Linux as a Workstation

The most common use for computers in business today is in the role refereed to as a desktop machine or an end-user’s workstation. These sit around offices in great numbers, perpetually requiring upgrades, and are used to enter, coordinate and produce data and documents relevant to the operations of the business. This is an area where traditional operating systems like MS Windows and the Mac OS currently have the majority of the market share.

But as we’ll see, this may soon begin to change. When people think of the user interface for Unix, they often think of what’s called the command-line interface (CLI) or shell access. This is a very powerful form of access which is always available for advanced users, but which tends to frighten new users. But for such users, there is also a full range of desktop environments, or Graphical User Interfaces (GUI), which make Unix (and Linux) as user friendly as a Mac or Windows machine.

The two most popular Free desktop environments for Linux are Gnome (URL:http://www.gnome.org/) and KDE (URL:http://www.kde.org/). These competing projects both allow a complete Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointers (WIMP) environment which can be configured to look and act almost exactly like either Windows 95/98 or the Macintosh interface. Or they can be configured be unlike anything you’ve ever seen before — transparent windows, non-rectangular window dressing, extended input device handling.

As with everything else with Linux, the amount of configuration possible is amazing. I recommend spending some time at the two sites to gain an understanding of what’s possible with these tools. Be sure to check out the screen-shots. And for those in the know, find and read the CORBA references — these aren’t your older sibling’s GUI.

What is important to remember about the Linux as a desktop option is that you get the stability and security inherent in a Linux system. As with everything else in Linux, the GUI is written with clearly defined points of demarcation, at what are called the Application Programming Interfaces (API). This means that development is much more manageable and bugs are less likely, and are easier to track down when they do occur. The Linux GUI is also immediately network ready, so it is trivial to have a program running on one computer, but have its windows open and being used on another.

But of course, a desktop is nothing without the applications which are needed to fulfill the business’ needs. These needs can vary considerably from business to business, and even among different workstations within an organization. The most common type of applications are office suites consisting of word-processor, spread-sheet, database and presentation programs. Other common types of applications are connectivity tools to larger back-end systems or the Internet, accounting and other specialized programs, and custom applications.

Linux will not run programs written for Windows or the Macintosh (directly), but there are a great many applications which are available in native executable which can satisfy a surprisingly large number of cases. As an example, there are over a half dozen office suites which are available for Linux, several of which can read and write MS Office files, and most of which are available for free. For examples, go to (URL:http://www.freshmeat.net/) and search for “Office”.

For connectivity tools, Linux is very strong. Netscape and Mozilla are of course both available, as is Real Network’s RealPlayer G2 and Adobe Acrobat Reader 4.0. Traditional Internet client applications like FTP and telnet are available in both CLI and GUI forms, as are more main-frame oriented tools like IBM 3270 terminal emulation. Using such tools, Linux can be easily configured to be a secure client to a server application, and could, for example, replace the workstation environments in use at most banks.

Other desktop application of particular note is the GNU Image Manipulation Program (the GIMP) (URL:http://www.gimp.org/), a free program which is comparable to Photoshop. This tool is being developed on Linux, but is also being ported to Windows. Imagine how important a free tool like this would be to an art teacher with a 30 station computer lab available to him, but only a six station license for Photoshop.

There are a great many applications available for Linux to handle a wide range of business needs. Where free tools aren’t available, commercial offerings often are, many from well-known producers. Spending time at the web sites mentioned above, as well as the common Linux news sources like Linux Today (URL:http://www.linuxtoday.com/) and Linux Weekly News (URL:http://www.lwn.net/) will give you a good idea what kind of applications are available. Just ignore all the geeky stuff — you generally don’t need to worry about it unless you enjoy that kind of thing.

I am always surprised and amused (or perhaps that’s saddened) by how many workstation computers I see in day-to-day use which have an expensive commercial operating system on them, and the sole function is to use tools for which there exist fully-functional, and often free, equivalents for Linux. Is your business paying for software that you don’t need to? How much is that next software upgrade going to cost you? A few hours of web surfing might convince you of what the many who use Linux for all their desktop needs already know: for a great many cases, you don’t need to do Windows.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.

