Originally Published: Monday, 6 September 1999 Author: Scott Zetlan
Published to: corp_features/General Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Using Linux to Streamline Services

Scott Zetlan presents a strategy to centralize the services of your IS department. He outlines the major economic benefits and presents a strategic analysis of replacing several expensive servers with one reliable Linux machine.

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By now you must have read the story of Herbert, the Secret Linux Server. To summarize: an engineer decides his small company needs to start using a file server instead of doing the "floppy shuffle;" he installs Linux, thereby bringing the company out of the technological equivalent of the paleozoic era. Herbert becomes the black-box backbone of the company -- everyone can suddenly do their jobs more easily, but no one knows exactly how. The engineer adds services by degrees -- first file and print services, then mail, then news, and eventually, internet service.

These days, most businesses already have all these services, but they usually run on Microsoft Windows NT, and they often all run on separate computers. All those services could run on one machine, but NT maintenance frequently requires taking a machine offline, which could put a halt to mission-critical systems. However, this approach is costly: for seven basic services (inbound mail, outbound mail, user management, file services, print services, IP address allocation, internet connectivity), there are seven different computers. At a cost of $1500 per machine, the system totals over $10,000 before licensing, configuration, and administrative costs are considered.

In the past, system administrators have gained flexibility by using some flavor of Unix. Unix supports larger hard drives, more processors, and more RAM, and restarting one service rarely requires restarting the machine. Thus, separate systems running on Unix don't interfere with each other. Unix, however, is expensive, and it runs on a fairly limited range of equally expensive hardware.

Linux has emerged as a better alternative for the business with less available capital. Instead of adding yet another computer to run the next service (a database? a web server?) as is necessary with NT, consider installing Linux on one of the existing systems. Like Unix, processes run in separate 32-bit memory spaces; like NT, the operating system will fit onto a personal computer. (Okay, perhaps not quite like NT: the Linux kernel needs only 8 megs of RAM, while NT needs 32.) Over time, other systems can be moved onto Linux from NT -- freeing up machines that can now act as workstations instead of servers. Switching to Linux centralizes the location of these systems, and makes remote administration easier to implement.

As an example: consider a mid-size company (Byum & Sellum, Inc. -- BSI) with 100 employees and about $27 million in annual revenue. Most of the employees work at a client site, leaving about ten people in the office doing administrative tasks (marketing/sales, accounting, network systems). Because the company is so decentralized, employees communicate primarily through e-mail; announcements are often made through newsgroups or on the company intranet web server. Each employee has a laptop, and each laptop uses a dial-up networking connection through which the employee can read e-mail, surf the web, access files, and print. Four servers -- one for web, news, and ftp; one for e-mail; one for file and print services; and one acting as a firewall -- run most of the communications systems. Additional servers run the billing database and the backup/archiving systems. All servers are running Microsoft Windows NT.

Every one of those machines must be maintained. Rarely does a computer stay up for more than a month; problems with third party software or the operating system, or the need to reboot during software installation or removal makes rebooting commonplace. As a result, individual systems are offline for several hours at a time, several times a month. The two employees managing the entire network have their hands full troubleshooting the network systems.

BSI needs to streamline its IS operations. By moving these systems to a more stable environment, which can be administered remotely, those poor IS employees will spend less time putting out fires and more time planning future systems development. Although machines must still be maintained, rather than six, there could be only three. Finally, individual services can be started and stopped without interrupting the rest. For example, the web server could be stopped, uninstalled, reinstalled, reconfigured, and restarted -- all without affecting news, ftp, e-mail, file, or print services. Employees can continue to access files available via ftp while the web services are being upgraded; IS personnel can manage the entire process from home, if necessary -- a real plus for those 2 a.m. system outages. As an added bonus, some of those old NT servers can be moved to the accounting department, where the number-crunchers can really use them to crunch numbers.

Linux won't solve all your IS problems, but it does give you the flexibilty to solve many commonplace ones. It's a great cross between the flexibility of Unix and the smaller size of a desktop-based OS, without the licensing restrictions. (While we're on the subject: buy a retail copy of your Linux distribution. It'll cost under $100, and the extra documentation and support is worth it.) View linux as another tool -- and a great one, at that -- in the IS toolbox.

Herbert's fate is still unknown. Herbert did its jobs (serving files, managing printers, and managing Internet access) so well, management hardly realized it existed. (Servers are never famous -- only infamous.) Because its corporate owners never recognized the need for newer tools, the IS staffers left for companies who did. The company was left in the same situation that predicated the need for a Herbert in the first place: a changing environment required a change in tools. Our technological environment has changed, is changing; companies must adopt newer tools or risk becoming IT dinosaurs.

Comments? Email the author of this piece.

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