Linux as a File and Print Server

by Phil Hughes

Over the last three weeks we looked at Linux from the beginning and then talked some about its capabilities. This week is the first episode where we drill down to more specifics. And, in this episode, we look at using Linux as a file and print server.

Right off the bat, let me point out that here at Linux Journal we have a network of Linux systems that runs the gamut from desktops to web servers. All printers are served by Linux systems, and the MS-Windows system used for layout still relies on a Linux system as its file and print server and has for about five years.

How Does a Linux Server Differ from a Desktop?

It doesn't. That is, Linux distributions include all the necessary software to use any Linux system as a file and print server. Because multi-user and pre-emptive multi-tasking are part of the basic Linux kernel, there is no need for a special version of the software.

This is not to say that servers and desktops have to be configured the same way, just that they can be. If you are building a server that will be subjected to heavy traffic volumes, you will want to use faster, more reliable disk drives or possibly a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) storage system to allow the system to continue to operate even if a disk fails. You will also want some sort of backup device, such as a tape drive on the server.

On the software side of a server, you may want some sort of commercial backup software. While Linux includes backup software, many people choose a commercial package because they find it easier to use.

Why Linux as a File Server?

There are lots of alternatives including Windows2000 and Solaris-based systems. While Linux isn't the only answer, it is an excellent answer.

  • Linux can act as a server for UNIX, MS-Windows, Mac and Novell-based systems through the use of netatalk and Samba, the latter reviewed here in Linux Journal.

  • Linux has proven reliability offering typical uptimes in the hundreds of days.

  • The cost of a Linux solution is lower than that of the alternatives.

Cost deserves more discussion. Besides a zero cost for the software, Linux tends to be frugal in resource utilization. You can squeeze more performance out of your hardware with Linux than say Windows2000. As an example, I know of two ISPs in Vancouver. They have about the same amount of traffic to handle. One ISP uses nine WindowsNT systems, the other uses a single Linux system. While you shouldn't expect a 9:1 ratio, you will see the difference to be significant. One case study of Linux as a file server comes from our story here from our "Linux Means Business" column.

Why Linux as a Print Server?

Print service is another area where Linux will shine. Linux includes print spooling software. The Samba and netatalk packages mentioned above offer print service capabilities as well. This means that The supported printers can either be connected to the serial or parallel ports on Linux systems or they can be on Ethernet and just be managed by a Linux system. For an explanation of how far print management can go, see our discussion on the Linux Print System at Cisco Systems, Inc.

How Do You Interconnect Systems?

Linux speaks TCP/IP, the standard communications protocol of the Internet. As MS-Windows and Macs can speak TCP/IP as well, TCP/IP over Ethernet becomes the standard. Linux has the additional software (Samba for MS-Windows systems, for example) that allows it to perform the requested services. No add-ons, nothing to buy--it just works. (More on Linux and TCP/IP is available in an early LJ article here.)

And More?

As always, the radio program will discuss these concepts in more detail, and then go on to talk about recent happenings in the Linux community. We will look back at the Caldera IPO of last week and see what is coming up next. Tune in for details.

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