Archive for the ‘Systems Management’ Category

Given 250,000 tools on the shelf, how do you manage them?

Monday, December 21st, 2009

By CJ Fearnley

Although I haven’t seen a thoroughly researched study, I figure there must be at least 250,000 FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) tools available to every systems administrator on the planet (230,000 at SourceForge + 15,000 at Launchpad + 12,000 at CodePlex + 5,000 at Google Code and that doesn’t count the Linux kernel or any of the myriad other self-hosted projects). These 250,000+ resources comprise the full “toolbox” that admins can use for building solutions with FOSS; they represent the FOSS equivalent of COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf). Of course, if you add open source but non-free or commercial tools, the problem explodes combinatorially.

How can a systems administrator support the largest possible subset of these “on the shelf” resources to best service the next need from a stakeholder (like the boss or a new client)?

First let me emphasize the difficulty of the task with a list of items that systems administrators and systems management firms like LinuxForce are expected to do whenever a stakeholder presents a software need:

  • Find and Evaluate software that can meet the need:
    • Identify several candidate applications that might meet the business requirements for a given project, function, or need
    • Research the options to assess their ability to meet the requirements (actually we, the systems administrators of the world, are actually expected to know which tool is “best of breed”: just from our past experience. The false assumption is, if it isn’t well known it must not be any good. The long tail applies to the 250,000+ FOSS tools also!). In our experience such research is essential, unfortunately, there is rarely enough budget to carefully explore the options.
    • Install the tool(s) in a “sandbox” to allow the stakeholder to “try it out”
    • Select a tool to use or look for more options
  • Put the tool into production
    • Read the docs to identify best practices for the software’s configuration
    • Prepare an installation plan that will address (as best as possible) any upgrade glitches (yes, you have to anticipate them now or suffer the consequences later!) so that you’re prepared for when a security advisory is released (or when the stakeholder starts begging for features from a new release)
    • Figure out a support plan to handle the inevitable questions that will arise during operations
    • Integrate these considerations into the process of either installing a package or using the “make, configure, make install” steps that most FOSS tools provide for installation
    • Carefully document the “as built” configuration including all assumptions and anticipated glitches to help yourself or future admins during the maintenance phase
  • On-Going Maintenance
    • Monitor the software
    • Subscribe to any relevant security mailing lists for the software so that you are apprised when a security (or other major) problem is detected
    • Track general trends relating to the software and its alternatives so that you are ready to respond if the project goes dormant or is eclipsed by newer, superior technology.
    • Upgrade routinely

About 15 years ago I noticed that the explosion of ready to use FOSS tools plus the trend toward general purpose tools and away from custom software was leading to a combinatorial crisis in software maintenance. I saw that it was the systems administrator’s responsibility to address the situation.

It has become apparent to me that the solution would require use of convention, standards and policy to reduce the complexity of the problem to manageable proportions. I searched for the most “standardized” conventions and policy-enforcing environment that would also provide the most flexible access to the most FOSS tools. The solution I found is Debian/GNU Linux, the universal operating system (although Ubuntu and other Debian derivatives also provide most of these benefits as well).

Debian simplifies the software evaluation process (apt-get [search|show]). Debian simplifies installation (apt-get install), security and new version upgrades (apt-get [upgrade|dist-upgrade]). Debian uses conventions and packages to simplify identifying best practices for administering the software (/usr/share/doc/[package]/, /var/lib/dpkg/info/[package].postinst, and wikis, mailings lists, bug reports, etc.). But the key benefit for managing the combinatorial explosion of FOSS tools is the Debian community’s value of striving to configure each package to automatically support the most common use cases while also providing support for unusual configurations (so you save tons of time in configuring the software).

In summary, the Debian/GNU Linux system provides the infrastructure needed to manage the combinatorial explosion of off the shelf FOSS tools cost effectively. If you have to service a lot of users, customers, or clients with challenging, diverse needs, I think Debian is the most cost effective way to meet their needs and deliver quality maintenance on an on-going basis year after year after year.

