IT Profile: A Linux Lovin' IT Manager

A network administrator talks about the joys and headaches of running a data center, including his fondness for open source software.
As the IT manager for Dynamix, a 60-person engineering firm in Columbus, Ohio, Matt Darby oversees a network that combines Windows and Linux. His servers all run Linux, the Slackware distribution, and his desktops all run Windows XP.

Although he’s comfortable with both operating systems, Darby freely admits he prefers one over the other. "I am a complete Linux fan boy,” he says, with a laugh. “Totally.”

The reasons for his Linux preference are twofold. First, “It’s free – I don’t have to deal with all the licensing.”

Second – and just as compelling – is Linux’s functionality. “It’s insanely powerful. It’s much more tricky, but it takes the reins off.”

Some IT managers shy away from open source because it’s more complex. Darby concedes that, yes, running Linux does require admins to keep their brains engaged.

“If you type a character wrong, you do run a risk. If you’re doing dumb things you can destroy the machine.”

Open source requires “a lot more massaging, but you get a lot more out of it.”

Another problem with Linux: staffing a Linux-based data center is usually tougher than staffing a comparable Windows-based network. "There are more people who know Windows because it’s basically the same interface on a server as on the desktop installation,” Darby says.

But even within this obstacle, he finds something to like: “With Linux, there’s a smaller number of admins, but that’s nice because it drives up your pay.”

Peaceful Coexistence

“With my data center, I like to keep it real simple, very tried and true,” he says. “I have a few test servers I try new programs on, but I try not to touch the production servers too much.”

He gives part of the credit for this tried and true workflow to Slackware. This distro is sometimes called “the granddaddy of all commercial Linux distributions” because it launched back in the prehistoric era. (Version 1.0 came out in 1993.)

“A single guy supports it, and it’s really known for its stability,” Darby says. “It doesn’t change much, so it’s rock solid.”

He creates peaceful coexistence in his network between the Windows desktops and the Linux servers using Samba, the industry standard for Linux/Windows interoperability.

“It works beautifully,” he says, noting that the program allows the two OSes to communicate seamlessly. "The Linux is a domain server, which basically mimics Active Directory on the Microsoft side – it runs just like a champ.”

Headaches – and Solutions

Darby’s biggest headache as an IT manager is dealing with Smartphone syncing. The PDA data of the employees on his network, information like calendars and address books, hasn’t always been in sync with the information stored on their desktops.

In particular, handling Windows Mobile 5, Microsoft’s newest release for mobile phones, has been tricky. “We put in a new e-mail server called Scalix. It's basically like an open source Microsoft Exchange, but it’s kind of sketchy when it comes to Smartphone syncing.” The interface between Outlook and Scalix is proving problematic.

His solution: he’s installing NotifyLink, a messaging server for Smartphones. “It’s a stand alone server that syncs Smartphones. It runs on Windows right now but they’re going to Linux soon.” NotifyLink is interoperable with Scalix and Groupwise and other well-known messaging suites.

NotifyLink should solve the problem – “hopefully,” he says.

Darby is scrupulous about protecting the security of his network. Every connection point is, of course, fully encrypted. “We’ve got a nice IP table, a Linux-based firewall, so it does a lot of nice logging – we haven’t been cracked yet.”

However, there have definitely been attempts. “People try to hit you on SSH all the time – continuously,” he says. Hackers are always trying to gain root access.

Typically, the black hats run scripts that throw common user names and passwords at the system, attempting to gain access. Their hope is to use the machines as a “zombie” system, possibly to launch DOS attacks.

Open Source VPN

Handling pesky sales calls from vendors is a nuisance faced by most IT managers. But Darby has built his own “firewall” against this time waster.

“Vendor management for me is voicemail and caller ID. I let them ring through and I listen,” he says. “If it’s interesting I’ll give them a ring back. I don’t need to be sold something.”

When not dodging sales calls, Darby is particularly fond of introducing new services. “I inherited this network from someone who had been here about six years, and he went into ‘maintenance mode,'" he says. In contrast, Darby is always thinking of improvements.

For instance, he launched the firm’s VPN. The VPN program he chose is – no surprise – an open source app. It’s called OpenVPN. “I have it very fine-tuned, where someone just double-clicks a file and they’re connected. Still, there are issues on Windows desktops.”

Are there any limits to Darby's affection for open source?

Probably not. “I think Linux’s potential is massive,” he says. “I don’t think it’s really been reached yet, especially in the small business. You just can’t beat it.”






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