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Feature: System Administration

Simple, fast administration with Webmin

By Federico Kereki on December 19, 2007 (9:00:00 AM)

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Linux has so many tools, settings, parameters, and configuration files to learn that administering your box can be a challenge. Webmin, a Web-based comprehensive administration tool for Linux, can help you get on your way.

Webmin presents a Web-based interface that allows you to perform system administration tasks in Unix, Linux, and FreeBSD. If your particular distribution isn't included in the list of supported systems, some Webmin modules might not work. Distributions use different locations for their various configuration files, and if your particular choice doesn't keep its files in standard places, Webmin won't be able to function. This may change over time if and when all distributions embrace the Linux Standard Base (LSB) and comply with a set of standards regarding these matters.

By using Webmin, you can forget about having to edit configuration files like those in the /etc directory manually, or starting, stopping, and restarting services. You can even manage your box remotely from other machines. All you need is a browser (Firefox works for me), Perl, a Java Runtime Environment (JRE) (for some modules), and the root password.

Webmin is available under the General Public License (GPL). The latest version is 1.380 from November 2007, so it's in active development.

Installation and upgrade

Installation is simple. You can probably install it by using your package manager, but I prefer to use Smart; a simple smart install webmin command does the job. Don't worry if you don't get the latest version this way; you can update the software easily by using Webmin itself. You can also download the appropriate version for your system and follow the installation instructions on the left side of the download page. You can start with the full package or go with the minimal edition and add the modules you want afterward by using Webmin's own update features.

You need to start a service before you can use Webmin. As root, enter these commands to ensure Webmin starts every day:

chkconfig webmin on /etc/init.d/webmin start

Open a browser and key in http://127.0.0.1:10000 to see Webmin's login page. Enter the username and password of the system administrator (in most distributions, that would be "root"; Ubuntu and others grant those rights to specific users and have no root account) and click on Login. You could check "Remember login permanently?," but that's a security risk, so I don't recommend it.

Upgrading Webmin, or installing more modules, is a breeze. On the left-side menu, click on Webmin -> Webmin Configuration. If you click on Upgrade Webmin, you'll be able to upgrade from the Internet. You can click on Scheduled Update to set up the system so it updates periodically and automatically.

If you click on Webmin Modules, you'll be able to browse what's available on the Webmin site and even download third-party modules from a different site. If you pick the Standard Module option, you'll get a pop-up window with dozens of modules listed in almost-alphabetical order. Click on a module name and then on Install Module to get the new module.

A security point: Webmin users aren't the same as the operating system users. The first time you log in, a "root" user is created automatically with the password you enter, but you should create specific accounts for each administrator, restricted to the functions they need.

Using Webmin

Pick from one of these categories on the left to see the list of available modules:

Webmin: Provides general configuration, including language and theme selection, Webmin upgrade, modules installation, logging options and log browsing, security restrictions (such as from which IP addresses you may use Webmin), encryption, and several other options. If the Servers module is installed, you can search for other Webmin servers in the network and manage them remotely; of course, it won't be as speedy.

System: Lets you run backups, actions at boot and shutdown time, user administration including password and rights changes, log files rotation, checking running processes, scheduled commands and cron jobs, software package installation, and more.

Servers: This has to do with all possible servers you might be running, including Apache, mail functions, Samba for file sharing, proxies for Web access, Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) for IP address assignment, and databases (such as MySQL and PostgreSQL). You have to click on each of these options to see all the features; normally you can specify several screens' worth of options.

Networking: Includes network-related options such as managing ADSL clients, bandwidth monitoring, security (IPsec and Kerberos 5), Network File System (NFS) exports, Network Information Service (NIS) clients and servers, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) tunnels for safe remote access, and firewalls (both the standard iptables and the Shoreline firewall).

Hardware: Lets you burn CDs, change boot options (though this would seem more appropriate for the System menu), configure Redundant Array of Independent Drives (RAID) and logical volume manager (LVM), set local disk partitioning, system time, and more.

Cluster: Options for running two or more machines in a cluster.

Others: You get access to a command shell (through a Java applet), a file manager (also Java), remotely log in to a different machine, monitor system and server status, and more.

Conclusion

Jamie Cameron, the author of Webmin, says Webmin is better suited to "less experienced users who are unfamiliar with configuration file formats than enterprise sys admins who already have a detailed understanding of Unix."

Webmin packs an impressive number of functions that you manage through clear menus and Web pages. With the software you can detect many errors before they can do any harm. It makes a good learning aid, especially if you examine the configuration files after each change. Webmin guides you along your first steps and helps you become more proficient as a Linux system administrator.

Federico Kereki is an Uruguayan systems engineer with more than 20 years' experience developing systems, doing consulting work, and teaching at universities.

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on Simple, fast administration with Webmin

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Rise, don't be an ass

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 68.76.215.54] on December 19, 2007 12:09 PM
Linux has so many tools, settings, parameters, and configuration files to learn that administering your box can be a challenge.

You need to rise to that challenge. If you can't, then don't administer a server. Some people will disagree with this statement, but tough. The internet is full of people who want to take the easy way in administering a server and do not fully understand the concepts. You know where this leaves us? A world chock full of protocol violations, spammers, compromises and unreliability. You don't have to learn EVERYTHING to be a good admin, just some basics.

DON'T TAKE THE EASY WAY!

