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I need a cell phone that will help me keep an eye on my servers and services when I am away from my computer/desk/workplace.

Which smart phone would you recommend for sysadmins?

  • An SSH client is a must.
  • I haven't used an iPhone, but I guess having a keyboard would be better.

Currently I'm looking at this alternatives:

  • iPhone would be the "default" smartphone.
  • Nokia E71 has got good recommendations, including from Joel Spolky's.
  • The Android platform looks good, but I'm not sure the few models (HTC G1 / HTC Magic / HTC Dream) are mature enough.
  • I'm not sure about Blackberry.
  • WinCE / Windows Mobile phones?
  • Any Nokia phone better than an E71?

Which choice did you make? What would you recommend?

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34 Answers

up vote 31 down vote accepted

I like my iPhone. There are some nice sysadmin apps. But besides the obvious email/calendar/contacts clients with Exchange integration, I primarily use it for note taking (EverNote), which is also very important in our job. The web browsing experience is great if you had to research something and last, but not least for my personal education: reading RSS feeds, listening to podcasts etc.

This question here on ServerFault.com contains lists of nice tools for the iPhone: What are some “must have” iPhone/iTouch apps for IT people?

This is the "Tools Page" on my iPhone:

alt text

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+1 for the iPhone. It works nicely with Exchange, the app store gets new toys all the time and fewer people laugh at you versus having the ubiquitous BlackBerry Brick stapled to your belt. –  Rob Allen Jun 8 '09 at 19:37
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An hour ago Apple announced the new iPhone model: "iPhone 3G S" with many new features. The current 3G model is still available for $99. –  splattne Jun 8 '09 at 19:45
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Also, iPhone sucks for a pager. Way to quiet and you can't pick SMS tones. You also cannot configure different rings/behaviors for senders. You cannot configure email to notify based on sender. These functions are not replaceable by apps, since they are 'core' functions. It was actually the biggest let down for me when I got it - just couldn't believe it. –  Sam Jun 23 '09 at 20:52
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I like my Nokia N810. Not really a phone, but has

  • big screen (800x480)
  • linux inside
  • SSH, RDP client, VNC
  • network tools like nmap and tcpdump
  • cut-down firefox browser
  • comms like skype, gtalk, SIP phone
  • wifi or you can connect through a bluetooth onto a 3G cellphone.
  • good battery life - couple of days from a charge
  • fits in your pocket
  • good sized slide-out keyboard.

The standard keyboard lacks some keys you'd want, like tab, pipe etc. You can remap the keys anyway you want. Edit /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols/nokia_vndr/rx-44 to remap the keys, e.g. this remaps Fn modifier for m and ; keys (pound and Euro) and adds to the + and ' keys

   key <AB07> { [ m,          M,        Escape,  Escape   ]  };
   key <AC10> { [ semicolon,  colon,    bar,     bar      ]  };
   key <AE12> { [ plus,       equal,    Tab,     Tab      ]  };
   key <AC11> { [ apostrophe, question, grave,   grave    ]  };
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@pQd added key remapping to the answer –  John McC Jun 8 '09 at 21:08
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Thanks for this, I was looking for something that is not an iphone :) –  Tim Post Jul 12 '09 at 15:38
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Are you in a hurry?

Google says at least 18 Android phones will be on the market by the end of the year, and most US carriers have announced they will carry one or more.

There is a good market for apps, the current one (T-Mobile G1) has a nice keyboard, my wife is fairly happy with it, but I don't know how well it fits into what you need.

I would be inclined to sit tight for a few months.

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Considering a sysadmin's level of access, there's very little attention paid here to security other than SSL as a minimum standard. The device is far more likely to be compromised than the data path. Phones get misplaced and stolen. A 4-digit pin is pretty weak security, and even that is sometimes not used.

Are the data encrypted on the device, and can the device be erased from the server if it goes missing? Yes for a managed WM6 device attached to an Exchange server, yes for a Blackberry attached to a BES, but NO for most iPhones (3G S now supports hardware encryption, but remote wipe from Exchange servers is still inconsistent). In a healthcare environment where users (including admins) are likely to receive Protected Health Information (PHI), encryption is required by law (HIPAA).

Sysadmins have the keys to the realm, and security should be the first consideration. Humans lose phones.

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Agreed, that's why I use a blackberry. I work for one of the biggest companies on the planet, and their security restrictions make using any less secure device for work impossible. –  Roqetman Jul 29 '09 at 16:54
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Blackberry is kind of "the usual". midpssh is an absolute crap SSH client by any reasonable standard, but it'll do for emergencies. Where Blackberry usually wins is its Exchange integration.

