Sexy clones of classic Unix tools

March 9, 2008

Most system administrators grew up with the classic Unix tools. If you’re under 30, chances are you grew up with the GNU versions of them. Everyone’s seen the lists of Unix tools you should be using if you aren’t already (ie if you aren’t using screen, you’re not paying attention. This list is different, it’s of clones of the classic Unix tools that improve them in some way.


Grep results are often slowed by searching version control files. Ack increases search speed by eliminating those files from search. It also has preliminarily support for searching for only certain types of files, making your file search still faster. ack is written in Perl so it’s largely cross platform and has a more complete (ala Perl) regular expression engine. In short time I’ve trained my hands to type ack instead of grep. As the author says, it’ll save you 25% of your time right there.


htop is an improved eye candy version of top. Its biggest features are its LED-like bar for CPU/Memory usage and its color coded process table output. htop looks noisy after some time you quickly see htops benefits in being able to separate out information visually. htop is currently only available on GNU/Linux but the authors have discussed possibly porting it to other platforms.


This replacement for the classic pagers (more and less), has several advantages over its cousins, including showing the file process in percentage and being able to scroll horizontally as well as vertically without line wrapping the input.


Nano is a clone of the popular text editor pico, but unlike its predecessor, nano has many configuration options and even supports syntax highlighting and other features usually only found in more complex editors like vim and emacs. nano retains pico’s small size and will fit on many small computers including embedded systems. If you don’t like vi and need a small editor, nano can more than do the job.


Many of us learned email on the classic unix mailer “pine”. Sadly pine has had a soiled reputation both for its poor security and its licensing issues. alpine is an effort by University of Washington (the makers of the original pine) to solve both these problems and retain pine’s ease of use. If you haven’t already moved on to another mailer like mutt, alpine should be your next logical move.


Fish shell is an attempt to move away from the problems we typically have in shells into something more. Not only does fish support coloring, automatic indentation, increased help and automatic escaping of control characters, integrated help, but it’s just plain easier to use. Unfortunately if you’re in an environment with scripts that assume you’re using a standard posix shell, fish won’t work for you as it breaks posix compatibility in order to make the shell environment easier to use. Fish is still a very sexy project.

Honorable Mentions

Honorable mentions not included in the list above include anacron, sing, gnupg, aspell, and sdd.

3rd Party review of Security Power Tools

March 7, 2008

A short review of Security Power Tools. Sadly the sys-admin is often asked to be both customer representative and police officer for an organization, so it’s best to come prepared.

Mistakes CIOs make that weaken enterprise security

February 26, 2008

We’ve all worked under the PHB, but more common is the high level manager who, when faced with the dangers of problems of managing a large computing facility, begins to look for silver bullet solutions to problems. This blog post from James McGovern lists the top 10 mistakes that CIOs face when faced with this dilemma.

IPv6 Transition Presentation

February 25, 2008

IPv6 is going to happen and many of us wish it were here faster, yet
nearly a decade after the transition began, most of us aren’t on IPv6
networks and have no immediate transition plan to do so.

This entertaining and informative set of slides shows the problem we’re
facing in IPv6 and practical steps we can take to help move the
migration along.

A Look inside LiveJournal

February 18, 2008

Rarely does a company offer people the opportunity to see its infrastructural organization. Danga does in this rare
talk from LISA 2004.

Some takeaway lessons from the talk are:

  • Separate services across hosts
  • Scale each component separately
  • Avoid large database replication by using internal pre-indexing of data across databases
  • Let your services fit your needs (ie use both an IP and an HTTP filter for different problems)
  • Storage is key, eg their use of both NetApp, mySQL replication and internally developed storage system MogileFS
  • Cache is key, use Memcached
  • Measure and monitor all aspects of the system for availability and planning
  • This talk is from 2004. We can only speculate to how things have changed since.

The Five Why’s

February 10, 2008

Joel Spolsky discusses Five Why’s, a method of determining what went wrong in a system and an approach to preventing it in the future.

In an occupation where outages are high profile and we never like to do the same thing twice, we’d all be wise to heed Joel’s story and advice.

Optimizing your database with Paul Tuckfield

February 10, 2008

Paul Tuckfield spoke at the mySQL conference in April about optimizing Youtube.

Toward the end of the talk, Paul shifts to a mainly system-oriented focus on optimization and presents a few tips:

Operations is a Competitive Advantage

January 31, 2008

Sadly most small and medium size organizations misjudge the value in spending resources on operations, and even fewer see sys-adminry as an iterative process.Operations is a competitive advantage explains the operations in a way that managers and programmers can understand.

How Google Does Things

January 31, 2008

LISA is one of the best conferences relating to system administration and in ’06 Tom Limoncelli gave a frank and informative talk on how Google handles the largest of the large systems. Though few of us have access to the same tools and resources as Google, I think everyone can take home something from this talk, “My First Year At Google”

Rules for Sysadmins

January 30, 2008

For our first post, a nice set of Rules for Sys-Admins. The only thing I might change is 12 should be “Be sure you have remove console/KVM access to a host”, but whose counting.