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Linux server provisioning aided by open source tool

LinMin's open source server provisioning tool enables one data center to quickly provision Linux servers cost-effectively.

Brian McArthur, the director of technology at Advantage Professionals, a managed services provider in Charlotte, N.C., wanted a better way to perform bare-metal installations on a Red Hat Enterprise Linux Server. He and his engineering staff used a pre-boot execution environment or PXE Boot server and the kick-start process for automating Linux installations. While the approach is fairly common, McArthur said, "It was a bit cumbersome and never really worked exactly as we needed." For one thing, the process was not automated, requiring staff to manually assign roles to servers—a time-consuming and inefficient process.

McArthur set out to find a more automated approach to bare-metal server provisioning to quickly facilitate the addition of new servers running the CentOS distribution of Linux in his company's data center. McArthur went online, conducted a search and came across LinMin Corp., a Redwood City, Calif.-based systems management startup that focuses on Linux administration and management. McArthur downloaded a demo of the company's product, LinMin Bare Metal Provisioning and within hours realized he had found the right tool.

LinMin's installation was a snap, and we were up and installing our Dell blades in less than 30 minutes.
Brian McArthur,
director of technologyAdvantage Professionals

"We were building out the new CentOS distribution package on a 64-bit platform, and we were cobbling together bare-metal provisioning," said McArthur. Just to manually install the CentOS on one server and cable everything up took us an hour and 20 minutes."

A cost-effective alternative
With about 50 Dell blades to build out, McArthur wanted to find a technology that could provision servers quickly without breaking the bank. "Altiris and VMware have enterprise provisioning tools, but they were too expensive for us," McArthur said, who added that LinMin Bare Metal Provisioning cost his company about $700.

LinMin's product runs on CentOS but is designed to deliver cross-platform provisioning across various distributions of Linux (including Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, CentOS, Fedora and Debian) as well as Windows Server (both 2003 and 2008). Download the LinMin software onto an existing server, and that server becomes a provisioning and imaging appliance that's capable of remotely deploying server roles on physical and virtual machines based on rules. For example, a role can be to designate a server as a Red Hat Enterprise Database Server; a corresponding rule can be to take a full disk snapshot of a physical host if the physical MAC address is recognized.

The software includes a script that detects all existing network settings, downloads from standard repositories including PostgreSQL, PHP, NFS and Samba, configures them, and then deploys the initial database. The software also schedules daily backups of the LinMin database and regular restarting of selected services. Once McArthur downloaded the software, he was able to deploy the 50-server infrastructure and make configuration changes relatively quickly. "LinMin's installation was a snap, and we were up and installing our Dell blades in less than 30 minutes," he said. "Everything is scripted, so the administration of the servers is a big-time saver for us."

While LinMin is a relatively new company, the technology on which LinMin's product is based was inherited from the now-defunct systems management company called Open Country. According to LinMin CEO Laurent Gharda (who formerly worked at Open Country), two-thirds of the people who have downloaded LinMin's product work for hosting companies. "These companies deploy systems frequently, and they tend to have less standardization in terms of server operating systems," Gharda said.

Filling a void in the marketplace
There's a real need for cross-platform provisioning tools, said Steve Brasen, a senior analyst at Boulder, Colo.-based IT advisory firm Enterprise Management Associates."Provisioning is the cornerstone of achieving true data center automation that can reduce operational costs and increase reliability in the IT infrastructure," Brasen said. "The increasing importance of virtualization has further expanded the need for provisioning solutions that can ease administration and deployment of virtual containers."

As for how LinMin stacks up, Brasen sees a market for the company's product primarily among budget-conscious outfits such as small and medium-sized businesses, educational institutions and Web hosting companies. "[LinMin Bare Metal Provisioning] is most applicable to organizations that either need to reduce the cost of their provisioning implementations or attain the automation for this task that they were never able to afford previously," he said.

Other systems management vendors offer provisioning capabilities, and Brasen sees LinMin going up against small vendors' point products that support specific architectures as well as systems management products from big vendors that include a range of functionality beyond provisioning. "Because LinMin's solution was originally designed by Open Country to be part of a comprehensive solution for large enterprises – but has been retooled as an independent and cost-effective provisioning tool – it scales well with other solutions in this space," Brasen added.

For McArthur, LinMin's software has provided his IT group with a real productivity boost. "We provision CentOS 5.1 64-bit servers for all of our blades in production," he said, adding that the company has another 60 blades on order. Using LinMin to provision new servers will take McArthur and his team less than eight hours, he estimates. "This would take 10 times that time if we had to build them by hand individually," he said. "Not to mention I can do all of this remotely without having to step foot in the data center once they are connected to the network."

Let us know what you think about the story email Megan Santosus, Features Writer .

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