Many small businesses think the servers they use all run Windows operating systems, but many file server appliances are Linux-based systems using Samba for interoperability with their Windows or Mac clients. By using a combination of a Linux server with Samba file sharing software, you can achieve all the desired functionality of a Windows server without the license fees and feature bloat.
I once worked for a company that developed Windows applications software using UNIX systems. The software engineers needed to access data on the UNIX servers from their Windows computers, but the software they used to do so was clumsy, did not support NetBIOS (an early Microsoft file sharing protocol), and -- at $200 per PC -- it was rather expensive. When they found Samba, they never looked back. With no client software required, it was simple to install (it took about 30 minutes), the price was right (free) and, best of all, it was completely transparent from the user perspective it looked exactly like a normal Windows file or printer share.
Given the increasing (albeit hidden) prevalence of Linux in the small business environment, a brief introduction to Samba, one of the most commonly used interoperability tools, is in order. For many small businesses with relatively simple file server requirements, using a Linux file server with Samba can be a cost effective option to cutting file and printer server headaches.
It was originally developed in 1992 by Andrew Tridgell to solve interoperability problems between his Linux/Unix servers and Windows-based clients. In plain English that means that Samba lets Windows clients use non-Windows file and print servers as if they were Windows servers.
At the core, Samba uses the Microsoft standard file transport protocol known as the "Common Internet File System", or CIFS -- commonly written as CIFS/SMB. The name Samba was derived from the protocols former name, Server Message Block (SMB).
If you're curious, you'll find the source code and much more information at samba.org, but the actual technical details won't really matter for small business owners. What you need to know is that CIFS/SMB is a Microsoft supported file transport protocol. Users should feel confident that if they choose to use Samba, they wouldn't be left with an unsupportable system.
Not only does Samba support all of the standard Microsoft file-sharing features, but the latest version, Samba 3, can also be configured to serve as either a member of an existing Windows Active Directory Domain, or as an Active Directory Domain server in its own right. If you have no need for a full-blown Exchange server (which requires the Microsoft version of Active Directory), you might consider using the Samba server to keep track of your companys user accounts. Samba supports the four basic modern-day CIFS services:
- File and print services access to files and printers
- Authentication and authorization checking user log-in accounts and passwords
- Name resolution mapping computer names to IP addresses
- Service announcement (browsing) allowing the user to look for servers on the network from a browser window
Windows Client Perspective
Accessing a Samba share using a Windows client is identical to mounting a share originating from a computer with a Windows operating system installed. Any of the standard methods to use a share from a workstation will work; such as the Map Network Drive function, or the My Network Places icon often found on Windows client desktops. Here are some common ways to access Samba shares from Windows clients:
- Browse Network Neighborhood to find the listed server, and then double-click on the name to reveal the Samba shared directories
- Use the Find/Computer option on the Start Menu to specify the server by name
- Use the Tools/Map Network Drive option in Explorer to map a network drive directly to the Samba share. For example, \Broadleafshared specifies the path to a Samba share named shared on the machine named Broadleaf.
If the share was configured to limit access, Samba is smart enough to prompt for a user account and password. The user account name is in the form of workgroupusername. Samba can also create home shares for each user who has been configured with an account on the Samba server. This is often useful as a way to protect user data without the need to backup desktop systems.
You can have people store their important files on their Samba home shares, or use an automated backup program to save files to the server. Once you connect to the Samba share you can change permissions or settings by opening the Properties tab (if you have privileges to make changes).
Things to Watch For
Samba translates the more complex file permission settings that exist in the Windows file system to UNIX. Generally, it works transparently (particularly if you make the changes from the Windows side).
If you are one of those people who use the more arcane Microsoft permissions for setting access policies, you need to be careful. One of my clients was using only group permissions to share files, so from the UNIX side the files showed as not writable by the owner. Everything worked until he restored some files from the Linux backup server. The permissions did not translate quite correctly, so he found couldnt copy the files.
Fortunately, Samba has a user admin setting that allows selected users to have full administrative access to any Samba shared file, so once I gave that clients account user admin privileges, the problem was fixed.
Doing the Samba
Will Samba fit in your office? You or your IT support provider will need to have enough Linux experience to maintain the server. Fortunately, once a server has been configured it doesnt take much administration, but it will need occasional hardware maintenance and software updates.
You should be thinking about converting if you are interested in substantial hardware and software savings. If all you need is file and printer services, Windows Server 2003 (Small Business Server or Standard Edition) starting at $500 per server, not to mention the fairly hefty hardware requirements, is not cheap. One of my customers was able to recycle a few obsolete Windows Server machines as Linux/Samba file servers for essentially no money.
Samba might not be for everyone, but if you have access to Linux support or feel that you have enough knowledge to do it yourself, Samba is an easy and cheap way to deliver reliable file and print services for your small business.
Beth Cohen is president of Luth Computer Specialists, a consulting practice specializing in IT infrastructure for smaller companies. She has been in the trenches supporting company IT infrastructure for over 20 years in a number of different fields including architecture, construction, engineering, software, telecommunications, and research. She is currently consulting, teaching college IT courses, and writing a book about IT for the small enterprise.
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