Watching over Linux

The growth of Linux in the corporate world has been hobbled by a lack of enterprise-quality network monitoring, management and software distribution tools. Enter Caldera System's Volution 1.0, which is designed to make a Linux systems administrator's life much easier. While point products that handle tasks such as remote health monitoring, hardware inventory and software distribution have been available for years, network administrators had to graft different tool kits together to get a full set of utilities. Volution offers these tools and the user interface that ties them together in one package.

Released last month, Volution is a Web-based network management system. Its strength lies in its ability to monitor many Linux systems -- clients and servers -- for system troubles such as full disks, overloaded applications and system failures. Another strong suit is its ability to push out scheduled software distributions, the kind that can rapidly update client and server systems in the event of a critical security patch, for example. Our only complaint -- as is the case with the initial release of many products -- is its rough edges in terms of its setup, interface and documentation that will likely be fixed with the first upgrade.

Volution, like other network management packages, revolves around software distribution, network printer management, system inventory and system/device monitoring. Linux software distribution has traditionally been simpler than distribution on Windows platforms because Linux software applications are generally well documented and their dependencies understood. Volution extends one of the main distribution methodologies, Red Hat Package Manager (RPM), to allow rapid and methodical desktop software management.

Although the package is still a bit raw in terms of its ease of use, we could rapidly build working policies for distributing base application packages and incremental updates based on system-specific features. We were initially worried that the console daemon became inaccessible to a browser, but that didn't seem to affect the scheduled operations. After a daemon restart, accessibility of the console to a browser access returned.

Volution performs queries of its constituent clients and servers for hardware and software information. It then tucks this information into a Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) Version 3 database that has schema extensions to support the product. The LDAP foundation must be built from Novell's eDirectory (easily linked), OpenLDAP (included) or AOL/TimeWarner-Netscape iPlanet prior to installation.

The Volution software components examine and take action on the objects stored in the LDAP database according to a defined action schedule set up by the administrator. We recommend installing an SNMP console prior to installing Volution because one isn't included with the Caldera product now, and you'll need one to collect SNMP trap information from the machines you are managing. But this isn't a major hurdle to using the product because many Linux distributions include an SNMP console in their commercial bundles.

In the Volution universe, Linux machines assume the role of server, client, directory source or RPM source. Unfortunately, Volution does not cover all Linux systems but supports Caldera's e-Desktop 2.4 and Server 2.3.1, Red Hat's 6.1/6.2, TurboLinux's 6.0, SuSE's 6.4 and Linux-Mandrake's 7.1 (client only). Because of the RPM limitation, Debian and Windows clients aren't covered by Volution. Servers must use a specific Apache Web server daemon, ApacheJServer1.1.1, which is supplied in the Volution bundle.

We set up 11 clients and two servers (see "How we did it") using Volution's Version1.0 distribution CD and a single directory source. Most of the work involved in using Volution occurs when you are building relationships between the devices on your network. Volution's browser console interface doesn't lend much clarity to how you accomplish this task. We took the supplied examples and rapidly populated information about the Volution client computers, then started building policies that would take inventories of their hardware and software.

The strength of Volution lies in its object-oriented construction. We quickly built a management/monitoring platform from objects that we created. The objects consisted of computers, groups of machines and several software repositories. We then generated policies such as system health monitoring and software distribution. We found Volution's printing policies to be very useful. Managing printing policies is often tedious in Linux, and Volution offers a method for managing network print job capturing, queuing, indirection and job control management.

Once we built the base platform, the product worked quietly in the background while remaining easily accessible and changeable. The product's software distribution tasks were useful for new installation of packages, but we found that updating existing client packages was occasionally problematic. Some software packages were updated incorrectly while others were not updated at all. We looked through the RPMs and the installation dependencies and couldn't find a reason for the occasional Volution action of ignoring an update on a client. Also, the primary console daemon, csmd, became deaf/mute on two occasions during simple browser access. Killing the daemon and restarting it corrected the problem, and we could find no damage or related consequence.

Because Volution uses a browser interface, console accessibility was excellent, but the interface lacks some drag-and-drop usefulness. Secure browser access can be easily enabled, although the default access is open. Scripts that ran Java servlets inside the browser console ran slowly despite our comparatively fast platform. Despite the slow server visual update, tasks such as hardware/software inventorying took place quickly. Unfortunately, the browser interface becomes a hindrance when viewing even the most simple of Linux software inventories because of the large size of inventories and the tiny amount of browser real estate that can be used, and the console lacks such common abilities. Scrolling the Volution browsed console became habitual; we were wearing a hole in the mouse pad.

Primary documentation is an outlined administrator's guide, which is terse and lacking useful examples. You have to know Linux and TCP/IP well to make the policies useful from a management perspective.

To our knowledge, there is no direct competitor to Volution that combines policy administration, monitoring, inventory management and software distribution. Organizations that have built a directory service around Novell's eDirectory will be especially delighted with the ability to extend eDirectory functionality to Linux clients. Whatever directory service is used, Volution replaces the usual pages of scripts that are often used by Linux administrators to manage Linux servers and clients.

Volution isn't licensed under an open source methodology used by most Linux/Linux-like applications, and is quite an investment for many organizations used to the low cost of Linux components. The success of this package will be driven by the real economics of reduced cost of Linux networked system administration.

This story, "Watching over Linux" was originally published by Network World.

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