February 10, 2006

My sysadmin toolbox

Author: Herbert Langhans

I run two servers that host a couple of Web sites for customers, including two wikis and a forum, and ordinary static HTML sites. The wikis, the photo gallery, and the phpBB forum are especially important to keep an eye on. The maintenance of the Web server and the mail server is a one-man show, so I have to watch them all the time and try to automate whatever is possible. My toolbox includes Mutt, rss2email, Midnight Commander, and more.


Since I have to access my Web server a couple of times a day, but I am not always in the office, I need an application to connect to the server remotely. Telnet lets me do all the maintenance and surveillance work from any place in the world. I can "phone home" and check all the logfiles, my mail, and -- via an RSS reader -- changes to my blogs, the wiki, and the phpBB forum. If I have Linux available I log in using telnet. If it's an Apple OS I can use Terminal.app, and if it is a Windows computer I download PuTTYtel to connect to my server.


PuTTYtel is a Windows Telnet client. It's in my toolbox because most people have Windows installed!

On one of my Web sites I have an icon where I can click and download this little program. It installs automatically on the computer I want to connect from -- I could be in an Internet cafe, on a friend's computer, or in another office. From there I can do everything as if I were at my own place. Great if you go on holidays!


Mutt is a simple and efficient email client. For me, Mutt is both my center for surveillance of the server and my correspondence tool. It is a fast text mode program that I can access over Telnet easily, and it handles all known email file formats. (However, in my own office I check email with the more comfortable Sylpheed.)


Email isn't the only important thing -- I can read RSS feeds with a little trick in Mutt as well. The newsreader rss2email shows me every update to the PHP sites on my server. Cron calls rss2email every hour and I don't miss anything. the software sends updates as email messages, which I can read in Mutt. I also subscribe to various sources for daily news.


MultiTail shows the last lines of text files. Apache produces lots of traffic and error logs that I have to check once in a while, and I use Multitail for that task.

MultiTail makes it possible to watch two or more files in a split window. In addition, it looks quite cool, thanks to color highlighting. MultiTail also offers regular expression filtering and many other useful features.

Rootkit Hunter

Rootkit Hunter scans a Linux installation for rootkits. Via cron I set it to scan my server at night. Rootkit Hunter produces a nice summary every night to show that no binaries have changed and no rootkits are hiding on my server. It makes me sleep better.

Midnight Commander

Midnight Commander is a great file manager for anyone who used to like the old Norton Commander. MC is the perfect file manager for server administration. It works on every text terminal, is fast, stable, and has a good editor built in. I use it many times a day.


You might ask, what in the world is the use of a BASIC compiler for network administration? I like automation. With FreeBASIC, I write little programs for scanning and filtering logfiles (and emailing the results to myself) and making automatic changes to HTML pages (without nasty searching of the HTML files with a text editor). I filter and search emails for keywords, check the server load regularly (and, of course, email the statistics to myself), and many other things.

This compiler is easy to understand and fast. Dealing with text variables is simple in BASIC, and I can write a BASIC program in a few hours, sometimes even in minutes.


XV is a small and fast program for opening, rotating, and resizing photos and graphics. It saves me lots of time, but it takes some patience to get used to it.


My final tool is tar, the traditional utility for compressing files for backups. My scripts pack up all the content from my servers and copy them to tape. All I have to do is to change the tapes.

Let us know about your most valuable utilities (there need not be 10 of them), and if we publish your work, we'll pay you $100.

Click Here!