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I agree with you, since our email infrastructure is Exchange, nothing beats it for corporate email. I have the Rove Mobile Admin ssh and it's really only usable if you have to and only for line-based usage (i.e. you're not going to use it with vi). –  TCampbell Jun 8 '09 at 19:47
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If you have a Citrix installation, the iPhone just recently became a must-buy.

I can log in to work's Citrix install from anywhere in the US, and anywhere outside the US if I have wifi there. The interface is even surprisingly usable and responsive, with intuitive right-click support etc.

The keyboard hasn't been an issue for me, I've been using TouchTerm for SSH (over VPN, no less) without issues. I wouldn't want to code for eight hours on it, but it's great for remote restarts etc.

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I use the iPhone.

TouchTerm is a great SSH app. It supports both password and key authentication.

Most monitoring programs can be tweaked to display an iPhone friendly web interface. I've also written a couple of web interfaces to our bandwidth graphs. No reason to use an app for it - the web browser is easy to write for.

The keyboard is OK for typing - I mean even with a small keyboard on one of the other phones (Like my HTC TyTn) you still can not type fast, but it is good for the instance when you are out and about and there is an emergency with a server.

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I'm using an AT&T Tilt - HTC 8925. Slightly begrudgingly adopted Windows Mobile, but find that there are a lot of applications available. Nice slide-out keyboard. Using putty for SSH.

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I found that my iPod Touch works quite well too. Can connect to a VPN, and there's quite an array of SSH and VNC apps.

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iPhone get's my vote, especially now that they are legally allowing tethering for most users (sorry AT&T)

Not anymore, please see http://danmacs.blogspot.com/2009/06/o2-iphone-3gs-wtf.html for reasons why.

It basically boils down to not allowing upgrades, charging an extortionate amount for "legitimate" tethering (with restrictions on this) even though they already charge you for data in your monthly bill.

O2 dropped the ball big time, http://search.twitter.com/search?q=o2fail will give you an idea of how badly.

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I'm sorry, I have to retract my vote for the iPhone with the current shenanigans that my carrier are doing. The hardware itself is super but make sure your carrier doesn't screw you on upgrade –  Dan Jun 9 '09 at 7:34
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I personally love my BlackBerry Storm. It has a big screen, the browser is fast, it is good for tethering and thank god for the tactile feedback of the touch screen.

I have the following capabilities:

  • SSH
  • RDP (With file access)
  • VNC
  • FTP

Plus it quickly allows you to setup custom alerts with nice loud sounds when I receive a mail about a server failure and/or application crash. I even have a 3rd party application that allows me to set custom LED colors for those alerts.

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i'm using an iPhone with TouchTerm. Comes in handy.

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I use a AT&T Tilt with a cooked ROM from XDA-Developers.

I can remote desktop, SSL VPN in, etc. Wireless tools and other great ICMP commands are out there as well on XDA.

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I think more important than having an SSH client, or any other capability of doing remote management through your phone, is to have the ability to tether your phone to a laptop and use the cell internet connection.

I have an iPhone, and I love it. While I'm no longer a sysadmin supporting IT operations, when I did, I hated using SSH on the phone. TouchTerm is a fine program, but the muscle memory I've developed over the years of typing system commands on a real keyboard is too tough to overcome.

While the iPhone 3.0 OS will support tethering as announced at WWDC, AT&T isn't on the 'list' of carriers, and hasn't been confirmed as supporting this option. That being the case, I'd say the iPhone is out for a sysadmin smartphone.

However, I still love the iPhone and I couldn't imagine using another phone at this point. You got this far without having to manage systems through your phone, why do you want to make yourself more available to work when it's not convenient?

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-1 for iPhone, we had a rotating on call iPhone to replace a Blackberry (both about the same montly cost). The deal breaker for iPhone was that there is no way to setup a loud audible sounds for new emails on the iPhone like the Blackberry. Seems like a small thing, but the email alerts are things like system down issues and not being able to hear them is big deal. The iPhone did have VPN capability which was cool, however we ended up returning the iPhone for another Blackberry.

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i used to use n9300i - that was good. 80x25 putty session.

recently i've moved to e71 - it's nice snappy phone, but screen is too small and it lacks proper keys like tab / ctrl. n9300i had those. on e71 you can still use context menu - but that's cumbersome. if you want to have comfortable ssh session - go for e90.

alternatively - take any 3g phone paired with netbook, or maybe something that runs android with good enough resolution. or pair it with internet tablet like nokia n810 - it's really good travel companion.

