Zentyal Gets it Right

I was pretty successful moving to my new house without breaking anything valuable, but unfortunately the old HP Pavilion laptop I have been using as my web server / firewall for the past several years did not make it. Shortly after hooking it up in its new home, the hard drive gave up the ghost. I guess it didn’t appreciate all the dust being shaken around.

I bought an AOpen H340A from BookPC. It makes for a nice low-profile home server. It seems like a good piece of hardware for what I need, and it is pretty affordable. So far I am very happy with it.

Once I unpacked my shiny black toy, I then needed to set it up. The previous server was running Debian and I had configured all of my own services, but my life is busier than it used to be, and I wanted to find a less time consuming way. There are lots of tools for assisting with the common services I use, but one of my priorities is preserving my ability to tinker and modify anywhere that I want.

I first looked at ClearOS (fomerly Clark Connect). I liked the design of the system, and the overall philosophy of the product. It looked like a contender, but I preferred a deb / aptitude based distro.

It took more Googling than I expected to find an alternative, but I came across Zentyal (formerly eBox), and it is exactly what I need. Perhaps this raving review will provide enough link juice to make them easier to find. I wish I could remember the search terms that failed me. This should help: Zentyal is a great Linux server configuration tool. Did you get that Google?

Zentyal is a pre-packaged small business server product built on top of Ubuntu Linux. It provides out-of-the-box configuration for many common services such as DNS, DHCP, HTTPD, and firewall. And it also provides a nice web GUI for setting it up and tweaking settings.

What I love about Zentyal is that it doesn’t make the mistakes of other Linux GUI configuration utilities. I get really frustrated with systems built using Yast or cPanel because they make the mistake of creating an administrative UI that breaks how the system normally operates. It feels like the system has been crippled. If I want to do anything with the system beyond the tool’s original intentions, I have to reverse engineer the tool before I can make any changes. Half the time I still end up breaking everything.

I haven’t had that experience with Zentyal. Sometimes it is downright elegant.

Zentyal provides a visual administration tool that doesn’t break the underlying system. For the most part, Zentyal uses sane default settings, and a UI the generates standard configuration files which save me tons of time without getting in my way. When it has been worth my while to figure out how they do what they do, it hasn’t been terribly difficult. I find the system well documented and all around sane. I also like that it is very modular, so I only have to install the Zentyal services that I care about.

As a bonus, Zentyal also seems like a well run business. Based in Spain, they offer update subscriptions and technical support for reasonable prices. I very much like my current job, but I must admit I checked to see if they are hiring (and they are). Sure would be fun to spend 3 to 6 months in Zaragoza, Spain . . .

Though great, the system is not perfect. I wish the DNS and DHCP were more closely connected. Zentyal does not play nicely with OpenDNS (it works, but I can’t do local name resolution). And I haven’t got my Apache default SSL site behaving exactly as I did on a vanilla Debian install. But those are minor complaints compared to the time I have saved. I am still able to run my WSGI Django applications; it doesn’t mess with my home backup system using rsnapshot; and it shouldn’t prevent me one day setting up my MythTV backend.

Thank you Zentyal! You made my life easier.

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