Building an Office Network from Spare Parts

How one group turned the congregation's old systems into the church's new network.

When we moved to Switzerland in 1998, we joined an English church. Being a computer person, I naturally got involved with the church's so-called computer system. The system consisted of a Power Macintosh 7200/90, an Apple LaserWriter 360 printer connected via AppleTalk and a PC with Windows 98. The only way to exchange data between the machines was a “carpet LAN”, and the Mac was the so-called internet machine (only e-mail for the pastor).

During 1999 the office started to expand, and these poor little systems could not cope with the sudden increase in demand. The Internet also started to become a factor as everybody was using e-mail, and a web presence for the church was wanted.

Being a church, there was not a lot of money available to go out and buy everything we needed. We sort of planned what we wanted, and then we called on the congregation for donations of their old computers systems. In this way we got enough desktop computers for each of the administrators and an additional computer that could be used as a server. By continuing to ask for unused computers, we slowly built the office network to where it is today:

1. A main office network with two servers (main and backup), two LAN printers, six workstations and an ADSL internet connection.

2. A dedicated internet network that manages the internet services: Web, e-mail and VPN gateways.

3. A third network for development and testing that also serves as a remote backup facility.

All three of these networks, being 40+ kilometers apart, are connected to each other via the Internet and a VPN network.


Nearly all the computers and printers have been donated (everybody's old junk). They range from 133MHz to 350MHz Pentium machines with a maximum of 64MB RAM and 2-6GB of disk space.

The office network, being the main network, consists of six machines. With the exception of the server, they are all Pentium-based machines. Because the office staff is used to Windows, it was decided to install Windows NT 4.0 on all of their machines. We chose NT 4.0 because it is more stable and secure than Windows 9x, and it is small enough to run on the hardware.

The server machine is an IBM Pentium 133MHz with 16MB RAM and a 10GB disk. Installed on this machine is Slackware 7.1 with a 2.2.14 Linux kernel. Believe it or not, this machine is managing quite fine even though it functions as the mail server, internal web server, and library and address database server. It is also the firewall/gateway to the Internet, originally via a dial-up modem and now via ADSL.

Because the office network never previously had a dedicated internet connection, a separate computer was placed at an ISP to give the church a web presence. It runs the web server software, mail system and VPN dial-up services. The office server periodically connects to this server to download any waiting e-mail and to deliver queued outgoing e-mail. This server is a 266MHz HP machine with 64MB RAM and 15GB disk space. Because of the VPN network, this computer is really redundant, but we decided to keep it so that the mail, Web and other network services are separate from the office server.

The third network is the development and testing network. This consists of a server with the same software setup as the office server. This server is mainly used to test new software components before they are installed in the office. It also serves as a backup server for all the office computers and for the internet computer. This is a 300MHz Siemens machine with 64MB RAM and a 160GB disk.

Software Description

Not having thousands of Swiss Franks to buy Microsoft software for all the computers, we decided to go for open-source and free software as much as possible, with the exception of the operating systems on the workstations. As mentioned before this is Windows NT 4.0.

Office Setup

The workstations use Netscape 4.76 for web browsing and Netscape's built-in e-mail client. We use Netscape for quite a few reasons, the main ones being:

1. It is more flexible than Microsoft Explorer and Outlook Express.

2. It is not prone to e-mail and HTML viruses.

As an office suite, we started off with StarOffice 5.1 and then moved to StarOffice 5.2. StarOffice works quite well, but we've had the occasional problem with Word documents saved in newly released versions.

The standard Slackware 7.1 distribution is installed on the server, along with some additional software packages:

  • Samba as a file and print server

  • Postfix for sending and receiving e-mail

  • Apache as the internal web server

  • MySQL for the database server

  • PHP 4.0 for developing browser interfaces and a standalone PHP executable for the automatic generation of daily and monthly reports.

  • StarOffice calendar server for meeting and room scheduling.

  • ipchains for firewalling and NATing to the Internet.

  • CIPE Version 1.6 for the VPN network.



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Re: Building an Office Network from Spare Parts

Anonymous's picture

StarOffice calendar server for meeting and room scheduling.

I was not able to get this software. Any help?

I would like to know more

gordman's picture

I would like to know more about this type of programs so I can evaluate my options. I plan to build and integrated solutions for small local businesses and above all I found that a virtual office would work great. This is not the real problem, I want to make it right, with many features included and I think a virtual PA would spare me from a lot of trouble.

Re: Building an Office Network from Spare Parts

Anonymous's picture

Can you give me some idea of how to use rsync and ssh for backup.


Re: Building an Office Network from Spare Parts

Anonymous's picture

I have a script which runs every morning around 4am on the machine to be backed up. At this time we have two other machines (via VPN) somewhere in the countryside which acts as the backup destinations. Because of the VPN, we use rsh as it is considered safe for us.

For rsync and ssh, you need to do the following:

1. You must be able to login from the one machine to the other via "ssh user@dest". If you do this manually, it is OK to answer passwords. If it unattended, then you should first configure ssh to login without asking any passwords or pass strings.

2. Once this is running, you can try rsync as follows:

rsync -a -v -P -s ssh user@dest

Our script does roughly the following:

1. cd /

2. rsync -a -v -P --delete user@dest

where XXX is all the directories which has some important stuff. Actually we include all dirs from / except proc, mnt, tmp, lost+found.

Hope this helps

Re: Building an Office Network from Spare Parts

Anonymous's picture

I believe this is on the Startoffice 5.1 CD or 5.2 CD. The download you get from Sun does not have these modules included. Also, Sun discontinue this functions from Staroffice 6.0. Hope this help.

