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How Linux is Taking Over My Company
Reno Laskey 

When I first started my current job my server room consisted of mostly Windows NT. We had a single solitary IBM AIX Unix box that ran our enterprise app. At the time I started the company was in the middle of a conversion from that system to an Oracle Applications based product(s). This IBM AIX Box also additionally handled company email. DNS was offsited to our ISP. And our file server was this aging Novell server, which crashed daily. And btw the AIX UNIX box the enterprise app it was running liked to corrupt it's own data files on a monthly basis requiring a very manual rebuild that often took 8 hours or more.

In those early days I was a very green network admin. Although I was confident and reliable in my PC skills, pretty much everything else I hadn't a clue. I had wrote some WebPages in my past life, a couple access databases. But nothing truly prepared me for this job. And my very first task after upgrading all the PC's in the company to nice new dells, as opposed to the hodgepodge of dead and dropped PC companies my company used was to replace the aging Novell Server.... which btw crashed twice a day. I really never did find out why, but even at my last company they had the same problem just less frequently.

My boss (a programmer) at the time had suggested I try out Linux, because he had heard it was a good alternative to Unix, something he was a fan off. And something that absolutely horrified me. I had known about Linux, but never really used it. And the few times I did I was so utterly confused. I thought for sure this was the kind of thing only real network admins could handle. But since I was at least getting paid well for the job and had plenty of time to do it, I began the process of upgrading our decrepit old file server to run Linux. It was an AST Pentium 133 with 128 megs of RAM and a 5 drive RAID box. A whopping 12 gigs of storage.  This was now 5 years ago. My first experience was to find one of our old PC's and install Linux on that as  "test" system before I tore into the real server. It must also be understood I was expected to work with what I had there, and not purchase any new equipment as the company was strapped for cash that was being sucked out of it by oracle developers. So I actually used a 486/66mhz and using an add in board managed to stick a nice 20 gigger in it to handle the files, and a whopping 64megs of RAM.  

I chose redhat as my first Linux OS. Mostly because I knew they had come along way in making Linux easier to use and setup. Although I ended up reinstalling at least 8 times before I finally just went with it, it was really rather easy to use. Since I didn't feel like taking a trip to the store to buy a copy, I just downloaded it for free from they're slow as all hell ftp site... Although it took 2 days, and now I think I should of just spent the time and money, but whatever... After I had finished installing I quickly was able to find the handy text based gui to access the admin functions. (linuxconf). Using this tool alone I was able to configure this server to run as the new DNS, mail, and file server. And it only took me roughly a week. By the second week I had become emboldened to copy the entire file structure from one server to the old 486 server. It's also worth mentioning at no time have I ever bought a Linux book. Everything I ever learned about Linux was based solely on man pages, HOWTO's, and the numerous amount of listservs, forums, websites, and the like dedicated to helping people with a variety of Linux based problems. Never did I use a pay for help service either.

Although the 486 struggled to handle the load, no one ever complained about it not giving them they're files. And the server was reliable. Only problems I ever had with it, were only related to me constantly tweaking the Samba config. Certain options could corrupt files on the samba server. So also during this period restoring from tape backup was also numerous at least until I found the setup right for me. It was at this stage I freshly formatted the AST server and began installing RedHat on that to be the regular file, dns, wins, ftp, and mail server.

The install of RedHat on the main server went surpringly easy. Since the server was old it's hardware including the RAID were entirely supported by RedHat's stock kernel. And the setup of all the various services I needed was also relatively easy. During this whole process I had rarely used the command line, not that I didn't want too though. Every chance I could I tried to hand edit config files and the like. But in all honesty learning all the different things I need to know to configure all these services by hand was beyond my time. So I just stuck with the admin tools went on my way. Over the next couple of years I spent a lot of time using that box. In that time I had become fairly competent with the shell. And had replaced our offsite web server with an in house slackware Linux box.

Slackware from the time of my first web server build to now has become my Linux OS of choice. At heart I could never live with relying on config tools alone. Although the redhat server had served me very well I was always very uneasy about it, because I knew at the first sign of real trouble I'd be helpless with only my config tools to help. And in fact I had at least a couple of those times, including a telnet compromise which forced me to have to deal with the command line. I was only lucky to have spotted the errors caused and to undo the damage done by the intrusion. But it was also my wakeup call. So I spent quite a bit of time learning how to configure a slackware box. I had chosen slackware for one primary reason. It was the void of config tools and all the user-friendly things. It focused on ease of use at the command line level and strict adherence to BSD setups. The only config utils worth mention were for installing slackware packaged programs (tarballs) configuring the network adapter, some other basic things. But for the most part it was free of a lot of user-friendly crud that made my redhat file structure just a jacked up mess of linked files. Slackware was much different, all the files were in specific places, not hundreds of links all across the structure. But simple and straightforward layout. Slackware didn't focus on trying to give me an easy to install package for every linux software known to man. Instead only gave me the most commonly used tools. But even more importantly slackware gave me a very clean system in which to attempt doing things like installing my own software and compiling my own kernels.

I now have a few Linux servers I run now. Web server, and a brand spanking new Dell Pentium 3 933mhz box with lots of space, plenty of RAM. And it now runs slackware Linux, and has replaced that aged AST server. I do all my administration duties via command line and config file editing. I now edit and compile my own send mail configs, I hand edit my own DNS files. I only rely on slackware tarballed programs for stupid library additions that are really just more pain than they're worth to install on my own. But for the most part I'm now most comfortable with installing, and compiling my own software. Even my kernels the first thing I do on every box is reconfigure and compile my kernel. After of course getting the latest and greatest. I have zero qualms about any troubles that occur with the box. I am confident I can troubleshoot and solve any problem on the box now, even problems with other peoples software. Because now I know how to go through some program code figure out whats wrong and fix it myself. I don't do this all the time, but sometimes simple stupid code mistakes I can easily fix until the developer makes his own fix. On the windows side of the house this thought never even enters me. I am stuck waiting for a patch. It is because of Linux I learned about security and how to harden an OS. At every fork in the road I try to install and use something Linux offers. My next grand project will be to move our entire oracle system to Linux. I can't sing enough praises for the ease of use a command line offers in remote situations. I've used remote admin tools on the windows boxes and I gotta say waiting for windows to refresh and the inherent oddities that occur with remote admin tools really makes you appreciate how easy to use the command line can be once you learn how to use it of course.

Overall Linux stands to take over my company server room. After the oracle move is complete only my Norton server, and my payroll server will be the only Windows boxes. Cost has played a hand in this as well. As trying to get mgmt to approve the some 20,000 dollars I need in Windows software has been turned down several times due to costs. Yes I have even tried to revert back to a windows only shop. Windows 2000 in fact, I was planning to run exchange, active directory and the like. Just like the true Microsoft vision.. But turned down due to excessive costs.... Oh well guess I'll just have to use Linux. My dreams of having an exchange like mail system though aren't gone though. As there are a few companies and individuals that are now making exchange like systems. Communigate stalker pro in particular has caught my eye. And it sure as hell is cheaper. And oh joy it was originally built to run on *nix systems. Even as I look to the future of my company and it's technologies its going to be Linux that it gets rolled out on. LDAP, xml, database driven websites, even our MISSION CRITICAL apps all going to be Linux. And even more importantly, I'm not going to be up late wondering if they have crashed.




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