Abstract: A small business acquires a stable network by installing Linux on their servers.
The computer systems of a small business often leave something to be desired, especially in New Jersey. Sometimes a collection of off-the-shelf PCs running generic office applications gets the job done, but they're not the most efficient way of doing it.
One of the main obstacles to upgrading any business' computers is when the employees become dependent on one system, program or way of doing things. The thought of making any change, however minor, often strikes holy terror into the heart of any boss or company owner. Cindy Wallace, owner of Binding Specialties in Camden, New Jersey, is no exception. After discussing our options, Cindy and I decided the best route to take for getting the company's computers networked was a Linux-based file server. This would allow transparent access to important files from every workstation in the office, with user-level security for important confidential data. The biggest change in this type of setup would be each user having to log on to their computer instead of just accepting the default generic desktop. Using Linux would also save quite a bit of money, because even a five-user license for Intel-architecture server software from that other software company can cost up to $1000, without a mail or web server. Although we have only a few people using the computers, this would be limiting from day one and would waste more money as the company expanded. Another important consideration was ease of administration, since I spend much of my time in the shop working on production.
Hardware consists of five x86-based PCs, the least powerful of which is a Pentium-133 with 8MB of RAM. We decided to keep the faster machines for workstations, since a P133 with 8MB RAM was sufficient for a Linux server in a network of this size. The other machines are a 450MHz Celeron-based HP Pavilion, a 366MHz Celeron Dell Inspiron notebook and a few Pentium II-based custom-built boxes. All four of these machines came pre-installed with GUI-based operating systems from a software vendor near Seattle, Washington. We figured integrating these computers would be easy using Samba.
We quickly purchased the additional hardware we needed, including NICs, cables, LAN hub, UPS and a new 13GB hard drive for the server, since the existing hard drive had less than 600MB capacity. This would ensure adequate storage space for all company files. The next step was installing Linux and configuring everything. For this, I chose the new Caldera OpenLinux distribution. I originally planned to use Slackware 3.5, since I was most familiar with it, and wanted to get up and running as quickly as possible. However, having recently found the setup of Caldera on a personal machine to be quite easy and still in possession of the CD-ROM, I decided to opt for the up-to-date kernel and programs that come with OpenLinux. Cindy was happy she didn't have to shell out any money for the OS.
The installation was tricky because the graphical installation program requires 32MB of system RAM, but it went fine with a temporary RAM transplant. Unlike our workstation operating systems, each of which took several tries to recognize the NICs, Linux correctly identified all installed hardware the first time through. The only problem occurred when rebooting the system, because OpenLinux is set to start KDE on bootup--it took forever on 8MB of RAM.
Once the server was up and running, it was a simple matter of going around to each of the workstations and setting them up for networking. After checking the numerous boxes in all the endless tabs and filling in all fields, each workstation was configured. Setting up the server with OpenLinux required filling in an IP address, gateway address and domain name during the installation, then uncommenting lines in smb.conf, the Samba configuration file. This was easy, which surprised me, considering Linux is well-known for being hard to install and set up. One problem I had with the workstations was the OS released in 1998 requires encrypted passwords, while the 1995 version uses plaintext passwords. When Samba was first configured, the 1995 computers interfaced perfectly with the '98s had trouble logging in to the server until I uncommented a few more lines in smb.conf. Of course, there was no mention of this difference in any of the workstation's documentation, on-line help or troubleshooting guides. We feel that using a more homogeneous collection of operating systems would have simplified things a bit more, but that would have to wait for more commercial applications to be released for Linux.
The next step was setting up user accounts on each computer for everyone in the office, putting all the shared data onto the server, and linking appropriate shortcuts to that data on each workstation. Database files for financial and contact managing applications, as well as spreadsheets, letters, artwork and essential job information are all stored on the server for each workstation to access. This frees up valuable disk space on the workstations that can now be used for installation of important games. Backups of all critical data are easily done with a single Colorado Trakker tape drive. This leaves the IOmega Zip drive free for storage of MP3 clips and graphics downloaded from the Internet when no one is looking.
Some people feel Linux is not yet ready for the desktop. My office is probably typical in that the people who use the computers on a daily basis do so because they have a job to do, and pencil and paper is more of a hassle and clutters up their desk. The applications they need and know are available for other operating systems, and it would take more time and effort than it is worth for them to convert to Linux-compatible programs. However, using off-the-shelf computers as personal workstations, no matter how confusing, confounding or questionable in the reliability department, with a Linux-based back end makes a reliable, cost-effective, familiar, easy-to-use network. Cindy is very impressed with the power and features of Linux, and we await the day when some of the vendor-specific software she currently uses will support this stable desktop.
In the future, Binding Specialites is planning to get on the Web with their own domain and go live with an Apache web server. Also on the horizon for us is having dial-in, TELNET, FTP and POP service run from the server. Cindy is excited about not having to buy an extra server program.
Binding Specialties' new network is a great example of a small business setup that benefits not only from Linux' power, flexibility and reliability, but also from its economical bottom line. With the ease of installation and setup of the newer distributions, there aren't any excuses for small businesses not to have a reliable network if they need one, even if their current corral is limited to standard GUI-windowed x86 PCs.