Originally Published: Tuesday, 3 April 2001 Author: Andy "Wookie" Woo
Published to: enhance_articles_sysadmin/Sysadmin Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

File Servers for Free: Samba for Small Businesses

Andy Woo explores the uses of a file server for small to medium sized enterprises. He makes a strong case for Samba, and open-source file server for the Linux platform.

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Why a File Server?

With the proliferation of information technologies, personal computers (PCs) find their place not only in large organizations, but in small-to-medium enterprises. (SME) can now afford to have a PC for every employee. Individuals from different departments use their PCs for different purposes: making a technical drawing, drafting a memo, or writing an email. The PC has become an ideal tool for information creation.

With the rapidly falling prices of computer hardware, a 30GB hard drive now costs less than US$200. Every newly purchased personal computer is equipped with a big hard drive with more than enough capacity for the average office user. You might ask, why would my business need a file server? In one aspect, it is true. Storing and retrieving files from a local hard drive is usually faster than from a network file server.

But the problem is, people create and process so much information in their PCs that they need to exchange and distribute to their colleagues. A simple network is often not enough. For example, often individuals face a problem when distributing their business data to multiple recipients; they send the same data over and over again for every new request. For instance, a secretary responsible for sending out weekly status reports via email is annoyed by the fact that people often ask her to re-send the status report when they have no idea where they filed the report last time; or even after they have deleted it from their PC. In this scenario, the distribution of information from individual to individual is inefficient; the productivity of all employees is affected. A networked file server solves this problem by changing the paradigm of information distribution upside-down: recipients are retrieving information from a centralized, single repository - a top-down approach. The! beauty of a file server is the ability to share and provide concurrent access to business data effortlessly, efficiently and economically.

Large organizations have the financial resources to deploy a large-scale computer and network infrastructure to support their business processes. In addition to the basic file and print serving, with the explosive growth of Internet technologies, many corporations are deploying an Intranet for business functions ranging from Product Data Management to Human Resources. They have benefited from the efficiency and productivity gains of their IT investment, and hence, increased their competitive advantage.

On the other hand, due to limited resources and lack of expertise, the SME has been put to a competitive disadvantage in terms of information management. They have personal computers around the office, but their computers are often isolated from each other. Computing resources are not fully utilized. Cost-effective information management is important to SME in the Information Age.

Data Needs of the SME: From a Manufacturing Perspective

Nowhere is this truer than in a manufacturing organization. In manufacturing a tangible product is produced, but along the way intangible data and information is collected that can be critical to a SME's business advantage. Environmental product data is generated from various manufacturing stages. For instance, in the product design stage, the conceptual and technical design of a product is represented in a computer rendering and CAD drawing respectively. Bills of material (BOM) represent the product structure and assembly sequences. The tools needed to produce the product are listed in a tool plan. Sales professionals need a product photo for advertising and presentation to prospective customers. Imagine, if all this computer data is to be stored and scattered everywhere at an individual user's will, it could be very difficult to retrieve. The following table shows common information generated from different functional divisions of a manufacturing organization.

Functional Division. Information
Product Design. Computer rendering, product sketch, product photo.
Product Development / Engineering. CAD drawing, Part List, Tool Plan, Bills of Material (BOM), Tools tracking database.
Purchasing. Purchase Order (PO), Invoice, Vendor cost comparison.
Packaging. CAD drawing, Art film.
Shipping. Invoice, Delivery note.
Marketing. Marketing plan, proposal, product launch plan.
Human Resources. Database for staff information, salary and attendance records.
QA/QC. QC inspection report, QA plan, product specification.

As you can see from the above, not only does each functional division generate their own information, most of the time they are sharing the same information in a business process with other departments. This information will let the company control and improve the product creation process, which is the basis of a close-loop control system. In this example a centralized approach to information storage is not only useful it's a necessity. The file server in such an organization is as important as the library to a university. But how can an SME afford a sophisticated file server?

SAMBA: File and Print Serving for Free!

Today most SME are still living in a Microsoft Windows world; perhaps they have been hearing buzzwords about Linux, but they rarely know about Samba. I mean to change that and explain how Samba is not only the best, but also the most affordable solution to an SME's business process data distribution woes. Firstly, if you have never heard of Samba, I highly recommend you to go to www.samba.org - the home of Samba. From there, you can find the history, development, and documentation of Samba in great detail.

In summary, Samba is a completely free suite of programs licensed under the GPL that to allow a machine running Unix or Unix-like operating system (Linux in this scenario) to provide file and print services using the Microsoft networking protocol. Simply speaking, when Samba is installed, it will show up as an ordinary icon in the "Network Neighborhood" of Windows 9x or "My Network Places" of Windows 2000. You can copy and delete files to or from a Samba server as if it were a local hard drive; you can also map the remote file system to a local drive letter in Windows for transparent access.

Samba share shows up as an ordinary icon in "My Network Places" of Windows 2000

Nowadays, a Linux server running Samba can almost replace the role of a Windows NT server. In addition to file and print serving, Samba also provides password authentication services to Windows users. The newest development lets Samba to act as a Windows NT primary domain controller.

Most major Linux distributions (e.g. RedHat, SuSE, Linux Mandrake, Caldera, TurboLinux...etc) already come with Samba. But Samba may not be enabled or installed by default, you may have to configure or enable Samba after the Linux installation.

In case your Samba version is not updated or your distro does not come with Samba at all, you can download the latest source code from here:

<ftp://ftp.samba.org/pub/samba/>

Somebody has pre-compiled the Samba source into a binary file you can download those here:

<http://us5.samba.org/samba/ftp/Binary_Packages/>

The only problem with using the binaries is that not every distribution is supported. For instance, there is not yet a binary for SuSE Linux 7.0. Moreover, from my own experience, compiling yourself is the best way to go and it is not difficult.

Administering Samba is easy, with the latest developed web-based administration tool; one can configure and maintain a Samba server from a Web browser, avoiding the need of editing the infamous smb.conf file. Also, Samba server is stable - my Samba server at home has been up for months without reboot, thanks to the reliable GNU/Linux operating system.

Final words

One important advantage of Samba is that, in addition to providing reliable file and print services; its operation is totally transparent to users, they can't tell if the file they are accessing is stored in a Samba server, or not. The only change they are liable to notice is an increase in system reliability! I hope this article gave you an idea why effective information storage management is important to SMEs in the Information Age. Instead of paying thousand of dollars for a Windows server, Samba - a free, easy to administer and stable file server, could be the only one you ever need!

Resources

About the Author

Wookie is a senior project engineer at Mattel. His current interests are handheld computing, Linux and e-manufacturing. More articles and case studies are available from his personal web site www.wookieweb.com, he can be reached by email at wooandy@hotmail.com




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