Linux Containers Authors: Liz McMillan, Elizabeth White, Zakia Bouachraoui, Pat Romanski, Stefana Muller

Related Topics: Linux Containers

Linux Containers: Article

How to create a Linux-based network of computers for peanuts

You don't need to spend $1,000 per user to create a modern, friendly, fast & productive computer system.

(LinuxWorld) -- A couple of days ago I had to add another workstation at work. Fortunately, we already had a monitor, mouse and keyboard, so all we needed was a PC with enough umph to run KDE, Star Office, AbiWord, and Netscape, which we use to access our browser-enabled applications.

I schlepped down to the local computer shop and shelled out $25 for a PC, another $1 for an Ethernet card, and $1.30 in sales tax. I was a bit miffed at myself for spending so much since the machine was a bit overkill for our needs, but who doesn't overspend when buying hardware?

Actually, the question isn't rhetorical.

The answer is, almost everyone.

The press focusses on the infinitesimal cost of Linux software, which is understandable. However, the great, underreported Linux story is how cheap an organization can be when buying hardware. Certainly, a 1.4-GHz desktop with a quarter-gigabyte of RAM and God's own hard disk is nice for video production, games, and software development, but it's unnecessary for people who use a computer as a productivity device.

In this series, I'll show how little you need to spend to outfit your organization -- big or small -- with hardware some might consider worthless, while giving away nothing in utility, speed, reliability, ease of administration or use. Sound impossible? It's not, as the City of Largo, FL (see link below), my company, and no doubt others have proven.

Let's dispel Microsoft's FUD

Remember Bill Gates and Microsoft are on a 20-year jihad to put a computer on every desktop. Very democratic. Very empowering. Very inefficient, especially for a bunch of people who work together. Let's assume for a moment that not every user needs on their desktop a computer that, 10 years ago, would have been classified as a supercomputer.

Let's also assume that users don't need a copy of Microsoft Windows. Let's install a copy of Linux on each computer instead. That saves on licensing fees, but runs square into Microsoft's Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) criticism of any operating system that's not Windows.

Microsoft's standard line goes something like this:

"Total cost of ownership is often higher when free operating systems are used in lieu of proprietary commercial products. Free operating systems are not ready for the desktop are difficult to use and to administer. Also the cost of an operating system license represents only a fraction of the cost of a PC."

That is probably true for those who persist in deploying Linux as if it is substitute for Windows. Of course, these people are essentially allowing Microsoft to tell them how to use Linux. Microsoft has a vested interest in steering the industry away from the best Linux techniques.

Naturally, PC makers encourage a Windows-oriented approach. They may concede Linux's capabilities as a server. They also endorse Windows as more suited to the desktop, because Windows helps guarantee that every desktop be equipped as a $1,000 workstation. Windows PCs are replaced every three years or so, which is long before they are worn out. It is planned obsolescence, and Microsoft and PC manufacturers have evolved toward a synergistic relationship that shakes coins from your pockets.

The other chestnut is ease of use. "Windows is easy," goes the argument, "and Linux is different and therefore hard to use." I find new employees, including those with little or no prior computing experience, become productive more quickly (and without risk to data) in a graphical Linux environment than with Windows. KDE, as only one example from the plethora of Linux desktops, is not that different from Windows from the perspective of a terrified new user.

Many applications are standard fare on lots of different platforms: Netscape is Netscape and Corel Wordperfect is Corel Wordperfect whether the underlying OS is Windows, Linux, or Unix. Yes, there are some things that a few (usually, "know-it-all") users think they should be able to do -- things we refuse to permit them to do. After all, we don't pay people to import viruses or play combat games, do we?

Linux is not only ready for general use on the enterprise desktop, it has been ready for several years. The only real barrier to more widespread adoption is in the minds of managers and system administrators who are stuck in the rut of expensive, powerful workstations -- whether running Windows or Linux.

