A Review of the Xandros Desktop Management Server
November 15, 2004
This article was first published on Linuxtimes.net
The Xandros Desktop Management Server, xDMS is an attempt to fill the void between the roll-your-own Linux shops and the prohibitively expensive Enterprise offerings from the likes of IBM et al. Xandros has tied together its Xandros Desktop OS with a server based management system, that promises the following
100% Graphical ? Goodbye Command-line…
The point-and-click graphical tools in xDMS enable departmental desktop administrators to perform sophisticated tasks with minimal training and technical expertise:
- Set up software repositories from multiple sources
- Manage software inventories from the xDMS console
- Establish managed groups of networked PCs
- Create custom configurations according to departmental needs
- Take snapshots of “golden PC” configurations
- Perform remote, unattended OS installs and updates
- Schedule remote program execution
- View task schedules and the progress of running tasks
- Manage and change system configurations from a central location
At least, that’s what the website says. But does Xandros deliver? I got a chance to review the final release version of xDMS 1.0 to find out for myself.
The software comes in three CD’s. One of these contains the xDMS software, the other two contain Xandros 2.6 Business Edition and Applications respectively. A Quick Start Guide and an Administrators guide are also provided. After downloading all of these, I burnt the ISO’s. I had already set up a small network of 6 machines ( Server + five clients).The hardware specifications were:
- AMD 2400XP
- 512 MB DDR-RAM
- 120 GB SATA HDD
- 80 GB PATA HDD
- MSI KM400AM Motherboard
- Via 10/100 Onboard Ethernet
The clients were an eclectic mix of machines, from a 2.8 Ghz P4 with 512 MB of DDR to an 1.1 Ghz P3 with 256 Mb SDRAM. Hard disk capacities varied from 20 GB to 80 GB.
Installation: I faced a problem in the installation, with the xDMS CD refusing to boot. The BIOS settings were all perfect, and various other bootable CD’s I tried worked just fine, including the Xandros Business Edition CD. I was forced to use Windows and the Xandros Boot floppy creation to start the install.
Frankly, I was rather surprised, because I have installed at least 12 different OS’s on the same machine, and have NEVER faced such a problem. I can only conclude that there was something wrong with the xDMS CD. And yes, the MD5 checksums were perfect. Anyway, the boot floppy method worked well. Xandros provides an easy way to do it in Windows or Linux, and it is well documented in the guides as well. It takes two floppies.
The Installation process is extremely easy. In fact, the Xandros Installation is one of the best installers around, if not the best. It allows you to non-destructively partition NTFS volumes. Another notable feature is the SATA recognition. Despite using a 2.4 series kernel (2.4.27-x1), xDMS recognizes SATA without any problems.
It is also one of the quickest installers, with the entire xDMS installing in a little over 10 minutes on my machine. Barring the boot CD glitch, I was impressed with the installation. However, there are very few customization options offered, and no choice at all of the packages installed.
During the install I was prompted for a root password, an xDMS administrator password, and a normal user password. All the hardware was detected perfectly, as is standard for any Linux distro worth the name these days.
First Impressions: After installation, xDMS booted up into a very sparse looking desktop. There were three interesting icons on the desktop, which form the core of the xDMS system. From top to bottom , these are
– xDMS Administrator
– xDMS Console
– xDMS Repository Builder
The details for each of these are:
1. xDMS Administrator:
This is the simplest of the three. It allows you to create administrative users, who are able to access the various features of the rest of the Management System. It allows you to group Administrators and Computers so that, for example, John can administer the Finance Department while Jake takes care of the Graphics Team. The new Admins can be given rights to only run the xDMS console, or to be the same as the Master Admin, to be able to create further admin users.
2. xDMS Console:
This is the most important component of the three. Here is where you setup deployments of the OS and new software. It has five tabs.
a. Host Manager: This tab allows you to connect to a managed computer and add and remove software. It’s basically like using the Xandros Networks tool on that computer.
b. Scheduler: This is the most important tab. This is the place where you schedule deployments. These jobs can be complete desktop deployments, updates to software packages, deployments of a new security patch, running a script, and removing software.
c. Snapshots: xDMS has a feature where you can apply the settings of one computer to a group of computers. This is an extremely useful feature, and the Snapshots tab is where you manage this.
d. Software Inventory: This basically tells you the number of Xandros products that have been installed and are on-line.
e. Search: Allows you to search for packages.
3. xDMS Repository Builder: *xDMS Repository Builder is where all deployable software is imported, stored, and organized. This component allows the Administrator to import Xandros products for future deployment and management, and to download updates and patches. xDMS and all managed computers use the repository as their software archive to obtain new updates and software. The repository has the ability to synchronize all of its imported Xandros products with the Xandros FTP archive using an account specifically created for each server upon installation and registration. Therefore, the repository is the only application that requires access to the Internet.</p>
</em>The above paragraph is from the Xandros documentation and it succinctly describes the Repository builder. You can use standard .deb files in the repository, a feature which is useful considering the wealth of software available in that format.
