An Argument against a truly headless Server

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about replacing my file and print server with a Pogoplug. Overall, it’s worked perfectly. I even made it my DNS server because the number of internet connected devices in my was growing so much and on some computers (like the laptop and netbook) I was constantly changing distros so DNS became preferable to maintaining a bunch of /etc/hosts files.

Everything was working just dandy until I wanted to install mysql to have all my xbmc installs reference one library. I wasn’t able to install it because the mirrors and package lists were out of date. Being unfamiliar with arch, I decided I needed to upgrade my system to get that ability. And, as part of the upgrade, yes, it did update the mirrors and package lists and I was able to install mysql. But it also did something that killed ssh. So I could no longer connect to my Pogoplug (babyluigi).

Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve done something (like updating the networking stack) where I ended up losing the ability to connect to the device. However, in the past, such as when I was running my render farm, I could just take a monitor over to the broken computer and fix it locally. Then I could continue running it headless. babyluigi has no ability to plug in a monitor. So I have effectively locked myself out of the box. At the very least, DNS is still running so Internet isn’t “broken” for the family until I’m able to find time to fix this. However, it does make me really reconsider the wisdom of running a truly headless server.

I knew something like this might happen at some point so I *did* make a backup of my DNS configs and zone files. I also, luckily,, had a backup of my samba configuration from when I was helping Dave set up his Pogoplug. Because time is limited now that I have a baby, I went through and made a list of what I need to do to get my Pogoplug back in working order. After getting Arch reinstalled it’s only 11 steps. However, some of those steps have a lot of substeps that involve not just following directions on the arch wiki, but thinking about what needs to be done. So I’m taking a page from what we do at work and creating a document that will allow me to just follow directions without having to think. All the thinking will be done this first time around and, if this ever happens again, I should be able to be back up and running within an hour. (Or a little more if it takes more time to install the necessary files) At least my new printer is network enabled so I don’t need to setup cups again. (That’s a real pain in the butt!)

So, if you find yourself thinking about how neat it would be to use this computer or that one as a server – consider whether or not you have a way to connect a monitor. And know that these lockouts do happen. In 10 or so years this is my second time. But this is the first time without being able to plug in a monitor and that sucks. Make sure you backup all your configuration files. Especially for complex setups like Samba. And that’s probably a good idea even if you DO have monitor access because you never know when you’re going to have a hard drive (or usb stick) fail on you. In general, with computing you always need to be thinking about the worst. How much time would you lose from not having proper backups and re-installation documentation? And you’ll probably realize that you need to make that backup you were putting off.

For the record it took me about 2-3 hours to get babyluigi back up and running.

Author: Eric Mesa

To find out a little more about me, see About Me

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