Interview with Jeremy Davis of TurnKey Linux

User-friendly virtual hosting with TurnKey Linux

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Suppose you’re a developer and want to experiment with Drupal 7.7 or WordPress. Maybe you're a K-12 teacher or university professor and want to teach your students Moodle administration or how to create some network-attached storage. You could download a tarball from Drupal.com or WordPress.org and configure on your own desktop or laptop, but then you would also need to configure Apache and MySQL too. All of these operations take effort and know-how that you may or may not have time for.

For the past ten years, I've been using different virtual hosting applications to experiment with software applications. In the process, I have used VMware Fusion, VMware ESX, Parallels, and VirtualBox. Downloading a Fedora or Ubuntu ISO is easy. Setting up a virtual machine has become easier and easier, but there is still that "last mile" configuration when setting up the application itself, whether Drupal, Wordpress, Joomla, or just a LAMP stack to experiment with.

There is another way: TurnKey Linux

TurnKey Linux is an Israel-based company that offers more than 100 ready-to-use virtual appliances—all you need is a virtual host. You can deploy solutions quickly on bare metal, virtual machines, or in the cloud. I have found TurnKey’s solutions easy to deploy. A few years ago, when I was employed in K-12 education as a technology director, we needed a WordPress blog. I downloaded the WordPress virtual machine from TurnKey Linux, and within minutes we had a functioning WordPress blog.

As a classroom teacher, I wanted to give my students the experience of deploying and experimenting with virtual machines. We used VirtualBox as our host. Then I taught the students how to download appliances from TurnKey Linux and how to get them up and running on their own desktop computers. Using this solution, I was able to teach my students how to set up and administer Moodle and WordPress. You can imagine their delight when they were empowered to learn systems administration using these open source tools.

In this interview with Jeremy Davis of TurnKey Linux, I learned more about how they got started and their technical capabilities. Here are two snippets that are great:

When I became involved in TurnKey, I entered a new world. Generally, my previous fumblings with Linux had been quite futile, and I had always gone back to Windows (desktop) wondering why I had bothered. But, when I started to work with Windows (server) from a more sysadmin perspective, I was starting to find that while some things were easy with the User Interface (UI), much of it was unreliable and the learning curve was much steeper. With TurnKey, the learning curve didn't seem quite so scary—mostly thanks to web UI tools like Webmin—and I soon discovered that once you step away from some of the Windows paradigms, then Linux actually isn't any harder, just different. In fact, sometimes Linux is more intuitive.

I believe that many people have always been interested in self-sufficiency, and why should tech be any different?

Q&A

Tell us about TurnKey Linux and how you got started.

TurnKey was motivated by the acknowledgement that there is tons of great "free" (in the sense of freedom) software out there, but the entry bar is higher than it ideally should be. Alon Swartz and Liraz Siri have really tried to ascribe to the maxim that "possible things should be easy and hard things should be possible." This is demonstrated by TurnKey's #1 critical bug: "Things that should be easy aren't as easy as they can be!"

TurnKey was never intended to be the "be all and end all" of Linux servers, but to be more of an adequate and relatively user-friendly platform for those with minimal to no Linux server experience. Or, as a great base starting point for developers, IT professionals, and contractors—and something in between to those in between.

Originally for Alon and Liraz, TurnKey Linux started as a side project, but it quickly got to the point where demand outstripped their capacity to fulfill desire as simply a side project.

For me personally, I have been involved with TurnKey since very close to the start. I stumbled across it while looking for free (in the sense of free beer) software for my workplace—part of my role included IT maintenance and administration. I am a social worker by profession, but the small NGO that employed me did not have the resources for a dedicated IT guy, and I had the passion. I had come across the idea of free (as in freedom) software previously, but often found it a pain to use and, as such, whilst the philosophy was laudable, it appeared pragmatically somewhat irrelevant.

When I became involved in TurnKey, I entered a new world. Generally, my previous fumblings with Linux had been quite futile, and I had always gone back to Windows (desktop) wondering why I had bothered. But, when I started to work with Windows (server) from a more sysadmin perspective, I was starting to find that while some things were easy with the User Interface (UI), much of it was unreliable and the learning curve was much steeper. With TurnKey, the learning curve didn't seem quite so scary—mostly thanks to web UI tools like Webmin—and I soon discovered that once you step away from some of the Windows paradigms, then Linux actually isn't any harder, just different. In fact, sometimes Linux is more intuitive.

Once I sat down and engaged with the idea of free (as in freedom) software and got what Alon and Liraz were trying to do, I realized that it was really compatible with my social justice values. So I started helping other newbs (like me) on the TurnKey forums, and through assisting them I learned so much. I then started doing a little development to scratch my own itches. My first major project was to create the OpenVZ build format. I later went on to create a few appliance prototypes.

