iPad apps for the system admin

With a bigger screen and a few good apps, the iPad makes remote administration much more attractive

If you hadn't heard, the iPad has finally arrived. Although I wasn't completely blown away by the device (see "InfoWorld review: iPad surprises, disappoints"), I'm sure it's going to be a major part of the new age of technology, and I'll be using it daily. Unfortunately, it doesn't run a general-purpose operating system, which is limiting to some degree, especially for those who want to be able to color outside the lines. You know, people like network and system administrators.

So what options are there for admins who want to be able to read an e-book, check some email, and maybe do some work on the device? Turns out that several developers think the same way, and there are iPad-based administration apps available right now.

[ Also on InfoWorld: InfoWorld review: the Apple iPad surprises, disappoints | Video: The iPad up close | The iPad proves it: Apple is out to kill Flash. ]

I've been using iSSH on my iPhone and iPod Touch seemingly forever. Several times over the past few years, it's saved my bacon when I was out and about and received distress calls from servers. Using the tiny keyboard on the iPhone to deliver command lines to Linux systems isn't terribly efficient, but when you're in a car or somewhere without network or computer access, it gets the job done. With the iPad, the text input problem isn't nearly as severe, and I've found the iSSH client to be very usable.

iSSH provides SSH and VNC clients, a simple host bookmarks system, and various soft keys to enable functions not available via the built-in keyboard, such as Control, Alt, and arrow keys. There's also gesture support and buffer scrolling. All in all, it's an extremely attractive client that runs quite nicely on the iPad. I don't think it's viable for long coding sessions due to the difficulty of accessing special characters on the keyboard, but for normal administration, it's definitely a go.

Windows admins have it a little harder. Where using SSH to connect to a shell on a Linux box is very simple, using a touchscreen device to remotely control a GUI, well, isn't. It's possible, but not very fluid.

There have been RDP and VNC clients on the iPhone for a while now, but the tiny screen made them essentially useless for all but the most basic tasks. With the iPad's larger screen, it's suddenly a much more usable interface. There's still that pesky problem of mouse control, though.

I've been using Desktop Connect on the iPad for these functions, and while it's not perfect, it does have its high points. Desktop Connect will connect to Windows systems with RDP, Linux systems with VNC, and Mac OS X systems as well. There's a very simple interface that shows the remote desktop below an icon bar that allows you to pop up the keyboard and Control, Alt, Shift, and Windows keys, as well as arrows and function keys. Tapping the mouse icon shifts the click from right to left. Desktop Connect also leverages the iPad's multitouch interface to allow pinch zooming of the desktop, so you can size it however you like it.

The mouse support in Desktop Connect has two flavors: normal and touchscreen. Touchscreen is just like it sounds: You tap buttons instead of dragging a mouse around the screen. This method doesn't allow clicking and dragging, however. The traditional mouse control is like using a real mouse, but the tracking leaves much to be desired. It's functional, but takes some getting used to. I wouldn't recommend it for long sessions, but for jumping into Windows boxes to do admin stuff, it's fine.

Both of these apps are very new to the iPad, and they have some bugs, but they're in active development and should get better with time. They're certainly usable now. There are others, too, like WinAdmin and iTap RDP client, though I haven't worked with them.

As far as monitoring goes, I've long been a fan of iStat, which is currently an iPhone app. It runs on the iPad, but doesn't make use of the expanded screen real estate. There's a server-side component that runs on Mac OS X, Linux, FreeBSD, and Solaris, and the iPhone app connects to it, displaying all the pertinent information you could want: load average and network I/O with graphs, memory usage, disk-space usage, uptime, and so on. It's also extremely attractive. Set up a few profiles and you can check on your servers with just a few taps wherever you happen to be.

These tools bring plenty to the table in terms of expanding the usefulness of the iPad for IT folks. In fact, if the iPad supported multitasking, these applications would be much more useful -- it gets really annoying to have to quit and restart SSH and RDP sessions just to answer an IM or check something in a browser. If there's one thing I wish the iPad had, it's that. But as it stands, a single iPad can be your MP3 player, video player, book reader, Web browser, email client, and server administration platform wherever you can get a network connection. It sure beats dragging a laptop around, most of the time.

Now, if we could just get an app that would automatically fix Microsoft Exchange problems...

This story, "iPad apps for the system admin," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in security and read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com.

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