Linux: The Network Administrator’s Secret Weapon

One of the strongest business cases driving networking in small and medium sized organizations today is the need to give workers access to the Internet from their workstations without having to dial-up directly from each machine. It is e-mail and Web surfing more than printer and file sharing that users are demanding. And thanks to inexpensive high-speed networking options available from both cable and telco companies, fast shared Internet access is now easily available. The only problem is, it isn’t always secure.

The best way to protect the machines in a Local Area Network (LAN) from attack from some remote location on the Internet is to put a firewall or secure router in between the LAN and the Internet. This hardware/software combination ensures that only trusted remote machines can access anything within the LAN — it is common to not let any remote machine have access such than only machines within the LAN can start a connection. Many people don’t realize how often remote crackers scan 24/7, always on connections looking for mis-configured services to leverage against to gain access or deny services.

While dedicated firewall/router hardware devices can be purchased, they tend to be quite costly. Less expensive solutions also exist for Windows and Macintosh platforms, but they can be difficult to configure to be fully secure and are often exposed by security issues within the OS themselves. A more optimal solution is to use one of the available Linux and Open Source Software (OSS) floppy based router projects, or to configure a full Linux installation to render these services.

As an example, find an older x486 style machine with 12 or 16 megabytes of RAM, and install two 10 Mb/s Network Interface Cards (NICs). Then download and follow the instructions to create a floppy-based installation of the Linux Router Project (LRP) available from (URL:http://www.linuxrouter.org/). A more powerful machine can be a 100 Mb/s router, as well as provide additional services detailed at the web site.

If you find the instructions too complex, you can forgo the flexibility and configuration options the LRP gives you by using a different floppy based distribution like the FirePlug EDGE Router Project, developed in Vancouver. Available at (URL:http://edge.fireplug.net/), there are special Quick Start Instructions written for Windows users to get a LAN onto the Internet via a Rogers@Home connection. The same instructions should work for Shaw@Home as well as Telus’ ADSL service.

On the other hand, if you’re wanting more power and flexibility than what a floppy based system can provide, install a 600 megabyte or so harddrive into the above machine, then put a full Linux distribution like RedHat or Debian on the drive. Lastly, read and follow the instructions in the IP Masquerade and Firewall HOWTO documents at the Linux Documentation Project (URL:http://www.vlug.org/linux/LDP/). Although written for the more advanced user, anyone familiar with networking issues shouldn’t have any difficulty at all.

Another area where Linux and OSS can deliver a superior solution, from both a technical as well as a financial perspective, is as a file and print sharing server for Windows clients. Called the Samba project (URL:http://www.samba.org/), the software allows a Linux (or any Unix) machine to provide Windows NT and LAN Manager-style file and print services.

Samba can also provide NetBIOS name-server services, which means the Samba server shows up when browsing the local network from within Windows. It can even be the Primary Domain Controller in a NT style network. This doesn’t mean much to most people, but it will to the IT/Network Manager when she realizes that it means NT isn’t needed in the network supporting the Windows clients anymore, and the $4,000 (US) cost for the license for the Enterprise Edition of NT, allowing only 25 users, can instead be spent elsewhere.

Now, it is never a good idea to replace working, existing systems in a hurry. If your organization is already running NT as the file and print server, it is recommended to try out Linux and Samba in parallel with the NT Server to start using a similar, or slightly less powerful, machine. Because Linux can mount SMB shares as a remote filesystem, it is easy to copy the existing shared filesystem over to the Linux disk, and then compare the results accessing the two machines. You’ll be stunned by how snappy and stable the Samba server is, even under heavy load.

A nice side effect of running Samba on a Linux server is that it means the organization’s intranet site can be run using Apache (URL:http://www.apache.org/), the world’s most popular and flexible web server, on the same machine. People can update the various pages using the text or web editing tools they’re used to on their own workstation using file-sharing. No using FTP tools to move files back and forth, just point and click.

These are just a few of the areas Linux and Open Source Software can bring technical flexibility and cost savings to an organization’s networking systems. Because of the open, peer reviewed nature of the systems’ development, your organization is ensured stable and secure network operations. In the next article, we’ll take a look at the growing case for using Linux as a end-user’s desktop environment, and the situations where this is an option now.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.