Linux System Administration Tools

by Dee-Ann LeBlanc

Linux old-timers revel in reminding newcomers that they used to have to do everything by hand, at the command line, uphill, both ways, with duct tape for shoes. What really gets some of these folks sputtering is today's collection of system administration tools that introduce quite a bit of automation. There's good reason for this, actually; if you don't know how to administer your system by hand then you are sunk if something goes wrong. However, this factor doesn't mean you shouldn't take advantage of available helping hands.

There are four major players in the world of Linux system administration tools: COAS, Linuxconf, Webmin and YaST. One of these, YaST, is tied specifically to SuSE Linux. The other three, COAS, Linuxconf and Webmin, come by default with some distributions but are independently available for download and installation.

Linuxconf

Linuxconf (Figure 1) comes with Mandrake Linux and Red Hat Linux, but is also available for most modern Linux distributions. You've probably encountered this tool before if you use one of these distributions, either as the whole package or in one of its modular components. Multiple interfaces for Linuxconf have been available for years, but now we're up to four: GUI, Web, command-line and ncurses.

Figure 1. The GNOME Version of Linuxconf

Linuxconf has actually been around for years, which means its bugs have had longer to shake out than the other distribution-neutral tools. You can download and find out more about this tool at www.solucorp.qc.ca/linuxconf. Be sure to read through what each portion of the Linuxconf package is used for. There is a base package with the non-GUI components, and then there are various GUI front-end pieces from a more general X Window System version to one specifically built for GNOME.

Whether you stick with the command-line version or add a GUI front end, you run the tool by typing linuxconf. From here you navigate text or point and click menus to access a wide variety of system settings, everything from basic networking details to GRUB configuration. Linuxconf also plays well with people who refuse to use the root account for anything but the most vital tasks. If you try to run it as root, the tool simply asks for the root password--if this fact makes you nervous, then you may want to consider not using this tool, but this practice is fairly standard in modern administration tools. When you consider that anyone could just try to su to the root account at whim, you start to see why it is so important to have a secure root password in place.

Webmin

Webmin (Figure 2) comes with, and was recently acquired by, Caldera Linux. This tool is not only available for most modern Linux distributions, it also runs on most major flavors of UNIX and is available in around twenty languages (though some modules are not available in all of the languages). As you might guess, Webmin is purely a web-based application and a heavily modular one at that.

Figure 2. Webmin in Red Hat Linux 7.2, under GNOME

There is a set of core modules that handle the usual system administration functionality, and then there are the third-party modules available for administering a variety of packages and services. To download and learn more about Webmin, point your web browser to www.webmin.com/webmin. Once again, this package is available in a number of formats specific to different distributions.

Where any user can install Linuxconf, Webmin must be installed by root. After that you can access this tool from any user account as long as you know the root password.

There are three separate rows of icons on this tool's front page. On the upper right, you have a pair of administrative links, one to log you out of the Webmin tool and another that allows you to fill out a feedback form that sends your comments back to the Webmin team. In the same top row on the upper left you can click on the word Webmin and go to the product home page. On the upper bar directly beneath those links, there are a series of menu icons, which are, from left to right:

  • Webmin: takes you back to the main Webmin screen.

  • System: a collection of configuration issues, such as user and group manipulation, disk quotas and cron jobs.

  • Servers: configuration routines for a number of servers you may have installed on your system, such as Apache, WU-FTPD and sendmail.

  • Hardware: configuration utilities for hardware issues such as RAID, printers and disk partitions.

  • Cluster: a collection of cluster maintenance tools.

  • Others: a set of tools that system administrators typically need, such as a command prompt, an alias manager and a file manager.

Finally, there is the Webmin tab, which has a series of Webmin management tools:

  • Webmin Actions Log: if you've enabled Webmin logging, this function allows you to search through the logfiles for what you've utilized this tool to do to your system.

  • Webmin Configuration: takes you to the amazing number of configuration options available for Webmin, everything from strengthening your Webmin authentication requirements to upgrading either the main package or individual modules.

Yet Another System Tool (YaST)

YaST (Figure 3) and its cousin YaST2 (Figure 4) come with SuSE Linux; these items are specific only to a single distribution.

Figure 3. SuSE's YaST

Figure 4. SuSE's YaST2 in KDE

Generally speaking, you'll want to use YaST2 when at all possible; YaST2 is the graphical version, and the older YaST is a great fallback if you aren't able to get into the GUI or have not installed a GUI. YaST2 is laid out in a standard file-manager format, with the menu of categories on the left and icons for the various configuration routines on the right, which change to correspond with your category choice. The categories are:

  • Software: the selection of SuSE software-management utilities, such as the ability to update your system over the Internet or add and remove packages from the SuSE CD-ROM or DVD-ROM.

  • Hardware: a selection of hardware configuration routines, including printers, sound cards and scanners.

  • Network/Basics: the selection of configuration tools formodem and other connectivity devices, Ethernet cards and more.

  • Network/Advanced: the section where you can configure many of your network services, such as sendmail, routing and NIS+.

  • Security&Users: the selection of user and group-management tools, as well as a couple of useful security tools.

  • System: the selection of overall system-configuration tools, including a boot script (rc-config) file editor, boot loader configuration editor and routines for changing the language, keyboard and so on.

  • Misc: a collection of tools that couldn't be otherwise grouped into the other categories. Some of the items represented here involve alternate print setup tools, some for working with log files, and some for communicating with SuSE.

The Caldera Open Administration System (COAS)

COAS comes in a rudimentary form with Caldera OpenLinux but is available for most modern Linux distributions, and is open source and covered by the GPL. This tool comes in four different formats, so you can use the interface that's most comfortable: command-line, ncurses (command-line but menu driven), GUI and Web for remote use. This tool is still under development but will be included in its entirety in later versions of Caldera OpenLinux--though there are rumors that because Caldera now has a stake in Webmin, COAS may be on its way out. This concern is born out by the fact that the COAS web site doesn't seem to have been updated since September of 1999.

This tool is modular, meaning that rather than loading its full set of features into memory when you start it, only the portions you're using come into play. Adding and removing modules is typically transparent as you work with the tool unless you require an external module, one made by a third party or one that for some reason is not included with the core release.

Right now the system is in development, specifically using KDE's Qt library set, but rumor has it that a GTK (GNOME) version is in the works. You can find out more about this tool by visiting www.coas.org, including the list of the tool's anticipated capabilities.

Dee-Ann LeBlanc is a Linux writer, trainer, course developer and consultant who never seems to be able to stick with doing just one thing.

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