In several recent articles, we’ve asked TechRepublic members to tell us how they’ve used Linux solutions in their organizations. In this week’s edition of From the Trenches, we’re going to look at some of the ways members are using Linux to enhance their network infrastructure. Interestingly enough, some administrators have had to sneak Linux in the back door, which makes their stories even more compelling.

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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.

Simple solutions to not-so-simple problems
Network administrators are constantly being called upon to be problem solvers. Sometimes this comes in the form of a question, such as, “How can we make this work?” Other times it comes in the form of a limited budget to do the impossible. In some cases, there is no good answer—but any answer is better than nothing.

Here’s the problem Greg had to solve: How do you make an old Meridian Data CD server work when the machine came with proprietary networking and client software that isn’t compatible with the company’s TCP/IP network and modern versions of Microsoft Windows?

“After some reading about Linux and Samba, I decided to see if the machine (which is nothing more than an Intel-based PC clone with a special enclosure for holding multiple CD drives) could be retrofitted. Initially, it didn’t even have a hard disk drive, so I had to add one.

“After that, I loaded Red Hat Linux 5.2 with Samba, edited a few config files, and away it went,” Greg wrote. “Now we have a server that will support any ISO9660 data CD, including those with the Microsoft Joliet extensions (which the old OS would not), is accessible from any Windows 9x/NT/2000 client, and supports FTP and HTTP access [since] I also installed the Apache HTTP server.”

While the server works a little slower than it did with its proprietary software, Greg said, he doesn’t have to depend on a defunct manufacturer for upgrades anymore, and he has a machine he can now support himself.

Can you enter this contest to win $25,000?

“The Open Source Development Lab (OSDL), an independent, vendor-neutral, nonprofit organization dedicated to enabling Linux for enterprise and carrier-class functionality, has announced a call for entries for their 2001 OSDL Enterprise Achievement Award. A cash prize of $25,000 will be granted to a developer or group that has made a significant contribution to Linux for the enterprise. The award will be presented at LinuxWorld Expo in San Francisco, Aug. 27 to 30, 2001. Entries will be accepted via the OSDL Web site from now through Aug. 10. The award is based on a group or individual’s vision and creativity and the importance of their achievement and contribution to the acceptance of Linux in the enterprise. Detailed information on the award and the submission process is available on the OSDL [W]eb site.”

The famous stability of Linux led Kevin, a consultant in the Chicago area, to recommend the open source operating system to an engineering client. Kevin’s client had three Windows NT 4.0 servers with a dedicated primary domain controller, and the Linux server was initially proposed to function as a file server.

“The company uses Pro/E, a 3D assembly program for engineering, and the files get quite large. So we put together a server with all the basics: RAID 5 array, dual processor, and 256 MB of RAM. The Samba interface tied nicely to the PDC, the shares were created, and the engineers were banging away on this thing. It had plenty of room left for additional usage and would eventually play a larger role in their now heterogeneous network.”

The new server functioned better than anyone imagined it would, Kevin said. It is now also being used to host user home directories and to serve the corporate intranet site using Apache server with MySQL database. Plus, it does the nightly backups for the other four servers.

“The beauty of the whole project is that in this company there are no Linux wannabes who are brave enough to tinker on the system,” Kevin said. “As a result, the server has never been down.”

Since his own Linux success, Kevin has convinced three more clients that Linux would serve them well. Stability seems to be the biggest selling point.

Servers are the perfect place for Linux, according to Valentin, a netadmin in Malta. He’s not sold on Linux for the desktop, but he’s sold on it for various server and routing tasks.

After using Linux sporadically for about five years, Valentin set up a mail server for internal mail at the intellectual property services company where he is the network administrator.

“Deploying a Linux mail server took me just two hours (installing from scratch) and $0. Everyone was happy, and since then, they’ve started using the mail almost as much as the telephone,” Valentin wrote.

Following the deployment, he set up a Web server, file server, FTP server, and four routers for their WAN connection.

Covert Linux
Using Linux has its obvious monetary and performance advantages, but sometimes it is difficult to incorporate into a network where it might be a radical change from the tried-and-true alternatives.

When Phil was tasked with upgrading his company’s old Novell network but told to keep within a tight budget figure, he sent his Request for Proposal (RFP) to both Dell and Gateway.

“I was looking for the most bang for the buck, so I included Web server software (for future expansion), full server support, including a print server, and a modem pool,” Phil wrote.

Dell’s $3,000 bid was within his budget, but the $1,000 bid from Gateway had him scratching his head until he looked at the specs on the 7-inch-tall, 6.5-inch-wide server that was proposed.

The Gateway was using Linux as an OS and Apache for the Web serving. However, Phil didn’t point this out to his bosses. They approved the less expensive of the two choices, and he ordered the new machine.

About a week later, Phil got a page from a technology bulletin the company president had read. Scribbled on the bulletin was, “Linux? Is it for us?”

Phil let the server run for about seven months, to rave reviews from his corporate masters, and then broke the news that the Gateway server that had been so inexpensive was running a Linux operating system. Jaws hit the floor.

Amal faced a different problem, working on the system administration team in a shop where Microsoft rules the roost.

He has a test network where the company prototypes different machines and software before implementing anything on the company network. Amal’s problem came when he had to connect the test network to the main network under the directive that only an NT machine could be connected to the main network. According to Amal, that would have undone the purpose of the test network and the connectivity it needed.

“We got hold of a Red Hat Linux 5.0 machine, configured it as a router, and then configured Samba over that machine so that it would appear as a standalone Win NT machine,” Amal wrote. “This thing lasted for three weeks before a surprise security audit detected it.”

His IT manager, a rabid Microsoft fan, was impressed by the stability of the Red Hat machine and lobbied aggressively for limited Linux inclusion on the network. Now Amal’s organization uses Linux for its mail operation.

Sometimes, months may go by before a clever substitution comes to light. That was the case with Luis, who, in a former job as network administrator for a government agency on the West Coast, replaced an NT DNS server with Linux and BIND during his lunch hour one day.

The NT server had stability problems and would periodically lose its zone information or simply lock up. Management was not interested in experimenting with anything other than Microsoft products.

“A few months after I installed [the Linux server], my IT manager remarked that the DNS server had become more stable and wondered what we had done. At this point, I broke the news to him that I had migrated it to the Linux platform,” Luis wrote. “There was some initial shock, but he then accepted it based on the fact that in the entire computer room, it was the only device that just kept on doing its job with virtually no maintenance.”

Three years later, that Pentium 100 Linux BIND server is still running nonstop.

Is running Linux a crime in your IT department?

Are your supervisors opposed to Linux? What are you doing to break down their resistance? Send us a note or post a comment in the discussion below.