Linux administration requires a new approach to technical support

Get a look at how supporting Linux often requires a different approach than other operating systems and get some tips for doing it right.

There are two types of administrators: Those actively running Linux servers and those considering running Linux servers. These days, very few of the administrators I know openly condemn Linux as a toy operating system with absolutely no place in the enterprise—in fact, many of them are already using Linux in their data centers or are experimenting with using Linux for various services.

This article is aimed mostly at administrators who are considering deploying services on Linux servers and those who have recently implemented Linux. Supporting Linux systems and software differs from supporting other operating systems such as Windows and NetWare, so we're going to look at how administrators can best approach Linux support.

The situation
For some time, Linux has been ready for the enterprise with a wide variety of both open source and commercial applications supporting the fairly young but capable operating system. However, unlike other commercial operating systems, not all flavors of Linux (Red Hat, Mandrake, SuSE, and many others) are backed by the level of product support that many enterprises desire. And without a high level of support, many companies are not willing to take the plunge.

But before it's dismissed, administrators should carefully look at the support offerings of Linux and of the applications that would be deployed on it. First of all, many popular Linux distributions, such as Red Hat and SuSE, are backed by corporations whose primary business is the support of their particular distributions. So you can now buy support from them similar to the way you would purchase it from Microsoft or Novell.

Although these companies may sell copies of the operating system to end users, their main revenue stream comes from support. As a result, they are generally committed to doing well and have improved their support offerings considerably in recent years.

Nevertheless, not all of the applications you will run on Linux will be supported by these vendors. The only ones they typically support are the ones that ship with their software.

Go beyond the vendor
Supporting open source software goes beyond the various corporate service contracts. In fact, I think it's fair to say that service contracts are not the primary means of supporting Linux, even for those companies that have service contracts. With open source software such as Linux, the level of support you can get for free over the Internet is quite amazing.

Linux plays the underdog role as an operating system that's trying to gain mass appeal by taking an entirely new approach to the software business, and the Linux community tends to see itself as part of a larger cause. As a result, many Linux experts volunteer their time to develop software, write documentation, and answer questions about Linux software. Linux administrators and engineers and open source software developers are likely among the closest-knit groups you will find, and you can interact with them quite easily via e-mail and Internet forums.

May the Forge be with you
One of my favorite open source Web sites is SourceForge—the self-proclaimed world's largest open source software development portal. This is one of the first places to look for solutions to technical problems and for help in implementing solutions.

I’ll use an example. Suppose you have decided to roll out “LAMP”—Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP—for your new Web site. Being new to Linux, you aren’t sure exactly what is entailed in this endeavor, but you are dedicated to getting this solution up and running.

A number of things must be done to make this possible. First and foremost, you need to install all of the software. Although you could use binary packages to install each component, you lose some level of flexibility and want to compile the sources and be able to control the installation.

At the SourceForge site, you'll find a utility named Apache Toolbox that can help you perform this installation and allows for almost any configuration that you want. For instance, if you want the mod_headers module for Apache installed, simply enable it from the provided shell script. To use this utility, all you need to do is download it and run it. It is provided free and includes a number of discussion forums you can turn to if you run into problems using it.

Once you use Apache Toolbox to get the four applications installed, it is useful to have an easy way to manage the database. MySQL is a great database, but the base installation lacks good administration tools. At the SourceForge site, you will also find an application named phpMyAdmin that helps alleviate this problem. It provides a set of PHP scripts that are capable of managing almost every aspect of the MySQL database.

The point of this example is not to show you how to install LAMP, but instead to show you that you can get a plethora of powerful tools from SourceForge to help you administer your Linux systems. I have found the support for the variety of open source tools I obtained via SourceForge to be better than that of many commercial products and much less expensive. It’s amazing, the number of people who are willing to spend their time developing these excellent applications and then helping people with them when problems are encountered.

Mailing lists and listservs
Many commercial software vendors provide support for their products via the Internet, but the open source and Linux software crowd take this to new levels. Almost every popular open source application has an extensive network of mailing lists, Web forums, listservs, and newsgroups set up for support. In addition, because the source code for many of these applications is freely available, you can fix problems yourself if you have the appropriate programming knowledge and the time.

Each application generally has its own resources. However, when I have a problem, I tend to make heavy use of Google, since it catalogs discussion boards so well. Because of the close-knit nature of the Linux community, your problem has likely been encountered elsewhere and the answer is probably sitting in a message board somewhere on the Internet. Google can usually help you find it.

I have also found that the mailing lists and listservs for open source applications offer a wealth of knowledge. The group that created Samba hosts one of the listservs I subscribe to. The other admins who subscribe to the Samba lists are extremely helpful and quick to respond to posted queries. If you are new to supporting a product such as Apache, Samba, or MySQL, I would recommend joining one of these lists to help you quickly get up to speed on the terminology of the product, learn the common issues facing it, and get late-breaking news about it. To find a listserv, do a Google for the name of the software program along with the word "listserv."
O’Reilly is one of the original sources for reliable open source and Linux information. With its recognizable brand of technical books (the ones with the animals on the cover), it's well respected in the open source community. I highly recommend the purchase of the O’Reilly book on any application you are considering deploying in your enterprise.

In addition to its excellent books, O’Reilly has launched the O’Reilly network, which is a valuable resource. It has set up a number of sections on many topics, ranging from Linux administration to PHP to XML. Each section contains an abundance of valuable documents relating to the subject matter.

I have had much less trouble getting answers to questions and resolutions to problems with open source software than with many expensive commercial applications—and I know that flies in the face of the standard perception of getting support for Linux software. I have often heard the argument that “there is no one to call for help” for certain Linux and open source apps. However, quality help is often no more than a mouse click away.


Editor's Picks