Coming of age for Linux systems management

ITworld.com –

Lack of high-level system and network management tools could inhibit growth as more businesses look to use Linux in their operations. Many in the ranks of Linux adherents may welcome the hands-on control of system management based on command lines, but the same tools may put off some veteran IT managers.

Those hands are familiar with the relatively high-level tools available for mainframe, Unix, and Windows system management, and they may take a wait-and-see attitude on full-scale Linux deployment until more robust alternatives appear.

The companies trying to carve out a living as Linux suppliers, as well as some more familiar industry players, are working hard to fill that need. Among the former are companies such as Caldera Systems and VALinux, both of which recently released software for Linux system management. Taken with other events, the releases may indicate that Linux system-management adolescence, if not full maturity, is upon us.

For its part, upstart Caldera has released its Linux Management Solution, formerly known as cosmos, into open beta. Intended for IT shops that need to manage multiple servers and workstations, the tool is a browser- and directory-based management product for Linux systems. Caldera has long counted itself as a leader in Linux management solutions. It offers Webmin (a Web-based admin tool), Lizard (a Linux installation wizard), and the Caldera Open Administration System (COAS).

Caldera hopes to capitalize on use of the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) in its latest product rollout. The hierarchical, industry-standard directory is said to be highly scalable. It supports remote management of various networked Linux operating systems distributions.

Even Caldera advocates such as Mike Wilkinson, Caldera's product line manager, admit to drawbacks in the present state of Linux system management. For example, if a hosting company has 19,000 Linux servers, an administrator must "touch every box" to do a security upgrade, Wilkinson said. But with the Linux Systems Management tool, the user can work at a console, and a security update will filter down through all the sections of the network.

"It's a simple way to support software distribution, configuration management, and print 'spooling'," he said.

Bill Claybrook, the Aberdeen Group's research director for Linux and open source software, said that while Caldera's Linux management solution is not a new idea, it could soon prove useful. "Ideally, with this product, systems managers can monitor the system, including software as well as hardware, so you can see if something is not working properly," he said.

Console control

Among users who have evaluated Caldera's remote management software is Paul Smith, president of CPC Consulting in Toronto. In the last three years, Smith said he and his associates have done extensive Linux consulting, focusing on network management, and they've noticed a significant difference between Windows and Linux system management.

"In the Windows world, there are Tivoli's management solutions and Hewlett-Packard's OpenView," Smith said. "But there is nothing like that for the Linux environment. As of yet, there's been no control console." "Today you have to put together different pieces of software. At present, I have to log into each machine individually for doing security auditing and upgrades." With the Caldera product, general administrative overhead will be easy, especially the task of keeping track of hardware and software inventory, Smith added.

Analyst view

While sparse tools may limit growth, there is little question that the Linux invasion is for real. Research group IDC estimates that infrastructure requirements accounted for 29.3 percent of worldwide spending for servers in 1999, and that slightly more than 55 percent of Linux spending was for infrastructure and collaborative workloads.

Yet some managers in the enterprise still haven't heard of Linux.

"Some enterprises are not aware that their mission-critical email system is run on a Linux server," said Milund Govekar, a Gartner Group senior research analyst.

He noted that those same enterprises are reluctant to pay huge sums of money for Linux management tools. As a result, most of the management tools are either homegrown or shareware.

"There is a growing list of 'Linux' tools for network management," Govekar said. "There are Perl scripts that collect current and historical information about host uptime and availability, presenting the results as Webpages. As well, there are popular SNMP-related low-level libraries that come with most Linux distributions.

"These tools are not from the traditional network and systems management vendors. Linux administrators generally resist the traditional tools for two reasons. One, the prices of those tools are high. Second, the tools leave them very little flexibility to make changes to the tools as they see fit -- what I call the get-your-hands-dirty factor."

Down on the server farm

The server farm is the place in the infrastructure where Linux is most prevalent. So it is not surprising that VA Linux focused its latest remote monitoring and management software release at server cluster management requirements. VACM 2.0 collects data on systems status (process list and user list), resource status (memory usage and CPU load), and hardware status (temperature, power levels, fans, chassis), and displays the information on an administrator's desktop.

The software also permits managers to reset individual servers remotely and lets administrators control individual nodes via serial console redirects, which is said to allow reconfiguration of a system's BIOS over the network.

According to Jay McKinsey, a VA Linux software product manager, VACM 2.0 represents a full redesign. "The redesign was aimed at making it modular," he said.

Using Perl, the Open Source community can adapt the product as needed, he added.

"User-friendly Linux distribution-independent cluster management tools such as VACM will play a critical role in solving 'deployment issues', Aberdeen's Claybrook said.

It was not that long ago that Unix was playing catch-up in systems management versus its mainframe predecessors. Some Unix and Linux server farms may move to the mainframe in years to come, asserts Greg Bryant, director of core technology product strategy at TivoliSystems Inc. He points to IBM's support of Linux on S/390 computers as a prime example.

For some, "Linux on 'the mainframe' will not just be something to manage, it will be what to manage from," said Bryant.

Meanwhile, as attention focuses on Linux-only houses, traditional systems management vendors such as Tivoli, Computer Associates and Hewlett-Packard have made strides in Linux support, said Gartner's Govekar. The need for such tools may become more acute as service-level agreements come into play for Web hosting and services delivery, and as more shops are required to measure Linux performance, he said.

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