Back to Basics With Unix: Stranger In a Strange Variant

Charlie SchlutingIt has often been said that a skilled sysadmin can quickly come up to speed with any Unix system in a matter of hours. After all, the underlying principles are all the same. Fortunately, this is somewhat correct. Unfortunately, this also leads to people making changes on systems they do not understand, often in suboptimal ways.

In this final Back to Basics With Unix piece, we’d like to spend some time talking about some common, routine sysadmin tasks and how they differ between Unix variants.

Sure, you can clunk around and change configuration files to mostly make something work on a foreign system. But will those changes remain after security patches get applied and stomp all over your work? Did you just change a file that was meant to never change, because there’s a separate file for local modifications? If you’re not familiar with “how it’s done” in that particular OS, it’s as likely as not.


Yes, I make fun of GUI configuration utilities. People that don’t understand systems often use them and “get by,” but they cannot fix things when they break, unless the GUI tool can do it for them. That said, they do have their place. When learning a new system, it often makes sense to use the provided configuration utilities, as you know without a doubt they will adjust the necessary setting they way the OS wants it done. Here’s a list of some handy general administration GUIs:

  • AIX: smitty (does pretty much everything)
  • FreeBSD: sysinstall (not recommended for use after the initial install, but it works)
  • HP-UX: sam (like AIX’s smitty)
  • Linux: system-config, webmin and many others (distro-dependant)
  • Solaris: admintool, wbem (use with caution)

Often, these tools still don’t do what you need. They certainly don’t help you learn a system unless you take the time to examine what the tool actually changed. Let’s start off with the basics: gathering system information and managing hardware. It can be a nightmare to add a disk to a foreign system, so hopefully this list will get you steered in the proper direction.

Show hardware configuration:

  • AIX: lsdev, lscfg, prtconf
  • FreeBSD: /var/run/dmesg.boot, pciconf
  • HP-UX: ioscan, model, getconf, print_manifest
  • Linux: dmesg, lspci, lshw, dmidecode
  • Solaris: prtconf, prtdiag, psrinfo, cfgadm

Note that ‘dmesg’ is a circular kernel buffer on most systems, and after the machine has been up for a while the boot information listing devices gets overwritten. FreeBSD thoughtfully saves it in dmesg.boot for you, but in other systems you’re left relying on the above-mentioned exploratory tools.

Add a new device (have the OS discover it without a reboot):

  • AIX: cfgmgr
  • FreeBSD: atacontrol, camcontrol
  • HP-UX: ioscan, insf
  • Linux: udev, hotplug (automatic)
  • Solaris: devfsadm, disks, devlinks (all a hardlink to the same binary now)

If you connect a new internal disk and need it recognized, you should not need to reboot in the Unix world. The above commands will discover new devices and make them available. If you’re talking about SAN disks, the utilities are mostly the same, but there are other programs that make the process much easier and also allow for multipathing configurations.

Label and partition a disk:

  • AIX: mkvg then mklv
  • FreeBSD: fdisk or sysinstall
  • HP-UX: pvcreate then lvcreate, or sam
  • Linux: fdisk or others
  • Solaris: format or fmthard

Of course, you’ll also want to create a file system on your new disk. This is newfs or mkfs everywhere, with the exception of AIX which forces you to use crfs. The filesystem tab file, which describes file systems and mount options, vary a bit as well. In Linux, FreeBSD, and HP-UX it is /etc/fstab, Solaris uses /etc/vfstab, and AIX references /etc/filesystems. We spent so much time on filesystems and hardware because that’s the generally the biggest hurdle when learning a new system, and when you’re needing to do it, often you’re in a hurry.

Other tasks may or may not be covered by GUI utilities in the various flavors of Unix, so here’s a few more that we deem crucial to understand.

Display IP information and change IP address permanently:

  • AIX: ifconfig/lsattr; smitty or chdev
  • FreeBSD: ifconfig; /etc/rc.conf
  • HP-UX: ifconfig/lanadmin; set_params
  • Linux: ifconfig; /etc/sysconfig/network or /etc/network/interfaces
  • Solaris: ifconfig; edit /etc/hosts, /etc/hostname.*

Linux will of course vary, but those two files cover the most popular distros.

When taking over a foreign system, we frequently want to two two things: install missing software (like GNU utilities), and verify that the system is up-to-date on security patches. Where to get packages and where to gete latest security patches varies too much to cover here—you’ll likely need to search to the OS in question—but the way you install packages and show installed patches is extremely useful to know.

List installed patches:

  • AIX: instfix, oslevel
  • FreeBSD: uname
  • HP-UX: swlist
  • Linux: rpm, dpkg
  • Solaris: showrev

Install packages:

  • AIX: smitty, rpm, installp
  • FreeBSD: pkg_add, portinstall, sysinstall
  • HP-UX: swinstall
  • Linux: rpm, yum, apt, yast, etc.
  • Solaris: pkgadd

As you can see, things vary immensely between the Unix variants. Even within all of Linux you can easily find yourself lost. Google is a friend to all sysadmins, but too often the conceptual questions go unanswered. Here’s a general rule of thumb, and something I’ve seen done incorrectly too many times: if you see a configuration file in /etc/, say syslog.conf, and there is an accompanying syslog.d directory, you are not supposed to edit the syslog.conf file directly. The same goes for pam.conf and pam.d. Each service will have their own file within the .d directory, and that is where they are configured.

The .d directory example is mostly applicable to Linux, but be sure to pay attention when you see similar multi-config layouts anywhere else. Future sysadmins using the system will thank you if the OS’s conventions are followed and it’s easy to identify customizations. It also means that your changes aren’t likely to be stomped over by updates.

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