adventures in systems administration

I'm beginning to write this in the evening after a long day of system administration work. For birthday (though, really, it's been on my todo list for a long time), I ordered and set up a server from these fine folks to serve as the technological hub of my activities. While I've been quite fond of those fine folks for quite a long time, there was a growing list of things that I always wished worked better with dreamhost, and it was finally starting to limit the kinds of projects I could undertake in. So I bit the bullet and went ahead and ordered the server and spent some time getting everything straightened out.

For some background: the server is just an instance running inside of a Xen hypervisor, which runs other servers together on the same hardware: this is good, I couldn't really use a server that powerful all by my lonesome (and I wouldn't want to have to pay for it all either). It's also way more powerful that what I had before, and the vitalization allows me to act with impunity, because it's as if I'm running my own server, really. I've been doing computer administration and web development for a long time, but I've never had to do anything like this so it's been an experience to learn how DNS records really work, how all the different kinds of server applications work, how really cool the Apache web server really is. It's a great learning experience, and I think it would be prudent (and potentially helpful for you) to reflect on the experience. So here are my notes on the adventure:

  • I've been running Ubuntu on my personal/desktop machines since the great Linux switch, and I've been pretty pleased with it. Not totally wowed by it: it works, but my tendencies are toward the more minimal/lightweight systems. But more than anything, I'm really drawn to systems that just work more than I am to systems that work perfectly, and I'm pretty good at keeping systems working. In 5 years of OS X usage I installed an OS twice, and since I got things stable and running, the only installations I've done have been to put ubuntu on new machines.

    In any case, this server was a chance for me really explore debian stable (lenny), which I hadn't ever done before. It's so cool. It's not sexy or daring or anything but in a server you don't want that, and it just works. I think it probably also helps matters somewhat lenny was released only a few months ago, rather than nearly two years ago, but in any case I'm quite enamored of how well it works.

  • Email is much more complicated than I think any of us really give it credit for. There's all sorts of complicated mess with regards to how DNS servers identify mail servers to help fight spam, and then there's all the filtering and sorting business, and even the "modern" email servers are a bit long in the tooth. I hope that it's a "set it and forget about it" sort of thing, though to be truthful I just got it all running and set up initially, but there's a lot of further setup to do, before I move it all around.

  • I'm pretty proud of the fact that as i was going thought the set up process, I go to the point where it said "ok, now set up the FTP server, and I said 'meh' and moved around." Turns out that I can do everything I need to do in terms of getting files onto the server with git/scp/ssh/rsync and FTP is just lame and old. Welcome to the new world, where file transfers are shorter, versioned, and more secure.

    This isn't particularly new, I couldn't tell you the last time I used FTP, but I think this represents both the utility in moving to a "real server," and a larger shift in the way we think about webservers. FTP assumes that the main purpose of the webserver is to store and serve files. the ssh/rsync/git model assumes that your webserver exists to be "your computer in the sky." Which it is. We interact with the computers on our desks in really complex ways; there's no reason to interact with our computers in the sky by just copying files to and from it.

  • I'm convinced that systems-administration work will increasingly be the "hard currency" (basis for exchange) for the networked computing age. It's sort of onerous work, there are skills and knowledge that most people who need network service don't have and don't need to have, there are actual costs, the need is ongoing, and success is quantifiable.

    There's definitely space here for people (like me, and others) to provide these kinds of services to people. Sort of "boutique" style. Clearly I have more to learn and more thinking to do on the subject, but it's a start.

  • Ejabberd is peculiar, and the Debian package is... less than ideal. I knew going in that there was a "web administration" interface which sounds cool until you realize that, it's... not an administration panel as much as it is a sort of "web dashboard." You still have to tweak the configuration file which is written in Erlang, and wow. That's pain right there.

Having said that, it seems to work just fine, without much fussing, and I'm want the jabber-server to do a very limited set of things: host my own IM account and transports; host muc-chats (created by me); and that's about it. I'm a bit worried that it might be a bit too heavy for this.


That's about all. More to come, I'm sure.

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