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Linux servers for Windows folk: go on, give it a bash

A piece of cake – even for non open-saucy types

The essential guide to IT transformation

Despite all the hullabaloo about Ubuntu and other desktop offerings, for most organisations, the main use of Linux is on servers.

Ignore all the waffle about flashy desktops and which browser is best, because the truth is, most organisations run on Windows and tons of Windows software – perhaps with a few Macs thrown in – and they can't change OS because they need those particular apps.

It's why so many organisations are still stuck with IE6.

But Linux makes a great server OS, and all the guff about GNOME versus KDE and so on becomes completely irrelevant. The vast majority of Linux boxes have no graphical interface at all – they're headless servers, silently slaving away in corners of computer rooms or in racks in datacentres. In fact, there's a very good chance that the router connecting you to the Internet right now is a Linux box, and pretty much anyone can configure one of those these days. You point a web browser at its IP address, fill in a few boxes, and you're good to go.

And although they don't get much coverage, there are a handful of Linux distros that make setting up a server as easy as that. This is the big secret that even most open-saucy types don't know: that if you choose the right product and it fits your requirements, successfully deploying and running a Linux server is a piece of cake.

Easy to use, but you have to find them first

These distros are pretty obscure, though. You'll probably never have heard of any of them. Forget the big-name ones such as SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) or Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). All the big players shamefully neglect the user-interface side of their server offerings. Their "server distributions" are no more a server OS than a box of Lego is a toy car.

SLES and RHEL are just bags of components for skilled sysadmins to construct a server to fulfil some task. First, you install the OS, then on top of that, you install the server applications – say Apache to serve web pages or whatever – and hand-write the config files to make it do what you need. Then you modify more config files and settings to lock down the machine's security, possibly install some monitoring tools and deploy it. It's a complex and elaborate task and the various tools to remotely provision machines or push ready-made config files onto new servers don't save the work, they merely move it elsewhere.

Even a handy shortcut such as Webmin only simplifies things a bit – you still need to know about what services to install and how to configure them. Webmin saves you editing config files yourself, but you still need to know what needs to go into those files.

As such, Linux might be an excellent server platform with robust enterprise-quality apps, but you need to wheel in the black T-shirt brigade to build and maintain your servers. Most businesses run Windows, meaning that Windows techies are far more plentiful, a lot cheaper, and more easily findable. And replaceable.

So long as you have a fairly ordinary list of requirements – file sharing (so that people can keep their work on a shared network drive), email (so that everyone has a company email address), printer sharing (so you don't need one printer per desk), possibly hosting a company web page, and so on – then an all-in-one server distro will sort you out just fine. Getting it up and running is no more than an afternoon's work for any reasonably competent techie with basic networking and general technical knowledge.

The contenders and the big bruiser lurking in the wings

For about five hundred quid, Microsoft will of course be very happy to sell you Windows Small Business Server with a sumptuous five whole client licences. An extra five seats will be another couple of hundred quid, thanks very much, and it grows from there. For 20 seats, SBS can cost well over £1,000, more than even a quite highly-specced purpose-built server machine. Also, SBS, as it is not-very-affectionately known, is quite a complex bit of software and its administration has its own specialist skill-set: it is not the same as administering ordinary Exchange Server on vanilla Windows Server.

Which is where our specialist Linux distros comes into play. There are three main contenders: SME Server, ClearOS and Zentyal.

Next gen security for virtualised datacentres

Next page: Similar to the core

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