April 19, 2005

LWCE Toronto: Day 1

Author: David 'cdlu' Graham

The first day of Toronto's LinuxWorld Conference and Expo was made up of a pair of 3-hour long tutorial sessions on various networking and Linux related topics. I selected from among the list of available sessions System & Network Monitoring with Open Source Tools for the morning and Applying Open Source Software Practices to Government Software for the afternoon. Unfortunately, the latter was cancelled at the last minute and I went to Moving to the Linux Business Desktop instead.

The System & Networking Monitoring with Open Source Tools session was run by Syonex's John Sellens, who described himself as a reformed accountant and 19 year Unix system administrator.

In explaining the importance of monitoring, Sellens described running services without monitoring as simply running software, but with monitoring, they become a service. Sysadmins, he said, must monitor. Monitoring today, he pointed out, is a different game than it was when he started in the field nearly two decades ago.

At the time, most people operated on terminals logged into a single mainframe. If there was an outage, chairs would be pushed back, people would start talking, and the noise level would go up. The system administrator would see this and fix the problem. It would be fixed nearly immediately, and everyone would go back to work without really ever knowing what had happened.

With the old system, all the system's users would go home at night without taking their work with them. Availability was a 9 to 5 issue in a lot of cases, with only tasks that did not involve the users running at night. Now services have to be up around the clock as people work from home, using evening hours to browse Web sites, check their email, and for countless other tasks. Many of us, he said, have what he called "externally facing infrastructure."

Sellens' recommended solution for the vast majority is, he said, a near religious issue. He recommends SNMP - Simple Network Management Protocol - for monitoring.

Monitoring, he explained, is important because it allows administrators to detect problems before they become serious.

For example, if a hard drive is nearly full and monitoring picks up on this fact, the administrator has enough time to acquire an extra hard drive or some other form of additional space. Thus the outage that would have taken place when the drive filled completely is averted.

Monitoring can be broken down into 3 main groupings, argued Sellens:

  • Exceptions
  • History
  • Trends

Exceptions are when a problem occurs. Monitoring for exceptions is watching for problems such as website content not being what is expected, mail service being down, or any other problem where something is not quite right.

History is the maintenance of logs for the purposes of dealing with law enforcement, should that ever need to happen, billing for service usage, and monitoring service level agreements for the purpose of service refunds for outages.

Not every system needs the service history kept, he noted. It depends on what services are provided and what an administrator intends to do with logs.

Trend monitoring examines the history of the services to predict the future. They're a means of understanding how systems operate or change over a period of time in order to predict upgrade needs. It also shows what the normal behaviours for a system are.

He cited an example of a friend who ran an e-postcard Web site. Over the course of a couple of weeks, traffic began to inch ever higher on his site, culminating in a large peak on February 14th -- Valentine's day -- after which point there was a significant drop in traffic. This, he explained, was an example of trend monitoring.

Sellens commented on a question frequently asked: What should one monitor? His answer: Anything you care about.

His longer answer was that anything that needs any kind of availability should be monitored. But he advised caution, as too much monitoring is no better than too little. Having too much information, he said, is no more helpful than having none at all, as it leads to increases in false alarms and a glut of information that will never be completely analysed. He advised starting small: Add one tool to monitor the systems. Use it and see what else you need, then add that.

Monitoring, he said, is not about intrusion detection. It's a means to ensure services are provided. Intrusion detection can, however, be a side effect of the monitoring, but generally is a field unto itself. Aside from more esoteric uses like tracking pool temperatures and soft drink machine can counts, Sellens listed a wide variety of potential uses for monitoring systems, including, but not limited to disk space, CPU, memory usage, memory availability, system uptime, network connectivity, UPS (power) status, mail queues, and many others.

The rest of the session outlined various software packages, including MRTG, ,Cricket, and RRDtool, which are usage analysers and graphers. He also mentioned Nagios, which monitors, attempts to fix, and -- in the last resort -- can alert an administrator of the problem.

Marcel Gagné led the afternoon session in a discussion called Moving to the Linux Business Desktop about how to encourage businesses to move to Linux. A marked contrast from John Sellen's 155-page PowerPoint presentation and printout, Gagné used only a couple of slides and did not even refer to them, opting instead to make it a largely interactive and non-linear discussion on showing businesses the road to Linux.

To start out, Gagné asked his audience how many people use Linux servers at work. A solid majority of the room responded positively.

How many, he asked, use Linux desktops at work?

For that, only a couple of people were able to respond positively.

I attended Gagné's session on the same topic a year ago, and the changes that have taken place since then are remarkable.

He started with the basic question: Why should a company upgrade from Windows to Linux?

And he gave the basic answer: Virus security and costs.

And how should they go about it?

Start with transition software. GNOME and KDE, he said, are both good graphical environments, but he recommended KDE for users coming from Windows because of its particular look and feel.

