unix platform.

But, Linux is taking over

David C's picture

Back in 95, when I told the company that I worked for that SCO was dead, and that they need to switch from it to Linux because Linux was going to take over the marketplace. I was literally laughed and humiliated out of the company (I got the last laugh though).

But today, things really are different. Recently when I told the company I worked for that we should switch from Windows desktops to Linux desktops, they wouldn't hear of it. Why? Because focusing the people with Linux skills on the backend server work was far more profitable for the company. They didn't want me to waste my time with the desktop. In addition the product we deploy to customers has a back end server which runs Linux and a front end client that runs windows (because the people at the sites are more familiar with it). While the back end servers pretty much humm along without problems and are easy to ssh into and support, the front ends are a constant headache - getting viruses, always crashing, hard to get into and support, under constant attack, and a plain pain in the ass for everyone.

The simple fact is this, Linux is ready to dominate, and the masses and business leaders are mentally ready to have it dominate. Microsoft Vista/Longhorn (whatever the marketing dept calls it this month) will almost surely push tings over the top.

Open Source Conference in San Diego

Anonymous's picture

I am glad to hear that Linux is about to dominate the computer field. We are seeing more and more Open Source conferences and more and more firms using it. I have been teaching Linux at a local college since 2005 and we are getting increasing numbers of students - this is great since our number of Java and C++ students have dwindled due to lack of work for American programmers.

Meanwhile I am looking for a more current text to use when teaching Linux System Administration for the fall. Can you recommend one? We have been using the book by M. Carling, Stephen Degler, & James Dennis, but that is getting old. Is there a newer text?

While it may not be true for

Anonymous's picture

While it may not be true for your experience, my experience as a systems engineer has been that every client I have visited has had Linux in their environment in one capacity or another. From a firewall right through to being the OS under their Oracle or SAP deployments.

It may not be the case in the US for you, but outside the US Linux is moving in to more and more roles than any other platform. Its growth has consistently outpaced even Windows in the server environment. For the past 3 years at least, Linux has seen double digit growth as a server platform, something not even Windows has been able to consistently achieve of late.

Don't laugh at something just because your experience might be otherwise. It is most definitely starting to become the dominant server platform outside the US. Its not there yet, but its definitely on its way to being so. Need I give examples such as Brazil in general, the Australian federal government, the French government, the Munich local government, and the many others. Not to mention the countless business right across the world.

Like I said already, every single client of mine already had Linux in their environment in some capacity, or was in the process of planning a deployment. In some cases I got the contract because I offered a Linux based solution as an alternative for their requirements.

Linux is not dominant anywhere

Tom Adelstein's picture

Luke: That's your opinion. The record speaks for itself.

Until linux gets the

Anonymous's picture

Until linux gets the equivalent of active directory it will not become dominant in backoffice application where much of enterprise computing take place, neither is it yet dominant in any of the heavy iron enterprise spaces i deal with, but as common unix systems age and needs replacement you see some systems being migrated to linux.

But please, linux is not dominating the enterprise space, anyone who claims that obviously don't know what they are talking about.

Having a firewall in a datacenter and claiming they run linux because of that is like having an 8 port swich from dlink (shudder) and claiming as a result, that dlink is dominating the enterprise....

And yes, i manage a linux fleet of 400 servers in a datacenter of 2000 physical servers.

Flame away

Flame away ? and yes is growing like gromit...

Gnuru's picture

Linux is comming and are running in big circles around Microsoft
Both in server and Clients No mather what AD ore not, There is a Cill fore all the Win admin becose thay dont now Linux Gnu thay better prepeare them self becose it is comming big time
No mather what Laws are being funded in The states...

