EServer is easy to install but difficult to configure

EServer is easy to install but difficult to configure

Caldera's Linux NOS has features to interest enterprise managers, but beware its sparse documentation

By Steve Graves

Special to GCN

Linux isn't going to topple Microsoft Windows NT or Win 2000 network operating systems anytime soon. But leading publishers of Unix NOSes have real reason to worry about Linux.

OpenLinux eServer 2.3 from Caldera Systems Inc. boasts a graphical interface to ease administration. Though unpolished, it appears solid and might be a viable choice for agencies that have the expertise to manage it.

The Webmin graphical interface is Caldera's contribution toward easing Linux configuration, but it is counterintuitive and inadequately documented.

When I set out to install OpenLinux eServer, I enlisted the help of a friend who, like me, had a smattering of Unix knowledge. We decided to go through a dry run, then read the documentation and do everything right. We didn't expect to get Linux up and running right away.

After inserting the installation CD-ROM in the server drive, I discovered we would have to drop down to the complementary metal-oxide semiconductor chip level and change settings to boot from the CD. We went through the installation routine for 21'2 hours, occasionally referring to the documentation but mostly making selections based on our collective experience with other NOSes.

We got the server up and running with this haphazard approach. We decided to do it over, reformatting the hard drive and this time installing every daemon, service and application on the CD'almost a gigabyte worth. You can get by with as little as 40M for a minimal installation.

The second time, it took only 20 minutes to make the selections and another 20 minutes or so for the system to read from the CD-ROM and write all the packages to the hard drive. The advantage of Linux multitasking soon became apparent.

Instead of showing a cryptic 'Please wait' message, the installation screen suggested playing Tetris while the final installation chores churned away.

There is a big difference between installing Linux and configuring it. I set out to convert everything running on my NT 4.0 LAN'Web, e-mail and print servers, and Windows 98 clients. I had limited success after about a week of intense work and at least eight hours of phone support from Caldera.

Box Score '''''''''''''''''''

OpenLinux eServer 2.3

Caldera Systems Inc.; Orem, Utah;

tel. 888-465-4689

Price: $199

+ Easy installation

+ Pretuned for Pentium II, III and Pro

+ Can be configured for up to 4G of RAM

' Needs much improvement in documentation

' Complex configuration

Real-life requirements:

Pentium II or faster CPU, 100M to 1G of free storage, at least 128M of RAM, CD-ROM drive

My biggest complaint about OpenLinux eServer 2.3 is inadequate printed documentation. My second biggest complaint is inadequate online documentation.

Caldera's Webmin graphical administration interface is what you use to configure Domain Naming System servers, the Apache freeware Web server, the Network File System and other modules. The problem is that many of the screens are spottily documented or lack documentation. The online references are written for command line or script configuration'not Webmin. Every book I consulted was script-oriented, too.

Not only is Webmin poorly documented, but in some places it is also counterintuitive. For example, I could easily set up virtual Web servers as long as I assigned them discrete IP addresses, but virtual servers that shared the same IP address were more difficult.

I set up a virtual server that shared the address of my default server. The virtual server displayed the proper pages. But the default server persisted in fetching pages from the virtual server directory instead of from the default directories. The fix was to create another virtual server using the default server settings.

Although you can configure many elements from Webmin, it does not display all options and modules. For example, there is no option to edit File Transfer Protocol servers within Webmin. You must find the two or three configuration files associated with them and edit by hand.

Caldera representatives acknowledged that it is faster to edit scripts than to use Webmin. I eventually abandoned Webmin and used one of my existing editors to get things rolling. The scripts themselves were well-documented and, because of their linear nature, more intuitive than the dozens of undocumented data fields in Webmin.

On a positive note, changes in the edited scripts immediately showed up in the Webmin configuration screens. Once I figured out what was expected in each option box, Webmin became more useful.

The exception to Caldera's general underdocumentation was the Samba module. Samba includes the smbd server daemon that provides file and print sharing services to LANManager clients such as Client 3.0 for MS-DOS, Windows for Workgroups, Win9x, NT, OS/2, Dave for Macintosh and smbf for Linux.

The Webmin configuration screen for Samba has a help file for each option. Using Linux as a primary domain controller is considered experimental, but I was able to get one client operating that way.

Setting up a peer-to-peer network was much easier. Using Samba, I could share directories and printers with minimal trouble, but I could never get a printer working from the Linux server itself. My LB-4 printer from Canon USA Inc. of Lake Success, N.Y., was too old to warrant a driver, and Linux does not support my Hewlett-Packard DeskJet. I finally set up a raw printer file on the Linux server that let me use the correct drivers on a Windows station.

I still can't print directly to the Canon printer, but I can use the stations to open files on the Linux server and print to the Canon. I can share the HP printer from any station.

OpenLinux eServer has features that might make a difference to enterprise managers:

''EServer's hardware- and software-level RAID support is compiled into the kernel, and disk quota support is enabled by default. EServer comes with packages already optimized for Pentium Pro and faster processors, so you need not recompile for enterprise hardware. EServer by default supports 2G of physical RAM. If that isn't enough, you can build the kernel up to 4G.

''The default system security policies appear to be thorough and stringent. My port scan showed everything buttoned tight. Caldera includes additional pluggable authentication modules.

''Raw input/output support makes it possible to improve database performance if programmers are available to take advantage of it.

''The included MySQL database manager, though not as powerful as Oracle, is popular among Unix users.

Even so, hardware support under Linux'even setting up a monitor'is a challenge. It took me four hours to get one monitor adjusted. Make sure drivers are available for your peripherals before moving to Linux.

Many managers have avoided open-source Linux primarily because of the lack of support and accountability. Caldera provides free, 30-day telephone support and 90-day e-mail support. Also available are fee-based support with one-hour guaranteed response time and on-site support.

GCN's review of Red Hat Linux pointed out that Linux distributors and programmers must pay more attention to interfaces and documentation if they want to reach the enterprise market [GCN, Nov. 22, 1999, Page 25]. Administrators take for granted the context-sensitive menus, wizards and documentation that are standard in Windows.

NT can't match Linux or Unix in scalability and resource efficiency, but Windows 2000 is gaining ground. Linux packagers must conquer the ease-of-use issue to compete.

Steve Graves, a former GCN reviewer, is publisher of Technical News Service Inc. of Cheverly, Md.

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