A FOSS Perspective On Richard Schaeffer’s Three Tactics For Computer Security

Friday, December 11th, 2009

By CJ Fearnley

Federal Computer Week published a great, succinct quote from Richard Schaeffer Jr., the NSA’s (National Security Agency) information assurance director, on three approaches that are effective in protecting systems from security attacks:

We believe that if one institutes best practices, proper configurations
[and] good network monitoring that a system ought to be able to
withstand about 80 percent of the commonly known attack mechanisms
against systems today, Schaeffer said in his testimony. You can
actually harden your network environment to raise the bar such that
the adversary has to resort to much, much more sophisticated means,
thereby raising the risk of detection.”

Taking Schaeffer’s three tactics as our lead, here is a FOSS perspective on these protection mechanisms:

Best practices implies community effort: discussing, sharing and collectively building understanding and techniques for managing systems and their software components. FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) communities develop, discuss and share these best practices in their project support and development forums. Debian’s package management system implements some of these best practices in the operating system itself thereby allowing users who do not participate in the development and support communities to realize the benefits of best practices without understanding or even knowing that they exist. This is one of the important benefits of policy- and package-based operating systems like Debian and Ubuntu.

Proper configuration is the tactical implementation of best practices. Audit is a critical element here. Debian packages can use their postinst scripts (which are run after a package is installed, upgraded, or re-installed) to audit and sometimes even automatically fix configuration problems. Right now, attentive, diligent systems administrators, i.e., human beings, are required to ensure proper configuration as no vendor — not even Debian — has managed to automate the validation let alone automatically fix bad configurations. I think this is an area where the FOSS community can lead by considering and adopting innovations for ensuring proper configuration of software.

Good network monitoring invokes the discipline of knowing what services are running and investigating when service interruptions occur. Monitoring can contribute to configuration auditing and can help focus one’s efforts on any best practices that should be considered. That is, monitoring helps by engaging critical thinking and building a tactile awareness of the network — what it does and what is exposed to the activities of a frequently malicious Internet. So, like proper configurations, monitoring requires diligent, attentive systems administrators to maintain security. LinuxForce’s Remote Responder services builds best practices around three essential FOSS tools for good network monitoring: Nagios, Munin, and Logcheck.

Crossroads in FOSS Projects: Some Business Considerations

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

By CJ Fearnley

At our Seminar last month, Managing FOSS to Lower Costs and Achieve Business Results, several participants asked about the dynamics of FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) projects that reach a crossroads (a failure, a merger, loss of key personnel, etc). I had not expected that concern because with commercial software, it seems to me, the problem is more severe. When you have the source code and the right to modify and redistribute it, the source gives many more options (and its freedoms provide many more protections) than when commercial software goes bankrupt or gets bought by a competitor for instance.

But the reason for the questions may be a lack of understanding about how FOSS projects work. They involve individual human beings, perhaps just a single person or, more likely, several people from many organizations and even different cultures around the world joined in common purpose. For various cultural reasons, the project may be “owned” by an entity — usually a non-profit, but some are for-profit or even government owned, while others may simply be an “ad hoc initiative”. Some projects have explicit constitutions and defined processes for organizing the work and handling problems others are more informal.

At any time, any human social structure can experience a crossroads that could lead it to fail suddenly or wither on the vine in a gradual descent into “oblivion”. The cause of the failure will shape the results, but a very common situation is that conflicting visions or approaches for the project result in a “fork”. Then a sub-group of the original project takes the source code and starts a “new” project to develop the code in a new direction. Sometimes the original project “dies” and sometimes both continue resulting in two projects. Since multiple FOSS projects serving the same function or market incur inefficiencies due to duplicate development, there is a strong cultural value in the FOSS world to try to find a way to accommodate everyone in the project and prevent forks. When it works, the result is great software that meets everyone’s needs. But the reality is that often it is more effective to have multiple implementations of the same functionality so that each can be optimized for distinct objectives. Frequently one cannot know which approach will be best until many years of development and evaluation have transpired.

