June 19, 2007

New LinuxCOE helps admins customize distros

Author: Mayank Sharma

Hewlett-Packard released version 4 of its Linux Common Operating Environment (LinuxCOE) software this month. LinuxCOE is a front end to a set of Perl scripts that helps administrators by building customized install images for various Linux distributions. The idea is to simplify the process of installing and maintaining several Linux systems irrespective of the distribution on any one particular system. The new version streamlines the process of maintaining Linux installations created using LinuxCOE."Cost savings through standardization is the key driver for the LinuxCOE project," says Craig Lamparter, LinuxCOE program manager at HP. He says that LinuxCOE was crafted to provide a single process for provisioning and lifecycle support for all the Linux systems at HP.

LinuxCOE standardizes installing and maintaining multiple Linux distributions, each with its own installer and packaging system. Lamparter explains that despite their differences, there are certain similarities in all Linux distro installers. They all ask the same questions for configuring network, setting partitions, language preferences, and other settings. "With the LinuxCOE System Designer Web-based front end," Lamparter says, "we simply ask those questions up front and then reformat the answers into the appropriate scripted installation mechanism for the particular distribution. For Novell SUSE that's Autoyast, for Red Hat that's Kickstart, and for Ubuntu that's Preseed."

These answers can also be stored in a database so that multiple consistent systems can be built from a single design. According to Lamparter, this is a key feature in LinuxCOE v4. Another enhancement in this release is that LinuxCOE now supports more than 100 Linux distributions, including multiple versions of popular distros such as Ubuntu, openSUSE, Fedora, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Debian, and CentOS, for both 32- and 64-bit architectures.

The most critical part of LinuxCOE is the designer -- where the rubber hits the road. Lamparter says, "The LinuxCOE System Designer front end is a four-step process that allows users to design a Linux system via a Web site. The design is used to generate a custom hands-free network-installation boot disc which will build their system according to their specifications."

But installation is just one part in building and maintaining a Linux system. What about handling updates? Lamparter says that LinuxCOE standardizes on this front as well to avoid teaching administrators a new tool for each distribution. The tool it uses is yum, since according to Lamparter, it works on a majority of distributions supported by LinuxCOE. For Debian and Ubuntu it uses APT. Couple the package manager with a repository of packages and you're all set. "Internally, we've implemented a global array of Linux network 'waystations' (repositories) which mirror nearly 4TB of Linux distributions and updates."

Using LinuxCOE

The best way to try LinuxCOE is through Instalinux.com, a site run by Chris Slater, a former LinuxCOE team member. It can design a custom network install image for noncommercial distros like Fedora, openSUSE, Debian, and Ubuntu.

However, Lamparter suggests that companies should install a LinuxCOE System Designer instance on their own networks along with appropriate repositories to ensure seamless rollouts and lifecycle management of all their Linux systems. The code for the LinuxCOE designer is available under the GNU GPL license. Documentation is included with the source package and also available for download.

According to Lamparter, an HP-internal community of roughly 30 individuals contributes to LinuxCOE. "When we started the project," he says, "we had limited resources and funding. Seven years ago we took a leap of faith and decided to run our internal IT Linux standards program as an open source project. We thought if the open source approach worked for projects as complex as the Linux kernel, there's no reason it could not be adapted to the corporate environment. Our gamble paid off, and we received an overwhelming amount of support from Linux enthusiasts and administrators worldwide within HP. For most, working on the LinuxCOE project isn't a full-time job. We maintain our own internal IRC chatroom, code versioning system, and many of the same tools used in most software projects."

LinuxCOE is used both by HP and other companies, whose names Lamparter didn't disclose. He says customers of LinuxCOE appreciate HP's distribution-agnostic approach, which helps avoid vendor lock-in. Internally, HP's Managed Services devision uses LinuxCOE for managing their customer's Linux environments.

Important to be open

Lamparter says that LinuxCOE is suitable for deploying and managing systems from appliance-like infrastructure devices to complex online transaction processing servers "and everything in between." The project's goal has always been to develop a tool to address typical IT processes such as patch management, security, configuration, and audit. "Solutions for these IT processes are critical to enterprise adoption of Linux and open source technologies," Lamparter says.

Lamparter believes that the primary value derived from Linux and open source software is freedom and diversity. "The LinuxCOE project aims to protect and extend this value by making no assumptions, making everything optional, and most importantly [making things] open source. HP customers continue to ask for increased flexibility and lower costs; Linux and LinuxCOE provide both."


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