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If you root your Android phone you can get terminal on it with SSH. I think it will be the best platform for remote administration within a couple of years, but probably isn't quite there yet. I'm loving my G1, but don't do as much administration from it as some people might need.

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As per your uncertainty about the iPhone keyboard. I have an iPod Touch (same screen, OS, etc) I HATE typing on the dang thing, but I've noticed I'm getting better at it. Its odd typing with no tactile feedback. I'm a touch typist, but I on it I have to watch my fingers, because I always press down on the wrong keys and have to slide over to the correct one before letting up (it registers which key you let up on, not press down on).

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The Nokia E series will full keyboards are very nice. There is a solid SSH client for Symbian 3rd edition. Your organization will need to purchase Mail For Exchange from Microsoft in order to sync the phone with your Exchange server. Mail For Exchange is a solid product - solid enough that Nokia dropped its own product in favor of supporting Mail For Exchange.

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Over the last years, I tried many different solutions for doing my admin on-call "duty":
- Staying at home in front of my desktop
- Ipaq (this one was reaaaallly bad)
- eeepc + 3g modem
- laptop + SE 3g phone

The last one is really the best: my workstation is the same machine I use when I'm off, so there is no possible surprise. All networking tools are available, vpn, ssh with keys, access to codebase/SCM and so on... And with a decent keyboard and screen.

If your goal is to "keep an eye" on your servers, you probably want to be able to do more, and there is no "in between" solution. Even if the question stands that "you are away of your computer", my advise is: find a laptop which you'll be able to bring with you without being a pain to carry.

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A little late to this question, but I've used a Sidekick. Great size keyboard that you can actually touch type on and has the options that you want.

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NokiaN97 and the Set of software from telexy.com will beat any other offers.

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Any phone that has apps for VNC, SSH, WWW will do.

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I've had quite a few smartphones (S60, UIQ, borrowed iPhone, WM) and i've settled on WM for last few years. S60 never had touchscreens (until N97 and 5800 just now) and i never really liked the platform (can't really tell why). UIQ had very little software and it has been discontinued. It was still pretty useful, except last phones i had (P990i. P1i) had subpar hardware. On iPhone just felt useless (times before App Store), went back to backup Nokia 1112 after a week. And finally WM. Not the fastest, not the prettyest, not the most blingbling but plenty of good software, excellent customization options and overall a solid platform. SSH, RDP, Opera browser, Skype, MSN, IRC, excellent Exchange support etc. Sony Ericsson X1 for now and maby X2 when it comes out.

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I would recommend the Nokia N810 over the iPhone because the N810 was a far better input method than the iPhone. It has an external QWERTY keyboard allowing it a faster typing rate than a touch screen.

Of course there are also other factors that matter. For example, Nokia N810 is considered to have the best internet browser in the embedded device world. It renders very good web 2.0 apps, e.g. YouTube.

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Nokia N97 -- Wlan, Full qwerty keyboard, Large resolution, Putty, and many other

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A friend of mine swears by those MASSIVE Nokia 'Communicator' things as they can be setup with a serial port and a terminal application, basically he can do his Cisco stuff without a PC. Sounds like too much hassle to me but then you know how people can be :)

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I agree with jtimberman about tethering. I carry an AT&T 8525, and it is OK for small things, but the nice thing is I can plug it into USB on my laptop, and have all the utilities I use day-to-day, with all the configurations that I normally use.

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To control my servers from anywhere for me my demands are: any 3G phone with a RDP client, touch screen (for the mouse) and full keyboard.

Two years ago I have chosen a HTC TYTN with Windows Mobile. And this works very good.

I can now control my servers while mountainbiking, skying, etc.

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Samsung Omnia i910 for me, partly because the company is on Verizon, we're mostly a Windows shop, and that was the best phone available when I got it in Dec 2008. Comes with WM 6.1, Office Mobile, 240x400 touch screen, 8 GB built in plus 8 GB card, 5 MP camera w/ OCR, music/video player, FM radio, IE Mobile, Opera, WiFi, IM clients, DLNA (if your TV has it), etc. I have used it for remote desktop connections, but not SSH. I was looking into PocketPuTTY (free) but haven't tried it yet. Most of the notifications from server monitoring arrive via text or email, which any phone can do. If you don't have DLNA there is an optional $20 tv output cable, so you could use it on a larger screen if you need to, something I have not tried yet.

Full Spec (PDF)

The only dorky thing is that the mascera-looking stylus hangs off the side, so I removed it and don't use it.

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