Cookin' with Linux

While installing and building Linux servers has never been simpler, it's still easy to get burned. There are many ways to roll a Linux-based solution, and not all of them will fit your customers' specific needs.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Linux isn't just making headlines, it's cooking up some business. The day surely will come when a customer asks you to concoct an Internet server solution based on Linux. Hey, no problem - you're a smart systems integrator, right? While installing and building Linux servers has never been simpler, if you've never done it before, it's easy to miss a pinch of this or a pat of that and get burned. There are many ways to roll a Linux-based solution, and not all of them will fit your customers' specific needs.

So it is that we followed the trials and tribulations of a small New Jersey-based brick-and-mortar cellular-telephone equipment reseller, First Communications. First Comm recently decided to use Linux to build its first Internet server. The company decided on Linux because of its low entry cost and the abundance of free software. While the company's internal tech-support staff and integrator had ample experience with Windows NT and NetWare, they didn't know Unix or Linux. They quickly discovered that the Linux world was quite different and rife with issues they had never anticipated. Sound like a recipe for disaster to you? Pull up a chair, and read on.

First Communications had a smorgasbord in mind for its first Internet server: static and dynamic Web page serving, e-mail messaging, e-mail list-serve hosting, and, eventually, e-commerce. Additionally, because First Comm had subsidiary businesses for which it wanted to serve sites, it needed "virtual" hosting. While virtual hosting is simple with Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS), you can't just add water and mix when you're working with Linux and the Apache Web server, especially for Linux newbies.

Because of its reputation as the de facto Linux leader and its strong technical-support options, the company picked the Red Hat 6.2 Linux distribution and easily installed the default configuration on its server. Before purchasing its server, however, First Comm had to make sure that the hardware was supported by Linux. While Linux's hardware support is quite broad, it's better to stick with name-brand hardware, especially if you go the white-box route. Going to build your own? Then it's best to choose motherboards from big names like Abit, Asus, Intel and Tyan; SCSI host adapters from Adaptec, Advansys and Buslogic; network interface cards from Intel, SMC and 3Com.

First Communications also considered the possibility of going the Linux-based Internet appliance route, and briefly evaluated Cobalt's Qube 3 Professional, Rebel.com's NetWinder and Technauts' eServer.Net. All of those solutions are easy to set up and administer, but none of them had sophisticated virtual domain hosting capabilities.

If First Comm wanted that capability in an appliance, only Cobalt's higher-end RaQ4i would do. While an excellent ISP web- and site-hosting product - at more than $4,000 for an entry-level hardware configuration - the RaQ4i was out of First Comm's price range for its first Internet server. Besides, even the RaQ4i was also a little too locked down to load with add-on software, especially those subsystems that require kernel re compiles, like PHP and the mod_perl add-on for the Apache Web server software.

So it was that First Comm went ahead and bought a white-box Intel-based server, a generic Pentium III 600MHz system with 256MB of RAM and an 18GB SCSI hard disk, from its systems integrator. This configuration was more than enough to handle a decent-sized website as well as a healthy amount of e-mail.

While Red Hat Linux fits the bill on the price and configurability front, First Comm found out the hard way that administering Linux was difficult without having a Linux guru at its disposal. Even doing simple tasks like adding new users, creating new directories and managing e-mail issues can be challenging without Unix expertise. Compared with NT, IIS and Microsoft Exchange, Linux is no GUI-lover's picnic.

Although First Comm outsourced the hosting of its gear, if your server is hosted on your own premises, you'll also want to set up a proxy to prevent hackers from getting onto your LAN, especially if you're going to share files using FTP, NFS or Samba. Unless you know exactly what you're doing, you're probably turning off those services on a Linux server.

Additionally, you'll want to configure Linux's native IPchains firewall service to minimize the risk of someone breaking into your system. And, if you are going to administer the server yourself via a remote connection, you should seriously consider secure shell services like OpenSSH.

Turn Up The Heat To add to First Comm's Linux configuration and security woes, setting up domain hosting for e-mail also required major knowledge of both Sendmail and Apache configuration files - which to the uninitiated can be much like trying to decipher the Rosetta stone. None of that is extremely difficult, but it did require that someone become a Linux expert.

First Comm found partial relief to its Apache and Sendmail woes, and most of Linux's configuration snafus, in WebMin (www.webmin.com), an open-source, free software module that plugs into virtually every Linux distribution. WebMin allows Linux servers to be managed via a browser interface. While its support of Linux services and configuration options are comprehensive (Webmin supports no fewer than three dozen Linux/Unix subsystems built into the program, including Apache, DNS, FTP, NFS and Samba), it's no Cobalt RaQ for ease of use, and it does require an expert administrator.

Unfortunately, First Comm didn't have and couldn't develop a Linux guru, so after about a month of use, it decided to ditch its Red Hat 6.2 software setup in favor of the NetMax Professional Internet Suite (www.netmax.com), a customized Linux distribution for Internet sites.

In essence, NetMax enables you to build your very own Internet appliance based on any PC commodity hardware. At $500 a copy, it's not free software, but it allowed the financially constrained First Comm to do enough without having to hire a Linux guru.

NetMax provides virtual Web hosting, headache-free e-mail configuration, simple user account maintenance and networking services configuration, all from an idiot-proof web-based interface - and that's what First Comm was looking for. NetMax also is fully configurable if you're looking into open-source e-commerce-type applications like OpenSales (www.opensales.org) or if you need to provide PHP-based and XML dynamic Web content through Zope (www.zope.org) or Enhydra (www.enhydra.org).

Flavor To Taste In the end, First Comm found that simply biting into a popular Linux-based Internet server solution doesn't work. Linux itself is inexpensive, but implementing a solution, especially without completely understanding the situation, can be as expensive as any commercial setup.

The lessons here are the same ones we've heard about for years, even before the open-source software revolution. You need a solid analysis of your customer's needs, requirements and technical resources to implement your suggested solutions. Armed with that recipe, your installation should be far more palatable than that of First Communications.

Call For Backup

If you're going to go the Caldera, Red Hat or Turbo Linux route, consider a support contract from any of those companies. After all, that's what separates the commercial Linux vendors from the "me too" distributions. And when you eventually do get stuck with a tech-support problem for which your local Linux whizzes don't have an answer, even with the help of Usenet or IRC, you'll have someone to fall back on for assistance.

If you do decide to go with a lesser-known distribution, or even roll your own, you should still concoct your own support net. San Francisco-based Linuxcare is an ideal partner.

Editorial standards