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Wednesday, 10 September 2008 19:40

How Linux is keeping Microsoft honest (and why SBS sucks)

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Imagine a world without Linux. There'd be no cute Tux penguin or any notion of software freedom day. Netbooks would not have come about. But more strikingly, there wouldn't be the modern powerful tools that Windows systems administrators have come to love. That's right; Linux is keeping Microsoft honest and I'm going to expose the new Windows Small Business Server for what it is, along with those who resell it.
UPDATE: PART TWO of this article is now available, and explains why consultants recommend SBS.

Imagine there’s no Linux. No doubt you’d still be computing away, but with a less rich collection of tools. If you’re a Linux advocate, your available software repository would be greatly diminished – or, at least, not without significant expenditure or piracy. There may not be any One Laptop Per Child project. The UNIX server operating system may well have died.

For the hard core Windows power user your thoughts may be “so what?” but let me put to you that it is thanks to Linux that Windows admins have the modern developments Microsoft have offered. This has manifested itself in several ways and I will contend here that the most recent occurrence of Linux influence is with the impending release of Microsoft’s Small Business Server (SBS) product.

Let me start with Windows PowerShell. This is a new and powerful scripting language. It supersedes both DOS batch files and VBScript which have been the primary means of quickly stringing together series of commands to automate routine or repetitive tasks for two decades.

This isn’t a new concept; UNIX long relied on shell scripts, the VAX VMS had its DCL command-line processing language, in fact, the first digital computers relied on batched input whether by punch cards or other means. These could be considered forerunners of such scripting languages.

Yet, somewhere along the line, the advent of Windows’ graphical server tools dumbed down the tasks system and network administrators perform. This isn’t to say graphical tools aren’t good – in fact, they’re great. The goal of most IT professionals is to use technology to make workloads easier and to create new opportunities. However, the point is that not everything can be achieved by point-and-click – or, thousands of points-and-clicks can be replaced with a well thought out script.

While scripting remained a tool in the Linux arsenal it was more and more repressed in the Windows world. Sure, you will come across the occasional wise old admin who minds their pfmon.exe’s and qtcp.exe’s but let’s face it, who hasn’t heard the argument over the years that Linux was not ready for prime-time because it was so arcane; it was a system designed for experts by experts. You had to resort to a command prompt to exercise the greatest control. By contrast, it was claimed, Windows was dead simple. Anyone who can operate a mouse can drive it.

Turn to the modern year and Microsoft have rolled out PowerShell. It’s aimed squarely at getting admins back to the command line giving them control and power the GUI apps cannot offer. What’s more, it has a BASH-like syntax and style.

Let me tell you the most remarkable part however!

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It’s surprising enough that Microsoft have come out with PowerShell after years of effort spent trying to abolish any need for a command line. It’s a marked twist after the line that one reason to ignore Linux was because the Windows’ visual tools were greater than any command line instructions.

Yet, what’s most surprising and jaw-dropping is that PowerShell is becoming deeply entrenched in Microsoft’s server range. This began with Exchange 2007. The product is maintained and administered via PowerShell commands and functions. A visual console is provided but at heart it simply translates every action into equivalent PowerShell instructions.

In fact, it the console even shows you the instruction it’s going to execute as an educational tool. The developers want to turn back the habits they’ve previously entrenched and now encourage Windows admins to return to the tao of the command prompt along with sequencing instructions to form scripts.

Here’s where it really gets freaky: Windows Server 2008 offers a headless mode without any GUI whatsoever. It’s purely command-line driven. Why have Microsoft done this? It’s fundamentally a response to the Linux way.

The Linux command-prompt is well-entrenched. Linux applications have always respected fundamental design principles that involve applications returning values indicating their success or failure, and emitting output such that it can be fed directly as input to another application.

While an old design, it fits nicely with a modern day situation. Organisations are increasing their server requirements from one or several servers to entire racks full, or even shipping container loads. Server farms have evolved to such scales that it is ludicrous to even think of maintaining them via the traditional KVM (keyboard, video, mouse) switch. Instead, the sensible admin will automate as many tasks as possible, running commands that operate over many machines at the one time.

This is the type of thing that scripting languages do well; they provide huge time and effort savings. It’s the sort of thing that Linux has always done well and which the Windows philosophy would not lend itself to had it continued on the course it was on. Instead, Microsoft had to adapt and did so by emulating the Linux way.

Let’s also look at the threat of open source vs proprietary software. Microsoft have been susceptible to arguments that Linux vulnerabilities are discovered faster and patched faster because many more independent people can inspect the program code. What’s more, the open source philosophy also engenders confidence and trust – almost mocking Microsoft’s “trustworthy computing” campaign.

