13 killer open source admin tools

A baker's dozen of tools for system and network admins seeking an edge


Killer open source admin tools

Sys admins are a unique breed. Like many of our IT brethren, we must be jacks-of-all-trades. Mail relays, file sharing, websites -- it's a lot to shoulder, but don't fret. Open source is here to help.

From systems automation and monitoring to backups and data center management, open source has the tools to make our jobs easier. Need to make configs simpler so that you can hand off tasks to a junior admin? Want to automate more of your routine tasks to save more of your time? Maybe you just need a better way to view what's happening on your servers or on the network.

Whatever your situation, these killer open source admin tools will help you get the job done faster and easier.


Process Hacker

Process Hacker provides all the functionality of Windows' Process Explorer utility, plus a whole lot more. You can see all network connections, open/listening ports, and the connected processes. Click the Processes tab to get a tree view of parent-child relationships. And no more "hidden" processes -- all processes, services, and threads are on display, to be terminated, suspended, or restarted one at a time, or in a batch when you highlight multiple entries.

Process Hacker is a tool for developers, so it even includes ways to manage real and virtual memory, scan memory for strings, and dump memory contents to a file for analysis.



Adminer is a great alternative to phpMyAdmin. It's a single PHP file and easy to install. The UI is simpler and more intuitive than phpMyAdmin. Adminer also has full support for features like foreign keys, grouping Select results, sorting results by multiple columns, easy downloading of blob field contents, and editing fields in multiple rows. Adminer can work with MySQL, PostgreSQL, SQLite, Microsoft SQL Server, and Oracle Database, whereas phpMyAdmin supports only MySQL. Adminer works with older versions of MySQL and PHP as well.


Postfix Admin

Sys admins love Unix because the tools typically do one thing and do it well. That's the case with Postfix Admin, which provides a Web UI to help with the day-in, day-out management of a Postfix mail server. Postfix Admin provides a simple enough interface that the mail server administrator can confidently hand off the day-to-day user adds and changes to a junior IT staffer, who can add, update, or remove users and aliases with nary a furrow of the brow. Postfix Admin also lets you create an autoresponder vacation message, view server logs, and add a new domain.



Sometimes you just want a simple tool to do a simple job. A set of PHP scripts that pulls data from the /proc file system and lays it out neatly on a Web page, phpSysInfo shows key information about your server, such as RAM and CPU utilization, attached drives and USB devices, available disk space, networking, hard drive SMART info, and more. For busy admins on the go, there's even an Android client app for phpSysInfo.



Ntop is like the Unix top command, but for network traffic. You can view network flow stats, filter and sort the data, see who are your big bandwidth consumers, produce network utilization graphs like MRTG and Cacti, and so much more. Sys admins who double as network admins will like that Ntop can take NetFlow and sFlow data as inputs for analysis. If you need to track down a pesky user who's sucking up more resources than you'd like, Ntop's OS fingerprinting and sniffing of user identifying information like email address will come in very handy indeed.



Automation means spending less time on rote tasks and more time on high-level work. But what if we want to automate an interactive session like telnetting to some old and obscure piece of network equipment to get a list of active users? Our shell scripts, Perl-fu, and Python skills are not enough to get the job done.

Expect automates interactive CLI commands. You tell it the sorts of prompts and outputs it should see and how it should respond. How useful is it? When my team needed to query several thousand routers for a piece of information that was not available via SNMP or any other straightforward method, we turned to Expect to grab that info from an interactive login on the routers.



Want a Web-based control panel system, but don't like Webmin? Give ISPConfig a try. It not only has a more intuitive interface, but it's better suited for sys admins as it has more support for advanced options like firewalling and email spam filters and whitelists.

With support for IPv6, the Apache and Nginx Web servers, key-based SSH connections, and the Mailman mailing list server, ISPConfig can handle most of our favorite Linux distros and applications. ISPConfig also has support for my favorite containers-based virtualization solution, OpenVZ.


Swiss File Knife

Swiss File Knife packs a lot of power into a single binary. It performs basic file operations like listings, searches, and deletions, and can report on disk space, remove spaces from file names, and mirror files and directories. You can use SFK to send command output to a logging server or copy it to your clipboard, as well as share files over the network via Web or FTP.

For schlubs stuck working on Windows, SFK provides all the command-line text-processing tools from Unix. For us schmoes working with files from Windows users, SFK has handy text filtering capabilities like converting Windows line feeds to Unix newlines or changing tabs to spaces (and vice versa). It's great for your rescue drive.



More than a great-looking control panel, Artica does the heavy lifting of installing and configuring the various applications needed to create an appliance of your choice: Postfix mail server with all the firewall, antispam, and antivirus trimmings, a Squid caching proxy server, or a NAS device running Samba that can double as a domain controller for your network.

Artica is a huge timesaver for sys admins, and it puts reliable Linux servers within reach of millions of small businesses who can't afford a dedicated admin. You can bolt Artica onto your favorite Linux distro or download an Artica ISO to install Linux with the Artica system preloaded.



Do you have rack upon rack of servers, switches, and routers, and can't keep up with them all? RackTables keeps a database of each device in each of your racks in each of your data centers, and displays them in either a list format or a graphical representation of the racks.

Do you have a team of admins who need an accurate and up-to-date set of documentation to work together effectively? RackTables lets you set up multiple users with permissions to the specific racks or data centers they support.

RackTables also employs a tagging system that helps you search and sort your equipment in the racks and data centers. You can even use RackTables to manage details such as IP addresses or firewall rules.



We have many choices for backups on Linux and *BSD systems: Bacula, Amanda, Arkeia, and more. My pick is Rsnapshot, which is based on the excellent Rsync file mirroring utility.

Rsnapshot uses Unix hard links to effectively keep a full backup for each snapshot while consuming only the network bandwidth and disk space of a differential backup. The backups are saved to regular file systems on the backup server's hard drives, not tapes, so there's no media to change out. Because Rsnapshot uses common Unix tools, such as Perl, Rsync, and hard links, it runs on most any Unix-ish operating system -- even Mac OS X, Solaris, and Irix.


ISP Control Panel

Based on the old Virtual Hosting Control Panel project, ISP Control Panel is made for running a hosting service. It has separate control panels for ISP admins, service resellers, and end customers. ISP Control Panel is designed to work with a specific set of server software apps, but it provides an almost turnkey system to run a Web hosting company.

ISP Control Panel provides all the services that you would expect from a hosting company, including Sender Policy Framework records, bandwidth usage tracking, and spam filtering with graylisting functionality. It expressly supports Debian and Red Hat Linux, as well as FreeBSD, and documentation suggests it should run on any other Linux or *BSD flavor.



The first time I wanted to install Linux onto a USB thumb drive, I read a dozen different websites with a dozen different sets of instructions, and I got a dozen times frustrated. The UNetbootin project makes it easy to set up a Live Linux installation on a thumb drive. You can use the UNetbootin thumb drive to boot into Linux or to install Linux as a dual boot option on a Windows PC. It's an easy way to carry Linux around with you.

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