The Old Ways are the Best Ways

You can only know a subject well by living and working with it. Indeed, I live with the technology I write about. While that usually works to my advantage, there are days like yesterday when the technology rears back and bites me.


You can only know a subject well by living and working with it. Indeed, I live with the technology I write about. While that usually works to my advantage, there are days like yesterday when the technology rears back and bites me.

It started when some of my older servers showed signs that they weren’t long for this world. There’s nothing like starting your day off with the hard drive failing on not one, but two servers. My use of RAID drives saved me from disaster, but it was clear that my 1995 vintage Pentium boxes were near the end of their useful lives.

So I went out and got a pair of new HP tc2110 servers with 1.7GHz Pentium 4s and half a gigabyte of RAM to replace my pair of doddering NEC boxes with their 120MHz Pentiums and 64MB of RAM.

The funny thing about upgrading was that those old boxes were just fine for file, print/Web serving, and e-mail for years, but HP considers the tc2110 ideal for small businesses “making their first network infrastructure investment.”

Oh, please. It’s not just HP, all the hardware vendors say things like that. The truth of the matter is that if I wasn’t in the business of peeking over the leading edge of technology and reporting what I find, I would have just dug up some old drives and popped them into my “antique” hardware. For the vast majority of home, small business, or departmental server uses, the oldest, slowest server you’ve got, plus Linux, is all you really need.

Once I had the new machines in hand, I decided to not to use their existing Linux implementations; instead, I installed the latest, greatest versions of Caldera OpenServer and Red Hat Linux on them. Why, since the HP boxes already came with Linux? Because, as I said at the start, it’s the only way to make sure I know what I’m talking about.

Here’s what I discovered along the way. First, the new generation of Linux installation tools really do make life much easier. And while they’re great for people like you and me, they’re still a little much for Microsoft network administrators. Case in point: while customizing my Red Hat setup, I cut out emacs as I always do — I’ve been a vi guy since day one — and I accidentally zapped some of the core emacs files that other programs need in order to work. The Red Hat installation program caught my mistake, and I hit the button to make the needed changes.

That was great. But I wondered what a Windows network administrator would have made of the message. So, I picked up the phone and asked one. He didn’t have a clue. He would have tried to press on without the files, fouling up the installation. Sad, isn’t it?

But sad or not, it shows that even today’s easier Linux still isn’t easy enough. In a way that’s not a bad thing. The real power of Unix has never been captured in any GUI — from Looking Glass (an old favorite of mine) to today’s KDE and Gnome. To really get the most from Linux, you need to know shell commands and scripting languages. That was true in 1982; it’s still true in 2002.

Take, for example, Samba, everyone’s favorite program to hook Windows PCs into Unix file systems and printers. Now Caldera does a good job of making Samba easy to set up with its GUI Webmin interface; what that doesn’t do, the GUI Samba Web Administration Tool (SWAT) does. And, to top it all off, the still-beta Ksamba — a KDE attempt to make managing Samba easier — also helps you configure and run Samba. Yet, despite all that help, I still ended up at my command line, doing some quick shell scripting using adduser and smbpasswd to set up users who were already on the domain and doing vi surgery on the smb.conf files to get my new Samba server set up as a Primary Domain Controller (PDC) for my Windows PCs. The result? An hour later, all my Windows PCs and users were talking to the new “NT” file and print server.

Could I have done it with the GUI tools? Nope. In fact, since SWAT cleans up comments and rearranges the smb.conf file, the quick and easy way to manage Samba would have messed up my customized Samba setup.

Don’t get me wrong. I like easy to use interfaces. Case in point: since I can’t stand configuring sendmail, Qmail is my mail transfer agent of choice. But I had a local friend who was determined to use sendmail, so I helped him set it up using Webmin. With Webmin, I actually, well “enjoyed” would be too strong a word, but it certainly made sendmail configuration much less of a pain than it usually is. That said, for fine-tuning, it was still me and vi vs. the configuration files.

So, despite fancy GUIs and easy to use tools, as it was in the beginning, it is now, and will be forever, nothing beats knowing the Linux command line.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is a long-time Unix guru and technology writer. He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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