8 free virtual appliances you’ll love

These prebuilt LAMP, MEAN, ELK, WordPress, and other handy stacks amount to gain without pain for developers and admins

8 free virtual appliances you’ll love

Despite the fact there’s no such thing as a free lunch, you can download the eight virtual appliances discussed in this article for free. That doesn’t mean you can use any of these in a high-end production environment, but it doesn’t mean you can’t either. Some even have paid and supported versions should you choose to go that route.

Our collection includes the world’s most popular web application stacks, two blogging platforms, a NAS server, and ready-made servers for network and system monitoring, log search and reporting, and secure network access. We found most of these jewels in the VMware Solution Exchange and/or the Bitnami and TurnKey Linux websites. You’ll find there are a number of advantages to using the virtual appliances put together by Bitnami or TurnKey Linux, starting with excellent documentation, frequent updates, and one-click deployment to Amazon EC2 and (in the case of Bitnami) several other clouds.

To take these appliances for a spin, I used a SuperMicro X10DRU-i+ system with two Intel Xeon E5-2690 v3 processors and 128GB of memory, all connected to a Synology RackStation RS3614xs+ storage box, which provided access via an NFS mount point. The system was running VMware ESXi 5.5 and hosted a number of other virtual machines. I used both the vSphere Client and the VMware vCenter Converter tool to upload the virtual machine files to the host platform.

All of these appliances are available as OVA files that can be easily imported and run in VMware or VirtualBox, or converted to run in Hyper-V. Most are available as VMDKs as well.

TurnKey LAMP Stack

The LAMP (originally Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) stack has come to mean almost any combination of open source components running on a Linux operating system to deliver a service. The “P” in the name could easily be Python or Perl, while the “M” could be MongoDB or MariaDB. The TurnKey Linux LAMP Stack adopts MySQL for the “M,” while giving you all of the P’s you could want. It’s all installed and pre-integrated on TurnKey Core, the Debian-based image TurnKey Linux uses as the foundation for the wide variety of virtual appliances you’ll find on the TurnKey Linux website.

On first boot, the appliance prompts for a new root and MySQL password. It also asks for permission to run a security update to download the latest patches from the security.debian.org website. This could take a while, depending on the age of the appliance (the last update was April 2016 in this case), but is not something you want to skip. Among the hallmarks of a TurnKey Linux appliance are daily updates (by default) and automated backups to Amazon S3 (or other target of your choice).

Every TurnKey appliance comes with a web shell with full SSH-like command-line features including editing. A separate Webmin interface provides access to all the typical administration functions you would need to perform. The Adminer interface provides access to the MySQL database with full range of administrative tools. This virtual appliance is a must-have for any application developer targeting the LAMP stack.

Bitnami MEAN Stack

When you think of a typical Linux stack, it usually includes an Apache web server and a SQL database like MySQL, MariaDB, or PostgreSQL. However, with the rise of NoSQL databases and JavaScript, the traditional LAMP stack has new competition in the MEAN stack. MEAN starts with the NoSQL database MongoDB, which stores documents formatted using JavaScript Object Notation or JSON, and ends with Node.js, the popular server-side JavaScript runtime. The other members of the acronym are Express, a Node.js web application framework, and Angular, the client-side JavaScript framework from Google. JavaScript touts its cross-platform capability as a significant plus when compared to other languages, and it has gathered a significant following among the programming community.

The Bitnami MEAN Stack wraps all of these pieces together with Git, Apache, PHP, and RockMongo, which is a PHP-based MongoDB administration tool. Bitnami’s quick-start guide helps you begin using the MEAN stack with examples and a sample project (a simple web page). You’re expected to have some experience with either Node.js or Angular to make this stack work. The good news is that the Node.js and Angular communities are quite active, and you can find a world of tutorials and ready-to-run code to test out. Be aware that you will have to perform a bit of command-line magic to access the system (including using PuTTY as an SSH port forwarding tunnel if you're running Windows). Everything is covered in the documentation, and I was able to get everything working without too much difficulty.

Bitnami ELK Stack

The indexing and searching of log files has become an industry unto itself. Companies like Splunk and Elastic have built a range of products and solutions around the mining of log data—often referred to as operational intelligence. The Elastic ELK stack—which combines Elastic’s open source trio Elasticsearch, Logstash, and Kibana—comprises a one-stop shop for parsing, indexing, analyzing, and visualizing the information in log files. You can check out all of these components on the Elastic website. Bitnami rolls these pieces together with the Apache web server in the Bitnami Elk Stack virtual machine.

Logstash is the tool that performs the data processing and feeds the Elasticsearch search engine. You must configure Logstash to process specific log files as it doesn’t come configured out of the box. It is possible to create a few log entries manually to test the system (see the Logstash docs on the Elastic site). Understanding how to configure the search engine and what filters to apply to the data will be key to making good use of this tool. Fortunately, the Elastic website has a number of good video tutorials (including this one on Logstash) that will help you get your stack up and running. The final piece of the puzzle is visualization, and that’s where Kibana comes in. Check out the getting-started-with-Kibana video for help building a visualization dashboard for your data.

TurnKey WordPress

WordPress is without doubt the most popular blogging platform in use today. A nice benefit of this enormous popularity is the vast number of add-ons and themes available for WordPress. Plus, many blog authoring and posting clients like Microsoft’s Windows Live Writer work with WordPress out of the box. Like Roller, WordPress supports multiple users and any number of named blogs, but it has infinitely more options for customization.

