July 18, 2006

Review: Levanta Intrepid M

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

A good system administrator is always looking for ways to make life a bit easier. The Levanta Intrepid M, a turnkey Linux management appliance, is one way to smooth out some of the rough edges of system deployment and make things run just a bit smoother in your IT environment. I spent some time using the Intrepid M appliance, and found it to be a well-designed product. Too bad the pricing makes it unsuitable for some IT budgets.

So, how does it work? Basically, the Intrepid M provides centralized management for Linux servers and workstations. Machines that are managed by the Intrepid, boot over the network off of images stored on the Intrepid, called Vservers. The Intrepid also provides storage for those machines, so local disks are not necessary.

Once a machine boots off of the Intrepid appliance, you can manage the machine from the Intrepid interface -- so it's possible to update systems, reboot, power on or off, and even move a managed host from one physical machine to another.

The most appealing thing about the Intrepid is that it abstracts the system from the hardware. Let's say that you have a Web server Vserver managed by the Intrepid running on a single CPU system with 1GB of RAM. If you outgrow the single CPU system, you can use the templates to deploy another Web server to a second server, or move the Vserver to more powerful hardware.

Getting started

The Intrepid M is in a 2U server chassis. It includes 1TB of disk space spread out over six hot swap SATA drives, two hot-swappable power supplies, and two Gigabit NICs, one for the corporate network or outside network, and one for the managed network -- that is, the network of machines that are booting from the Intrepid. You may only need the managed network interface, depending on how your network is set up. The Intrepid can also double as a firewall if you're using it in between the corporate network and the managed network.

The Intrepid is an appliance in form as well as function. There's no monitor or keyboard ports on the machine, just a panel on the front of the unit to enter the IP address for the appliance and so forth.

On first use, just turn on the appliance, enter the IP address (if it isn't acquired via DHCP) and then it's time to move to the Web-based management screen from another computer. I'm happy to report that the GUI management interface does not require Windows -- though you can use Windows, if you wish. The management interface is Java-based, so you'll need to connect to the appliance using a system with a browser using Sun's J2SE version 5. I was able to use Ubuntu Dapper and the Java packages in the Dapper repositories to manage the appliance just fine.

Machines that will be booting from the Intrepid really need to have a Gigabit Ethernet interface, and will need to be capable of using the Pre-Boot Execution Environment (PXE) or you'll need to use one of the boot images included with the appliance. You can use the Intrepid with a slower network interface, but that affects performance significantly.

When you boot a system that will be managed by the Intrepid, you'll see the network boot menu, then a Levanta screen followed by a login and short set of questions about setting the machine up from an existing template. It takes a minute or two to run through the menu on the local machine to bind the hardware to a Vserver.

Once a Vserver had booted from the Intrepid, I didn't notice any difference between using the system with its filesystem stored on the Intrepid or a filesystem on local disk. End users would probably never notice that anything was different.

Levanta makes provisioning a machine a much simpler process than it would be ordinarily. Basically, boot the machine, point it at the Levanta appliance, and go through a few menus to bind the machine to the image you want to use. It's just that easy.

Managing and using Vservers

Once a Vserver is up, you can manage it using the Web-based interface or the Levanta CLI. For the most part, I'd stick with the Web-based interface unless you happen to be dialing in in the middle of the night to deal with an emergency or something of that nature.

From the Levanta management interface you can start, stop and reboot Vservers, install new software to the Vserver, manage the Vserver's disk space and IP addresses, create backups, and restore files from backup, and create new templates for Vservers. You can even deactivate Vservers and bind Vservers to new hardware.

You can also create new images if the default templates that come with the appliance don't quite fit the bill. The review appliance I received included Vservers based on Fedora Core 3 for specific functions like DNS, desktop, mail, and so forth.

One caveat, though -- the Intrepid only supports a handful of operating systems, including Fedora Core, Red Hat, SUSE, CentOS, and Asianux, on x86 and AMD64 in some cases. Debian, Ubuntu, and other Linux distros that you may want to use are not supported.

The Intrepid allows you to create backups, called Checkpoints, of a Vserver at any time. I tested the backup functionality out by creating some files on the Vserver, then creating a Checkpoint, and then deleting and restoring files. This worked flawlessly, I was able to drill down to individual files and restore or roll them back without affecting the rest of the system.

Now, you're probably thinking that it's all well and fine to back up the Vservers -- but what about backing up the Intrepid itself? It doesn't do a bunch of good to back up all your Vservers if the Intrepid suddenly bursts into flames and roasts all your data. (Not that this has happened during my testing of the Intrepid.) No problem, though; the Intrepid can be backed up to another system using NFS or rsync using the Web-based admin interface or CLI. This can be done manually, or you can schedule recurring backups.

I also want to add that the Levanta comes with a fair amount of good documentation. The CD that comes with the appliance includes four guides as PDFs, plus a fold-out quickstart guide that's enough to get the Intrepid M up and running.

Summary

The only real complaint I have with the appliance is its cost. I'm not crazy about the Levanta pricing scheme at all. The system comes with 10 licenses, and then you have to purchase additional licenses if you want to manage more than 10 systems using the Intrepid M.

Since it seems silly to me to invest several thousand dollars to simplify management of just 10 systems, organizations are probably going to be needing more than the default 10 licenses -- and they're not cheap. The licenses are $250 a pop, which seems a bit steep to me. However, the price may be worth it if you can save on personnel costs.

Overall, the Intrepid M is an impressive piece of work. It's easy to use, and makes system management much easier. The Levanta folks have a evaluation program, so I'd recommend signing up for that if the Intrepid M sounds like something that would work well in your organization.

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