Posts Tagged zeroshell

Zeroshell redux

I wrote about Zeroshell, and how I thought it was pretty great. I still do, but it hasn’t taken centre-stage in my network configuration like I thought it would. I’ve had to tone down my raves about some of its integrated features as well.

The fact that it hasn’t taken centre-stage is possibly as much to do with VMware’s bogus clock-drift problems as anything, as I haven’t dedicated hardware to my Zeroshell instance yet (I could keep it running virtual, but some of the things I want to do with it will make more sense if it’s a separate machine). VMware Server takes another barb for its handling of VLAN tagging (but to be fair that might be the Linux 8021q module works). It seems that if you have any VLAN definitions on a network card, VMware won’t get to see any VLAN tags on that NIC. You can get a guest attached to a bridged interface to see the real VLAN tags, but only if Linux has not got any VLAN awareness over that NIC.

Alright, so enough ragging on VMware. I have Zeroshell attached to the networks it needs and all is fine. Except that I can’t actually change anything! The web interface that I spoke so highly of originally is actually very restricted in some areas. One of these is in the RADIUS server, and it bit me badly when I decided I’d use Zeroshell’s RADIUS server to authenticate access to the Web interface of my Linksys switch. Turns out that the Linksys firmware expects a particular attribute to appear in the response from the RADIUS server.

The fact that Linksys don’t document this anywhere is not Zeroshell’s fault, but that there is no interface allowing me to do updates to the records above what Zeroshell uses for its own applications is a bit of an issue. It means that instead of a Zeroshell box potentially becoming the hub of administration functions, it is in danger of becoming just another little vertical application server that doesn’t integrate.

Having said that, the backend for most (all?) authentication data is LDAP so a tool like PHPLDAPAdmin might be usable to extend the base records. But, arguably, I shouldn’t have to do that! It is still beta software though, so improvements and enhancements will be made.

The other area that it’s a bit lacking in is monitoring/graphing. Okay sure, I’d probably integrate Zeroshell into the rest of my Cacti setup, but it would be nice if Zeroshell did like other router distos and had a pre-built statistics/graphing page.

Zeroshell is still my pick (I revisited pfSense and fixed the problem updating, but to me it doesn’t have enough function to justify running its own hardware), but it’s just not quite the bees-knees it was when I first saw it.

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Zeroshell: network services distro

I love it when, almost by chance, I find something new. I decided yesterday to look at FLOSS-based router distributions. I’ve been using IPCop for a while, as an easy way to create a VPN to another location. Unfortunately, IPCop failed my latest requirement: 802.1Q VLAN support. So I went surfing and found an absolute ripper in Zeroshell, but I didn’t find him straight away…

First I found pfSense, a FreeBSD-based distro that seemed to fit the bill–indeed the very first question the Live-CD asked me on bootup was “do you want to use VLANs?”. It also promised a very extensive set of additional packages that extend it’s capability into areas like file/print, WWW proxying, and a host of other features. However, even though it has a very nice web-based configuration facility, due to what looks like a problem on their web site I was unable to even look at what packages are available. Since some of the basic function I would like is provided by these packages, I’ve had to move on–but pfSense gets an honourable mention because of its easy installation and excellent configuration interface.

I looked again at Smoothwall, but soon remembered why I discounted it at the time I chose IPCop. For me, the level of function I think I’d use is a bit too close to the threshold of function in the “community” (read, “free”) version. Astaro would go in this category too, except that I was too dense to be able to even find much clear information about the level of function you get in their community version. So no recommendation on either of these, as I’ve never used either–I do work with a fellow who happily uses Smoothwall though.

Then, I came across Zeroshell. The lead developer describes it as “a small Linux distribution for servers and embedded devices aimed at providing the main network services a LAN requires”. And does it ever! It’s a veritable Alladin’s Cave of features and functions. It certainly does everything I was looking for, from VLAN tagging through QoS to VPNs, from an SPI firewall to multi-zone DNS and multi-subnet DHCP servers, but also has Certificate Management (using a self-signed CA certificate or one you import), a RADIUS server, WiFi access-point capability with multiple SSID and VLAN mapping, captive portal or “normal” HTTP proxying, 802.1d bridging, clients for Dynamic DNS, a Kerberos 5 server, plus a raft of other capabilities. Zeroshell–named because the author wanted to provide a system that was extremely flexible and powerful yet did not require users to access a shell prompt–is remarkably feature rich, and yet the download for the ISO image is only around 100MB (a bit beefier than pfSense, admittedly, which weighed in at around 60MB).

There are a couple of downsides, however. Until very recently, installing to a hard disk was not supported. The distro is designed to boot from a CD only, but can use an installed hard disk (if available) for what it calls “databases”, where configuration and other data is kept. With the latest release, however, the developers have created a “1GB USB drive” download (the size of the download isn’t 1GB), which is designed to be copied to a USB pendrive or hard disk.

The other downside (and it’s not fair to say that, as will become clear) is the web interface. Not because it’s ugly or not functional: it is neither of those. It’s clean and well laid out, and fairly consistent. It’s very technical, however. Where other distros tackle the “SOHO divide” by hiding details such as protocol numbers or port ranges, Zeroshell uncovers all this stuff in its gory detail. So it’s great for someone like me, who looks at the interfaces on other systems and pines for the knobs I can’t fiddle with, but it’s not for newcomers.

It looks to be a fairly new project (current release is 1.0beta9), but the forums look good and there does seem to be a bit of activity around it. I’m running Zeroshell in a VMware guest at the moment while I kick the tyres–the VMware download is also available from the project’s mirrors–but I reckon this one will be a keeper!

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