Yep, There's A Linux Appliance For That

Purpose-built Linux distros are appearing faster than zombies in a first-person shooter. Need a drop-in replacement for Microsoft's Primary Domain Controller? Try the Domain Controller Appliance. Working with the public schools? Now you can install Moodle for e-learning and course management in minutes thanks to the Moodle Appliance. Customer wants a Wiki? Download the TWiki enterprise wiki platform and you're good to go.

These systems exist today because someone has taken the trouble to do the work of assembling, installing and integrating the application stack, testing and debugging them and bundling them as ready-to-deploy VMs for VMware, Xen and other hypervisors, as ISOs for bare metal, or directly to Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud for access through a browser.

But how did we get here? Since its emergence in the 1990s as a free, flexible and secure alternative to Windows, Linux has taken many forms and still dominates the server realm with a majority share of Internet servers, according to most counts. Linux also has done incredibly well as an embedded system and, because of Google, now occupies more than 50 percent of the world's smartphones as Android.

The desktop is another matter. Despite great advances by Ubuntu and others to develop a user-friendly UI and bullet-proof installation process, adoption on corporate and consumer desktops and laptops has been slow. And tracking adoption by this segment has been difficult because of a lack of reliable data.

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It's clear that Linux has found its place as a server platform. And its enormous development community has been hard at work building Linux-based appliances to fill just about any niche a solution provider could imagine. One great example is TurnKey Linux, a library of Ubuntu-based virtual Linux appliances that are 100 percent open source and free of charge. Here are a few good examples.

NEXT: A Simple NAS; MySQL Appliance

Simple NAS

What organization doesn't have at least one old PC lying around? With Turnkey's File Server Appliance, any old PC can spring to life as a NAS device. Literally minutes after downloading the ISO and creating a bootable CD, the CRN Test Center was able to boot from it on a laptop and install all the files necessary to provision a working file server.

The File Server Appliance implements Samba, the open-source replacement for Microsoft's SMB/CIFS networking protocols. Just as indicated by the tool's Web page, when our test server booted, it was preconfigured with the Netbios name "FILESERVER" and a workgroup called "WORKGROUP."

In addition to servicing LAN-based clients running Linux, Mac OS X and Windows, the File Server Appliance implements a Web-based configuration tool for Samba as well as eXtplorer, a browser-based file manager with SSL enabled by default. Each user is granted a home directory as well as access to globally shared storage.

MySQL, Their Database

Be it an insurance agency for client and policy records, or a doctor's office storing patient health-care records, just about every business today can benefit from a custom database.

As its name suggests, the MySQL Appliance implements the MySQL relational database management system. MySQL by many counts is the world's most popular RDBMS; Oracle inherited it when it acquired Sun Microsystems in 2010.

The MySQL Appliance implements phpMyAdmin, a GUI-based front end that allows the database to be administered easily and securely through a browser using SSL. The phpMyAdmin tool supports management of a wide variety of database functions, including fields, indexes, relations, tables, users and permissions as well as databases themselves. The appliance also includes the MySQL Webmin console. To simplify initial configuration, the appliance accepts connections from all hosts by default; the setting can be locked down after deployment.

NEXT: Content Management; Google Apps

Assume Control

Not content with implementing just a single version control tool, TurnKey's Revision Control Appliance delivers four. Implementing Bazaar, Git, Mercurial and Subversion in a single browser-based interface, the Revision Control Appliance simplifies the installation of a source code repository and includes sample "hello world" code.

Additional capabilities include a Web-based control panel, browsing of multiple projects, diffing of multiple code files, Webmin for Apache 2 configuration and SSL support. Customers who like this also might be interested in the Bugzilla Appliance or the Mantis Appliance bug tracking applications.

For a broader Web site content management framework, there's the Drupal 6 Appliance, which implements a Drupal-based management back end for input and maintenance of news sites, RSS feeds, blogs and other Web sites with highly dynamic content.

The Drupal 6 Appliance features a drag-and-drop page layout designer, a content creation kit for customizing content types, automated backup and restore, automatic generation of SEO terms, a questionnaire generator, tag clouds, analytics and a Captcha module for bot and spam prevention.

Google App Engine

The App Engine Appliance enables organizations building Web-based apps using Google's App Engine SDK to deploy them on the same massively scalable platform that Google uses to deploy its own apps.

Features implemented here include an ANT for building Java apps, an OpenJDK Java runtime for running them, the Google Web Toolkit for building and maintaining JavaScript apps within Java, and a number of prebuilt demo apps. The appliance also implements a Python app engine with support for CGI, Django and WebApp templates, the Python imaging library and reference docs for using apps offline.

NEXT: Base Functions; Other Distros

In addition to the specific functionality delivered for each application, TurnKey appliances (which are auto-updated daily with all security patches) also implement a core set of Linux features, including Ubuntu Linux version 10.04.1 with support until April 2015; the ability to deploy on bare metal (via live, bootable ISO CD image to run or install from), optimized virtual machine images for KVM, VirtualBox, VMware, Xen or in Amazon's cloud (Amazon Machine Image); automatic system backup, restore and migrate capabilities; integration within an existing domain or compatible with the free domain.

What's more, when a TurnKey appliance is installed, the target hard drive is partitioned without a fixed volume size, allowing for later expansion across multiple physical drives. These clever developers also implement an AJAX Web shell for secure browser-based command-line access and a UI management interface in the theme of Mac OS X for configuring networking, firewall and other settings.

Each appliance also implements a mechanism for file uploads and downloads, text editor and shell commands. Scripts are included so that on first boot, password prompts appear, SSL and SSH cryptographics keys are generated, security updates (if any) are installed (at the user's option), and network performance is optimized for Linux's advanced packaging tool using GeoIP to determine the closest APT archive.

Outside the TurnKey Linux libraries are scores of other specialized Linux distributions (but not all of them free). To name just two, Backtrack Linux provides nothing but security and penetration testing tools, and Webconverger delivers a platform dedicated to deployment and management of kiosks and digital signage.

In the past year or two, purpose-built Linux distributions have been popping up to suit just about any need. Solution providers willing to invest a just a little time for up-front configuration and testing will be able to provide their customers with fast, reliable, secure appliances that can be remotely administered, monitored and maintained and generate recurring revenue for years to come.