Manage heterogenous systems with your iPad

Do you know where your system administrator is? If you're like most of us, it's not always easy to track down a good sysadmin: They're always out on the floors, getting their hands dirty (metaphorically, and occasionally literally) while fixing network, server, and desktop issues at a moment's notice.

Let's flip the question around. System administrators, do you know where your desk is? While you have many tools on your base admin machine, those tools will do you little good while you are roaming among the users you serve. You have to figure that, with its connectivity and portable form factor, the iPad would be a great portable tool to use for systems administration. And you would be right.

There are a couple of ways to go about systems administration with an iPad. If you have any sort of Web interface to your network administration or monitoring tools, such as Webmin or Zenoss, you can easily point the Safari browser to the URL to access those tools. You can even set up an icon shortcut to get you straight to the administrative site in question. It's no dedicated app (as Zenoss joked last year), but it will do in a pinch.

Because of this sort of Web connectivity is so easily available, there really isn't a big push to get true sysadmin apps in place. There are a lot of great Web-based monitoring tools out there -- for data centers, server rooms, and the cloud -- and any good Web browser will get you the access you need.

If you don't have such systems in place (which is a discussion for another time), you're not entirely out of luck, because there are apps available that will offer direct access to system tools you can definitely use on the move.

Command-line bliss

If you like the command line for Unix and Linux servers, you will be well served by iSSH. This one came highly recommended to us, and we have to say the recommendation was definitely worth it.

In Shell mode, iSSH is the app to use when you need to plug straight into a server from the command line. You can pop in using SSH, Telnet, or Raw protocols. Of course, there's going to be some client set-up. SSH users, for instance, will need to install an SSH server (openssh-server is a good one for most Linux and Unix boxes) and get it configured properly so iSSH can see the running server. That goes for Telnet connections, too.

iSSH enables direct command-line access to Linux and Unix servers.

Once the client is set, it's a two-second matter to set up a new connection to a configured machine.

iSSH can also use virtual network commuting (VNC) to remotely connect to a graphical desktop for any server or desktop that allows VNC connections. This enables remote control of the a Linux, Unix, or even OS X machine's graphical interfaces. Prepping such connections doesn't take much more work than setting up an SSH server and a local VNC server daemon like x11vnc.

It's important to configure these connections correctly, because any time you set up connections from remote machines (iPad or otherwise), you're opening your computer up for potential intrusion. We strongly recommend, for example, not going with the default ports used by SSH, Telnet, and VNC servers. Switch to an unused port instead, to avoid port sniffers from chancing upon your system and trying to hack their way in. You might also try out the SSH tunneling support, for added security.

iSSH is not free: The app currently runs for $9.99. Properly configured, though, iSSH is a simple and fast app to use to jump onto a server, get work done, and get out in record time.

More remote work

VNC is a great tool to use to jump onto the graphic interface for any Unix-based machine (including Linux and OS X). And there are plenty of administrators who need that kind of interface to get things done. Windows admins, though, won't find VNC very helpful; they'll need to use Remote Desktop (RDP) to log into machines remotely.

If you read the recent article on ITworld reviewing remote desktop iPad apps, you may wonder why those apps, such as Logmein Ignition or Splashtop Remote, wouldn't also be appropriate here instead of a dedicated RDP iPad app. In truth, they could do the job in a pinch, but an RDP app offers a few advantages for system admins.

For one thing, you don't have to install a client to access a Windows machine via RDP; just configure the appropriate system settings to allow remote access. This is something a good script can take care of on login, avoiding the need to bulk install a whole slew of client apps. RDP also lets admins more easily log in as either the user or as themselves, depending on the work to be done. That can be most useful when trying to nail down a problem that only happens on the user account.

Desktop Connect ($14.99) is a bit pricey, but it offers one-stop remote desktop access via both RDP and VNC machines. System admins who must manage heterogeneous networks (and who doesn't these days?) can use one app to connect to nearly every kind of server or client machine in a given network.

Desktop Connect.png
Desktop Connect connects to Linux, OS X, and Windows interfaces all from one app.

Desktop Connect has more going for it than heterogeneous connectivity. Ease of connection setup was a big plus for the app. VNC users will still need to have the appropriate daemons running on their machines (again, this could easily be handled with scripting), but once configured, Desktop Connect seamlessly connected to any machine we threw at it.

Get the stats

As mentioned earlier in this article, there aren't many dedicated monitoring apps available for the iPad. But they aren't non-existent, either. iStat is one such app that, though configured for the iPhone, provides a neat little snapshot of any remote Linux, Unix, or OS X device that iStat can see.

iStat monitors Unix-based server stats at a nice-looking glance

iStat actually has two modes. First off, you can see information on the iOS device you're using, which is interesting though ultimately a bit of a thought exercise, unless you have a jailbroken device and can actually make some configuration changes on the iPad or iPhone. It's the second mode that will be more of interest to system administrators: remote server performance can be monitored as well.

There's a bit of a catch here: for one, you need to have an iStat Server running on the machine in question. Linux and Unix server users, be warned: there's no packaging available for this, so you're going to have to compile and install the source code. OS X users will have a standard installation package. Once installed and configured, iStat Server will let the iStat app monitor CPU, memory, disk space, and uptime from the iPad. Ping and traceroute tools are also included for added functionality. The interface is nice and slick, though it's not optimized for the iPad yet.

At $0.99, iStat is certainly a bargain for what you get. Installing the iStat Server from source makes it a little harder to distribute out to target machines, but if you want at-a-glance reporting on what your machines are doing, iStat is still recommended.

Wrapping up

As families of apps go, system admin tools are a little thin on the ground in terms of variety. There's lots of ping and traceroute apps, and RDP apps, and so on, but not a lot of diversity outside the categories mentioned in this article. Since hard-core monitoring systems already have Web interfaces, we may not see much more innovation in this particular space. But even in a sparse field of apps, there's some real gems that system admins can use to manage their networks more effectively.

ITWorld DealPost: The best in tech deals and discounts.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon