23 Jul 2013

A Beginner's Comprehensive Guide to Ubuntu Server Setup

  • Sections covered in this guide:
    • Background
    • Best Practises
    • Connecting to your server
    • Hosts
    • Hostname
    • Timezone
    • New User
Preamble, skip if you don't want to read any preliminary background information. The guide is designed not to just get you on your way with a server set up (as most other tutorials strive to do), it is also designed to help you understand why these things are being done. Before following this or any other guide, make sure you fully understand the commands you are about to run before running them or you may cause damage to your system. Some commands can be specially crafted and look innocent. In this guide, I will show you how to create a user account that should be used instead of root. Then we will give the account the capability to use sudo so we can run any commands that require elevated privileges.

*Extra information: Ubuntu, like many other Linux distributions, is designed as a multi-user system that is built around privileges. For example, certain users can be given the capability to run or access things that other users cannot - all in a hierarchical model. The 'root' account is the 'God' account. Be careful with this account. It is capable of wiping the drive of the system while the system is running, unlike Windows. We will avoid logging in as root and instead focus on elevating to 'root privileges' when we need to do something that requires more privileges than our standard account. Following this method helps prevent typing mistakes (if we read over what we wrote) and prevents people who have seen us type our log in use it for malicious tasks.*

There are only a few things in life that come easy. Installing software packages in Linux is one of them - usually. If you're new, you are probably under the impression that terror lies ahead in using the command-line. Luckily for you, common packages are installed from repositories, most of which your system is already configured to access.

So, what is a repository? Well, good question. Think of your server has a house within an ecosystem of resources, like a city. Your house is connected to 'repositories' like the supermarket, for food. It is connected to Costco for everything else. Common items, packages, are found in these repositories. The connection takes place by roads, which in our case here, is our SSH session. When you want a package, you can run a simple one-line command that will fetch it and install it on your system - like a phone call to Costco that leads to a delivery. There are many repositories, some enabled by default. In this case, Costco is one of the two.

Now that we know our server will  fetch packages, it's good to know something else you may not be aware of if you are coming from Windows. Installing something on your machine, such as Apache, will install a network of dependencies. Dependencies are little components, applications, or libraries required to make up the whole Apache install. Running an install command for a one could result in hundreds of dependencies that need to be installed to complete your request - such as installing the Gnome interface on a server (don't ever do that).

Repositories may store different versions of packages for different systems. Package managers are configured for the corresponding repository and the package manager is 'smart' enough to use what it needs. For example, some software is compiled for Ubuntu 12.04 32-bit and has separate compiled versions for 64-bit system (you'll likely see 'amd64' in the package name for these).

When you run the install command, the appropriate version should be selected for your system, unless you add a third-party repository or you specifically choose a version to install). It should be noted that 32-bit systems cannot install 64-bit packages but 64-bit can install 32-bit.

Enough preamble.

For the purpose of this tutorial, I'm going to assume you are using either a dedicated or virtual server and that you have root access to this system. The tutorial will also assume you are starting from a standard, fresh install of 12.04LTS, such as you would find from an Ubuntu.com download (Amazon's images may have some modifications).

First things first. There are some best practises you should understand before beginning your foray. On a server:

  1. Use root only when you need root privileges (http://askubuntu.com/a/16179). Server admins are not vigilantes (well, not always) and should take this seriously. There will come a time that you agree.
  2. Install only what you need to (the more you have running, the greater the attack vectors at an attacker's disposal. And they will find you)
  3. Stick to an LTS release (Long Term Support - it will be supported longer and will therefore be more robust down the line)
  4. Avoid new server releases for production machines if you need stability and security. Not that there's anything wrong with the integrity of the development team or their releases, but you should want to have a tested and patched system.
  5. Avoid graphical interfaces (For one, you'll learn your server better if you interact with it through the CLI - command line interface. Secondly, tons of packages will need to be installed that you won't require and are arguably going to be your worst security decision. Thirdly, graphical interfaces are not optimized for servers. Fourth, most, if not all server tools will not have a graphical interface.)
  6. You do not enter the '$' that is shown before each command. It is simply there to let you know you will be typing at the prompt.

