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  Linux Letter 12

The Linux Letter for August 30, 1999

Welcome back to another edition. Eagle eyed readers will notice that this issue of the Letter is several days late. Chalk it up to the demands of an 18 credit engineering schedule, work and the occasional attempts to keep the computers in the nospin.org network operations center up and running.

I work in research and development for a mid-sized company in Boise, Idaho that makes things that are designed to work with the Internet. In fact, I'll even put in a good word for them, since they're decent enough to work with my horrible schedule and still smile when I ask for a paycheck. The company is Extended Systems, Inc. What, you ask, does this have to do with this column? Plenty! Besides putting a few extra dollars in my pocket so that I can buy computer parts and type this article, ESI also makes a Linux-powered network appliance that I helped develop.

The ExtendNet 4000 isn't a solo player in the field of "thin" servers. Several other companies produce their own versions. But before I put the cart before the horse, let's talk about what a thin server is and how it relates to Linux.

Thin servers are something fairly new. They represent a moderately powered computer, perhaps running a Celeron processor and 32 to 64 MB of RAM and a 4 to 10GB hard drive. Their purpose in life is to provide a home or small office network with a connection to the Internet that all of the clients on that network can use. Ideally, they are transparent to the kind of computer on the network… whether PC, Mac or some other kind, as long as the client uses Ethernet and TCP/IP, the server should be able to work with them.

Most of the servers on the market provide a basic set of services like email, web hosting, proxying, firewalls and file storage. They also allow connections to the Internet via modem, Ethernet, ISDN or ADSL. Most are maintained remotely, either through telnet or via a web interface.

Not all of the thin servers on the market use Linux, and while that may not be to their detriment, the same forces that drive prices and margins down for PC's make business tight for thin servers. That means that any costs that the manufacturer can shave will be reflected in the price. And that's why Linux appears to be the operating system of choice for this segment of the market.

But why should you purchase what is already available for free? If you're a moderate to expert Linux user, there's no reason! Linux already comes with a robust set of Internet tools that, in most cases, will allow you to get on the Internet as soon as you install the operating system on a computer. To achieve some of the additional services, you'll have to fiddle a bit.

Email: Every distribution that I know of comes with Sendmail, the Internet standard email processing program. In a default installation, Sendmail is already configured.

Web Server: Again, I don't know of any distribution that doesn't come with Apache configured and ready to run. It has the largest installed base of any web servers in the world.

File Storage: You may need to work a bit. Linux supports NFS, the Network File System, a method of sharing information between Linux and other UNIX boxes. Programs are available for Windows to allow them to mount NFS volumes, but a better choice is Samba, the Windows networking service for Linux that allows a Linux server to act as a host in a Windows network. Configuration ranges from extremely easy to very torturous, depending upon your topology and system requirements, but usually isn't too hard. The Samba HOWTO is a great help.

Proxy and Firewall Services: Sometimes you want to maintain control of what Internet services are accessible to your clients and how those clients should be seen to the outside world. A proxy server like Squid accomplishes the task. Ease of configuration tends to be the same as Samba. Fortunately, there are HOWTOs that help.

You can even configure your thin server to support IP Masquerading, that is, using the single IP address from your ISP to support several computers on your network. Again, HOWTOs are a goldmine of information.

You might get the impression that if you purchase a ready-made thin server like the Extended Systems Extendnet 4000, Technaut E-Server, Cobalt Qube or Rebel.com Netwinder that most of the headaches of configuration will be resolved for you. And for the most part, you'd be right! But if you're a tinkerer like I am, you won't be able to resist the lure of creating your own customized version of the manufactured servers, something that will do exactly what you want it to do.

And you already know what it took lots of research and development dollars to discover: Linux can do it!

Extended Systems: http://www.extendsys.com

Technaut: http://www.technaut.com

Cobalt: http://www.cobaltnet.com

Rebel.com: http://www.rebel.com

Linux HOWTOs:
http://www.linux.org/help/howto.html

 

Hot Tip of the Week

You're using the terminal in X-Windows and you realize that your eyes hurt because you've been squinting at that 1200x1024 display on your 14" monitor all day. Rather than bite the bullet and edit XF86Config and change your display resolution, why not just change the size of the font? You can do it by pressing <Shift> and <+>. Make sure that you're using the + key on the numeric keypad. Did you go too far and now it looks like King Kong's typewriter? No problem… <Shift> and <-> your way back down.

Happy computing!

Drew Dunn

 



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