Article

Adding Linux to your network: Which flavor do you want?

Jeremy Moskowitz, Contributor

Part of an occasional series about Windows and Linux integration.

Your team members are asking you for it. They want to start introducing Linux to your data center or network infrastructure. You're already running Windows. Is adding Linux worth it?

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Ostensibly, both Windows and Linux do the same stuff: file serving, print serving, Web serving, serving up core network services (like DNS and DHCP) and more. So, why bother?

The Linux camp's message is clear: It's free, so it's here to stay. Get used to it. The Windows camp's message is clear too: We were here first. You already trust us (sort of). We own the desktop. And making the switch to Linux could be mind-bogglingly expensive.

Is there a middle ground? Absolutely, and it comes in the form of integrating Linux into your existing Windows networks, or vice versa.

But, before you go headlong into trying to marry the two operating systems, it's important to understand just what you're getting -- and getting into. Discovering the right Linux package will be your initial hard labor.

Making the choice: Understanding distributions

Even if your team is telling you Linux might be a good addition to the lineup, you have to take a step back and first decide which Linux you might want -- and where you want it. Oftentimes, the choice is already made as to the variety of Windows to integrate. On the server, it's typically either Windows 2000 Server or Windows Server 2003; on the desktop, it's Windows 2000 Professional or Windows XP.

As for Linux, at my last count there were nearly 100 different flavors, or distributions, to choose from, including some interesting new desktop options. These distributions fall into four main categories.

1. Fully supported/mainstream

Some distributions are "mainstream" -- they are actually in use in corporations around the country. For instance, Red Hat Inc. and Novell Inc. on the server make some of the more popular commercial distributions. Contrary to popular belief, these distributions are not free. Indeed, there is a per-copy license fee and ongoing maintenance and support fees.

2. Fully supported/less mainstream

There are up-and-comers in the Linux world, and they're hoping to be as mainstream as Red Hat and Novell. Specifically, distributions like Xandros (a nice desktop replacement) are attempting to gain mindshare with businesses. They'll usually add some special ease-of-use features to entice IT managers to take a closer a look at Linux. Again, most of these distributions also require a per-copy license fee and ongoing maintenance and support fees.

3. Community supported/"pseudo-mainstream"

Two popular distributions are Fedora Core 3 and SuSE Desktop. Indeed, those distributions are 100% free cousins of Red Hat and Novell, respectively. That is, there are no costs -- whatsoever -- involved in using them all over your business. These versions of Linux will, more or less, run and act quite similarly to their fully supported cousins. However, to get support you have to be creative, and you might have to get Web-based, community support or other non-traditional support if something doesn't go the way you want it to.

4. Fringe and pseudo-fringe distributions

If you look hard enough, you will find all sorts of "fringe" distributions, which are sometimes bleeding-edge, low-support or for very specialized applications. You could find a Linux distribution optimized for quick boot to, say, support a custom car radio. Others are "pseudo-fringe," such as Gentoo Linux and Debian Linux, which cater to Linux power users. Most of these distributions are 100% cost-free, but support while using these kinds of distributions is limited to Web-support at best.


Jeremy Moskowitz, a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is an independent consultant and trainer for Microsoft Windows technologies. He runs two community forums, www.GPanswers.com and www.WinLinAnswers.com, that answer tough questions about Group Policy and Windows/Linux integration. Jeremy's latest book, Windows and Linux Integration: Hands-on Solutions for a Mixed Environment (Sybex, 2005), is available at WinLinAnswers.com. His popular book, Group Policy, Profiles, and IntelliMirror (Sybex, 2005) is available at www.GPanswers.com.


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