July 24, 2006

Review: Xandros Server

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Long known for its desktop distribution, Xandros is now getting into the server act with the release of Xandros Server 1.0. One might wonder, what's the point of yet another server-oriented distro when the server market is already well-served? Xandros Server offers a GUI-oriented approach to system administration that should do well with admins familiar with Windows server products.

I installed Xandros Server on a couple of systems just to see how well the installer performed with different hardware; except for flaking out when it came to formatting the virtual disk in VMware Workstation, the installer handled several different hardware configurations gracefully. I did the bulk of my testing on a dual-CPU 1.0GHz Pentium III machine with 2GB of RAM and an Adaptec 29160 Ultra160 SCSI controller and a Quantum SCSI drive.

The installer is similar to the Xandros Desktop installer, which is to say it's not rocket science to install Xandros Server onto a system. Xandros uses a GUI installer that asks a short series of questions that shouldn't pose any difficulty for an average desktop user, much less a Linux or Windows admin. The hardware autodetection seems to work well, and I was pleased to note that Xandros Server installs a kernel with Symmetric Multiprocessing (SMP) enabled right off the bat.

The actual install should take less than half an hour, and most of that time is simply waiting for Xandros to copy over files to the hard drive.

The only annoying part of the installation is entering the license key. There's nothing that takes the fun out of working with Linux like typing 25-digit license keys and having to register products to be able to download updates.

I was surprised that Xandros Server doesn't seem to have an automated installation method. If a company wanted to deploy a large number of Xandros-based servers, it would be tedious to have to run through the installer each time; most enterprise-focused distros offer automated install methods to make the process a bit faster.

Using Xandros Server

Some admins may not like the fact that Xandros server installs X, whether or not you plan to use X on the server. The installer does give the option not to start X at boot time, but not to avoid installing X and assorted desktop software.

The Xandros Server desktop is a slimmed-down version of what you'd find in the Xandros Desktop offerings; Firefox, Evolution, file manager, control center, utilities, the Xandros Management Console, and so forth. It doesn't have a full complement of desktop software, even in the Xandros Server repositories.

The key component of Xandros Server is the Xandros Management Console (xMC), which allows admins to configure services using a friendly GUI interface. When I say "configure," I'm not just talking about starting and stopping services, I'm referring to the ability to actually configure new sites under Apache, add zones and hosts with BIND, create FTP sites, and so forth.

The various services are well-integrated, too. If I add a new site on my Debian server, I have to edit my Apache configuration, add a record to MyDNS, and so on. If I start configuring a new site using xMC, I just click on Tasks -> Create Site and walk through a short wizard that even allows you to set up DNS for the new site. Xandros even allows you to stop specific sites using the GUI. It's pretty convenient, and should make admins who have more Windows server experience than Linux background much more comfortable.

The create site dialog even has an "enable blogging" option that will set up a weblog for a site, so that it's just a single click to provide a weblog for users. I'm a bit puzzled by Xandros' choice of blogging software. You might expect that Xandros would provide a popular free software blogging package such as WordPress or Drupal, but it has included Pivot instead, which I hadn't heard of it until I did this review. Maybe it's because Pivot, unlike other popular packages, doesn't require a separate database to function.

While Xandros' configuration wizards are good, they're not perfect. As an example, you can add a new site and set up DNS so long as a zone exists already -- but if it doesn't, the Create Web Site Wizard won't let you get past the Select DNS Zone or Domain dialog. You have to scrap the site and go back and configure the new zone, then start again configuring the site. It'd be better if you could create the zone from the Web site wizard.

For mail and groupware, Xandros Server offers Scalix, which is an "Exchange replacement" that offers email via POP and IMAP, calendaring, webmail, Microsoft Outlook support, public folders, and a number of other features. However, some of the features, such as Outlook support, are available to "premium" users only. To go premium, you must pay for a separate license, at $60 a pop.

Xandros Server comes with only five licenses, so it's likely the costs of implementing Outlook support are going to be more than you'd expect. It's also odd that the Scalix "community" edition includes 25 licenses, so organizations that buy Xandros Server aren't even getting the same number of licenses that Scalix gives away for free. On the other hand, "standard" user licenses are unlimited, so if Outlook support isn't important to your organization, then Scalix should be fine.

One of the features I particularly like in Xandros Server is the Managed Community. If you're running more than one Xandros Server, you can manage all of them from a single console, and distribute services among the machines. You can even run xMC on a Xandros Desktop machine to manage your community, without logging in to any of the servers directly.

You can configure servers as standalone, primary, managed, and as a failover primary server in case the primary management server is down. The primary server handles things like distributing services, so if you have one server acting as a Web server, and another as a DNS server, it can handle setting up the Web site on the Web server, and setting up DNS on the separate server.

It would be good if you could change the servers' roles. I didn't see any way to make a primary server a normal managed server, and the documentation says that the only way to convert a server from standalone to managed is to reinstall Xandros server. It shouldn't require a reinstall to change the state of a system from primary or standalone to managed.

Updates and adding packages

One of my primary concerns when it comes to a server OS is the speed with which security updates and major bugfixes are delivered, and how easy it is to apply the updates to one or more machines. I like vendors that provide detailed release notes for updates, so I know precisely what is being changed and what vulnerabilities are being addressed.

Xandros falls down a bit when it comes to transparency. Once you've installed a security update using the Xandros Networks utility, it's no longer displayed -- so there's no "paper trail" of updates that have been applied to the system. That would be OK, except that there seems to be no notice on the Xandros site about updates either -- so it's difficult to know, for example, if the kernel installed on the system includes patches for recent vulnerabilities.

Other than that, the Xandros Networks utility works well for managing updates. The Application Updates are segregated into critical, security, recommended, new drivers, and service packs. A few clicks and an update is applied and everything's good.

Is Xandros Server right for you?

The deciding factor for most organizations will be cost. The licenses for Xandros server run $450 per license, for a single server with up to four CPUs. This includes 90 days of email support; if you run into problems that you can't solve via email, you'll either need to negotiate a support package with Xandros, or pay support fees starting at $149 per incident over email, and $219 per incident over the phone. The a la carte support is available only five days a week, 12 hours per day, which would give me pause, since I wouldn't be eager to have to wait until Monday for a server issue that crops up Friday evening.

Xandros Server does have a lot to offer, though, particularly for organizations that have standardized on Windows servers in the past. I like the Xandros management tools, and it seems like a good solution for small and medium-sized businesses.


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