In the current economic environment, the squeeze is on to find cost-efficient IT solutions for improving an organization’s bottom line. In this installment of From the Trenches, we’ll see how economic pressures forced one network administrator to expand his network by using Linux servers.

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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.

The initial Microsoft solution
Michael has seen the network of a Midwest social services company double in size in the past two years. He was director of employment services for the company, and its small network was working in a peer-to-peer topology.

When the company started to grow, a consultant was hired to design, install, and maintain a network of about 20 workstations that would be used by about 200 end users on a round-the-clock basis.

The consultant recommended a single server model running Microsoft Small Business Server with a client add-on pack for 25 total users. One server ran an Exchange mail server, a Web server, and a proxy server and provided file and printer sharing. It also served as the Windows network domain controller as the company moved from a peer-to-peer topology to a client-server topology.

“We spent nearly $20,000 initially and then were billed for maintenance at about $100 per hour,” Michael said.

Then the belt began to tighten, and Michael was asked to transfer some of his duties to someone else and to take over the IT services in an effort to cut down on the consulting costs. These costs had become significant because of high job turnover in the social services. “The user accounts alone were taking a lot of time,” Michael said.

The company was also experiencing a number of issues with the Exchange POP3 connector working haphazardly. The problems were heightened by the company’s growth and the limitations of running all of these services on one server. If one of the programs or services failed, productivity really suffered because he had to take the server offline to fix it, making all of the other programs and services unavailable during this time. Thus, a new, expanded solution was needed.

The need for an expanded infrastructure
“Ideally, we would have a separate server for our human resources database program, a separate e-mail server, a separate Web server, two separate print servers, and a separate file server. Backup servers would also be ideal, especially for the domain controller,” Michael said.

To get the server and network topology he would need, Michael figured he would need to buy five copies of Windows 2000 Server (at about $1,000 each), one copy of Exchange Server (at about $1,200), and client licenses for roughly 70 users (at about $400 per five users, minus the five-user license that comes with Exchange Server). He was looking at an investment of about $11,400, depending on the kinds of deals and price breaks he could find.

Additionally, that $11,400 figure included only the software he would need from Microsoft. It did not include the hardware costs for five servers to run the software. “The cost of moving to Windows 2000 and individual server licenses for each component was out of our price range,” Michael concluded.

So Michael would need to get creative. He decided to dedicate the Windows server to his HR department’s database software. He collected six donated PCs and spent about $1,200 in parts to turn the donated computers into competent server machines. Then, he spent $100 on a boxed version of the Caldera OpenLinux server distribution and built six Linux servers with it.

His new topology consists of external mail and Web servers, a router/firewall doing network address translation, and three internal Linux machines, along with the Windows box serving the organization’s desktop users.

The Linux learning curve
Michael’s Linux solution to his network expansion problems probably came easier to him than someone who is well entrenched in Microsoft products. He had started his Linux experience with Slackware about six or seven years before and then had used Red Hat Linux on a desktop machine.

“Linux generally makes more sense to me than Microsoft products, intuitively. It seems more direct,” Michael said. “From a technical standpoint, it is often easier for me to figure out. There also are a lot more excellent tools to use with it that won’t technically get you into fuzzy legal trouble [e.g., Microsoft’s licensing issues].

“Even Sendmail was easier for me to get running solidly than Exchange Server. I would say if you are primarily into the GUI and need every single step filled out for you, Linux may be more difficult. If you are inquisitive and can think logically and technically, you should be able to pick it up quickly.”

Michael also said that it is more important to be motivated to learn more about your computing environment than it is to have a lot of Linux experience to begin with.

The bottom line
Michael is pleased with the way the network is running now, and he feels it has more flexibility for expansion or contraction, depending on business.

It is unfair to compare the new network with the old, he said, because the single Small Business Server was handling the chores he has now divided among six other servers. In fact, the performance of the Small Business Server has improved dramatically, as has its stability, since all the other functions were offloaded.

“No one is complaining about file access speed,” he noted, and he has gained ease of use, low maintenance costs, and a very reliable network that he said is up 99.9 percent of the time.

“Linux worked for us, in my opinion, because we needed a less expensive solution,” Michael said.

Have you extended a network with Linux?

Budgets are tight, but networks still are growing. Have you extended all or parts of your network with an open-source solution? What parts of a network are the best candidates for that approach? Do you feel you have the Linux knowledge to host network services on it? Send us a note or post a comment in the discussion below.