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Linux in the Enterprise

Linux in a Multivendor Environment


In the first few articles in this series, I talked about strategies for getting Linux into your organization and covered areas where it's possible to work Linux in your enterprise as a stand-alone entity, such as a network sniffer or as a web server. However, one of Linux's strongest suits is as an "interoperability agent" that can allow a company to support multiple platforms, such as Windows, Unix systems, NetWare, and Apple Macintoshes painlessly from one central server.

How does this happen?

Some background

One of the most interesting aspects of Linux development is that, apart from the kernel itself, there has been no grand plan governing the evolution of the overall system. In true open source fashion, the various kinds of applications and non-kernel services available for Linux have developed directly in response to the needs of the user community. This is true in the *BSD world too, but Linux advocates have raised it to an artform, as can be seen in the offerings available at the open source software site or at the open source collaborative development nexus, SourceForge.Net, both of which are owned by VA Linux Systems.

A typical example: A developer somewhere in the world needs to have a data logging system that can monitor a collection of serial ports but can't afford a commercial data acquisition system, so he or she sits down and writes one.

Another development scenario is that a developer wants the same capabilities as a commercial package on their Linux box, but the vendor of the commercial package shows no interest in making a Linux port -- a common solution is to write a compatible package. GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a perfect example of such a package. The GIMP is a Photoshop-compatible system which offers a wide variety of image creation/manipulation facilities.

Lastly, another common occurrence is that packages, such as the AppleTalk file-sharing package NetATalk which was originally written for BSD-based Unix systems, are ported to Linux.

With all of the packages that have been ported from other Unixes and the native Linux development that has gone on, Linux has an amazing capability to interoperate with or translate to/from almost any other kind of computer system and applications package currrently available on any operating system platform.

A concrete example

How does this make a case for Linux in the enterprise? Say, for example, you worked in an office where there were the following kinds of computing systems used by various groups and divisions:

  • A network of Macintoshes being used by designers and artists
  • A collection of Sun workstations being used by some engineers
  • Some Windows NT boxes sharing files via a NetWare file server used by management
  • Some Windows 98 boxes using workgroup shares and sharing several printers
  • A small (but growing) collection of Linux workstations running StarOffice or Applix

Suppose the management of your firm gives you a chance to reduce the server-count from four (NFS, NetWare, Macintosh, and Windows for Workgroups) to one, single system that will transparently take care of the needs of these diverse systems. How can this be done?

This is a realistic, but obviously contrived, scenario to demonstrate how you could use a single Linux box to solve the file and printer sharing for all of these systems.

If you were to put together a modest Linux system (a reasonably fast PII/PIII system, or even a spare Sun or Compaq/DEC Alpha box) with a generous allocation of memory (say, 192Mb) and enough disk space to match the sum-total of the existing disk space on the existing servers, you could set up this system in a day (not including copying all the files from the other file servers and clueing the user community in on the new service)!

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