March 24, 2006

My sysadmin toolbox

Author: Jonathan Temple

I have used Linux since I was eleven, and I'm approaching my seventeenth birthday now. I still consider myself an amateur at using the operating system, but I have discovered quite a few interesting tools to help improve my productivity with Linux. They're not exactly my sysadmin toolbox -- more like my desktop enhancement kit.


Torsmo is a desktop system monitoring tool, and one of the best I have ever used.

Torsmo differs from other system monitors, such as GKrellM, in that it does not spawn a new window, but instead renders text directly to your desktop. It can display almost anything about your system, including uptime, current CPU usage, network activity, hard drive usage, memory usage, and swap usage. The program's developers wrote it to use as little of your system's resources as possible, and it does a good job of this.

You can configure what torsmo displays through its configuration file, normally found in your home directory as .torsmorc. You can look at my configuration file at


ImageMagick makes it easy to perform many operations on images directly from the command line. Among its many useful tools, identify is used to display information about an image, import can save any window on an X server to an image file, and convert can convert an image to almost any format with a single command.

You can use identify to show detailed information about a photo or image by running identify imagename. For example:

jon@gimli:~$ identify /media/pics/Group-Photo.jpg
/media/pics/Group-Photo.jpg JPEG 819x614 DirectClass 371kb 0.050u 0:01

I often use import to take a screenshot of my desktop. For example, to save a screenshot of your desktop to your home directory as a PNG image named screenshot.png, run import -window root $HOME/screenshot.png. ImageMagick will save the screenshot in the image format specified by the file extension.

Using convert to convert an image from one format to another could not be easier -- just run convert imagename.pngimagename.jpg. Again, ImageMagick takes the format from the extension, so you don't need to give it an additional option to specify the new format.


While KDE and GNOME come with their own terminal applications, these applications do much more than I need. Aterm, on the other hand, is a simple terminal program with fewer features, so it appears almost instantly when you start it. Though it's not as bulky as other terminal emulators, Aterm does have many useful options, which you can read about by typing aterm --help at the command line.

I like to start Aterm with a black background, white text, a 1,000-line history buffer, and display all text using the font "drift" from the "artwiz" font family. To get this, use aterm -bg black -fg white -sl 1000 -fn "-artwiz-drift-*".


Sometimes I use tail -f to monitor logfiles for changes. While useful, it's awkward to have a terminal window open all the time to monitor a logfile. Root-tail provides an excellent alternative by displaying logfiles as text rendered on your desktop in whatever font and color you specify. It also updates the text on your desktop at the interval you specify.

To use root-tail, just run root-tail filename to monitor a file. Root-tail has many useful options, which you can see by typing root-tail --help, or just read its man page.

Quod Libet

Out of the hordes of music players available for Linux, Quod Libet is my favorite. One of the things I like about Quod Libet is its ability to make playlists based on regular expressions. You can operate the player from the command line by running the program with an argument, making it simple to set up hotkeys with KDE to control the player. For instance, if I go to the KDE Control Center hotkey section and add a hotkey such as Control-Alt-X to run the command quodlibet --play, I can then simply press Control-Alt-X to cause Quod Libet to play music. See all of the command line arguments that are available by running quodlibet --help.

Quod Libet has excellent ID3 tag editing, with the ability to edit tags based on the filenames of songs, rename files based on their tags, and change many files at once. Quod Libet also supports album cover art.

In addition to its native features, Quod Libet also has an extensive collection of plugins that can greatly extend its functionality. One particularly interesting plugin, Animated On-Screen Display, can display information about the music Quod Libet is playing. See the full list of plugins on the Quod Libet site.


While I normally use Azureus as my BitTorrent client, it's fairly resource-intensive, and that makes it less appealing for me. In situations where I need a simple and fast client, I use Transmission. It handles torrents using a fraction of the memory and CPU time that Azureus uses. Unlike Azureus, it has the ability to run all of the torrents on a single port, removing the need to allow entire port ranges through a firewall in order to use the program.

Transmission is perfect for users who occasionally need to download a torrent. While Azureus uses Java to draw its interface, Transmission uses GTK+, helping it fit in perfectly with a GNOME desktop. Transmission also sports a command-line interface that is especially useful when you must run it in a remote environment.

Jonathan Temple is a high school student in Missouri, where he spends his time exploring Linux and trying to finish his precalculus homework.

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