Sysadmin iPhone apps - the portable toolbox
Have you ever needed to SSH to a server from the pub? I have. Sysadmins and devops are widely expected to be ‘always-on’, and until recently that meant carrying a laptop or netbook around with you. However, the iPhone is a powerful pocket sysadmin tool. We look at the ten essential iPhone sysadmin apps that should be available on your hip at all times.
The most basic need is to connect to a server with SSH and run commands on it. iSSH (£5.99) does that, plus supporting favourites, multiple active connections, backgrounding (with iOS 4) and a VNC client for connecting to a GUI interface.
It’s a little fiddly; you wouldn’t want to use this for your everyday console work, but that’s largely a limitation of the iPhone’s screen size and the lack of a physical keyboard. Control keys are handled well. You can even use vi, which can be a challenge on some phone interfaces.
If you had nothing else on your iPhone, iSSH would handle most emergencies. I don’t use it very often, as sadly I’m in front of a keyboard almost all the time, but it’s comforting to know it’s there for my rare and exciting trips to the boozer. While it’s great to be able to resolve a problem straight away, do make sure that you’ve a reasonably clear head before running rm -rf on that production server.
It might seem strange to include an IRC client, but most working sysadmins rely on IRC daily for answers, advice, and emergency help. When you’ve got a problem you really can’t solve, some of the smartest people in the world are hanging out on Freenode and ready to help (maybe at the cost of a snark or two). Colloquy (£1.19) is a beautifully-designed and very usable iPhone IRC client. You can manage connections to multiple IRC networks, multiple channels and private chats, and on iOS 4, you’ll stay logged in even when using other apps.
Skype and BeejiveIM
As sysadmins, our ability to communicate what we’re doing is as important as the work itself. In remote, mobile sysadmin, communication is vital - we need to be easily contactable in an incident situation, and we need to be able to let our colleagues and managers know what’s happening. Skype (free) needs no introduction (and the latest update supports backgrounding), and BeejiveIM (£5.99) covers the major messaging networks: Google Talk, MSN, AIM, Jabber, iChat, Facebook.
In the right hands, network scanners like nmap are a valuable diagnostic tool. Scany (£0.59) puts nmap on your phone, scanning wireless LANs and IP ranges, and detecting live hosts, open ports and services, and the type and OS of the devices it finds. It also has a beautiful continuous traceroute display (like mtr).
Sysadmins have a lot going on. It can be a stressful job, and the natural way of keeping track of many different projects and tasks is to make lists. A simple text file is good, but Things (£5.99) is better. It’s a powerful to-do list manager which imposes very little structure of its own. You can apply Things to whatever personal workflow suits you. Unlike many information manager apps, it’s very simple, cleanly designed, and fun to use.
It might seem very basic, but the ability to take and refer to notes on your iPhone is vital. The built-in Notes app is fine, but Simplenote (free) is better: it looks nicer, and more importantly it syncs wirelessly to the Web - and any desktop apps that can use the Simplenote API (I use Notational Velocity).
Dropbox solves two problems: how can I share stuff with people, and how can I access documents from anywhere? The Dropbox iPhone app (free) can view most file formats, and can cache documents you refer to often, making them available offline. Dropbox is a key tool for sharing information within distributed teams.
Air Sharing (£1.79) turns your iPhone into a wireless thumb drive for storing documents, manuals, diagrams and ebooks. Like Dropbox, it views all important file formats. You can even print via the network. Air Sharing Pro (£3.99) lets you connect to other computers and transfer files via SFTP.
Obviously this is mostly of interest to those with servers or clients hosted at Linode. Many sysadmins rate them the best VPS provider bar none, with excellent online management features, and the iPhone app doesn’t disappoint.
Linode (free) lets you see the status of your servers, along with traffic and load graphs, you can reboot or resize instances, and with iSSH you can console to them via the Linode admin network.
The powerful sysadmin and organizing tools on the iPhone don’t make it a total replacement for a laptop or netbook - the device itself is too small to do much typing on (though I wrote this article on it). However, the iPhone has the advantage that it’s almost always with you, and in a tricky situation, it could be a server saver.
I invited suggestions for this article on the @bitfield Twitter account, and many people contributed: special thanks to @unixland, @alexjs, @benwhatever, @PeterGalvin, @freiheit, and @patrichards. Apps that didn’t make the top ten, either because I haven’t tried them, or I have a preferred alternative, include TouchTerm, Jaadu, Remote Desktop Lite, iTap, iTeleport, iNet, Snap, Nagger, Pingdom, ServerDensity, Prowl, Slicehost, Evernote, iMinder, and Inco.
If you use an app that’s not listed here, or have any other suggestions, let me know in the comments.