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A challenge to the Linux Users of the World

By Xwindowsjunkie ·
A recent posting by George Ou about Windows Home Server brought out a lot of responses from the Linux community. I think that Microsoft deserves to get some competition.

Here's the challenge:

There are a lot of Linux experts on this site. I challenge them to come up with a list of applications that work the best for each of the given functions found in Windows Home Server. Show me a list of something that you guys think will beat or meet Windows Home Server, that will work for a lot of people and that you think can be easily reproduced. I will build it and give you an honest appraisal of my experiences while doing it. I will document it well enough that others less skilled will be able to do it. I'd like to be able to release it as a DIY compilation distro if possible.

Now the kicker, on the EXACT same hardware I will install the WHS Beta or release RC1, assuming I can get it, and test it in comparison on the basis of a USER, not a technician or a systems engineer.

There are a few restrictions I place on this challenge:
1) Do not expect me to compile Gentoo or Debian. I want to get this all done within a few weeks, OK?
2) The install packages must be applications that can be downloaded from the distro's website or mirror. I will not start with somebody's forked code.
3) The applications need to be compatible with the Linux distro and the desktop. I am partial to Gnome but I'm willing to use KDE.
4) If you expect me to script something or run a script, show me an example or give me the script. (This runs counter to item 2 above but I realize Linux runs on scripts). It would be nice if the script has enough commentary to let me know what was going on in it. I reserve the right to dump something I'm suspicious of.
5) If the application mix doesn't work, be prepared to get bad Linux PR from the blog. I will not attack or flame anybody personally as a part of this challenge but the distributions and/or applications are fair game. If they're bad they need to be flamed.

I will take a complete list of Linux applications from an individual or a committee of no more than 3 people and a suggested Linux distro to put it on. I will build it on a 2.6 Ghz Celeron system with 512 MB Ram on a stock DELL with a CDRW or a DVD +/- RW drive. Since this system will NOT be playing the DVD or video, we'll live with the on-board SVGA chip and the optical drive is there for software install only. (Its a server remember?) I have my choice of hard drives.

Then I will report back blog style what it took me to do it. I'll keep track of the hours and what and where I had to find my manuals/documentation to make it work. The idea is to develop a "distro" that can duplicate the published capabilities of the WHS minus the bare metal recovery. I can use Ghost as well as anybody.

My credentials:
I'm not a Linux expert but I have messed with it a little. I have 2 SUSE 10.1 Linux boxes and 2 XP Pro boxes running at home. One of the SUSE boxes will be used for the challenge with a blank drive. (I'll save my current drive for later.) I have Ubuntu 6.1 and 6 or 7 Windows CPU's in my cubicle at work. I have run various Linux distros on desktops since Red Hat 6.4. I've tried Mandrake, Knoppix, Storm, Yellow Dog, Red Flag and others I've forgotten about.

I design Windows XP Embedded systems for a living. I've been doing that for over 6 years. I started with Windows NT 4.0 Embedded for 2 years before that. My system designs run in mission critical environments in the oilfield every day all around the world on over 300 systems. My first programming language was Fortran on punch cards. My first personal computer had a S100 bus. I've run C/PM, VMX, LDOS, MSDOS, Windows 3.0 through Windows XP. I've programmed in Z80 and x86 assembler, Forth, about 15 Basic variations, Algol, C, VB Script and lately I'm learning some of the Visual Studio 2005 languages.

Do I like Linux? I like the idea of Linux. I like the idea that there is some competition for Microsoft. I haven't found a distro I like enough to hunker down and spend a lot of quality time with it. I do plan to have a full suite of auxiliary servers running on the SUSE box that's not involved with the test for DNS and DHCP. I also will be running network sniffers to track what traffic is traveling on the subnet to and from the client and the server. Microsoft is notorious for using a lot of ?silent? traffic to and from un-documented ports.

Remember we're looking at a Home Server as an appliance not a high performance server. Installing it on the exact same hardware mostly removes the hardware performance issues from the comparison. Obviously how well device drivers were written for the two operating systems is not removed from the test but at the level I'll be testing, device drivers will just be lumped in with the OS issues.
So the test criteria, in no particular priority, are:
1) Does the software adequately support the feature set?
2) Does it work well and reliably enough that home users can operate it successfully?
3) Can repetitive maintenance functions be automated?
4) After running it for awhile, are there obvious gaping holes in the features offered that need to be filled?
5) How easy is it to install? Can it be customized as it is installed?
6) Can you add features to it after installation? How easy is it?
7) The question of updates, ease and availability.
Discern the need for additional services that aren't a part of the system.

The following added 6-03-2007

These are the specific features I was able to discern from the advertising on the URL citation listed above. There is also a mechanism that allows 3rd party applications to operate within the server framework, I'm going to assume plug-ins.