Connecting to Your Server

If you are using Windows, you will need a tool such as PuTTY or KiTTY to connect to your server. If you are using Mac or Linux, you can use the built-in Terminal emulator and run a command to connect to the server. I am going to create the user 'john' and use johnghawi.com as the host (server address). You will need to use your own domain name or the server's IP address.

*For the first log in, you will likely need to use your root log in (user is root) unless an account was created for you. For commands, do not type the $ at the beginning.


Protocol: SFTP/SSH
Username: root
Host: johnghawi.com
Port: 22


$ ssh root@johnghawi.com

In the above command, we do not add the port because 22 is the default port. If you change your default ssh port to something like 50, you will need to specify it as shown below:

$ ssh -p 50 root@johnghawi.com

You will then be prompted for authentication to connect to your server. As this is your first time connecting to it from that system, accept it. The purpose of this notification is to make you aware of any man-in-the-middle attacks.

The next prompt will be for your password, enter it. You should be given a quick summary screen and a prompt waiting for a command. The next step is to patch the server with any updates. If you are logged in as root, you do not need to have 'sudo' in the command, but I will leave it in there for future reference.

$ sudo apt-get update
$ sudo apt-get upgrade

The first command updates those repositories I mentioned earlier. The next step applies necessary updates. The 'upgrade' command will not move you between server releases (12.04 to 13.04) unless you apply the -d switch. If you do not wish to have the patches applied directly, you can modify the second command by appending -y at the end (sudo apt-get upgrade -y).

This process may take some time depending on your server and the number of updates.

*TIP: You can concatenate two commands by adding && in-between. For example:

$ sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade

*Note that you must add sudo before the second command (if not root). The importance of using the && operator is that if the first command fails for any reason (such as a spelling error), the second line will never run. Every concatenated command will only run if the command before it passes (or returns TRUE).


Ubuntu reads the hostname from /etc/hostname file. You can find the system hostname by typing 'hostname' at the prompt.

$ hostname johnny

The above command will change the hostname to johnny until the next server reboot.

To change the hostname and have it persist across reboots, we need to edit the /etc/hostname file.

Since the file is in the /etc directory, we would need to elevate to superuser privileges if we are not currently logged in as root. If you are following this tutorial, you should still be logged in as root.

Check your current hostname:

$ hostname

*If you get an error, you likely do not have the 'net-tools' package installed. Run this command first:

$ apt-get install net-tools -y

Permanently changing your hostname is more useful. Do this by opening the /etc/hostname file in nano, a simple CLI text editor:

$ nano /etc/hostname

I would put johnghawi.com and you could put your domain. The hostname does not need to be a Fully Qualified Domain Name (FQDN) but it should be something unique. The hostname can be used to differentiate between servers using names like panther and tiger.

Ubuntu then uses /etc/init.d/hostname.sh to set the hostname at boot from  /etc/hostname. Essentially, Ubuntu will set the hostname at EACH boot time from the  /etc/hostname file using the hostname.sh script in /etc/init.d. If you are a little lost, simply follow the steps and do not worry much as this is a one-time setting we are making.

We can reboot the server or run the script for the hostname to take effect. Then type hostname to see that the new hostname from the /etc/hostname file has taken effect.

$ /etc/init.d/hostname.sh start

$ hostname

Getting to Know the HOSTS File

We now need to configure the /etc/hosts file. In the event that a DNS server is unavailable - or better yet, let's understand what happens when an application running on the server needs a path to another host. A DNS server typically acts as a dictionary look-up to that translates hostnames (johnghawi.com) to their corresponding IP addresses. But before our server looks to the DNS, it checks the /etc/hosts file to see if any resolutions are first defined there. Upon opening this file (you can use nano), you will notice two entries. is set to localhost and is set to Ubuntu. The latter was placed by Debian to support Gnome applications. If your system has a permanent IP, you can use that instead. Using a domain, you should add your domain and static IP, which is required for SSL.

