3 small-yet-mighty tools for system administrators
While administrators today are gradually becoming more involved in operational matters, like creating infrastructure using tools of the ilk of ansible, most of a sys admin’s time is spent on more mundane investigations, checking, monitoring, and maintaining systems.
As well as the daily routine tasks that must be undertaken, there are usually one or two outliers that need to be dealt with, often out of the blue and almost invariably late at night. Canny sys admins will script away as much of their mundane work as they can, but having a broad knowledge base (or very quick access to just such a library of knowledge, see below) means that most problems can be headed off at the pass.
Here’s our choice of three small-yet-significant tools that sys admins can use in just about any situation, from freeing up space on partitions that are beginning to look cramped through to being able to find existing solutions to any problem, and find it quickly.
Linux Command Library
Sysadmins spend much of their day at a terminal interface and will be at least some way conversant with tools that to most appear opaquely complex – like uniq, sed, grep, and awk. Over time, experience pays dividends, and muscle memory kicks in after a while of spending any significant time in any of those always-nearby-if-not-open applications. However, there are often occasions on which even the seasoned professional will scratch their head and say, “Now, how did I do that, last time?”
There are always man pages (and the much more useful info pages, too, on lucky occasions), but for many, a few examples displayed right up front will be enough to jog the memory. Here’s where cheat and tldr come in: incredibly useful tools that not only remind sys admins of those pesky short options for commands but also present working examples that can either be borrowed verbatim or used as the basis for commands to fulfill common requirements.
However, as anyone who’s SSH-ed into a remote system knows, not only are there no guarantees that a beloved text editor or tool is present, but installing software (like tldr) may not be permitted, advisable, nor possible.
Here’s where Linux Command Library comes in. It’s essentially the Android/iOS version of tldr, or at least it is based on it; plus, it has hundreds of tips, wrinkles, hint sheets, and short guides all in the same interface.
There are git, vim, and emacs cheatsheets alongside video and audio tools (convert a video’s sound to mp3, to pick a random example), networking commands, and reminders of the syntaxes used in common package managers – among many, many other gems.
Even if you are strong with the command line foo, the Linux Command Library (available from F-Droid and elsewhere) could rapidly become the digital version of those O’Reilly miniature short guides that continue to adorn every sys admin’s desk.
In the same vein as the Linux Command Library, ddgr can become one of those indispensable tools that helps sys admins to remember, discover, or rediscover any know-how on the fly. Or rather, it provides a fast way to search the internet for something, right from inside a terminal interface. Often, that search will be helpoful to unearthing a post or page penned by a fellow technologist who’s experienced the same issue and shared the answer with the community.
Although many systems administrators have access to and may even prefer modern GUIs, there is still a significant proportion of systems administration that is best doen via the CLI — be it PowerShell, DOS prompt, or GNU shell. For those who prefer to work on the command line or those who have no choice, getting search results from the internet fast, without having to boot up another device with a graphical interafce, is an invaluable help.
ddgr searches DuckDuckGo and presents the SERP in text. It’s particularly useful when copying and pasting from an internet resource would be useful, like grabbing a code snippet, configuration detail, CLI command or even an entire script. That makes ddgr a winner compared to searching from a phone or another PC, although this does assume it’s OK to install the ddgr binaries on machine being worked on.
Finally, to visit the web pages listed in search engine results, the machine will need to have a web browser available, so installing something like lynx (or perhaps browsh) will be necessary if the complete workflow is to be kept in a text interface.
The same developer (GitHub page) is behind googler, which does the same thing as ddgr, but leverages the Google search engine and its many dubious tracking features.
Since hard drives got so big, few users today seem concerned overmuch with “bloat,” either in terms of filesize or in the form of “super apps” that try and do many things yet fail to do any of them well. minuimus, or to give it its full title minuimus.pl is a cure for bloated files, hard disks that are getting full and generally expediting the speed at which files can be processed and opened. Smaller files are usually more performant. As the project’s website states, “Use it to make your website faster, your game easier to distribute, or just to squeeze more pointless holiday photographs on to your computer.”
The .pl suffix denotes that minuimus is a Perl script, making it pretty much cross-platform, although the author states that the code would probably need a lot of reworking to work on Windows. Out of the box, the script will work on all manner of file types, although to work on PDFs (a file format seemingly utterly cavalier with its required disk real estate), you’ll need to make sure some supporting binaries are in place.
Quite a few file types today are, unbeknownst to most users, compressed archives of many files and hierarchical directory structures. minuimus will expand these files, compress the contents and then safely reform the “file,” saving valuable space without losing any data.
It’s a utility that aims not to change any aspect of any file other than its size. There’s no degradation in quality or lossy compression involved (except, if required, when treating mp3s or some legacy video formats). The only losers with minuimus are the hard drive manufacturers who will get to sell less product to those admins capable of wielding this mighty Perl script.
22 March 2023
22 March 2023