I read the various guides and manuals carefully before starting my own xDMS installation. The process is relatively simple, and is not at all difficult to understand. You do not need to have any esoteric Linux/Unix knowledge to be able to set up this system. Of course, I tested in a controlled environment of only 5 clients, but the system seems reasonably scalable to larger numbers. Basically, the process boils down to the following.
1. Building the Repository: The first step is to build the repository. For this, xDMS Repository Builder is used. The wizard based interface is very easy to use, and it took me 5 minutes to create a repository consisting of Xandros Desktop 2.6 Business and the Applications Disk. After this, a Boot Image needs to be created. There are three types of Boot Images, CD, Floppy and Network (PXE).
I tried the CD and Network methods. Again, the wizard based interface make it easy to figure out, and the extensive documentation takes care of any niggling doubts.
2. Scheduling the Job: For this, the xDMS Console is used.
I was deploying the complete OS, so I chose that option, filled out a few more options, like the IP Address range which would be allowed to do the install ( You can specify MAC addresses as well), the scheduled time, and whether or not to apply a snapshot of any settings. The most important option here is the choice of partition on the target system. You can choose between taking over the primary or secondary hard disk completely, taking over an existing Xandros partition, using any available unpartitioned space or resizing the Windows partition to a specified extent. All this took me a little over 10 minutes, with some time devoted to the documentation to figure out exactly what was going on.
Installing the system. This was as easy as popping in the CD on the target computer, or booting it directly from the network. I tried the CD method on three machines and the Network boot on the remaining two. In both cases it worked without a hitch. The systems booted, connected to the Server and proceeded to install the OS without any user input. I installed three machines at the same time, and the average time takes was 12 minutes. This was indeed very fast, considering that at the end a fully functional desktop along with necessary software is set up. At the server, you can see a progress indicator and network load can be monitored using MRTG in a web browser. The MRTG option seems like a last minute addition and is jarringly out of place after using the slick xDMS console.
After deploying Xandros, the Administrator can make sure that the machines have the latest software installed, or install specific software. The xDMS Console is accessible from any of the managed computers with the proper credentials and this makes it very easy to schedule a new install. The installation happens without a reboot or any user input required, and can be scheduled for off peak hours.
The Golden PC or Snapshot feature is also useful. Organizations which have similar configurations will find this very useful. It lets you install the Desktop OS on one machine, set it up on the network, with proxy settings, Icons, wallpapers, etc. and then use that as a snapshot to install the OS on the rest of the machines. This makes set up very easy,since you only have to do it once.
Documentation and Support:
xDMS really stands out in the quality of the documentation provided. The manuals are well written and easy to understand. They cover most scenarios and are a big help in understanding the system. I give Xandros full marks for documentation. 90 days of email support is also provided. I emailed then with a sample problem, and got a response in a day’s time, even though their auto responder told me that they might take up to five business days. The quality of the reply was good, though it must be said that my problem was not a very complex one. If more support is required, it can be purchased.
Pricing and Final Thoughts:
The fate of xDMS is inexorably linked with Xandros Desktop 2.6. If you are considering shifting to Xandros Desktop, then xDMS makes a lot of sense. Xandros is a capable OS, and can be used as a Windows/*nix replacement in many cases. XDMS is meaningless if your organization is not willing or cannot use Xandros OS. If you do decide to use Xandros OS, then xDMS is a very good management system.
xDMS costs USD 645 for a five seat license, USD 2995 for twenty five seats, and USD 5495 for 50 seats. These prices are reasonable, considering the features, and the fact that you get the Business Edition of Xandros Desktop 2.6, itself a good product.
The xDMS system is indeed a very user friendly and robust software. It is very easy to use and deploy across many machines and makes the job of a network admin much easier. Xandros has done a very good job. However, there are a few things lacking in this version. The most important thing is the lack of a Group Policy Editor. In fact, after deploying Xandros OS there is no option to create users.
The system boots to the Administrator login, and waits for the sysadmin to come along and create a user. This is a surprising oversight, given that Xandros is trying to centralize the process. There should be an option to create an ordinary user while deploying the OS. The lack of a Group Policy Editor of any sort is also felt keenly. This is version 1.0 however, and I hope that the folks at Xandros have something of this sort in the works for version 2.
Besides this, I did not face very many problems. The system works as stated, and does cut down on downtime. You just have to ask the user to boot from the network, and the entire OS gets installed. System and Network Administrators will find a lot to cheer about here.
I would recommend Xandros for Small to Medium enterprises where IT staff is at a premium. If your computing needs are not very complex and do not involve complicated user access policies and domain policies, than xDMS could very well be useful. It cannot as yet compete with the big boys in the large network arena, but there is a sizeable area where it can do the job just fine.
- Very easy to use interface
- Speedy deployment, not much user intervention required
- Tools are comprehensive and cover most scenarios
- Extensive and well made documentation.
- No user set up at the time of OS deployment
- No Group Policies
- MRTG interface feels like an afterthought, and is not in keeping with the rest of the system.