Re: Building an Office Network from Spare Parts

Anonymous's picture

StarOffice calendar was part of StarOffice 5.1 & 5.2 but has been discontinued in StarOffice 6.0. It is no longer available.

Re: Building an Office Network from Spare Parts

joshartman's picture

It is not special software, but setting SO up somehow special. In the meantime we have found something else to do it. It is called MRBS (Meeting Room Booking System).

CIPE 1.6

Anonymous's picture

Where did you get CIPE 1.6? Their web site states that the current stable release is 1.5.4

Re: CIPE 1.6

joshartman's picture

I use one of the snapshots. In my messages file I get the following:

CIPE daemon vers 1.6.pre-20020527 ...

Re: CIPE 1.6

Anonymous's picture

Thanks, Josh.

How do you rate the speed / performance of CIPE?

We've been using CIPE in a small business environment, similar to the one described in your article, and we haven't been able to get a stable performance out of it. We're thinking of switching to FreeSWAN. Maybe I should try the latest snapshot.

Re: CIPE 1.6

joshartman's picture

We tried FreeSWAN, but had problems because 2 of the servers are behind a NAT box.

We also had trouble with the so-called "stable" CIPE. I then switched to CIPE snapshot and then things became quite stable. The speed there is quite good and fast.

Re: CIPE 1.6

joshartman's picture

I forgot to mention, I did enable the keepalive option (or is it ping). I also put the max error off. You can do this in the configfile as follows:

ping 30

maxerr -1

After this things did really improve.

Re: Building an Office Network from Spare Parts

Anonymous's picture


I am curious about what part of Windows the staff were "used to"? Why are you using Windows with Star Office and not Linux with Star Office? What is it about "Windows the OS" that people cared about? Is it windows explorer? The control panel?

I am not being critical; it is simply my opinion that users use and become familiar with _applications_, not operating systems, and I would like to understand why I'm wrong. The UI of StarOffice for Linux and Windows is practically identical, so what part of Windows is it that people need to stick with? Putting NT on every desktop seems like an expensive way to launch StarOffice!



Re: Why Windows? (was: Building an Office Network from Spare Par

wnp's picture

From the non-technical users' perspective, things like fonts, drivers for various exotic devices, web browser plugins, etc., are still far easier to deal with in Windows than Linux.
Also, if your users are non-technical and you as support staff are part-time/volunteer, if something goes wrong and you don't immediately have time to fix the problem, you're going to encounter a lot more flak from your users if you pushed them to Linux than if you let them stay with Windows -- even though we know that they are going to encounter more problems with Windows than with Linux.
A final argument, probably not in this setting but in my second job, where I run computers for an international school (K-12) here in Vienna, is this: we have to use and teach Windows and MS-Apps, because these are "standard" and that is what our students will be expected to know when they get out of school and into the real world. That is our mission, not open source evangelism. So I can run Linux on the servers, and I can even put one or two Linux WS into the labs, but as to the rest its MS forever.

Re: Why Windows? (was: Building an Office Network from Spare Par

Anonymous's picture

Can you sight any study that shows Windows is comparatively easier than Linux to use?

Re: Why Windows? (was: Building an Office Network from Spare Par

joshartman's picture

No, saw nothing. I think for what we need, both are just as easy to use as the other. I mostly have the human factor to fix than technical problems !

Re: Building an Office Network from Spare Parts

joshartman's picture

Yes you are right. I myself are a MS hater and would have liked to kick it all out at the speed of light. I just had to ask myself how much hassle I want in the same second. I am really changing things slowly and when you change all the things at once, the resistance level suddenly can become (and it did) huge. When you make little changes without disturbing the daily job too much, things can be changed.

The idea is to move all to Linux, but some things are still not easy or possible. Like we have printers and scanners for which we could find no driver other than Windows. Until we can replace this with something better, we are stuck to some Windows. We also have some apps that runs only on Windows and there is no Linux replacement (yet!).

Also, it is not only StarOffice. There are also some other applications used. The reason we used NT is because the security of Win9x is a joke and with NT we at least had some access control: to the machines and to the shares. But believe, once I see that a workstation has no more Windows specific stuff on it, it is changed to Linux with maybe KDE or something.

Hope this explains why and what we plan.

Re: Building an Office Network from Spare Parts

Terry's picture

I was kinda wondering the same thing...

I mean, you can even get mine sweeper and freecell clones!



Re: Building an Office Network from Spare Parts

Anonymous's picture

I found this article very informative, especially the details about which applications the author used and why. Many of the features of a small enterprise are implemented. Nice job.

Jos, once the initial work was completed on the system, how much time is spent maintaining the system, including the workstations?

Re: Building an Office Network from Spare Parts

joshartman's picture

We actually spent little maintenance time on the Windows workstations. Less than 1 hour per month on all workstations.

I would say the servers require most of the maintenance attention. Most of this I do on a Sunday morning before the service and this is mostly looking at log files. I have written a set of scripts to auto rotate the logs on a daily basis, based on the weekday. So the chance to have logs running away in size is small and is automatically kept for 7 days.

The one thing that does need real baby-sitting is the mail-server and web-server on the internet machine. Here we never have rest from the dark side, especially from spammers and virus-infected e-mails. I have to watch security bulletins and e-mail virus warning lists by the hour. This takes the most time.

Re: Building an Office Network from Spare Parts

Anonymous's picture

Great, but for the uninitiated, new Linux PCs are quite affordable now: