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I'm a small business computer support consultant, working with both home users and companies under 20 people. As you can probably imagine, that world is nearly exclusively Windows-based.
However, I'm a former UNIX junkie and am ideologically predisposed to Linux, and would love to introduce it to some of my customers. There are two specific "market opportunities" for Linux that I see on a very regular basis, but I'm having trouble finding distributions that meet the needs I see. So I'm hoping someone can point me in the right direction, or point me to another forum where these questions might be productively asked.
Opportunity #1: Windows NT 4.0 and Novell replacement
There is still a lot of Novell Netware and Windows NT 4.0 running out there on PIII-class servers. In most cases, all the server does is file sharing, printer sharing, and backup. There's no particular performance reason for upgrading, but NT servers that old start developing quirks, and it's just an overall pain to work on them... drivers are getting harder to find, etc... and the customers are generally "ready to upgrade". However, they're also pretty cheap, and buying a new "name brand" server with even RAID 1 and Windows SBS easily gets into $3-4k.
Given that nothing is typically wrong with the server hardware other than a shortage of disk space, I'd love to be able to throw some RAM, a new IDE RAID card, and Linux in it and get them a major refresh that should last them for another 2-3 years, for much less money.
The problem: the on-site users are almost always non-technical, but have learned to "point and click" their way through managing backups (typically running Veritas Backup Exec), clearing print queues, and adding users. As a responsible consultant, I'm also very wary of setting them up with something that another Windows-based consultant couldn't muddle their way through adding new machines to the network. There simply aren't a lot of Linux-savvy consultants doing what I do, since this is such a Windows-dominated world. Which means that configuration needs to be GUI-based.
I've been poking around, and have been having a hard time finding a distro that meets these needs "out of the box"... easy setup, GUI-based configuration for Windows-based file sharing, windows-based NT domain authentication, backups, and print queue management. Also, Windows update is free, but getting automatic easy-to-install patches from someone like Red Hat costs $395 / year, which is very expensive when you compare it to the up-front purchase cost of Windows SBS which is only $500 for 20 users with a new server. There are server "appliances" out there like Snap server, but the units are completely storage-oriented (no authentication or printer sharing) and servers which support local tape backup are $$$$. Nevermind that the point here is to run on existing hardware anyway.
So am I missing something? Is there a Linux that provides these functions with point and click configuration? I'm basically looking for "server appliance" software that installs on diverse hardware.
Opportunity #2: Windows ME replacement
There were a lot of machines sold 3-4 years ago with Windows ME installed that are now blowing up because of spyware problems. ME tends to fail catastrophically... I won't go into it, but re-install is usually the only approach. Except it really doesn't make sense to re-install ME, since it's so terrible. Unfortunately, many of these machines only have 64MB RAM (often RDRAM), so XP isn't really an option either, unless some hardware upgrades are done, which turns it into a larger project that gets quite a bit more expensive for my client, since I have to schedule a return visit once the hardware arrives, etc... These are often second PCs used by the kids or whatever for only basic tasks: web browsing, e-mail, instant messaging and writing papers for school.
I'd love to throw a desktop Linux distro on these things. I thought one of the benefits of Linux is that it runs well on older hardware, but I've tried putting Linspire and Xandros on machines with 64MB RAM, and they crawl... just booting, Xandros swaps out 40MB, and launching Opera or OpenOffice brings the system to it's knees swapping. Linspire is similarly slow on older machines (their minimum system requirements are actually greater than XP's).
I know that desktop Linux is in it's infancy... am I simply asking too much for something that is both easy to use and efficient?
I'm sure that most people are gonna recommend the distro that they are currently using. I know that's what I'm about to do.
Try Slackware 10.
The installation is all text/ncurses based, but you are gonna be handling that. If you already know how to use UNIX, you won't have any trouble.
If you want graphical tools for configuring, try:
swat - Comes with Samba. Used for configuring Windows file sharing.
WebMin - You'll need to install it yourself ( http://www.webmin.com ). You can configure just about anything with it. I believe they also have a program at the same site called UserMin, allowing specific users to take on certain configuration tasks.
CUPS - It's for printing. It has a GUI configuration option.
If you want free updates, try SWareT (http://www.swaret.org ). I believe that there are some graphical frontends around, but I prefer just ssh-ing into remote boxes and running it from the CLI.
After you install Slackware 10, go to http://dropline.net . Install Dropline Gnome. I moved over to Slackware and Dropline Gnome from Windows ME. It's retarded simple to use. Of course, many Windows users are comfortable with KDE, which will run on Slackware right out the door.
If you aren't familiar with Slackware and you want to check it out, you might like to check out my site http://shilo.is-a-geek.com/slack . It gives lots of good tips on installing and configuring Slackware.
Linux has tools to make GUI fronts ends for backend programs. There is tk/tcl that can make GUI programs in hurry. If you know some people that can help you make perl scripts, they can make a few simple scripts to handle some config files. You should not have to teach them about Linux. Just show them some config formats.
If you do not want to make a GUI program, there a program called linuxconf that comes with Mandrake. It can be used in other distributions if you specify the right config files that it can edit. You can use linuxconf in both X Window Server and terminal environments.
Using desktop manangers like Gnome or KDE will eat up 64 MB of memory very fast. You may want to settle with XFce or something else. If you have some MAC OS X users XFce will be very easy to get comfortable. If you do not know what desktop manager or windows manager people will like, you may want to install almost of them. However, you do need Gnome and KDE for some programs to work.
Upgrading programs and libraries will be a nightmare but can be a little easy if all the computers are using a crontab to check for updates on your local server. All you need to do is have one guinae pig machine or many depending how varied your computers are to test out the update. After you test it, you can compile it and compress it and then put it on the local server. When the crontab sees a file, it fetches it from the local server, decompresses it and does make install.
Shilo and Electro- thanks for the awesome responses! I'm going to check out some of the things you recommended. Coming back to UNIX after not working with it regularly for 8 years has been interesting... the sheer volume of software (and variations on the same software) is absolutely bewildering.
Unfortunately, I'm not sure that patching together a system on my own is the right answer. Until you've worked with small businesses, it's very hard to understand just how confusing computers are to many people, and the extent to which they only understand what's going on on the "surface". Many otherwise intelligent people lack that conceptual mental model you and I have of how a computer works that allows us to get through a new computer interface intuitively, even if we've never seen it before.
Tools like CUPS and webmin (I haven't played with swat), while providing convenience for users who fundamentally understand what's going on underneath, would be absolutely baffling to your average office administrator, if only because the UI conventions differ so radically from tool to tool. I believe ESR or someone wrote a rant about CUPS in particular, which I have to agree with after trying it out myself. Sure it might beat editing printtab files, but that's not saying much.
I had really hoped that someone had identified this set of needs before and created a distribution (commercial or otherwise) that was focused on meeting it, with nicely integrated UI. Kinda like what Xandros and co. are doing for the desktop. Someone pointed me to Trustix and Nitix... I'm going to poke around and take a look at those.
Speaking of which, I've spent more time with Xandros since my post, and am becoming more and more impressed with it. I also just found Lycoris and am going to take it for a spin. Linspire is a flat bust, since I can't get it working under VMware and learned in the process that it's pretty picky about hardware, which makes it useless to me. I'll take a look at XFce, but I'm discovering a lot of the programs a previous Windows user might want to use (like Ximian Evolution) use Gnome or KDE anyway, so have fat memory requirements even if you aren't running the desktop.
I think that these markets aren't very well catered for right now. Most Linux distributions are targetted at people who understand UNIX, and are happy to tailor a system for their needs rather than just use a ready-made interface. As you say, it's important that the system is "standard" enough that the next consultant who looks at it will be able to work with it, which makes rolling your own systems a bad idea. For me the big hope is definitely Novell.
