Volution Product Review

by Joshua Drake

Every IT administrator in the world dreams of a single unified administration interface for all of their systems. If you are in a larger IT shop, this can be even more elusive due to multiple operating systems. For example, I am aware of a medium-sized company that has over 2,000 employees and the current environment includes: Solaris, Dynix, NT, Windows 95/98, OS/390 and Hitachi mainframes. A universal interface to all of these is probably impossible.

In recent years several companies, most notably Novell, have created products that enable single sign-on and some universal management. The Novell product is NDS, and it is currently available for Windows NT, NetWare and Linux.

If you are a Linux administrator, you are also aware of the dream that can quickly become a nightmare when administrating multiple machines. This nightmare can increase to a full fledged, "I need a Valium" if you have multiple Linux distributions. In our office, we have standardized to Red Hat version 6.2 for our servers and are currently standardizing on SuSE 7.1 for our desktops. The major service we offer is Linux managed services and custom programming. Due to the nature of our business, we have quite a few customer servers at our offices. We also keep each machine as similar to each other as possible. Standardizing the machines helps the administration because they don't have to worry about where certain administration tools will be located. Even with all of the tasks we have completed, it can be time consuming to manage all of the servers.

So, what is the answer? Caldera, of the Caldera Open Linux distribution and soon to be the true owner of the original UNIX code, suggests that it is a product called Volution. Volution is a system management and administration product that advertises, "Manage unlimited systems, and all flavors of Linux--all through a single browser." I will admit, I was a bit skeptical at that claim, but I was willing to see how it stands up to it.

The Volution product is a directory-enabled product and includes a variety of software to assist you on your way, including the Volution client, OpenSLP, JDK v1.2.2 Apache web server, Apache JServ, OpenLDAP and Novell NDS eDirectory 8.5. The choice between OpenLDAP and Novell NDS is a personal preference. Volution includes a 100-user license for NDS. If you are a large corporation, you may want to use OpenLDAP as the directory instead. The use of OpenLDAP will provide unlimited users without licensing fees. On the other hand, you can get commercial support for Novell NDS. This may be appealing to those who are custom developing directory applications.

Originally, I was going to install Volution with the Novell NDS eDirectory, but Volution requires that you install Novell NDS on a separate machine from Volution. This was not a disappointment because of Caldera's foresight in including OpenLDAP. OpenLDAP does not require a separate machine.

I chose to install Volution on a freshly formatted server of Red Hat 6.2. The only update to the 6.2 was the addition of SSH. The Volution installation was reasonably painless. The installation even informed me that root access was needed to install the software and asked me for the root password. The documentation was a bit terse, but it was descriptive and it didn't take much for me to figure out what each screen option meant.

Volution Installation

A frustrating part of the Volution installation was the dependency checking. Volution requires several additional software packages to be installed for it to operate correctly. They are Apache, Apache-Jserv, OpenLDAP and Java. Volution will not automatically install Apache, Apache-Jserv or Java. The software will warn you if the software of a component is not installed, but it will not halt the installation process. However, Volution will automatically install OpenLDAP. I found this a bit inconsistent with what the product claims Volution is trying to market. I also noticed that the error messages Volution was giving me were not accurate. Volution would state that slapd had started when in fact it failed to bind to the port and did not start.

My log showed a couple of errors when trying to bind slapd. The slapd dæmon is needed in order for OpenLDAP to run correctly. I checked the /var/log/messages file and noticed that I had a misconfiguration in the /etc/ldap/slapd.conf file. It appears that you may not use a name like Command Prompt, Inc. as the organization name. It appeared to have a problem with the comma. The installation or documentation should have warned me about that potential dilemma. After a quick edit of the slapd.conf file, I was able to move on.

Configuration Log

Once Volution is up and running, you are able to use Volution by opening your favorite web browser and pointing it to: http://<<>volution_machine>/volution/console/. After having done so, you will be presented with a very simple web-based interface.

Volution Login Page

After logging in, the web server displayed a nice two-pane framed screen. The left side specified our objects. The right side was empty, except for a navigational banner at the top.

Volution Main Page

Caldera provides a comprehensive set of predefined events that one can assign to any machine. Using Volution, you can easily add events that would inform you if your hard disk was running out of space or if your processor utilization was consistently high. I could also keep a running inventory of the machine I was running.

Using the same options above, I could define global definitions to events. Therefore, I could have all ten servers alert me in case of load problems or capacity issues. You can also assign scripts that will automatically run if a problem arises. For example, if your hard disk is at 99%, you should immediately perform a du -k and e-mail the administrator with the results. An additional example would be to have a script that is reacting to an event, dial a modem and connect to a paging service. The script could then provide a simple text message to the administrator's pager or cell phone.

After navigating various screens, I noticed a distinct lack of operating system management options. When I say operating system management, I am talking about user management, group management, file security management, etc. I thought that I had missed something and therefore contacted Caldera for a quick product update. I spoke with Mike Wilkanson who is the product line manager for the Volution line. Mike was able to explain a couple of things and gave me some insight on the future of Volution.

Volution is a systems-management product. It is not an operating system management product. The distinction between the two is gray and Volution crosses the line on both sides. For example, I can have the machine alert me if I have more than 15 users logged in, but Volution in its current state will not let me add or delete users. I found this remarkably inconsistent with their tag line. As someone who has been doing systems management for almost a decade, I have always felt that they are synonymous. I guess it is important to remember that definitions do vary.

Volution does have a lot of positive features. Volution is currently the only product out there for Linux that provides a directory-enabled management solution for Linux servers. Caldera has created a strong directory services development foundation by arranging to have some of the ZenWorks programmers work on Volution. Caldera provides the ability to use Webmin in conjunction with Volution. The use of Webmin helps fill the gap of my operating systems management concerns, and later this summer, we will see Volution 1.1, which will support a larger array of platforms.

The directory is the key feature to Volution. The use of an open standard for storage of data will be the feature that will cause Volution to become a widely accepted product. The use of the directory allows the integration of many different facilities.

The moment you enable a directory in your enterprise, you have the ability to interface with many technologies, for example, company-wide address books, which would be available from any client that has LDAP support. You could also use the same directory with PAM and redirect all of your Linux authentication through the directory. In an example that Caldera mentioned, Volution could assist with package management. Via the use of the directory, one could keep universal inventories of each package installed on a system and allow the directory to update the list of packages, on-line. Once the packages are updated, you could then deploy to a group of Linux servers all of the required patches that fit the upgrade policy requirements. I can imagine how much time I could save with my colocates if I could click on one button to upgrade a security fix.

Caldera has a good, but young product with Volution. As the next two releases come out, we should see a well-rounded and diversified product. Volution might not solve all of my needs, but I will probably implement it. Volution has the core facilities built to provide solid distributed management of multiple servers. It is a product that Linux needs to be viable in the enterprise, and one the Open Source community has yet to implement.

The Good/The Bad

Resources

Joshua Drake is an e-commerce and Linux consultant who owns his own company, Command Prompt www.commandprompt.com). He has been using Linux since the beginning and is the Linux Documentation Project's Webmaster. His other projects include the LinuxPorts.com web site and the OpenDocs publishing company.

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