Linux servers, Windows XP desktops: a happy marriage?

Case study: Linux and FOSS rule the backend but Windows and Microsoft Office rule the desktops

The IT folks love Linux. The users know, and therefore love, Windows. Sound like a war? For Wade Stankich, it's more like a happy marriage.

He and his team have built an infrastructure that gives everyone their favorite operating system. At his company, he's running Ubuntu 9.1x on nearly all of the company's 20-odd servers and Windows XP on the desktops of roughly 80 clients (although the IT folks use Linux desktops, too). Everybody's happy, especially the company's CFO. And his comfort level with open source -- free and commercially supported -- is so high, that a few years ago he even yanked out a Call Manager blade server and replaced it with open source Asterisk.

Stankich, IT manager for Astro Shapes in Struthers, Ohio, is something of a trailblazer. In 2005 he had already removed Windows from the servers and was using Linux, mostly Gentoo and some Fedora. It took him a couple of years to dismantle what was at that time an aging  Windows 2000 network that included a few really decrepit NetWare servers. Since then, he's slowly transitioned almost entirely to Ubuntu for the servers, finding it easier to administer than Gentoo.

"We’re using Ubuntu 9.1x and we have plans to go to 10 but we're still testing. The total cost of ownership for the long term supported versions is cheaper [compared to Windows]. We chose Ubuntu because of the ease of setting up a server, but we use Red Hat Enterprise for our Oracle databases. We wanted to support Oracle databases all under one roof so we bought Oracle's Red Hat Enterprise Linux [clone]," he describes.

When he says total cost of ownership is lower, he means it. Since the days when his company ran Windows, he's slashed his overhead by two-thirds (hundreds of thousands of dollars), needing less than half the people he did back then. "When running a Windows environment we had 10 people in my department. We run with four now," he says. The cost savings are there, even though he pays his higher salaries for good Linux admins than he did for Windows folks. "Compared to maybe most network admins, I have to pay more. The good ones are hard to find."

But the effort of finding good Linux administrators -- and requiring that all of his admin staff complete the Linux Professional Institute certification -- pays off. "Sometimes I see discussions from the Windows guys. They say Linux is hard to setup. Yes, compared to a Windows Server, it's harder to setup. But once you get it set up, you walk away from it. Also just like anything else, once you know it, it's easy. I’m a former Windows guy … you just have to sit down and hack your way through until you know it," he says.

And for that extra configuration effort up front, Stankich says he gains a whole lot of piece of mind. Not only does he feel that Linux is more secure, but it's tireless, even in a 7x24 environment. "When running Windows, there was always that whole having to reboot. If you didn’t want unscheduled downtime -- well downtime was not being tolerated by our ownership. We noticed that with Linux platforms, it's solid after the install," he says.

Years ago, Stankich and his team thought what was good for the servers could, maybe, be good for the desktops, too. One problem, Stankich describes the business folks as "big MS Office users." So the IT team tried to transition everyone to Sun's OpenOffice, with disastrous results. Employees revolted. MS Office came back and end users have been running XP ever since.

The team doesn't plan on trying to take Windows away from users anytime soon. Eventually, he'll upgrade the staff to Windows 7. "We’ve only had the opportunity for two installs of Windows 7 to integrate with the domain controller and had mixed results. I see us going there eventually when the issues joining Windows 7 desktops to the domain are solved."

Obviously, with Linux on the servers, Astro Shapes doesn't use Exchange for e-mail. It uses EGroupware. Most users were OK with giving up Outlook for Thunderbird, with only two holdouts that insist on accessing EGroupware via the Outlook client. Astro Shapes uses Cyrus 2.2 for IMAP servers and uses Gyrus -- and the command line -- for admin tasks.

SAMBA and CUPS are used to help desktops grab server files and print documents. LDAP is used for directory services with Apache and TomCat for Web applications, with PHP/CURL the dev environment of choice. This means using a host of open source tools for other admin tasks, too. "For the LDAP directory, we use openLDAP. We use Apache Directory Studio to administer it. This is an Eclipse-based project."

Security is the task of a squadron of open source favorites. Anti-virtus is handled by ClamAV, e-mail attachment cleaning is handled by MimeDefang. Proxies and caching are done by Squid. And to round it off, Dans Guardian is used for Web content filtering. Another favorite, though it isn't entirely open source, is i-net Crystal-Clear (an alternative to Crystal Reports).

As I mentioned, the company also booted out Cisco for VoIP and opted for open source Asterisk for its PBX. "We replaced a Cisco Call Manager blade server with Asterisk around 2007. We are able to use our old Cisco phones with it, too," he describes.

Stankich says that any Windows IT folks that still have qualms about Linux in their mission critical environments really need to invite it into the lab, load it up and give it a chance.

"Bring it into the lab and start using it, start replacing back end pieces with it. Linux keeps moving forward. Whether you adopt it or not depends on corporate mission, but in the end, every company exists to make money," he says. If your infrastructure can be more reliable and more affordable, what have you got to lose?

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