SourceForge has become well known as a repository of quality free and open source software. It’s the home of such regarded and famed apps like Filezilla, Azureus, phpMyAdmin and many others.

Microsoft came up with their own SourceForge, called CodePlex, in an effort to reduce the impact of these open source and proprietary arguments. CodePlex is Microsoft’s open source project hosting web site. You can start a new project, join an existing one or download software created by the community.

Yet, there’s some irony here: the software projects available on CodePlex were developed with, and require, such closed-source proprietary development tools as Visual Studio. Nevertheless, and again, CodePlex has come about in response to Linux and the strength of the message it was awakening.

Now let’s look at Windows Small Business Server.

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Windows Small Business Server, or SBS, is Microsoft’s flagship product for the small to medium business environment. Yet, it’s frankly a product that ought not to exist.

Let me elaborate. As you know, Windows have a range of server products: there is Windows Server, which is the base operating system. Then comes SQL Server, Exchange Server and others like ISA Server.

These products cost huge amounts of money. Each server product, along with user licenses, come to thousands of dollars, even tens of thousands if you opt for enterprise licenses. This is out of the price range for many small companies who really have only very modest needs. Hence, SBS.

SBS is a much lower cost bundle of Windows server products. It includes the operating system as well as Exchange and some other options. It offers a small business the ability to legally license a proper server operating system and mail platform for use on their network.

Yet, SBS comes with a catch. It’s heavily restricted. You cannot have another SBS server on your network, for one thing. And while you can have other Windows Servers – using the full product – none of them can be domain controllers. Your total user count is restricted.

This may sound acceptable; you have a reduced cost setup with the trade-off of some limitations. However, it’s exasperating, to be honest. SBS is much more restrictive than businesses realise. Even if it suits today, it’s almost certain it won’t tomorrow. It absolutely offers no scalability and any organisation which intends to grow is heading off on the wrong path by using it.

A large part of my work is integrating the infrastructures of companies that have joined via mergers and acquisitions. SBS is always a nuisance; it always has to be replaced because, frankly, it is just no use in a wide area network. It is no use in an environment where redundant domain controllers are desired. It is no use when the user count exceeds its limit.

So why do people use SBS? The answer is simple. It’s cheap. Or, let me clarify that; it’s cheaper than Windows Server standard edition. It’s cheaper than Microsoft Exchange standard edition. And, the organisations who sell it do so because they want to win tenders and contracts based on price, not future functionality.

In many ways SBS is like Windows Vista Home Basic. It’s the bastard edition of the operating system that retailers and resellers bundle because it’s the lowest cost version and they know their buyers don’t know any better except to look at the price tag. This is the same reason retail outlets sell Vista laptops with insufficient RAM.

So where does Linux come into the equation?

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SBS is a bad product. Yet, you’ll find many a lone consultant who is eager to resell it and to attain their sales certificate in the product. This certificate can be achieved by merely answering some multiple choice questions after working through a self-paced online marketing video about the product.

It’s this army of consultants who are to blame for the proliferation of Windows SBS installations. They lack the fiscal backing to purchase the standard range of Microsoft server products so they hone in on SBS because it’s what they can afford themselves (never mind the fact anyone can register for free as a partner with Microsoft then pay a relatively small fee for the Action Pack which includes full server products for your own production use.)

So, they sell it to others – because it’s what they know, and because they’re competing purely on price. They have to draw a fine balance between how highly powered they make the server and the version of Windows they include because they know the customer has a price.

Yet, these consultants are not doing their clients any favours. The customer could be told there’s another option. Why restrict yourselves with the clamps that SBS imposes? A Linux server would impose absolutely no software costs but yet provide a full server operating system, with file sharing, with printer sharing, with directory services, with e-mail, with web and intranet, with a firewall, with a database server. There are no limitations on the number of users. There are no more licensing fees. There are no scalability concerns. And there’s more money to then spend on the hardware.

Microsoft know better than their SBS resellers; they recognise this is a sensible option. And this is why the newest release of Small Business Server – presently up to its first release candidate stage but not yet final or shipping – is being bolstered with the advent of Windows Essential Business Server – or EBS.

EBS will be slightly more flexible. You can have a few EBS servers on the one domain. You get a Windows Server standard license thrown in too. Yet, despite the advantages Microsoft say it has you will note that ‘scalability’ is still not one of them.

We can make no mistake, no matter any arguments about the proportion of market share, Microsoft are keeping an eye on Linux. They aren’t ignoring it, they can’t ignore it. They’ve resorted to imitation and also to beefing up their product offerings. If you like what Microsoft are producing, you can thank Linux for at least part of it.


Read on for PART TWO of this article, explaining why consultants recommend SBS.

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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