The Bitnami WordPress VM is based on Ubuntu 14.04 and includes WordPress, Apache, MySQL, and PHP. You also get Varnish for caching (which you’ll need to configure) and phpMyAdmin for administration. My first step was to log in to the console of the virtual appliance to perform an update to the operating system. The number of updates was minimal, indicating a reasonably recent version of the operating system was used to create the virtual appliance.

bitnami wordpress

The beauty of WordPress is not having to use the themes provided right out of the box. 

The appliance I downloaded came with WordPress version 4.6.1 installed, the very latest version, and I was able to start posting to the main blog site in short order. Default settings for this VM include 512MB of memory, a single virtual CPU, and one 17GB virtual disk. This appliance is definitely a great way to quickly get a WordPress site up and running.

Bitnami Roller

Roller is a Java-based blogging platform sponsored by the Apache Foundation. Roller has been around for many years and served as the foundation for many large, multiuser blogging sites, including Oracle blogs and DZone’s JRoller. Roller is packed with features, supports OpenID and LDAP for authentication, and scales to many thousands of users.  

Version 5.1.2 is available as a virtual appliance from Bitnami. The Bitnami appliance combines Roller with Apache Tomcat, the Apache web server, and MySQL on Ubuntu 14.04. Installing the VM on my VMware ESXi server required the use of the VMware vCenter Converter, which allowed me to upload the appliance directly to the vCenter Server inventory.

bitnami roller

Roller is a full-featured, Java-based alternative to WordPress. 

Roller can be used to host a single blog or any number of blogs, depending on your server resources and disk space. By default, the Roller appliance is configured to use 1,024MB of memory, one virtual CPU, and a single 17GB virtual disk. I found these settings more than adequate for a small number of blogs, but you can easily bump up the configuration if you plan on hosting more.

From there, creating a new weblog takes only a few minutes from the administrator page. The basic Roller appliance comes with five different themes and the ability to customize appearance and layouts using Apache Velocity templates.

TurnKey File Server

A virtual storage appliance can be surprisingly useful, particularly if you’re running in a VMware VSAN environment. The TurnKey File Server is a great choice for providing file storage services in a virtual appliance. This is another appliance based on the TurnKey Core distribution, with a few additions to offer up the SMB, SFTP, NFS, WebDAV, and Rsync file transfer protocols.

Boot the appliance, and the system will prompt you to change the root password and give you the opportunity to perform a security update to the operating system. With those steps completed, all interaction from there on out happens via a web browser. To TurnKey Core’s Web Shell and Webmin modules, the File Server adds Samba and WebDAV management pages.

turnkey file server

The TurnKey File Server handily preconfigures Samba file services for Windows clients. 

You’ll need to add disk storage to the base virtual appliance as it is configured with a single 20GB virtual disk by default. One of the challenges of using Samba on a typical Linux platform has been the default settings, which don’t normally play well with Windows clients. TurnKey File Server addresses these issues by using WORKGROUP as the preconfigured workgroup name and offering preconfigured shares, including the user’s home directory, a public share named storage, and the CD-ROM.

TurnKey Observium

Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) has been around for a long time, and it still has a place in managing devices on a network. In fact, most server operating systems—including Linux and Windows—support some level of management and monitoring via SNMP. The TurnKey Linux Observium appliance rolls Observium 14.1 into a LAMP stack built on its Debian-based TurnKey Core OS.

Observium combines system and network monitoring with performance trending, letting you track almost any available metric. It will provide a multitude of statistics, charts, and graphs for your managed switches, and it displays CPU, RAM, storage, swap, temperature, and event log status for your servers. Note that Windows Server includes an SNMP management option, but it must be enabled. Try the Observium online demo to see the full capabilities and graphics available from this tool.

turnkey observium

Observium displays network and systems performance data in a multitude of charts and graphs. 

OpenVPN Access Server

OpenVPN is the most popular open source VPN client and server applications around. It can be found in the popular DD-WRT open source router firmware and in a number of commercial routers from companies, including Linksys and Netgear. If you need to support a large number of simultaneous VPN connections, you should check out the OpenVPN virtual appliance. The demo version allows only two concurrent connections but offers a way to test out the installation and management functions. Licensing is a reasonable $15 per client connection per year.

For this review I downloaded the VMware ESXi version of the appliance from the OpenVPN website. Installation consisted of uploading the OVA file to my VMware server using the vSphere Client, then starting the newly created virtual machine. When you access the console and log in for the first time, you’re walked through a number of questions to configure the networking and administration defaults. For most installations the only nondefault entry required is the Ethernet interface selection. One final step after completing the initial setup is to set a password for the default admin account.

openvpn access server

The OpenVPN Access Server is a snap to deploy and easy to manage. 

For an installation behind a NAT router you will need to forward TCP ports 443 and 943, plus UDP port 1194 to the IP address assigned during the setup process. The administration web server listens on port 943 should you wish to access that remotely. The OpenVPN virtual appliance couldn’t be easier to get running and provides a clean and simple management interface for meeting all of your VPN needs.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

InfoWorld Technology of the Year Awards 2023. Now open for entries!