Originally Published: Sunday, 28 November 1999 Author: Ed Matthews
Published to: corp_features/General Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux on a Mission, Serving up a Solution for a 501(c)(3)

This is the first part in a series about building a Linux-based network at a non-profit organization. Except for the volunteer aspect, it's the story of Linux in the small office or school network.

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How it all Started

Recently my friend and Linux mentor, Pat Davis, initiated a search for a service opportunity involving Linux and invited me along. We were both interested in finding a place to volunteer, and a project where we could learn some new things along the way.

Mission Identified: Ada Jenkins Center

Having decided that we wanted to have a mission, it didn't take long to find one. We talked to some committee chairpersons at our church, and they pointed us to a local social services facility in the same town, Davidson, NC, called the Ada Jenkins Center.

We learned there was a computer lab of some kind that had been created this fall, and that there was probably a need either for network support, applications instructors or both. That's all we knew going in, but it sounded promising. We expected to find a variety of older, donated hardware, possibly networked, but maybe not. We didn't know about printers or other peripherals. We did have confidence Linux would be welcome.

Our First Visit, the Lab Today

We contacted the Life Skills and Computer Program Coordinator, Dana Cox to arrange a visit. We arrived on a Thursday night, after the day's classes had concluded, and found a better situation than we had anticipated. It turns out the center obtained a grant this year to equip a lab. It has 12 IBM Aptivas with K6 350 chips, 6 GB drives, and 64 MB of memory. Each is running Windows 98, and they are all peer networked.

The network has a color deskjet printer connected to one terminal, providing print to the others. There is a cable modem, one of the first in this neck of the Charlotte suburban woods, connected to one machine. This machine is the only one with access to the web.

Oh, there is also a table along one wall of the room stacked with 386s, 486s, some Apple LaswerWriter printers, and a few older Macintoshes, too, in various states of working order or disassembly. The center has a retired IBM engineer helping build new machines from the best of the old.

Learners use the lab to practice basic computer skills, learn business applications, to play educational games, and to write school papers and resumes. They are all ages, from children in after school enrichment programs to adults practicing new job skills. We did learn the State of North Carolina requires a level of computer proficiency to receive a high school diploma, so this lab provides a much needed service to its customers.

Needs Assessment, Short Term

Dana explained that the print services go on the fritz periodically, requiring floppy sneakernet to the terminal connected to the printer. Also, the Center wants to make web access available to every terminal. Job searches are a big part of the computer offering, and one web enabled PC is not enough.

Solution, Short Term

We asked if setting up a server, and possibly reconfiguring the terminals slightly would be an issue, and it's not. So, we're planning to put in a Linux server to handle print services through Samba, so the printer appears in the Windows desktop like any other device there, and with IP Masquerade for web access at all 12 terminals. IP Masquerade lets you share one IP address among many users, so you need only one account with your service provider.

We explained we would need a server machine, and that it could be assembled from some of the parts we identified as useable from the table along the wall.

Needs, Long Term

Because Pat is a systems reseller (Linux, SCO) he also knew to ask Dana what the wish list, or long term objectives for a network at the Ada Jenkins Center would include: no sense doing something now that we'd have to rework later, right?

The building with the lab also contains rooms dedicated to other types of social services, and it has the administrative offices. It would be helpful for all of those to be networked for file and print sharing, possibly for FAX reception, too. There is an afterschool program in another building adjacent to the one with the lab, and eventually there will be a couple of computers there. It would be good to have them connected to the network.

Some other desired niceties include a static IP address and registering AdaJenkins.org with internic, creating a web site after that, and offering user accounts to regular system users for file storage.

Solution, Long Term

Pat and I aren't prepared to run cable, but we did recommend searching for someone who might do this for a reduced cost, and that they use fiber optic line. After that, our part of the equation just involves building the server(s) and connecting them appropriately.

So What's Next?

Our first meeting with Dana was about two weeks ago. Since then, Pat received his own cable modem and learned how to configure it for IP Masquerade. Now we're ready for the server machine, being assembled by center volunteers from parts as mentioned previously.

We plan to provide stable print and web services with minimal administrative overhead via a Linux server. We will load, configure, and install a box we can administer remotely, and that persons in the lab at the center rarely touch. When the center is ready to network the rest of its PCs, we will investigate upgrading the initial server, or building a second one.

We anticipate the initial server will be ready just after Thanksgiving. In Part II, I'll explain in greater detail which Linux distribution we load, configuration we perform, and other tasks we complete as we configure the Windows clients.

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