The low-cost alternative

There is a better way. The two popular Linux graphical user interfaces are easy for new users to adapt to. They are freed from administrative tasks. Networks are easy to set up and administer -- even by "intermediate newbie" standards. And not just easy, but also, a cost-effective approach that emphasizes "cheap." Cheap workstation computers. Cheap server computers. Cheap networking hardware and cabling. Extended upgrade cycles for all equipment. And Linux, which is almost free.

"Cheap and easy" should set off alarm bells if it accurately describes the person you intend to marry, but may be precisely what you should look for in a computing environment. Whether the enterprise is a small business or a department within a much larger organization, Linux, coupled to the X Window System's ability to provide centralized execution and distributed/remote display, provides more than enough performance and ease-of-use for non-geek users and on cheap hardware that won't even permit experimentation with the latest Microsoft products.

The key is a form of server-centric computing built around X terminals. For our purposes, an X terminal is a graphical dumb terminal. This is a device capable of providing a GUI console to access an "application server." Sticklers for accuracy may argue that a PC with local media and an operating system isn't an X terminal -- some point out that an X terminal is not a computer -- but if a machine behaves like an X terminal, I'm prepared to regard it as an X terminal. Linux makes it easy to configure any PC to act as a dedicated X terminal.

"Okay, so what's an 'application server'?" Again, for our purposes, an application server is a computer that not only stores applications (for example, Star Office) but that also executes these applications for remote display and input from -- you guessed it -- an X terminal.

How is this possible?

The X Window System makes it possible. X permits a program to execute on one machine and display on another. X makes it easy to configure many machines as dedicated X terminal workstations. X terminals boot automatically to the graphical login prompt (XDM, KDM, GDM) of a single machine -- the Application Server -- to permit all users at all workstations to login and go to work just as if they were seated at the application server's local console. The entire network appears to users as one machine. The application server is configured like any standalone workstation. Our mini-mainframe is a mere commodity PC.

How do I define "commodity PC?" Minimal. Until they see it in action, most people don't believe how well a 200- to 300-MHz machine with 80 to 128 megabytes of RAM will perform. Such a PC easily provides KDE to several users and running applications like Netscape and yes, Star Office, to these users logged in at their PC X terminals.

As for X terminals, as I mentioned at the top of this article, X terminals themselves don't need much horsepower. PII, PIII and beyond are the stuff servers are made of and are unnecessary for workstations. An ordinary 486DX with 16 MB of RAM makes a good X terminal and a 486SX or 386DX with 8 MB will do in a pinch. In my experience, P75 to P100 machines with 24 MB are at or near the upper limits of performance improvement. Faster machines are fine, more RAM is great, but a P200 X terminal with 128 MB of RAM does not outperform a P75 with 24 MB.

The $25 PC I purchased recently is a 66-MHz 486DX with 16 MB of RAM, a floppy drive and 250 MB hard drive. The $1 NIC is a BNC NE2000 clone. Thinnet performs perfectly and well below network capacity for dozens of X terminals. Unless you have an allergy to coaxial cable there isn't a requirement to spend more for 100BaseT.

And that is the key to economical server centric computing with Linux. The PCs used for workstations can be obsolete, amortized, depreciated, recycled or free. The PC X terminal workstations can be boxes that wouldn't permit you to install a Pentium-only distribution like Mandrake as a stunt -- but you can use Mandrake from them quite easily if that's what you want to do.

Users can play musical chairs among all the workstations, and securely login to their accounts in a LAN-wide homogeneous computing environment. Perhaps best of all, the sysadmin does not have to know or learn anything about network booting, bootproms, remote printing, NIS, NFS, DNS, DHCP (or other abbreviations and acronyms such as NRA, SDS, SLA, USAAF, ERA, TGIF, Sadbus, Snafu and NFG).

Next installment, we will get into the nuts and bolts of constructing a network that is powerful enough for the enterprise and cheap and easy enough for family use at home.