Digital Media Shares
media and other files served throughout your home and through a website IP
Remote Access to Your PCs
WHS lets you access your PCs and media from a Web-connected PC
Protect Your Data
automatic backups and full system restore. Smaller restores of individual files and folders (incremental daily backup) of accidentally deleted material.
PC Health Monitoring
Manage a family of PCs with WHS monitoring. Make sure virus definitions are up-to-date and each PC is running the latest updates.
Users rights and access management
Users can be grouped and allowed specific access to shares and PC access
Firewall (assumed)
Microsoft can be so stupid as to not to build in a stout 2 way, state-full watching firewall. I will not be that stupid in any case with the Linux contender I build.
Web-Browser management and access
This is also an implied feature.

I've decided to run Ubuntu desktop 7.04 to do further testing of Linux applications, because its currently loaded on my test machine. I'm not convinced it makes a hill of beans difference what I run at this point. I plan to at least attempt to pick matching applications for use on a Linux Server based on what services have been publicized as on the Windows Home Server. I don't have a Beta of the WHServer to test unfortunately so I am going to have to go by what Microsoft decides to release. Actually the feature set is amazingly sparse once you get past the fact that they touted the same damn things 2 or 3 different ways. An excellent example of advertising fluff, say a lot about practically nothing at all.

Once I've gotten my feature set Linux replacement applications chosen, I'm planning on using a mostly non-scientific method by selecting particular applications for each feature item purely by the unique number of positive hits they get when typed into a Google search window for 100 responses on one page.

Another un-scientific decision point, if I find too many negative issues based on the hit count, that application, or at the very least, that version of it gets dumped. Once all the feature points are covered, a test of the applications one by one will be made.

Once I learn how to manage them properly, a set of feature covering applications will then be installed on the no-head version of Ubuntu Server 7.04. The entire set of applications and the operating system will be configured and tested.

The step after that will be to add what applications and services that should be added to make the Linux Server a much more attractive system based solely on the feature set and we're now quickly beyond Windows Home Server. In the mean time I'll be updating in a random event basis on the blogs but certainly on average once a day. After I feel like there is a reasonable coherency to the ?mashup?, I'll put it together in a secondary distro and probably hand it off to the Ubuntu group assuming its still running on Ubuntu at that point.

As far as programming, I hope to do as little as possible. I will however write/build/test scripts to automatic the entire installation process to the maximum point I can. Until I can talk to the box and make it do what I want it to in a human language, its something I have to do but I'd really rather not!

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this is an interesting experiment

by Neon Samurai In reply to A challenge to the Linux ...

My first reponse would be; try FreeNAS.

This bares more consideration though and I'll have to reread the function specs for WHS. I'll post back with my limited experience sudgesion once I've had time to give your initial a proper read over unless someone beats me too it.

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I was just discussing this with

by 1bn0 In reply to A challenge to the Linux ...

my brother-in-law. He has a RC copy of WHS and has been trying it out at home. He is employed as as "Systems Analyst" at a local governement office. We were discussing weither this product would draw any real interest from the average home user.

We had previously looked at SMESERVER (formerly called eSmith server).
At the time we tried it it had a customised web based front end for administration and wasn't too bad althoug a little incomplete at that time. Mitel took over development and tried to market as a small business server with a subscription support server including email and domain management.

I'm not sure what the current incarnation really looks like.

We were just interested in something that would provide the basic benefits of windows server for the home market without the windows price.

I look forward to the progress of this project.

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Thanks guys

by Xwindowsjunkie In reply to A challenge to the Linux ...

I'll be posting my work and results here.

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Problems with the Experiment

by jhilgeman2 In reply to Thanks guys

It's interesting in concept, but I have a suspicion that WHS will come out on top because the experiment isn't exactly "fair and balanced."

1. By virtue of being MORE familiar with the Window environments, you're going to encounter SOME frustration with the Linux environment, and that frustration will come off against Linux. Some things are just sub-conscious.

2. Whether you're trying to or not, you're holding Windows up as the gold standard for Linux to meet. Whenever Linux doesn't do something Windows does, it'll be "bad Linux PR". I didn't see you make the same comment vice-versa. You should also recognize things that Linux does that Windows DOESN'T do and that should count as bad PR against Windows.

I won't say either one is better than the other for everything. You're comparing green apples to red apples. They're still apples, but they have a major taste difference. You might as well be comparing MS SQL Enterprise Manager to phpMyAdmin. Yes, they're both mainstream db admin tools, and can do some of the same tasks, but they do mostly vastly different jobs on different platforms because some needs are better served by different platforms.

