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Case Study of Linux Usage in a Small Web Development Company

Aug 10, 2001, 00:34 (25 Talkback[s])

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By Alex Bache

Linux promises to provide a low-cost alternative to Microsoft software, but can it really deliver? In this article we discuss our experiences of installing and using Linux. Abrantes is a small web development and training company. We use Linux for the following

  • File/print server
  • Development database/web server
  • Desktop environment
  • Testing platform for web sites

Why did we choose Linux?

We have to work with Linux when creating e-commerce web sites, since it is a common choice for a web server. Since we have dial-up Internet access, it is impractical to develop sites using a remote server. While this is our main reason for using Linux, we quickly realised that it could offer other benefits beyond being a simple web development platform. One of the big deciding factors was cost. Since Linux is free, it eliminates the software licensing costs associated with a Windows 2000 or NT server. Another deciding factor was reliability. Since we cannot work without the server, it must be very reliable. Our experiences with Linux have shown it to virtually indestructible. It never crashes, it just works.

Setting it up / configuration

Installing an operating system is relatively painless. The difficult part is configuring it to work properly. This is true of both Linux and Windows. We found Windows easier in this respect but setting up a server is never easy and there is always some learning involved. Fortunately, you only have to do it occasionally. We use the Caldera OpenLinux eDesktop 2.4 distribution of Linux, which is quite old. Our experience with a later distribution called Linux Mandrake 8.0 showed it to be far easier to configure and we are currently migrating to it. We use Linux on a single PC as both a server and a desktop operating system. This would not be advisable using Windows, but seems to have no problems under Linux. Installation of software packages is quite easy once you get used to it. We find that rebooting is seldom necessary when installing new software or changing the configuration.

How well it does its job

Linux appears in the Network Neighbourhood just the same as any other machine on the network. We use it as a file and print server in this respect. The web server allows creation of new web sites quite easily and the database server is ODBC compliant so we can operate it using Microsoft Access as a front end. Using Linux as a desktop operating system is problematic. Our main problem is the lack of compatibility with Microsoft Word and Excel files. Although Sun's free StarOffice suite imports/exports Word and Excel documents, it is not perfect. For internal documents this is not an issue because we have StarOffice for Windows. It is similar enough to Word and Excel to be relatively easy to adjust to for simple tasks. Overall, Linux performs very well as a server and is suitable for desktop use in limited situations. We still use Windows because we need tools like Dreamweaver and HomeSite, as well as Word and Excel compatibility. We also need Internet Explorer to test our web sites.

Ongoing problems

Our only problems are using Linux as a desktop operating system. As well as Microsoft Office compatibility problems, there are a few other issues. Accessing the Network Neighbourhood from Linux is more involved than it should be and some web sites look a little strange when you view them using anything but Internet Explorer. As a server, we have no problems at all.

Future aspirations

We currently run the Caldera eDesktop 2.4 OpenLinux distribution, but will be converting to Linux Mandrake 8.0 in the near future. This should solve some of our configuration and desktop problems. We follow the development of three products with particular interest; StarOffice, Webmin and Mozilla. StarOffice has now become OpenOffice and should support Microsoft Office XP's file format extremely well. Webmin is a simple web based administration system for Linux that makes configuration easier. Finally Mozilla is the product which new versions of Netscape are derived from. We are currently under-utilising Linux. We intend to use it as an email and fax server, an Internet gateway/firewall and possibly a web cache/proxy server. All of these are available to us and we don't have to pay a penny more for the software to do it, since it comes as part of Linux.

Conclusion

We find Linux an extremely capable server platform as long as you are willing to spend some extra time learning how to set it up. On the desktop we see great potential that has yet to be realised.