If set by default in /etc/host.conf, the /etc/hosts file allows us to specify static addresses to be resolved, overriding DNS look-ups. It is important to note that addresses defined in the /etc/hosts file will cause your server to not bother querying BIND/DNS if it finds a relevant entry in the /etc/hosts file. Your server will do is query the /etc/hosts file to see if it should bother going to the DNS. If it finds the resolution in the /etc/hosts file, querying the DNS is skipped.

The /etc/hosts file will look very simple for our set up. Let's open the file:

$ nano /etc/hosts

The first thing that you might notice is the alignment of the headers does not align with the content:

IPAddress     Hostname    Alias                              localhost              blog.johnghawi.com     blog.johnghawi.com     johnserver     webmail.johnghawi.com  johnserver     files.johnghawi.com    johnfiles

Let's take a minute to realize what the above table is telling us. At first, it may seem straight forward before it gets confusing. To keep things simple, you may find it easier to approach this table from right to left.

The Alias column on the right is a name for the server, useful when referencing locally on the network. In that case, johnserver maps to hostname blog.johnghawi.com and webmail.johnghawi.com and both resolve to the same IP Address. Next, johnfiles refers to the files.johnghawi.com hostname, which may just be accessible through another of the same server's interface.

Configure your server according to the table above. More than likely, if you are following this tutorial you may only need the first two lines, with the second one being just your domain and no subdomain.

The last step is to either restart your server or the service itself using:

$ /etc/rc.d/init.d/network restart


It is a good idea to set the timezone of the system. You may wish to either use the local timezone or the timezone of the majority of your users. The correct timezone may be useful for reading logs.

$ dpkg-reconfigure tzdata

New User

As promised, we will add a new user to the server. We will have two accounts enabled on the system, calling the second user 'john'. The 'root' account (full privileges) and the 'john' account (limited privileges). When using the command line, let's say as the user we're about to create, john, you can switch to another user that exists on the system, such as 'alice' by running $ su alice and entering Alice's password. The su command stands for Substitute User. Alternatively, John does not have to switch Alice's account, he can elevate by using the sudo command (SuperUser Do), which allows john to execute commands given his elevated security clearance, if granted. John will use his own password to elevate. . Let's create 'john':

$ adduser john

Answer the lines accordingly and press enter to use the default, if presented with any. The next step is critical. Its purpose is to give our 'john' account the privilege to elevate by using the 'sudo' command (as you may have seen above). Type $ man usermod to learn what each switch does. Remember, commands are case sensitive; -g != -G.

$ usermod -a -G sudo john

Now we test to make sure we can log in as 'john'. Log out with $ logout or reboot with $ reboot

Use the instructions above to log in using the account name you just created. Type $ sudo nano at the prompt, enter your password, and see if nano opens.  If successful, your new account is set up and has sudo capability. You should start using the new account by default.

Congratulations, your new server is successfully set up! I will be adding Part 2 and linking to it from this article in a week or so outlining steps to harden your server from common attacks.


  1. Thank you for this helpful guide!

  2. This is not a beginners tutorial. Its completely misleading to call it that and have it appear in a search for beginners tutorial.

  3. Thank you for this guide, it was really helpful, Me and my 12 year old son are working on a Ubuntu server for our house, and this has got us in the right direction, We look forward to reading More.

    1. That's great to hear! It's been quite some time since I've tended to this site, it's been a busy year, but I'll get some more articles going.

      Is there anything specific you wanted to see?

  4. Great post, is the second part complete yet?

    1. Hi there Haydn St,

      It's been a busy year for me, but I'll get a part 2 up. Let me know if you have any areas of focus you'd like to see.

  5. hii,
    Thanks for such a great article, i was wondering that it will be nice of you if you post a part2 also, basically i wanted to create a authentication server, of more knowledge that how to make a ftp server and creating a server to create ipsec or pptp protocols for my network. i will be better if you guide in making those kinds of servers please.
    Thank you

  6. I really liked the explanation for the house + costco. Loved that!

  7. Hi, This article was very useful for me as a beginner. I would love to see part 2 up as I feel like i'm left feeling lost. Could you get into good security practices and how to setup a firewall and also good LAMP setup practices.


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