More Stories By Colin Mattoon

When not buried under his real job in commercial two-way radio system design and sales, Colin Mattoon is a part-time Linux system administrator at Northwest Communications in Lewiston, ID.

Comments (3)

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.

IoT & Smart Cities Stories
Moroccanoil®, the global leader in oil-infused beauty, is thrilled to announce the NEW Moroccanoil Color Depositing Masks, a collection of dual-benefit hair masks that deposit pure pigments while providing the treatment benefits of a deep conditioning mask. The collection consists of seven curated shades for commitment-free, beautifully-colored hair that looks and feels healthy.
The textured-hair category is inarguably the hottest in the haircare space today. This has been driven by the proliferation of founder brands started by curly and coily consumers and savvy consumers who increasingly want products specifically for their texture type. This trend is underscored by the latest insights from NaturallyCurly's 2018 TextureTrends report, released today. According to the 2018 TextureTrends Report, more than 80 percent of women with curly and coily hair say they purcha...
The textured-hair category is inarguably the hottest in the haircare space today. This has been driven by the proliferation of founder brands started by curly and coily consumers and savvy consumers who increasingly want products specifically for their texture type. This trend is underscored by the latest insights from NaturallyCurly's 2018 TextureTrends report, released today. According to the 2018 TextureTrends Report, more than 80 percent of women with curly and coily hair say they purcha...
We all love the many benefits of natural plant oils, used as a deap treatment before shampooing, at home or at the beach, but is there an all-in-one solution for everyday intensive nutrition and modern styling?I am passionate about the benefits of natural extracts with tried-and-tested results, which I have used to develop my own brand (lemon for its acid ph, wheat germ for its fortifying action…). I wanted a product which combined caring and styling effects, and which could be used after shampo...
The platform combines the strengths of Singtel's extensive, intelligent network capabilities with Microsoft's cloud expertise to create a unique solution that sets new standards for IoT applications," said Mr Diomedes Kastanis, Head of IoT at Singtel. "Our solution provides speed, transparency and flexibility, paving the way for a more pervasive use of IoT to accelerate enterprises' digitalisation efforts. AI-powered intelligent connectivity over Microsoft Azure will be the fastest connected pat...
There are many examples of disruption in consumer space – Uber disrupting the cab industry, Airbnb disrupting the hospitality industry and so on; but have you wondered who is disrupting support and operations? AISERA helps make businesses and customers successful by offering consumer-like user experience for support and operations. We have built the world’s first AI-driven IT / HR / Cloud / Customer Support and Operations solution.
Codete accelerates their clients growth through technological expertise and experience. Codite team works with organizations to meet the challenges that digitalization presents. Their clients include digital start-ups as well as established enterprises in the IT industry. To stay competitive in a highly innovative IT industry, strong R&D departments and bold spin-off initiatives is a must. Codete Data Science and Software Architects teams help corporate clients to stay up to date with the mod...
At CloudEXPO Silicon Valley, June 24-26, 2019, Digital Transformation (DX) is a major focus with expanded DevOpsSUMMIT and FinTechEXPO programs within the DXWorldEXPO agenda. Successful transformation requires a laser focus on being data-driven and on using all the tools available that enable transformation if they plan to survive over the long term. A total of 88% of Fortune 500 companies from a generation ago are now out of business. Only 12% still survive. Similar percentages are found throug...
Druva is the global leader in Cloud Data Protection and Management, delivering the industry's first data management-as-a-service solution that aggregates data from endpoints, servers and cloud applications and leverages the public cloud to offer a single pane of glass to enable data protection, governance and intelligence-dramatically increasing the availability and visibility of business critical information, while reducing the risk, cost and complexity of managing and protecting it. Druva's...
BMC has unmatched experience in IT management, supporting 92 of the Forbes Global 100, and earning recognition as an ITSM Gartner Magic Quadrant Leader for five years running. Our solutions offer speed, agility, and efficiency to tackle business challenges in the areas of service management, automation, operations, and the mainframe.