December 2, 2008

Three graphical mount managers

Author: Bruce Byfield

Mounting and unmounting filesystems used to be straightforward in GNU/Linux. A basic knowledge of the mount command or some editing of /etc/fstab in a text editor and you were done. However, with the addition of udev in the 2.6 kernel for autoplugging, and the demand for hotswapping USB devices, along with the increased use of logical volume managers and other complications, the process is now more complicated -- perhaps too complicated for many among the growing number of desktop users. That is where graphical mount managers such as Forelex Mount Manager, PySDM, and MountManager find their niche.

Forlex Mount Manager

Forlex Mount Manager was developed for the ForLEx live CD, a forensic disk originally written in Italian and based on Knoppix. Although the mount manager is most useful alongside the live CD's other tools, its source code is also available separately.

By itself, Forlex Mount Manager is a relatively simple utility. It opens on a list of filesystems that are currently on the system. Click on a device, and a window opens that gives you the option to mount it as readable and writable, or as read-only, or to remount a drive that has been unmounted.

In other words, Forlex Mount Manager is the graphical equivalent of the mount command, useful chiefly when you want to mount or unmount a filesystem to do maintenance on it -- which explains its inclusion on a forensic CD.

PySDM

PySDM is a more sophisticated program than Forlex Mount Manager. Written in PyGTK, it serves as not only a graphical editor for /etc/fstab, but also for setting up of udev rules for on-the-fly configuration of devices.

PySDM begins with a listing of basic information. On the left is a tree of all devices on the system. The rest of the window is occupied by a tab that summarizes basic information about the device: Its name, mount point, filesystem format, and the options used to mount it. Except for the format, which would require a partition editor like gparted to change, all this information is editable.

If you want to change the options used to mount the device, you click the Assistant button to open a sub-dialog. This dialog divides the options into five tabs. From the Mounting tab, you can set such basic options as who can mount the device, whether it is mounted at boot time, and whether it is mounted read-only. Under Special Files, you can change permissions, while under Journaling, you can turn off the journaling if you are using a filesystem that supports it, which will give you a slight increase in speed at the cost of making any recovering less certain. Under Performance, you can tweak the speed of disk access by whether you toggle such options as updating a file or a directory's time stamp each time that you open it, while Miscellaneous provides a home for other options, such as whether the filesystem requires a network to use. As far as I can see, most of the available options for mounting a command at boot time are listed.

The second tab in the main window is an editor for setting udev rules. To create a rule, you highlight a filesystem in the tree, then click the New button to open a sub-dialog. From this dialog, you can specify conditions such as the device name or bus type, as well as specifying the user, owner, the file name under which to mount it, and user rights.

PySDM is a very thorough tool, but its one major defect is the absence of any detailed help. True, the options are carefully written, so you can probably identify them if you have even moderate expertise, and the mount options appear in a field so you are less likely to make a mistake (and, incidentally, so you can learn what changes you are making to the file, rather than just editing from the desktop with no sense of what you are doing). Still, in the wrong hands, PySDM could lead to rash, even system-crippling choices.

MountManager

Designed for Qt 4.x, MountManager is the newest of these three utilities. It is also by far the most user-friendly. It shows a tip of the day upon opening, and provides help and summary panes on the right side of the window that can be dragged to float independently, making them easy to read. As a result, while the main window is otherwise laid out in a way very similar to PySDM, it is much easier to use without courting disaster.

Some basic information, such as the filesystem format, is given in the tree pane on the left of the MountManager window. Other information, such as the mount point, is given in the middle of the window. However, unlike PySDM, MountManager not only allows you to edit the options in /etc/fstab, but also two of the file's lesser-known columns: Whether dump is used to back up the filesystem, and whether it is included when you use the fschk command to check and recover the system.

Under the Tool menu, you can run the USB wizard to configure the udev rules. This wizard explains options concisely and clearly, and makes configuring the rules much easier than PySDM does.

Another option in MountManager is the ability to enable or disable plugins. Available plugins include the tip of the day, which gives you a random page from the help, as well as the floating windows that dock on the right of the main window. In addition, they include plugins for mounting ISO images and NFS or Samba shares.

Although still in rapid development, MountManger is so clearly laid out and so careful to explain most of what you are doing at any particular moment that it can quickly give even relatively new users a sense of what they are doing. It still has some rough spots -- for example, it might explain within the window why a setting for the fschk command is included -- but, in general, MountManager seems on track to be an ideal graphical utility, neither explaining too little nor failing to show what changes will look like in the configuration file it manipulates.

Conclusion

I would recommend these utilities in the order in which I presented them, from least to most desirable. There's nothing wrong with the Forlex Mount Manager, but, compared to the other two, it is limited in functionality. And, while PySDM and MountManager are roughly comparable in features, MountManager's ease of use gives it an advantage with most users, although advanced users might find its constant explanations irritating.

However, I have to admit that I sometimes wonder about just whom such administration tools are aimed at. I sometimes suspect that anyone who can use them well is probably competent to edit the configuration files directly. Anyone who cannot should probably not be trying to edit the configuration by any means, graphical or not.

Still, just because you keep graphical tools away from newcomers does not mean that they are not going to learn, and these mount managers can be useful for teaching adventuresome users about their systems, and as a memory aid for more advanced users. And, used with some caution, all three of these utilities can be worth having.

Categories:

  • Tools & Utilities
  • System Administration
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