The Linux vendor SUSE that Novell bought offers server products for SMEs as well, and it's worth looking at their site, but it seems likely that SUSE's server stuff will be merged into the main Novell product line - The Linux-based Open Enterprise Server (aka Netware 7) sounds like it could be just the thing for SMEs. I like Red Hat, but they are really competing against Solaris etc. in large-scale/technical markets rather than against XP, Win2k3 and Netware in small organisations.
Sun are offering their entire Java Enterprise System of desktop Linux plus server products on very competitive terms indeed and say that they are keen to attract developers and resellers, but you will have to decide for yourself whether you think Sun are going to be able to work effectively in the SME market.
I had hopes for Xandros, and they said that they would produce a server to go along with their desktop product, but it still hasn't appeared and I suspect they've missed their opportunity. IMHO, although KDE looks good right now Novell, Sun and Red Hat have all now standardised on GNOME and the same GTK applications, so anything KDE-based is unlikely to be a good long-term bet.
SME Server is a Linux-based appliance OS that you can load on to a generic PC server, but it seems to be that full appliance LAN servers are usually sold as dedicated hardware with a support contract. Navaho's CAT range is one that looks interesting; there seem to be a few companies in this area but Navaho look like they could be a long-term success.
As regards desktops, 64Mb RAM systems really need to be upgraded to remain effective as workstations whether you use Windows or Linux. Like Win2k, KDE and GNOME just won't run smoothly on 64Mb RAM - the machines need to be upgraded to 128Mb. OpenOffice.org will also probably be unworkable on RAM-starved machines. If you opt to run a full Linux distribution like SUSE or Debian on a server then you can use the well-known LTSP package to make the PCs into thin clients, which removes the issues of low RAM and maintaining software on the desktop PCs. Sun's JES and Novell's forthcoming server also include the facility to use standard PCs as thin clients.
Hopefully you'll find something of value in this post-turned-essay. If you are successful please post your results - I think that there are a lot of us thinking about these problems, but unsure of the best long-term solutions.
Well, since my last post I played with Nitix, a commercial package from a VC-backed startup in Canada. It's pretty much precisely what I'm looking for on the server side... turns pretty much any machine into a server appliance that can act as a Windows domain controller, print server and file server with integrated backup. The downside? Although it's Linux at the core, the company is obeying the letter rather than the spirit of the GPL... it's a VC-backed for-profit venture, the website cites many "patent pending" technologies, it's only available through approved resellers, and the pricing is identical to Windows SBS.
Still, the featureset is pretty compelling... it makes *every* other LInux I've used look difficult to install (it boots to full capability from the 30MB ISO, and copies the necessary boot code and software when you configure the disks), there's a rather innovative hard drive backup capability, and the web interface for management is extremely straightforward. Ideologically I'm not sure they're an improvement over MS, but the minimal RAM and disk requirements are a huge benefit over SBS for running on legacy hardware.
Hob- I'll definitely check out the Novell stuff. They have name recognition in the SME segment (of which I'm serving only the bottom sliver), which is a big advantage. Sun, on the other hand... let's just say that in a former professional life I was fairly close to IBM / Lotus's attempt to make a run at the SME market in the late 90's, which was a complete failure, and Sun would have to become an entirely different kind of company to make it down here.
As for the thin-client thing, I should have been more clear about Windows ME replacement: this is entirely a home-user issue. I find very little ME in businesses (thank goodness), which are running mostly 2000 and XP. After spending more time with it, I think Xandros is probably usable enough on a 64MB machine to be an improvement over ME, and it's so cost-effective (both in terms of licensing and the time it takes me to install) that I think it's the direction I'm going to go.
Thanks for your insights... it confirms what I suspected, but haven't had enough visibility into the Linux market to know.
I think that for a business of that size, each and every distro will work. Some of them like Mandrake and SuSE have interfaces to administer common tasks that are so easy you won't need an expert. Anyone from the office can do it after a 2-hour crash course. This includes file sharing, printing, installing, updating, user management etc.