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Monday, 19 March 2012

Slackware Derivatives: The Superb Mini Server Project

SMS, short for Superb Mini Server, is one of those niche distributions built on a major that are not really needed but fulfill a particular purpose and might save you time if what they offer is exactly what you want. SMS is built from Slackware and provides a ready to go server setup with many additional useful packages and tools pre-installed. Slackware itself of course makes a fine server, but SMS has a few more tricks up its sleeve.

With 1.6.4 the project is offering a live CD as well as an install image, both in 32-bit (i486) and for the x64 architecture. Although it looks fairly young on Distrowatch it has a good number of years behind it and has proven that it isn't just a one-man effort and about to fade away after two releases. Version 1.6.4 is built on the Slackware 13.37 but comes with a newer kernel 2.6.39.4 that takes care of a local root exploit where a local user could gain root privileges by modifying process memory. Various packages have also been updated. You can get a fuller picture here or just follow the link to their release announcement. An even newer 3.2.11 kernel is available from their repositories, and 3.2.5 is the default on their live CD image which seems to be following Slackware Current, the development branch. New releases of SMS will also be based on Current until a new stable Slackware is out. The team seems to release every two to three months so admins in need are sure to always get a fresh image if they have any new hardware.

SMS provides the Apache2 and Lighttpd web servers, file, print (Cups) and fax servers (Hylafax), several mail servers (Sendmail, Postfix, Dovecot) to choose from as well as some indispensible tools for such environment, namely Spamassassin, Mailscanner and ClamAV. BitTorrent has been replaced by TorrentFlux which can be remotely managed. Cups for printing and Webmin allow to graphically manage services, all the interface one should really need for a server. MySQL is the database, and of course the venerable iptables is included, but you may still need to configure your own rule set. Take a look at the Easy Firewall Generator for this. OpenJDK is included and has replaced Oracle JRE and JDK for Java.
You also get recent or in some cases even the latest version of PHP, Perl, Python, OpenSSH, and an up to date Samba 3.6.3 for that interoperability with NTFS/FAT shares, newer even than the 3.5.10 in Slackware's Current.
Many more packages of interest for a server setup are included, among them DNSmasq (DNS/DHCP server), Fail2ban, an FTP service, and the DansGuardian web content filter working together with Squid proxy server.

I downloaded and tried the x64 editions, the SMS64.Live.CD-1.6.4.iso which comes in at 439 MB, and the install image SMS64.Native.CD-1.6.4-Install.iso which at 656 MB is just under CD size.
Let's try and get a feel for what it's like running SMS first. I used the image as it is intended, burned to optical media, and booted from the CD drive.

The Live session

Upon start up you get several choices, the usual boot from hard disk which hands you over to the main boot loader on your drive, run from CD, load into memory for a smoother operation, start a PXE server, start SMS as cluster master. There's also a 'light' option which starts with all services disabled.

I opted to load it all into memory and run from there. All seemed fine, until when the loading sequence finished my screen went pitch black. Ah, must be my RadeonHD chipset then. I concede, running a server on a laptop is maybe not the first thing you'ld think of, but as I don't have a traditional server setup at home any machine could be called into action. Think of it, laptops are ideal for this, they are stackable like racks and bring their own monitor. An old laptop could easily be your home server, quieter than your average old tower and easily hidden away somewhere in the broom cupboard. Anyway, my Acer Aspire 5551 with ATI 4250 HD did not play well, although it works fine with Slack stable. I put it down to the newer kernel or it all being still to mature Current.

To my surprise the normal boot into running from CD mode went well and did not exhibit a problem with the video and it was possible to explore the system a little, albeit at the command prompt. This being designed as a server it is not a surprise that no graphical desktop is installed, and startx yielded nothing. In fact I would have been surprised if it did. You get to check some of the installed programs though, and login credentials that have been provided for ease of use right there. The SMS live CD issues default passwords at login to, as they put it, "help the lazy ones".

The live image employs the usual linux-live scripts made popular by Slax and tools to convert modules to the newer package format are included, just as easy as you can customize and create your own spin from the included scripts per batch file or linux shell.

The installed system

The installer is using the venerable text based Slackware installer, with the usual turquoise on navy blue background. This shouldn't be a problem, if you're advanced enough to need a server not having a graphical installer shouldn't put you off. Lilo is the boot loader.

When it's time to log into your freshly installed system you're in for a treat! If you wondered what's on the native install CD that isn't in the live image that makes it almost 220MB larger, you get the full X windowing environment and a KDE 3.5.10 ported to Slackware 13.37, although not maintained any longer as an alternative by the parent distribution. For daily admin tasks through a GUI this is now an extremely lightweight and fast interface on any modern hardware, and provides all the power of configuration of the old KDE3. It didn't recognize my widescreen resolution and looked ever so stretched on the laptop's monitor, but you can always specify an xorg.conf file and enter the appropriate size there. Once I had added my 1366x768 resolution the desktop was looking a lot better.

SMS 1.6.4 with KDE 3 - Screenshot from the project's web site
Here you get a web interface for TorrentFlux and can easily set up your Samba shares in the Control Center module. With GADMIN-PROFTPD you also get a graphical console to administer your FTP server, and Zenmap is a handy shortcut on the panel as a reminder to check for holes in your security. A few themed wallpapers are included for your pleasure, just in case you like it so much you end up looking at your server more often and start using at as a desktop as well. You can do the same to Lilo for which there are also some alternative backgrounds.

Read the About page on the project's site for information on the various accounts and pre-set passwords and some other helpful tips and tricks, another good starting point is the Features page which gives us a good overview of what's installed. The web site looks a bit dated but it's basic and it works. Everything is accessible via tabs at the top and you can get help from the small community on the forum. A wiki and a FAQ section is also available, although if you know your Linux in general and Slackware in particular you will not be having any problems.

Conclusion

I was slightly disappointed that Leafnode was not included, or at least another local Newsgroup server. But perhaps such service is just not relevant any longer, and the relatively few people still posting to Usenet know how to add it themselves.
SMS makes for a nice pre-configured package for a home server or small business that has most of the packages and services one would want already installed. Some configuration is still necessary, for example for Fail2ban and to set your domains, but it's as ready to go as can be. In this sense it is pretty similar to ClearOS, which is a custom implementation of Red Hat Enterprise Linux aiming for server use only.
Another use would be as an ad-hoc server for a quick project, providing for example an FTP or print & fax server from live CD as necessary.

Apart from the above, being based on Slackware means one can update and add packages in the usual manner from source and with scripts from Slackbuilds.org, where Leafnode can also be found, or with sbopkg from their experimental git repository for Current. The distribution is intended as a use-as-is solution and package management does not feature high on the list. Slackpkg is not included, probably to avoid conflicts with newer packages in SMS. If you installed KDE you get Kpackage which is basic at best, but installing slapt-get and gslapt works without adding further libraries and gives you access to a few more optional packages on the SMS servers.

Lastly, this is a great starting point for whoever still likes to use KDE3 on Slackware but has been unable to get the official but unsupported packages the distribution last provided for 13.0 to run on the latest release, although several more desktop oriented packages like kdegraphics are missing and will still have to be compiled from source against an updated gcc and glibc.

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