Pocket Sysadmin

I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again. External link

Actually, that’s not true: I will be back on Sunday. But the point is, I’m going on a trip… and more importantly, I’m not taking my laptop. Gasp! Can it be true? I’ll answer that for you: yes, it’s true.

OK, enough with this absurdly bad writing. On to the matter at hand: traveling sans laptop. Since I began freelancing in mid-2008, it’s been a given that I would always have my laptop with me. Not because I am a workaholic (not true) or because I’m an Internet junkie (true), but primarily because I needed to have a way to monitor and troubleshoot web server performance in case any of my clients had technical problems while I was gone.

But for this trip, I’ve decided I want to make it a real vacation. I want to remove the temptation to work when I really shouldn’t. I need a break. But I still need to be accessible if an emergency arises, and I need to be able to do something about it. Accessibility has been a non-issue ever since I got a cell phone: just call me. Or, since I got an iPhone: email, text, or call me (preferably in that order). But heretofore, the best I could do with a phone/iPhone was become aware of a problem. I still needed a full-fledged computer to actually do anything productive.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been preparing my iPhone to become an all-in-one tool for managing my business on the road. That meant setting up all of the diagnostic and troubleshooting tools I could, to ensure that I can adequately monitor the performance of the web servers I’m responsible for, and fix any problems that come up. Here are the tools I’m using to make that possible:



iStat is a very polished little utility for monitoring system performance. Its main feature is that it provides detailed stats on your iPhone itself: battery capacity, memory usage, storage available, IP address, uptime, running processes, and MAC address. But what’s really cool about it is that there are remote monitoring tools that allow you to monitor your Mac from your iPhone, or, more importantly for me, you can monitor a Linux, BSD or Solaris server. It requires a fair bit of command-line mucky-muck to set up (including compiling from source), but in a matter of minutes I had multiple Linux servers set up, sending their performance data to my iPhone wherever I go. With iStat, I can be proactive in monitoring server performance.

TouchTerm SSH

TouchTerm SSH

So, great. iStat lets me see how my servers are doing. But what if there’s a problem? That’s where TouchTerm SSH comes in. When I work with servers from my computer, the main application I use is Terminal. The SSH protocol allows me to connect securely to my servers with a command-line interface, where I can do anything I need to do: check running processes, modify configurations, restart services, etc. TouchTerm SSH is a fully-functional SSH terminal on the iPhone. With it, anything that I can do via SSH from my computer, I can now do with the iPhone. I just installed it today, so I haven’t completely put it through its paces, but I am sure that before long this will be one of the most indispensable apps I have installed on my iPhone. Even more than Ramp Champ.


Slicehost Pro

This one’s a bit more specialized, obviously, but since Slicehost’s iPhone app was one of the main selling points for me to go with them in the first place, it’s worth acknowledging.

Slicehost is a VPS hosting company based in St. Louis. They offer great service at unbeatable prices. Running a VPS is not for the feint of heart, but if you’re not afraid of taking full responsibility for your own server, Slicehost is the way to go. Their simple web-based admin interface makes it a snap to set up your own server with one of any number of Linux distros (Ubuntu, Debian, Gentoo, CentOS, Fedora, Arch or Red Hat), and once it’s running, to monitor its performance and reboot if necessary.

The iPhone app’s functionality is pretty limited, but it has the one critical function I need: if the slice becomes unresponsive, you can reboot it. Sure, you can do that from their mobile website too, but it’s always fun to have another app on your home screen.

My favorite new feature in iTunes 9

Yesterday Apple released iTunes 9 and iPhone OS 3.1, and this new version of iTunes addresses one of my biggest few frustrations with the iPhone: organizing your apps.

I cringe at saying “apps,” fearing I sound like Michael Scott talking about something they sell at Dave & Busters. But, given that it’s known as the App Store, I guess that’s what to call them.

Anyway… this is not about what they’re called, it’s about how they’re organized. And up to now, the only way to organize them was to go to your iPhone’s home screen, hold your finger on an icon until they all start to wiggle, and then drag them around. Not bad, when you only have one screen’s worth of apps, or even two or three. But I have seven — and that doesn’t even count the apps I downloaded but deleted from my iPhone.

Trying to keep seven screens’ worth of icons (16 per screen) organized by this finger-dragging method is tedious to say the least. And now that even the default configuration includes two screens, Apple realized they had to do something about it.

But now, we have this:

iTunes app syncing

Brilliant. I love it. The only flaw now is that this layout is too big to fit into the iTunes interface on my MacBook without having to scroll the entire thing, since the iPhone screen is represented at actual-pixel size. (I had to take two screenshots and stitch them together in Photoshop to create the image you see above, which is scaled down slightly from the actual size.

Then again, it’s always something, isn’t it?

SimCity for iPhone: ASOD (Advisor Screen of Death)

I was ecstatic when I discovered SimCity for iPhone. It is, without a doubt, the best “deep” game for the iPhone that I’ve encountered. (Stuff like Bejeweled is great too, but they’re in a completely different league.)

I have long been a fan of the SimCity series. I haven’t really played SimCity 4 much, mainly because it seems that with each new version, Maxis EA gives the Mac version less and less attention. Or, more accurately, they give MacKiev even less time and a stingier budget to do the port from the PC version. So, it’s bloated and sluggish and slow. But for me, SimCity 3000 was great, and that is the edition that was the basis for the iPhone version.

I love it. It is unbelievable that they could pull off something like this on the iPhone, but they did it. Mostly. It’s great, but it’s buggy.

The worst bug I’ve encountered, twice now, happens occasionally when clicking one of the advisor links in the news ticker at the bottom of the screen. What you get is… ugh… this:

Sim City Advisor Screen of Death (ASOD)

In the spirit of the classic Windows 95 BSOD, I’m calling this bug the ASOD: Advisor Screen of Death. I have no experience with iPhone programming, but I suspect that the text you see is the variable names or some kind of parsed placeholder text where the actual advisor message is supposed to appear. Unfortunately, not only is the text not being properly loaded, the actions for the buttons aren’t, either, meaning that once this appears, there’s no way to make it go away… at least, no way other than clicking the iPhone’s Home button, which does a fine job of returning you to the home screen… but it quits SimCity in the process, and if you hadn’t saved in, say, the entire amount of time you had just been playing the game, it can be incredibly frustrating.

So… if you like SimCity and you own an iPhone or iPod Touch, by all means, buy this game. You will enjoy it immensely. Just remember two things:

1. Save. Often.
2. Think twice. Skip advice. (Or at least approach your advisors through the “…” menu instead of the ticker.)

Update: A few other bugs, or at least flaws, I’ve noticed: the city’s population seems to fluctuate wildly from month to month, with no logical explanation; demand for the different zones seems to bear no relation whatsoever to the tax rates for those zones, but almost seems to just follow an arbitrary pattern of ebb and flow; and the budget numbers do not adjust month-to-month, making it really hard to track current revenue levels. Maybe this last one is the same in the computer version too, but the budget seems to require a lot more close attention on the iPhone.