There’s a Monty Python skit where the cast is sitting around discussing how poor they were when they were growing up. Everyone is outdoing everyone else’s story until one of them tops them all by saying his family was so poor they couldn’t even afford to rent a shoebox to live in.

In this week’s From the Trenches, we get a flavor of that old Monty Python skit as we continue our discussion with Mike, who works for a third-party administrator in the health care industry. Last week, Mike told us how he rescued data from a failed hard drive. This week, we’ll see how Mike literally dug an old machine out of a Dumpster and turned it into a Linux mail server, saving his company an expensive deployment of Microsoft Exchange.

A ragtag network
Mike’s company has about 50 employees, and when he arrived there, the thin profit margins plaguing the company’s business were apparent in the “eclectic and predominantly lagging-edge group of network equipment” he inherited.

The equipment on his network runs from an old IBM AS/400 to a Windows 2000 Web server. Various flavors of Windows populate the workstations and other servers on the network.

Mike’s CEO is a former Army drill instructor who keeps a tight grip on all expenditures. The CEO expects that you will do everything possible to save money, yet he expects the job to get done.

Not long ago, there was a push to get the company on the Internet. So the company leased a T1 line and planned to retire the old 150-MHz Compaq that used a 56-Kbps dial-up connection and served as a combination e-mail/proxy server. That was just as well, Mike said, because it was hanging often and required a weekly reboot.

“I stressed the cost factor and suggested that we move to Sendmail running on Linux. Not surprisingly, due primarily to the cost of Linux Sendmail versus Microsoft Exchange and partly to the fact that I have an experienced and open-minded boss, the answer was yes,” Mike said.

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You can learn quite a bit by reading about the methods other administrators and engineers use to resolve challenging technology issues. Our hope is that this column will provide you with unique solutions and valuable techniques that can help you become a better IT professional. If you have an experience that would be a good candidate for a future From the Trenches column, please e-mail us. All administrators and their companies remain anonymous in this column so that no sensitive company or network information is revealed.

Going beyond the normal procurement channels
Getting the okay to switch to the Sendmail program and Linux was only the beginning of Mike’s tale. Somewhere, he had to find a faster machine than the retiring Compaq, and he was going to need more hard drive space than the old machine could offer.

About this time, a nearby company went out of business and was liquidating its assets of any value.

“While returning from lunch one day in January, I noticed a waste disposal container parked behind the building and went to investigate,” Mike said. Inside the Dumpster, he found a variety of equipment deemed useless or that couldn’t be sold.

“I pulled some remains of various machines out of the Dumpster—and one had a Pentium chip—and a friend of mine that works at a local college gave me a 4.3-GB hard drive he couldn’t get to work right on a Windows 95 platform,” he said.

Now he had a 233 MHz Pentium machine with 32 MB of RAM and a 4.3-GB hard drive ready to put into service as a mail server. At home, he downloaded Red Hat Linux 7.0 and burned the ISO images into a few CD-ROMs.

In a few days, he said, he had the mail server up and running and the old Compaq was decommissioned. The total software and hardware cost of the new server was $50.

Another bargain emerges
The savings had to make his CEO happy, but then a second project for the LAN/WAN connection came up. During a meeting about building a firewall for the new Internet connection, one of Mike’s coworkers made a crack about having cleaned out all the local Dumpsters and said that they might need some real cash to build the firewall. While the comment made everyone in the room laugh, the CEO was not amused.

“Well you’ll just have to figure something out. Put two wires together and make it work. Don’t tell me about the labor pains, just show me the beautiful baby,” the CEO said. However, a few days later, he relented and freed up $200, which Mike put to good use.

“I turned over to the company an IBM PC300 GL complete with monitor, keyboard, mouse, and Windows 98 software and two 3Com 100BaseT NICs that I had previously purchased from another liquidation auction,” Mike said.

Once again he used the Red Hat Linux, this time version 7.1, to build a firewall solution for the company. Both the mail server and the firewall have served his company very well.

“The mail server was up for 98 days straight before I took it down to upgrade to [Red Hat] 7.1. In an organization of our size, it doesn’t even breathe hard: 36 percent CPU load, 1.0 to 2.5 percent usage and 28 MB of RAM usage. The firewall has remained up now for over 120 days. Its usage is so low, it’s not registering over a percentage point,” Mike said.

Money talks, but Linux walks the walk
Mike’s resourcefulness is now expanding beyond servers and firewalls. “I’ve actually downloaded Star Office 5.2 from Sun and placed it on one of the machines because we came up short in Office 97 and Office 2000 Pro licenses, and someone else needed it,” he said.

Given the bleak economic circumstances Mike has to deal with in his company, he’s happy to find affordable solutions for accomplishing these critical tasks. “Fortunately, we have open-minded people here, and my boss has let me experiment,” Mike said.

Can you top this tale?

Mike is working under severe budget constraints, but he isn’t too proud to jump in a Dumpster if that’s what it takes to accomplish his task. Have you ever heard of a more extreme case of a network administrator going the extra mile for his or her company? Send us a note or post a comment in the discussion below.