Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

eBox Shebop

Back in the day, Linux was mostly a geek toy. You had to compile the kernel from source and install all the applications including the GUI by hand. Even by Windows 3.1 standards, it was very technical and primitive. In those days, Linux's best attributes were that it was free and basically UNIX. A lot has changed since then. Linux has become a viable UNIX replacement in servers, helping to fuel the rise of a great many Internet companies. It has also tried, with limited success, to become a desktop operating system and rival to Windows and Mac OS X.

One of the biggest holdups to widespread adoption of Linux has been installation and configuration of software applications. Linux distros seem to subscribe to the philosophy that real men hand edit configuration files. It's the command line that separates the men from the boys. Linux is like a techie version of a sports car. It's about proving something. I just won't say what that something is. Package managers have done a lot to streamline installation but configuration has always been a black art. There are entire books written to help trained system administrators tackle SAMBA configuration. Not to mention every other major Linux package.

This might be fine for the hard core sys admin. It makes them feel superior to the rest of the morons out there. It doesn't work, however, for the vast majority of people milk fed on Windows installation and GUI-based configuration. Even when there are decent configuration tools (which often, in an awesome display of irony, have to be installed and configured separately) and package managers, everything is piecemeal. To set up a user on a box requires configuring many different applications using different tools, some only available from the command line. All of this has been holding back adoption of Linux as a commercially viable alternative to the Windows hegemony.

The good news is that this is changing. A fairly new distribution called eBox has solved many of the problems that have plagued Linux server installation and maintenance. Perhaps it's fair to say that eBox is a mega-distro. It is based on Ubuntu Server, which is itself Debian based. What sets it apart is the comprehensive web-based management tools. They allow single screen configuration for many typical tasks that a sys admin faces. For example, you can set up a user account along with associated file shares, email accounts, and groupware configuration all from one place. This is even better than Windows which still relies on wizards walking you through the process.

Think of it this way. Old Linux is like shopping on a busy city street. You have to walk and walk to lots of individual stores to get what you want. Windows Server is like a department store. Everything is in one place but you still have to go from department to department. eBox is like a personnel shopper. Everything comes to you.

One of the best features of eBox is the initial package installation. It groups packages into functions like networking, security, communications, office (basically file and print services), and infrastructure. This makes it easy to configure a server for specific purposes such as an office file server or a network gateway. The documentation clearly shows where to place the different types of servers in your network to get maximum safety and effect.

eBox is not perfect by any means. Installation (on a virtual box I admit) was difficult. Not difficult in the sense of hard to do since it walked me through every step. Difficult because it hung up a bunch of times. The root password is not obvious. I wasn't asked for it and it isn't the same as the initial admin account as is typical of most Linux installations. That severely restricts what additional software I can install on the server.

While the seection of packages are good, there is not database server package. I know that PostGre SQL server is installed but configuration for it is not included in the web-based configuration system. Application or database server and developer packages would be a good idea. Virtualization packages would also be nice in the future. Maybe a “cloud” package although I suspect that way madness lies.

eBox is an important step forward in making Linux a viable alternative for enterprises of all types but especially for the Small-Medium Business market. With limited or no IT resources SME organizations need easy setup, configuration, and management. That was hard to deliver using Linux before eBox.

There is one truly unfortunate aspect of eBox: it's name. It shares said name with a small PC product from Taiwan. It's bound to cause confusion. I suggest changing it as soon as possible.

Disclosure: The eBox software was provided for free. Of course, it's provided to anyone for free. Just download it from their web site. So, I guess this doesn't really count but why mess with the FTC.

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