September 2, 2011

720 words 4 mins read

Remote system management from the road

This post is a direct response to a comment posted on my article about the 4th Gen Macbook Air. In short, Eddie (the commenter/questioner) is looking for a little information about remote system management. Some have suggested the iPad, some say a MacBook Air, I’ve mentioned Chromebooks… So what do you use? Well, I can actually understand every perspective he mentioned. There are 3 things I take into consideration when talking about traveling sysadmins. First is: what do you need? The second is: what will work on the device? Lastly, what is actually the smallest/least amount of crap?

I’ve had an iPad/iPad 2 that I used for remote system management. My problem was that it was very slow to navigate with. If I just wanted to tail a log “in the field” (i.e. around the office), it was great. I could tail the log for Asterisk (PBX) and pick up any phone in the office, test, and see what was going on. Now if I wanted to make any fixes to Asterisk’s configuration? ehh… dicey at best. It was either very, very slow going or downright dangerous (stray keystrokes in config files = bad).

I’ve had a Xoom which I also used for the same remote system management. It was slightly better because of the hardware buttons I could remap, but I had much the same issues until I bought the bluetooth keyboard folio. I realized three things though. #1 — with the keyboard, the Xoom is fairly thick. #2 — I had to be on a table or stable surface to use it (is is just not lap-useable). #3 — Now I had to worry about charging TWO devices with two different chargers (not to mention carting around said chargers).

Of course, there is the Air: Let’s start by looking at the “overkill” perspective. For simple server monitoring, yes, it is more than you need (really what do you need to just look? A web browser to nagios and your done). That being said, there is nothing in this world that replaces an honest to god keyboard when you actually need to get work done. A tablet device would get me on the server to look around, while I shuffle as fast as I can to a real computer. With the Air, I can fix it right there and then.

The difference between an Air and a Chromebook (and the tablets) is the availability of tools (see also “What will work”). I’ve got ssh, VNC, MS remote desktop, Apple screen sharing, Evernote (where I store my work notes), Wireshark, wardriving tools… just to name a few. Yes, you can get many of these on a tablet device (though I’ve not seen Wireshark ported) but you tend to loose the ability to watch one screen while working on another and you also are limited to what is on the App Store for the respective devices. If someone hasn’t made a tool to work with system XYZ, you are out of business.

Going back to my original questions as the top… What do I need boils down to what tools are necessary to FIXING my machines. Monitoring is always easy, but if something breaks while I’m on vacation I best have the tools to FIX it. What will work on the device is also what will let me FIX my servers with relative ease and for my personal needs — that’s a real keyboard. Lastly, the least amount of crap is a single device with a single (fairly popular, easy to buy just about anywhere) charger.

So what do I carry right now for remote management? My 4th gen MacBook Air. I use it for more than just work (I play some games, watch videos, write blog entries, etc) so I enjoy having a 13” with a bigger SSD. If I had to buy something right now solely for “fixing the servers in a to go-sized package”, while an iPad 2/Xoom with Bluetooth keyboard would be cheaper, I’d go with an 11” Air. For $999 it is hard to pass up a real keyboard, a real OS, a single popular charger and frankly unlimited capabilities. Of course, my needs are not yours — a Xoom sans keyboard may be more than enough for what you need — so why carry/buy more?