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Enterprise Computing for the Office
by Michael C. Barnes (Jun. 3, 2003)

One of the challenges for the Open Source and Linux advocates has been the dominance of core business systems that now run on Microsoft Windows platforms. Many Unix and Linux advocates promote the idea of replacing these systems with Linux. This is the same strategy that the Unix vendors proposed to mainframe customers many years ago. Today, there are still data centers that run on mainframes.

While it would be very difficult to replace existing core business systems, it is not so difficult to implement a strategy to use Linux to access these core business systems. This document outlines an approach where organizations can use Linux to augment or replace PCs with thin or lean clients that are easier to support, less expensive to purchase and more secure.

Large Organizations have facilities called data centers that are the heart of the organization's IT infrastructure. Most data centers are located in a special facility with raised floors, air conditioning and teams of experts that keep everything running smoothly.

The servers in the data center hold the corporation's most sensitive data and run the applications that are mission critical for the organization's survival. A lot of money is spent to protect this data. Many of the servers are fault tolerant or highly available. This means that these systems have redundancy that insures these servers are operating and on line at least 99.999% of the time.

If these vital systems fail, then the organization is unable to operate. These servers keep airplanes flying on schedule, make sure customer orders are accepted, keep inventory, hold human resource information and keep telephone lines working.

Many data centers to go to extremes to make sure their systems continue to operate and that the data on these systems is protected. Many data centers have backup recovery centers (BRCs), where all the data is replicated at an off site facility, ready to come on line should a disaster occur at the primary site.

Data Centers use sophisticated backup systems to make sure that they can quickly recover data no matter what happens. The professionals working inside these data centers are highly trained and usually well paid.

Outside the data center, things get a bit sloppier. Generally speaking, computers are added as new people join the organization. Each person has their own disk drive and they are responsible on their machine. This is not such a problem as most of these organizations tie the PCs into the data center and vital data is never really stored on these PCs. The PCs are used simply as clients that access data on servers. Should the PC fail, a new PC will access the same data that is safely stored and maintained behind the glass walls of the data center.

Many organizations start out small and grow. As an organization grows, they add more and more PCs and things start to get pretty complex. Most small offices use a networking style called “peer-to-peer”. Peer-to-peer computing means that every computer in the network is independent of one another. The data each individual needs to perform their function is stored on their own local hard disk. Each user is responsible for backing up their data and each system has to be independently protected against viruses.

There comes a point in every organization where they reach a point where peer-to-peer computing becomes unwieldy and things quickly degrade to chaos. There is no central control of information and no assurance that the data a given individual is using is the latest or most accurate information.

At some point, disaster can and often strikes. The hard disk holding all the customer data crashes. The information is gone. The company's inventory database gets infected with a virus that wipes out all the data. Someone makes a mistake and deletes a vital file.

Historically, the solution has been for organizations to invest in building a data center. There is no more expensive investment than to invest in infrastructure. Many organizations will continue to flirt with disaster and leave their vital information dangerously exposed until the situation reaches a crises point.

Data centers have large storage arrays that replicate data onto multiple disk drives. Some PCs come with special PCI cards called RAID devices that allow you to use multiple hard drives to either improve performance, increase the storage space available from a single mounted file system or to replicate data across more than one drive.

Most people are not aware that it is possible to create a RAID device using only Linux software. The process is straightforward. You simply select the option to create a RAID device when you initially install your operating system.

With two drives, you can protect your data and if the second drives fails, you can still boot with the first. If the boot drive fails, the data will be intact but you will need to recreate the boot drive and then move the data. If you set up a RAID device with three drives, you will be able to have a backed up boot drive ready, no matter which drive fails.

NorhTec's newest product is called the Digital Filing Cabinet (DFC). The name of the product describes completely what the product does. The DFC is a device that allows you to store all your vital information securely. The NorhTec digital filing cabinet is essentially a small energy efficient computer that uses two drives to store data instead of one. It is possible to use a standard PC case and create this same functionality but the NorhTec DFC. Therefore, for the rest of the article, the use of the term DFC will refer to either NorhTec’s device, the DFC or to any server set up in a similar fashion.

Imagine that the information now stored on computers were in paper form rather than in digital form. Imagine that you can see the data in your organization as it is scattered around the office. The image that you would visualize would show that your vital documents are spread all over your employee's desks. Nothing is properly filed. Only the person handling the documents knows where anything is or how to use it.

An office manager would require that all of this information were properly sorted and stored in folders that are stored in drawers in a filing cabinet. Anyone needing to access information would know how to access the information by simply going to the filing cabinet.

Some filing cabinets would be locked and only some worker would have keys to access that information. Some files will be too sensitive to be left in a public area so you would keep this information in a more secure area.

The NorhTec implements SAMBA so that the device looks like a Microsoft Windows server to the network. It is possible to do this with just about any Linux distribution. To use the file server, all that is required is to access the file server via Microsoft's Network Neighborhood. Existing files are simply copied from local hard disks onto the DFC and users will then create an ICON to their desktop so that they now store and update information onto the file server.

Data centers use systems that work just like the. These are called Network Storage Arrays. These devices are often very large and expensive. The DFC provides the same level of data integrity as a costly Network Storage Array but in a small, inexpensive package. Users can create this same functionality using Red Hat or other Linux distributions.

Because data will be available on a single device rather than spread out in multiple machines, it is now possible to establish a virtual private network (VPN) for workers to access information even when they are off site.

It is also possible to create a “loop-back” encryption system that will allow you to encrypt data that is stored on the DFC.


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