According to Gagné, the critical transition applications to get business people started on the transition path are:

  • OpenOffice.org

He demonstrated the features of OpenOffice.org 2.0 beta, including an option in the word processor to save directly to PDF, by-passing the need for any Adobe tools. He showed a spreadsheet replacement for MS Excel as part of the suite, and mentioned that there is a Microsoft Access replacement available. Unfortunately, it does not read Access files; it only works the same way from the user's point of view.

  • Firefox

Firefox, the Web browser, is essentially the same in both Linux and Windows and is an important step in the transition to Linux. Allowing users to change one application at a time keeps it from being overwhelming.

  • Gaim

Gaim, the instant messenger client that supports several messengers with a reduction in pop-ups and general noise from its Windows counterparts could, he said, provide a logical step for transitioning users from those Windows packages.

  • Mozilla-Thunderbird

Thunderbird, a mail client, is a complete replacement with a similar look and feel to Microsoft's popular but virus-ridden Outlook mail client.

All these tools run in Windows and allow users to get used to Linux programs which they will then find are still there and familiar after a complete transition.

For Windows applications critical to a user in an office environment, he recommended Win4Lin, Crossover Office or VMWare, depending on the particular needs and budgets of the few in an office who actually need the software. VMWare, for example, is best for developers who need to work in multiple operating systems at one time, but is very expensive compared to the others.

The floor was open to questions for the entire session, giving it the feel of a 3-hour long BOF session rather than a tutorial, and the questions started early on.

The first question was whether or not Mozilla Thunderbird worked with Microsoft Exchange.

Gagné said he wasn't sure, but suggested that following the transition to Linux, users could continue transitioning by switching to Evolution, which has a plug-in available to interact with Microsoft Exchange.

One of the myths many business managers retain is that Linux is poorly or not supported. He noted that with the backing of large companies such as Novell, HP, and IBM, companies can contract support for Linux as needed. In addition, they can continue to rely on community support. He also noted that when there is a problem with Linux relating to security or bugs, it is often fixed as soon as it is discovered, setting it aside from its larger proprietary cousins.

Gagné reasoned financially that the savings in Microsoft Office and Adobe licenses achieved by using OpenOffice.org could pay for much of the transition costs from moving from Windows to Linux.

Another cost saving he brought up, discussed at greater length in his discussion last year, was the use of terminals and a terminal server. This solution allows businesses to only have one large server and several easily replaceable thin clients. A side benefit of this approach is that it allows people to have access to their own desktop at any desk, not just their own.

In KDE, Kiosktool allows administrators to limit the abilities of terminal client users (or any KDE user, for that matter) to limit the destructive capability of users and ensure that the work they intend to do can get done.

A member of the audience asked Gagné if this wasn't just a return to the old ways of a terminal server and terminals for each user. Sure, he argued, but now our servers and networks are strong enough to handle them properly.

Another member of the audience was concerned by an apparent dislike by many new users of the concept of multiple virtual desktops. Gagné's response was, while they can be disabled so that new users don't have to encounter them because most people dislike them at first, in a short time those same users will hurt anyone who tries to take them away.

Among the other questions asked by an inquisitive audience were:

  • How is Linux multimedia support?
  • What is available for 3d modeling?
  • What other desktops are available besides KDE?
  • What is available for accounting software?
  • How is Oracle's Linux support?
  • What kind of training is available for new Linux desktop users.

For the multimedia questions, he referred to a KDE program called Kino for editing digital video. For editing sound, he mentioned Audacity and a program he is less fond of, called Resound. He did not go into great detail on either. He also noted the existence of digiKam to talk to digital cameras from Linux.

For 3D modeling, he mentioned -- but did not demonstrate -- a program called Blender. He noted that all major computer animated movies coming out of Hollywood are now done using Linux clusters, thus making the point that Linux is eminently qualified for the job.

A member of the audience noted that they were using a window manager called evilwm, which is a very simple, low overhead desktop manager. Gagné used the opportunity to demonstrate IceWM, another small window manager, which he recommends for use with thin clients because of its low overhead. He estimated that KDE uses about 60MB of RAM per instance, while icewm uses only 1MB.

For accounting software, he recommended the popular GNUCash program or the proprietary but free -- for one person -- Quasar accounting package. KDE, he said, provides KMyMoney, and he mentioned that several other commercial accounting packages are being ported to Linux.

Oracle, Gagné explained, is a strong Linux backer and is now releasing versions for Linux ahead of versions for Windows of its software, making Linux its primary release platform.

Last but not least, he said that there is the Linux Professional Institute, a company-independent body for certification for Linux administrators, and a variety of per-distribution or per-company based certifications, but there is no formal desktop training that he is aware of.

Gagné said that he is not a big believer in certifications, preferring training and courses. For the time being, though, the best desktop training is simply to use it.

He finished off with a quick game of PlanetPenguin Racer -- a game much like the Windows 3 SkiFree, where Tux -- Linux' very own penguin -- goes down a ski hill trying to avoid trees and eat mackerel. The presentation ended on impact with a tree.

Click Here!