Personally, I run Windows desktops (mostly XP) and servers (different editions of 2000 AND 2003), and I also have run FreeBSD servers, Red Hat servers, Mandrake, and Fedora Core servers. I still use a console-only Fedora Core server as our company mail gateway. I'm still hooked on XP as my favorite desktop, even though I'm very comfortable in KDE and Gnome.

People need to stop trying to make one side be the "end-all." There'll never be one end-all operating system - not from Microsoft, not from Apple, and not from open-source development. Each serves a different need, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, those different systems inspire new and better things for the other systems. Without Windows, there'd be a lot less apps for Linux, and without Linux, Microsoft would become lazier and less competitive.

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Actually what I will tell you about the experiment so far

by Xwindowsjunkie In reply to Problems with the Experim ...

is that so far I'm very impressed with the amount and spread of Linux aplication support there is for devices only rarely seen in the Windows world.

The other thing I will tell you is that there is a lot of bad software out there for Linux. I've run into applications that I would consider unruly and unusable simply because there is no way to bail out of some Linux applications. That said, there is a tremendous amount of very good software I've already encountered that beats Microsoft offerings simply because there is no financial reason to support some of the devices and codecs and so forth out there.

What I will tell you also is that I am very intent on making a Linux media /home server simply because I want to support both Linux and Windows clients.

I also do not want to get caught up in the DMRA crap that seems to be completely burying anything new in the way of media hardware design. I will not pay a license fee to some "digital rights mugger" just so I can store and playback video or stills I've taken of my family and friends. The day is coming when Windows Media Player will no longer be free or you'll have to pay with a credit card to look at news clips even from "free" services.

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Note asymmetrical requirements.

by Absolutely In reply to A challenge to the Linux ...

"4) If you expect me to script something or run a script, show me an example or give me the script. (This runs counter to item 2 above but I realize Linux runs on scripts). It would be nice if the script has enough commentary to let me know what was going on in it. I reserve the right to dump something I'm suspicious of."

Try imposing that requirement on Microsoft!

I don't mean to say that this isn't a reasonable requirement. In fact, if home users will be persuaded to adopt Linux for the function set you describe, I'm sure many will do so only with clearly commented code. They want equivalent functionality, with only slightly greater technical requirements, if any at all. In other words, the target audience is users who are not willing to acquire the skill set of IT pros to acquire the level of functionality of a home server. This will be a very intriguing blog to follow!

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Windows "IS" Point and Click

by 1bn0 In reply to Note asymmetrical require ...

Home users shouldn't need any scripting abilities. WHS is not intended to replace Windows Business servers administrative control features. It is intended to:

Store files: Pictures, Video and Music.
Allow or prohibit other users to access those files.
Provide the abiltiy to back up the desktop to the server and restore the desktop from the server.

Windows Vista requires more "Point and Click" and provides even less keyboard equivalents(?) than its predecessors. This is the way Microsoft sees the user interface going.

The "requirement" to minimise scripting under a Linux solution is simply to try to provide the same level of access control as Windows uses.

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Only partially applicable.

by Absolutely In reply to Windows "IS" Point and Cl ...

The "requirement" to minimise scripting under a Linux solution is simply to try to provide the same level of access control as Windows uses.

My comment was intended to be about the part of the requirement to see the code responsible for the server functionality and reject any that looks untrustworthy, not that the script be "minimal". Actually, a "minimal" script is simply good programming, under any circumstances, although I'm sure that all the IT pros here know that. I'm equally sure that none of us expect to see source code for home user products from Microsoft any time soon.

"It would be nice if the script has enough commentary to let me know what was going on in it. I reserve the right to dump something I'm suspicious of."

Microsoft will not provide that feature!

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Lots of ways to skin the cat

by Xwindowsjunkie In reply to Only partially applicable ...

Windows can be managed via scripting as can Linux. I don't expect to get out of running a linux distro or for that matter any Windows setup script free.

In many ways the large piles of scripts Linux uses are relatively similar to the registry, especially HiveKey_Local_Machine in Windows, where all the settings pertaining to the machine or computer setup is stored.

In any case, I hope to preserve all of the scripts and settings I create using SVN, Subversion on both machines and if I can get Samba to co-operate maybe I can do it with both platforms running as inputs to the SVN database on a Linux box. I wonder if anybody has done that? Probably, that's a project in itself. I use SVN at work and I like it, very easy to use.

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Samba should be easy

by Neon Samurai In reply to Lots of ways to skin the ...

I've set it up many times and am in the process of configing it after an OS update from clean install (I learn something new every time). Last setup was dead simple to config and I have no reason to believe my current config will be any more difficult though I do have the advantage of graphic admin tools. I use a GUI tool for fine tuning after adding remote shares to my fstab. My local machine's shares are all configed through the samba configs in /ets/samba or similar.

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