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Taking a look at Canonical’s Ubuntu system management service, Landscape

Canonical Landscape is a service designed to simplify management of many Ubuntu installations, be they physical computers (usually servers) or cloud based. It’s aimed at commercial deployment where system administrators need to keep an eye on dozens, if not hundreds of installations – keeping them all running smoothly, bug free, cool (as in temperature, not Steven Seagal cool, although maybe that kind of cool if you want) and up to date.

Canonical describe the service as an “an easy-to-use systems management and monitoring service. Manage multiple Ubuntu machines as easily as one and lower your management and administration costs.”

Landscape is available in two varieties:

  • Hosted Edition is where Landscape is run on Canonical’s servers for you.
  • Landscape Dedicated Server allows customers to run the Landscape systems management server onsite rather than as the hosted service already included in Ubuntu Advantage.

For more information on the two options, hit up the Landscape information page.

Over a month ago I was kindly given a free 60 day trial of Landscape by my friend Sidnei da Silva from the Landscape team. Since then I’ve been using it to monitor several computers both at my house in Dunedin and my home in Christchurch, including a mix of server, desktop and laptop Ubuntu installs.

At this point I should note that I’m not the target audience for Landscape customers – I’m not a company that has to maintain hundreds of servers, which is what Landscape is aimed at. That aside, presuming the system scales (which I’m 100% sure it does), my experience would be close to that someone would have whether they were managing 5 servers, 25 servers, or 250.

Landscape has the following main features:

  • An alert system that sends you notifications when updates are available, or when other custom triggered events occur.
  • A package management system that allows you to update hundreds of computers with the click of a button.
  • Monitoring and statistics collection to measure everything from CPU temperature to system load.
  • The ability to run custom scripts on command across multiple computers.
  • Separate computers into groups using tags.
  • Manage user accounts on computers, including permissions.
  • Much much more!

Registering a computer

Registering a computer was very easy, it just involved running two commands client side, plugging in my credentials and letting Landscape do the rest:

sudo apt-get install landscape-client

sudo landscape-config

Of course, this will only work if you have a Landscape account. The Landscape team have made some neat screencasts on their YouTube channel, including a registration video!

Using Landscape

Landscape makes system administration surprisingly easy. The dashboard is intuitive and user-friendly – although there is a slight learning curve, it’s nothing major and sure beats managing things through a terminal and SSH, especially if you have 200 computers.

In my scenario, I didn’t have a whole bank of servers to manage, but rather a couple of computers back in my home town of Christchurch, and then a couple of my own computers in Dunedin. My Mum’s computer was one of the ones back in Christchurch.

I registered:

  • My Mum’s Asus laptop (10.04)
  • Our “house” computer (10.04)
  • My Dell Mini 9 netbook (10.10)
  • My Toshiba A200 laptop (10.10)
  • and of course my Apache web server (10.04 Server Edition)

Landscape automatically runs when computers are turned on, and sends information back on everything from hardware specifications, CPU load, temperature, hard drive activity to package update status. Once Landscape has this information, it presents it to you in a series of lists and graphs.

You can organize your computers using tags and groups for easier management.

One very nice feature was the automatic alerts – when important security updates are available or reboots are needed, Landscape will notify you on the Dashboard front page. As well as the built-in alerts, the administrator can customize their own alert criteria and be notified if that is reached.

The package update system is flawless. After computers have automatically checked for updates each day, you simply mark packages for update then Landscape will send this through to the computer as an “activity.” These activities pend until completed and if the computer needs a restart then all of this will happen automatically.

If you happen to have many hundreds of computers which all need package updates, you can tell Landscape to update all of them. Painless!

Where to next?

Landscape does everything you would expect from a system administration service, but can it be pushed further? I’d like to see the ability for Landscape to turn on computers that are off by sending a magic packet, and possibly even the ability for remote desktop viewing, TeamViewer style.

While Landscape is designed for managing Server Editions without a GUI, or even a monitor, I could see a market open up for remote management of end-user computers – everything from people like me keeping an eye on their Mum’s laptop, to internet cafes who need to manage many internet PCs.

In the end, Landscape is designed for system administrators, not everyday people – and I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s going to stay for a while.

Eagle eyed readers might have noticed that the Landscape interface in my screenshots still has the familiar browns and oranges of the old branding. The team are working on a new look and feel for the dashboard, and Sidnei gave me a sneak preview of the design they’re going for:

It’s possible to test out the new skin by using a setting in the Landscape URL, so I checked it out in my browser and you can see the preliminary style starting to take shape:

Summary

There’s no doubt that Landscape is designed for commercial applications to help manage large numbers of computers. Unfortunately, I don’t have a server farm in my backyard, so I couldn’t put Landscape to the test in its natural environment. But based on what I have seen thus far, it successfully simplifies management of many Ubuntu installs – essentially it does what it says on the tin.

The only reason you’d want to use Landscape is if you actually fit the bill of a person or company that has to manage many Ubuntu installations. If you’re just an everyday Ubuntu user, then shelling out a few hundred bucks a year for this service would no doubt be a waste of money – but for a company, its benefit would be astronomical and I’m sure there are many organizations already using Landscape successfully.

If you fit into this group, then you can request a Landscape trial from Canonical now.