Consider this the first in an occasional, meandering series of articles on Linux done right. These aren’t meant to boost the sales of any particular vendor, but instead are meant to show other end users, IT managers and decision makers what to look for when vetting applications and operating system migrations. It can be support, migrations strategies, execution or anything and everything in between. If it’s Linux done right, then you’ll find it here.
First, a little background.
I initially spoke with John Flores, a system administrator with the University of Texas at San Antonio, earlier this year for a broad SearchEnterpriseLinux.com article on Linux support. The article focused on the good, the bad and the ugly of working with commercial Linux distributors, as well as with the alternatives like CentOS and Debian. It was also a comparison of the past, present and future of Linux support as a whole.
Flores and his data center — like many data centers today — were at a crossroads. He was using Windows NT as his domain controller, but it was update time as a few Dell servers were past their prime and new ones were set to be introduced in the summer of 2006.
“We had an old Dell 6300 that was to be put out of service … it was what was running the NT 4.0,” Flores told me. “Rather than move NT 4.0 to a new server, we were looking for an OS that could put onto a new server and it was going to be either Linux or MS.”
But old servers weren’t the only issue at the U of T that summer. Flores explained that NT 4.0 had become “unstable, mostly due to age.” The software configurations were also old and difficult to maintain, he said. and a lot of “junk” had accumulated over the years. The clutter was quickly becoming a maintenance issue for the IT staff, he said.”We were having a server failure almost once every two weeks. A server would have a major problem so we’d have to reboot it and bring it back up again,” Flores said. But then things got even worse.
“Because this is a university environment, we have a whole new set of something like 5,000 users changing over every semester. We have to log all those IDs and passwords every semester.”
Windows closed, Linux openedSo Flores, sticking with what he knew, immediately set out vetting a Windows Server 2003 upgrade (he already had a Windows Server 2003 academic license on hand).
“We were already running Windows XP in the classrooms so we had no reason not to consider Microsoft on the server too,” he said. “It seemed like a natural progression from NT 4.”
The relationship, for all the familiarity between interested parties, did not last much longer. Flores said he and his staff tested Windows Server and were uncomfortable with the way that the software wanted to take over domains and become the domain controller immediately even though it was deployed in a testing environment. This was an unacceptable development, as Flores’ department had to peacefully coexist with a larger university-wide network environment and needed to be somewhat separated. Separate but equal, right?
“Server wasn’t necessarily bad — it has a lot of features on the surface that would be fine for the average person,” Flores said.
But Flores was no “average user.” In fact, he said to me that the nature of his department is such that every employee needed to be a “server specialist” (think: “jack of all trades”). Oh, and they didn’t really have a lot of cash on hand for training into how to manage a MS SQL Server machine. “There’s probably a few things we could have done with it on the server, but we’re really not familiar enough with the OS to do it,” he said.
So an educational institution’s IT department is strapped for cash and wouldn’t have the time for training even if they did have the money for a Server upgrade. Sounds like a job for Linux and open source software (OSS), right?
Samba and open source management
Flores was already familiar with Linux and open source software — especially Samba — thanks to a healthy dose of toying around and testing that he had done on the side while his Dell servers toiled away running Windows. “We knew Samba provided Windows domain capabilities … we knew that the [industry leaders Red Hat and Novell] used Samba in a pretty much straightforward command line, customized way,” he said. It was straightforward, yes, but Flores contended that for his shop at least, the technology wasn’t very accessible.
“You could bring over existing NT 4.0 sets of users, but we have to be able to update it every four months or so, and we did that already through a flat file from registrar’s office,” Flores said. No need to fix something that isn’t broke, right?
But during the vetting process Flores’ team also started to look at utilities that could be deployed on top of Samba. One early front runner that showed promise was an unnamed end user management utility, but like many freely available projects (from SourceForge, for example), it needed a little work before Flores would have allowed it in a production level environment. Flores decided to keep looking for something similar but with a little more support.
The surfing and searching eventually led Flores to Xandros, a Linux desktop vendor that has only recently started to dabble in the systems management space. “We saw a demo at an academic technology conference in Austin,” Flores said. “[They] had a desktop product running and we sampled it. We saw their commercial version, and it was pretty well integrated so we could easily run Microsoft apps on it.”
Could I get a Linux support Amen?
Then Flores sampled the server side of Xandros’ offering, Xandros Server, and saw that the vendor’s strategy was geared towards users who wanted to migrate from Windows with as little a learning curve as possible. He was hooked. Windows didn’t stand a chance. The vendor built a “nice front end to manage applications, including Samba,” he said. The vendor had also only just released the product when Flores first took a look, but that didn’t seem to matter.
“My coworker is a Macintosh maniac; always saying Macs are so easy to use — but even when he saw the Xandros interface he said it was easy as a Mac,” Flores said.
Xandros Server provided the department with the point and click interface it needed to avoid learning curves and other time constraints. It even allowed for a command line interface, which Flores said was perfect for his department’s needs.
Also perfect was Xandros approach to support. As I noted in an article for SearchEnterpriseLinux.com this summer, the support situation can still be a pain point for IT managers deploying Linux and Linux-based applications.
“I could call them, or pick up phone, and one or two people personally responded. It was a first name basis in 24 hours or less,” Flores said.
And then it went even further than that. “When it got time to import the users in September for the Fall semester, we told Xandros what we were trying to do, and a guy at Xandros wrote a utility for us to import users on routine basis with complete step-by-step how-to.”
The attention was a first for Flores, who said he had never seen of heard of a vendor — especially and operating system vendor — go that far. “With 150 PC’s and five different laboratories, we’d hear it from faculty if things didn’t go smoothly,” Flores said. “I wasn’t expecting a lot of support, so the fact that we got great support blew me away. We were used to large companies like Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, where you just expect that it is going take a while to get answer looking for.”
Oh, and not to sound completely like a Xandros infomercial, but then things went further still.
When Xandros Server was all settled in and humming along, Flores ran into some issues when installing some network attached storage. “We were doing a TCIP connection to a server and a RAID and trying to figure out how to set that interface up. It wasn’t clear to me how to do that with our configurations,” he said.
So, Flores fired off an email to Xandros support. Within a “day or two” the company had sent him a customized step-by-step how-to guide on how to connect the RAID to their unqiue configuration. “This issue hadn’t come for them before, but now it’s published on the Xandros web site,” he said.
Today, Flores manages his Windows XP PC’s, printers, laboratory thin clients and Linux servers all via a central hub in Xandros Server. Other IT managers might have used something different, then again maybe not. For Flores and the University of Texas/San Antonio, however, this was the perfect application for his environment.
EDIT/correction: Removed “SQL” from copy.
Have a Linux Done Right success story you’d like to share? Send it to me at Jack Loftus, News Writer and I guarantee I’ll get you the 15 minutes of IT fame you so richly deserve.