I recently learned about a FOSS project that forked when a friend asked me to copy some files to his new “My Book Essential”, a Western Digital product that provides 1TB of USB (Universal Serial Bus) storage. The My Book uses the poorly documented, non-free NTFS (New Technology File System). Linux has three projects that support NTFS: an in kernel driver, ntfsprogs (the Linux-NTFS project), and NTFS-3G. It turns out that all three were available for my Debian Lenny (5.0.3) system. First, I tried the in kernel support and learned that it was still read-only. Then I tried ntfsprogs which failed to mount the My Book:

NTFS-fs error (device sdc1): load_system_files(): Volume is dirty. Mounting read-only. Run chkdsk and mount in Windows.

I realized that since it was a new device it probably did not ship from the factory with a dirty volume. It was probably a bug. So I tried NTFS-3G which worked very well. In my research of the situation I was able to determine that both NTFS-3G and Linux-NTFS are under active development and have features missing from the other. So each has value and I’m glad my distribution included both. In Debian Lenny, the NTFS-3G driver has better support for writing files.

This illustrates one of the benefits of a crossroads in a FOSS project: you can end up with two good tools to add to your toolbox!

Xen Virtualization: Migrating 32-bit domUs to 64-bit dom0s

Friday, October 9th, 2009

By Elizabeth Krumbach

Virtualization provides the facility to run multiple isolated computer operating systems on one piece of computing hardware. There has been a huge increase of interest in virtualization technology because recent advances in multi-core technology provide significantly more computing power in each machine with ever decreasing costs. Virtualization is one of the best ways to take advantage of these big changes in hardware.

Currently, Xen is the most mature FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) virtualization technology. Although we love the idea of KVM, since it requires a special processor extension on X86 systems, it cannot work on older hardware. So for at least another few years, we think Xen is the more flexible choice for FOSS virtualization projects.

The Xen infrastructure consists of the Xen hypervisor which “runs the show”, a domain 0 (dom0) which runs a special, privileged version of the operating system (typically Linux, but NetBSD and Solaris are also supported), and one or more domain U (domU) “guest” (or “User”) operating systems. We have found that Xen is easy to configure in many situations, but we encountered some complications in running a domU on a dom0 with a different architecture.

We recently migrated some 32-bit domUs running Debian Etch (4.0) from a 32-bit dom0 to a newer 64-bit dom0 running Debian Lenny (5.0). We did a direct move (using rsync) of the Logical Volume Manager (LVM) slices from the 32-bit dom0 to the 64-bit dom0. This means we’d now be running our 32-bit Etch domUs on a 64-bit Lenny dom0.

The first question was whether this would be possible. Absolutely! 32-bit domUs have no trouble running on 64-bit dom0s, we could even use the 64-bit Xen kernel in these 32-bit systems to avoid additional kernel installations we’d need to maintain on the dom0. The second question was whether we could properly load the 64-bit kernel modules inside our domU. Again, yes! But with a caveat: the domUs were 32-bit Etch, so the 64-bit Lenny kernel modules were not simply installable via apt. We realized that copying over the .deb package for the kernel modules and running dpkg -i --force-architecture linux-modules-2.6.26...deb would not be a maintainable way to handle the kernel module updates moving forward. So we weighed our options:

1. Serve these modules via a network file system (such as NFS) to each domU on bootup.

2. Deploy a script that would notify the domU and copy the new kernel modules .deb to it for installation. We could then install the new module package at our discretion.

We decided that the first option violated our strict security policy which calls for running as few services on the dom0 as possible. Since the second solution is scriptable and therefore automatable, it fit our vision of having easily maintainable systems regardless of the underlying complexity. So we installed the 64-bit modules prior to migration so that all the proper modules would be loaded as soon as we brought up the domU on the new Dom0. The result was a flawless migration of our 32-bit domUs to the new 64-bit dom0.