Linux Fu: System Administration Made Easier

Linux can have a somewhat split personality. If you use it as a desktop OS, it has a lot of GUI tools, although sometimes you still need to access the command line. If you use it as a headless server, though, you probably ought to know your way around the command line pretty well. This is especially true if you don’t want to litter up your hard drive (and CPU) with X servers and other peculiarities of the graphical user interface.

Personally, I like the command line, but I am realistic enough to know that not everyone shares that feeling. I’ll also admit that for some tasks — especially those you don’t do very often — it is nice to have some helpful buttons and menus. There are several administration tools that you might be interested in using to handle administration tasks on your Linux machines. I’m going to look at two of them you might want to experiment with that both use a Web browser to provide their interface.

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Linux Fu: X Command

Text-based Linux and Unix systems are easy to manipulate. The way the Unix I/O system works you can always fake keyboard input to another program and intercept its output. The whole system is made to work that way. Graphical X11 programs are another matter, though. Is there a way to control X11 programs like you control text programs? The answer to that question depends on exactly what you want to do, but the general answer is yes.

As usual for Linux and Unix, though, there are many ways to get to that answer. If you really want fine-grained control over programs, some programs offer control via a special mechanism known as D-Bus. This allows programs to expose data and methods that other programs can use. In a perfect world your target program will use D-Bus but that is now always the case. So today we’ll look more for control of arbitrary programs.

There are several programs that can control X windows in some way or another. There’s a tool called xdo that you don’t hear much about. More common is xdotool and I’ll show you an example of that. Also, wmctrl can perform some similar functions. There’s also autokey which is a subset of the popular Windows program AutoHotKey.

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Linux Fu: Better Bash Scripting

It is easy to dismiss bash — the typical Linux shell program — as just a command prompt that allows scripting. Bash, however, is a full-blown programming language. I wouldn’t presume to tell you that it is as fast as a compiled C program, but that’s not why it exists. While a lot of people use shell scripts as an analog to a batch file in MSDOS, it can do so much more than that. Contrary to what you might think after a casual glance, it is entirely possible to write scripts that are reliable and robust enough to use in many embedded systems on a Raspberry Pi or similar computer.

I say that because sometimes bash gets a bad reputation. For one thing, it emphasizes ease-of-use. So while it has features that can promote making a robust script, you have to know to turn those features on. Another issue is that a lot of the functionality you’ll use in writing a bash script doesn’t come from bash, it comes from Linux commands (or whatever environment you are using; I’m going to assume some Linux distribution). If those programs do bad things, that isn’t a problem specific to bash.

One other limiting issue to bash is that many people (and I’m one of them) tend to write scripts using constructs that are compatible with older shells. Often times bash can do things better or neater, but we still use the older ways. For example:

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Linux-Fu: Running Commands

One of the things that makes Linux and Unix-like systems both powerful and frustrating is that there are many ways to accomplish any particular goal. Take something simple like running a bunch of commands in sequence as an example. The obvious way is to write a shell script which offers a tremendous amount of flexibility. But what if you just want some set of commands to run? It sounds simple, but there are a lot of ways to issue a sequence of commands ranging from just typing them in, to scheduling them, to monitoring them the way a mainframe computer might monitor batch jobs.

Let’s jump in and take a look at a few ways you can execute sequences from bash (and many other Linux shells). This is cover the cron and at commands along with a batch processing system called task spooler. Like most things in Linux, this isn’t even close to a complete list, but it should give you some ideas on ways to control sequences of execution.

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Linux-Fu: Applications on the Web

Did you know you can run remote Linux GUI programs in a browser with HTML5 support? It’s even secure because you can use SSH tunneling and that little trick means you don’t even need to open additional ports. If this sounds like gibberish, read on, it’s actually pretty easy to get up and running.

I recently was a guest on a Houston-based podcast, and the hosts asked me if the best thing about writing for Hackaday was getting to work with the other Hackaday staff. I told them that was really good, but what I like best was interacting with people (well, most people) in the comments. That sometimes you’d post an article and someone would bring a topic up in comments that would really knock your socks off. This is how I wound up with this nearly ideal remote access solution, that requires nothing on the remote side but a web browser.

A while back I posted about keeping programs running after log off on a Linux box. The post was mostly about non-GUI programs but you could use NX or VNC to handle it. In the comments, someone mentioned how unhappy they’d been with recent copies of NX and another commenter called [Screen for X11] posted about a tool called xpra.

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Linux-Fu: Keeping Things Running

If you’ve used Linux from the early days (or, like me, started with Unix), you didn’t have to learn as much right away and as things have become more complex, you can kind of pick things up as you go. If you are only starting with Linux because you are using a Raspberry Pi, became unhappy with XP being orphaned, or you are running a cloud server for your latest Skynet-like IoT project, it can be daunting to pick it all up in one place.

Recently my son asked me how do you make something run on a Linux box even after you log off. I thought that was a pretty good question and not necessarily a simple answer, depending on what you want to accomplish.

There’s really four different cases I could think of:

  1. You want to launch something you know will take a long time.
  2. You run something, realize it is going to take a long time, and want to log off without stopping it.
  3. You want to write a script or other kind of program that detaches itself and keeps running (known as a daemon).
  4. You want some program to run all the time, even if you didn’t log in after a reboot.

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