But the main thing that I have done—and continue to do, even now that I am working for TurnKey—is trying to help people out on the forums. I don't always have the answers, and I don't always have time to deeply research to come back with the complete answers, but I try to make sure that no post goes unanswered and at least try to head people in the right direction of where they may find help.

Why is promoting free software important?

Because freedom is important.

I think that often consolidation of resources and power is common in our global capitalist regime. Democratizing access to technology can counteract that consolidating force, thus allowing people more options. I believe that many people have always been interested in self-sufficiency, and why should tech be any different? Through free software, people can have access to a world of expertise and literally thousands—or maybe even billions—of dollars worth of development, for free.

It really does come back to that idea that with free software, you can stand on the shoulders of giants. There is literally no need to "reinvent the wheel" as you are free to build on other people's developments. To me, that is what is important about free software: It is such an opportunity for innovation. It's so exciting to see people from all walks of life, with all sorts of differences—be they religion, ethnicity, social standing, and more—come together for the benefit of humankind.

For me, the idea that I can do something I enjoy that is congruent with my values, that I believe in, and that helps the world be a better place, and still pay my bills is the stuff that dreams are made of.

Why did TurnKey decide to use Debian Linux instead of CentOS, Fedora, or Ubuntu?

Alon and Liraz are Debian/Ubuntu guys from way back. And that's a lucky thing for me as, although I did have a brief play with other Linux OS, Ubuntu was where I really cut my Linux teeth.

When I first started my involvement with TurnKey, it was Ubuntu-based. It then transitioned to Debian. While both operating systems have pros and cons, I think that it was a couple of factors that cemented Debian as my favorite over Ubuntu.

First, the level of testing—which corresponds to stability—of Debian is superior to Ubuntu. The fact that Debian is only released when ready, rather than on a tight schedule like Ubuntu, means that it has less bugs and in my opinion is more stable.

Another particularly significant feature is that security updates are covered for all of the packages in Debian. In Ubuntu, only the core packages (in "main") are guaranteed with security patches. That is far from ideal in a newb-friendly server product such as TurnKey. As an example, when TurnKey was based on Ubuntu, there were a number of buggy updates. One actually broke the auto security update mechanism that is baked into TurnKey. Obviously, Debian is not perfect. But to the best of my knowledge, there have been no security updates that have broken things since TurnKey made the switch to Debian.

How many virtual machines does TurnKey provide?

Currently we have about 100 appliances in nine different build formats—ISO, VMDK, OVF, OpenStack, OpenNode, OpenVZ, Xen, LXC, and Docker, which essentially covers support for all major hypervisors and virtual environments—and two architectures, x86/i386 and x86_64/amd64.

Ideally, we hope to support other common architectures in the future. Namely ARM, which has gained a lot of popularity in recent years, particularly with mini-computers like the Raspberry Pi.

What are the most popular devices?

LAMP is our most popular appliance, closely followed by WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal.

Our cloud platform, which we call the Hub, is very popular; it uses AWS as the backend host. Beyond that, ISO, VMDK, and OpenVZ are our most popular build formats. We strongly suspect that our partnership with ProxmoxVE hypervisor drives the popularity of OpenVZ.

Where do you see the TurnKey Linux moving in the near term?

We hope to be able to break our labor bottleneck in the near future by our continuing efforts to engage more closely with the community and foster its continued growth. We are also looking at how we might contract labor as need be to assist with maintenance. Maintenance is one of those things that is very important, but not very sexy, and very few volunteer to help with it.

Once that labor bottleneck has become less of an issue, then TurnKey can look to spread its reach even further. The Bitkey appliance was TurnKey's first foray into desktop appliances, and ideally we'd love to do more of that. Perhaps a developer-centric desktop OS? Perhaps move into packaged hardware (e.g., a hardware BitKey appliance)? Who knows? The options are only limited by our—and, of course, our community's—imagination.

We would love to have TurnKey as an option on all the reputable Cloud/VPS providers of the world. We would love for TurnKey to be supported on all common hardware platforms (e.g. RaspberryPi) and so on.

Where does most of your support come from?

Financially, most of our income comes from the Hub; we charge a monthly subscription. In the sense of who does most of the development, we do a significant amount of it historically. However, the community has stepped up more in recent times. We also have contributions from hosting partners. In fairness, though, the majority of our contributions come from a relatively small number of dedicated volunteers.


Open Source in
Education

A collection of articles from educators, students, advocates, parents, and more who are implementing open source in education and working toward a more open knowledge base for everyone.

About the author

Don Watkins - Educator, education technology specialist,  entrepreneur, open source advocate. M.A. in Educational Psychology, MSED in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator, CCNA, virtualization using Virtual Box. Follow me at @Don_Watkins .