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Re: Rise, don't be an ass

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 144.247.16.1] on December 21, 2007 03:25 PM
You sound so proud that you know a couple of shell commands - "mr cryptic command line". You must feel so priveledged and intelligent because you don't need a pretty GUI to do administrative tasks and such. This app might work for some people who don't care about becoming a master linux geek; but it might provide some exposure and give them a better understanding of the system encouraging them to work more with linux, eventually getting them to master linux geek, probably becoming your future boss.
Don't think your special, because there is always someone better then you.

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Deceptively simple

Posted by: suso_banderas on December 19, 2007 12:37 PM
Webmin is deceptively simpler than using the command line and config files. Sure, there is a GUI-like interface, but you still need to learn what everything does anyways. There is no magic button that makes everything happen. You still need to understand what a vhost, disk partition and IP address are.

I've used webmin for a couple of clients and going through all the settings is a bit overwhelming even for me. Pretty much everything that could be setup is an option. This is not a good thing because people will end up setting options that they probably shouldn't.

So if you have to learn all the concepts anyways, why bother with the complexity of Webmin? Learning the command line and the config files will be a lot more portable and you'll be able to get a job.

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Simple, fast administration with Webmin

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 216.54.109.3] on December 19, 2007 02:09 PM
Man give me a break! Sometimes its nice to have a standard graphical tool to use. I've been administering linux since 1996. I know my way around the OS. In fact I have code I contributed in GTK. I like webmin. Where else can you create a mysql index, configure dovecot/cyrus, postfix,spam assassin and apache on several servers all at once. And do so in a reasonable amount of time. Webmin has never let me down. I can setup a system quickly and then use the time I saved to research any options I'm rusty on.

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Too much hating from above

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 12.149.8.201] on December 19, 2007 03:17 PM
Webmin is a useful tool that has forced me to become a better sys admin in every aspect. The GUI did make me more comfortable with command line navigation in general. Because of my experiences with Webmin, I am now much more comfortable plugging away at a terminal window. I rarely, if at all, reach to Webmin anymore but I consider it a powerful tool that lead me on the right path. Unfortunately, we are not all ninjas from the start and may need a little hand holding along the way. Webmin provided that balance for me and I'm sure others will find it beneficial as well. Webmin caused me to ask more questions and research answers that led me to command line navigation. Webmin was the comfortable transition.

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Re: Too much hating from above

Posted by: suso_banderas on December 19, 2007 04:25 PM
Interesting, so you're saying that using webmin has been a stepping stone for getting into the direct administration? I wonder how many people take that path.

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Simple, fast administration with Webmin

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 88.89.214.107] on December 19, 2007 03:58 PM
what i really use webmin for is the clustering stuff, so i can change passwords etc on several servers at once

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Simple, fast administration with Webmin

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 72.206.122.74] on December 19, 2007 06:08 PM
Not only can webmin be a "stepping stone"for learning one's way around better, it is effective at increasing productivity in experienced admins who know the commands and system like the back of their hand., it saves time in many cases and for all of us in business world, time is money. higher productivity equals cost savings over time.

Also, Working only in command line is a very linear way of thinking. Whether everyone likes it, or agrees with it, there are many "spatial" thinkers out there who learn better and faster by being able to "see" what they are doing.

There is more than one "right" way to do things sometimes. Big egos and choking only one way of doing things don peoples throats stifles creativity, productivity and potentially deters people who could contribute alot if only their method of interaction were "tolerated" better.

Webmin is a tremendous tool and can be used in a variety of settings allowing more people to be in control of their own systems.

Big Bear

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Simple, fast loopholes with Webmin

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 62.118.177.178] on December 20, 2007 09:47 AM
Alas, webmin [modules] being written <a href="http://secunia.com/search/?search=webmin">sloppily enough</a>, I personally cannot recommend this "solution" at all. If you buy into it, at least consider password-protecting the access by means of web server (preferably adding SSL as well).


-- Michael Shigorin

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Re: Simple, fast loopholes with Webmin

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 190.64.51.87] on December 23, 2007 01:49 PM
I just checked the secunia.com website, and it seems that all security problems for 2006 and 2007 (the latest one was from 9/20007) were solved, and there are no open advisories. The idea of adding even more protection to the website is probably an overkill, but cannot harm, but there is no basis to say that webmin is written sloppily.

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Simple, fast administration with Webmin

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 72.237.174.94] on December 27, 2007 02:56 PM
Why are so many people determined to tear down webmin? It's a great tool. Get over yourself, you GUI-haters. No tool works for every task. Some things are easy and quick in the CLI, other things are done better with a GUI.

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Simple, fast administration with Webmin

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.62.104.244] on December 27, 2007 04:43 PM
I can't say enough good things about Webmin. The modules are well written and self explanatory and in almost every case better than the GUI admin tools that are included with any distro that I've every tried. Another important advantage is that it provides a unified interface that works with virtually every version if *nix. Every distro provides their own configuration tools, they all do the same thing but in slightly different ways. They represent a lot of duplicate work which would be OK if the competition were resulting in some noticeable improvements, but there is no evidence of that. Instead what you have is incompatibility for the sake of incompatibility. Webmin fixes that, it provides a single coherent administration interface that works with everything. I have Fedora 7 and 8, CentOS5 and Ubuntu Gutsy systems on my network, I use Webmin on all of them.

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Simple, fast administration with Webmin

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 62.226.196.34] on March 10, 2008 12:40 AM
Ok, after reading this i will give webmin a chance. Till today i use <a href="http://wiki.mobbing-gegner.de/Linux/ispconfig">ipsconfig</a> which is more for resellers and vhost, mail etc.

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