Have been running both Linux and Twin2003 + AD
Win2003+AD AD is not a invention by pyttesuft...
its a Ldap rebuilt and renamed to fit their needs

in three years
win 2003+AD been down for 25 times virus i cant count anymore 100-200 times, Bluescreens c.c.a "cant count anymore"

Linux + Ldap been down for one time "made by me" virus none

There is no more excuse that it is more used, Linux is better by fare
many times than win in all forms and shapes.
from Microsoft to no soft to Linux in no time,,

now i have all the freedome i want i could read the SourcCode,
i can compile to fit any system i want to have,

Linux and *BSD have saved me both time and money plenty of it,

before a win fan but no more mister please Microsoft bring my system upp to date so i can reboot it only five times a day,,,

And many Companys are now ready to make the Migration to Linux
Ask me i now

for all the future
I Have seen the truth
And that is not PytteMjuk = Microsoft in my Language
It Is Open Source

Until linux gets the

Tom Adelstein's picture

Thanks for setting us straight on the Active directory thing. I must have been asleep at the wheel. What was I thinking? Wow - a fleet of 400 linux servers out of 2000. Cool. And I thought all the enterprise accounts I researched were telling the truth. IBM, HP, Sun, IGS, Cap Gemini and Oracle should be ashamed of themselves for promulgating false information about their customers. And those people on Wall Street and the big financial houses in Europe - ripping me off saying they use Linux for all their back office transactions. And those guys at Cedant, 90,000 transaction a minute, what bull. If you can't trust Morgan and Merrill, who can you trust? Well, now I can get back to writing about real things. Thanks man. I needed that!

"Until linux gets the

Anonymous's picture

"Until linux gets the equivalent of active directory"

"Until linux gets the equivalent of active directory"

Anonymous's picture

The reality

Soviet's picture

The reality is that 95% of all the computers in the world run microsoft operating systems.

95% of computers run windows

Anonymous's picture

All computers are not enterprise capable machines. I have yet to even see an enterprise capable windows box, so in reality windows runs on 95% of desktop systems and 0% of ENTERPRISE computers. Linux/UNIX/BSD/VMS/etc run 100% of the enterprise market. Show me an "enterprise capable" Windows machine and I will show you a BSOD.


phubert's picture

If that isn't a grossly misleading statement, I don't know what is...

Sure, (-maybe-) 95% .. INCLUDING EVERY PC in the world!

But, the server space is FAR more telling.

So, every Mom, Pop, & the Grannies run Windows (tho even this one is slipping BOTH to Apple and Linux) ... and most commercial desktops as well... but let's stick to the server battleground and not muddle the issue Tom addressed.



Tom Adelstein's picture

phubert: No way Redmond has 95% of the world's computers. They don't even have 90% of the desktops any more. Servers? < 50% of Intel based systems. But, please don't let anyone know I discussed this with you. I don't want to have someone brand me a "homer".


phubert's picture

Well, Tom, that's why I added the "maybe" ... I don't have figures and I agree you're likely right-on. My point was that the ONLY way M$ could approach that was to include every PC in every nook & cranny on the planet (likely working or not! :-D )

By the way, I've been placing SOME hope in Steve Westley for governor of CA as the first candidate who -might- (yeah, I know how slight the REAL chances are) be able to address state IT and Linux/OSS with some common sense and OPENNESS... I was looking for you to suggest he might be one to make a pitch to... more so, I suppose, if he wins (twice).

The reality

Tom Adelstein's picture

Hey Soviet. That may be YOUR reality, but it's not even close to accurate. Sorry to disappoint you.

win vs Linux

Anonymous's picture

Licensed vs unlicensed Windows?
Desktop vs other?

MY experience is limited, but the enterprise I worked at 'till a few weeks ago uses mostly Windows Servers, and lots of Citrix.
They use some Unix and Linux, but still mostly Windows.
Desktop is essentially all Windows.
Five years from now, it may be different...

win vs Linux

Tom Adelstein's picture

I'm glad you set us straight. I must have just been drinking when I wrote this article.

Win vs Linux

Dojcha's picture

In my country 90% computers run on windows, and 90% of that 90% is not licenced. If this computer owners have to pay for all those non licenced software they will switch on linux in minute. I bet this is story in half a world. Maybe not US and West Europe bat other countryes...
On the other hand, in server market where control is in place, linux have big place. Even big companies switch to linux.