Linux: Renegade or ally?

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You may not plan to deploy Linux on your network, but that doesn't mean that your company's users won't sneak it in. As the operating system makes inroads in the enterprise, you need to decide whether you want it on your network before a renegade user brings it in unnoticed.

The use of unauthorized software and hardware has been the bane of IT's existence. When mainframes were prevalent, the PC-based Novell NetWare often moved in through the back door, led by departments that said mainframes and minicomputers didn't give operating flexibility or application capability they needed. Before long, NetWare was the dominant network operating system and IT managers complained about unauthorized Windows NT workstations and servers entering the company through that same old door. Now that Windows 2000 and NT are displacing NetWare, IT has Linux to worry about.

If you discover Linux on the network should you treat it like any other application added without your control, or welcome it into your overall IT plan?

The answer depends on whom you ask. Some readers Network World interviewed were starkly intolerant; others were more forgiving. In many cases, IT managers dismissed any incursion of Linux as just that -- a hostile takeover of the network that shouldn't be tolerated.

Although, most folks say they would slap the hands of the offenders who add anything to the network that IT hasn't approved; some would take harsher measures.

"Destroy their servers and fire them," says Jeff Shapiro, director of technology for the Kingsport, Tenn., public schools.

"IT organizations have standards and policies and renegade anythings should not be tolerated," he says. "If the company's IT structure is so weak that it's politically impossible to prevent or correct this, then it points to larger problems within the organization."

Chip DiComo, network manager for shipping firm Hellman Worldwide Logistics in Miami, says, "Linux should be dealt with as any other standards violation . . . and removed."

However, DiComo concedes that he recently worked out a compromise with a group of technically adept users in Poland who are running Linux on the company's global network. "We're allowing them to run Linux as long as they allow us to manage it with Novell Directory Service," he says. The IT pros in the Polish office support the Linux box and understand that if anything goes wrong, it's up to them to fix it.

Others recommend taking this type of moderate approach and assessing how Linux fits into the IT infrastructure before you decide to rip it out. Consider the merits of the Linux operating system, such as the fact that it's free and in-house teams can develop to the source code. What's more, look at the applications and hardware your company uses. If Linux will play a part in the network, you need to find a way to support it.

"Investigate to determine if a business case has been presented to management for the offending box," says Mike Maday, network manager for the Art Institute of Chicago in Illinois. "If so, we'll be blessed with managing it. If no management approval exists, take it down quickly."

One department of the school insisted on using Linux to share about 30G bytes of Macintosh files even though IT suggested other options.

"We sat down with them and agreed that they could use their Linux box as long as our phone didn't ring when they had critical problems," Maday says. "So far, we haven't heard one thing from them since the meeting we had a few months ago."

For Mike McKinney, an IS manager for Americorp Financial in Birmingham, Mich., it's important that the rules of introducing new technology to the network be followed so you can retain control. "IS management and staff must support all operating systems and guarantee that they work on all third-party applications and other hardware we have," he says.

Americorp's IS department is thinking about using Linux for a Web server, though McKinney notes that the majority of its third-party applications don't support the operating system.

Regardless of how you feel about Linux, discovering it on your network may be more difficult than it appears. In many cases, it has been deployed on Web servers that IT may not control. That's why it's important to keep a careful watch over your own back door to see what's coming in uninvited.

LINUX LOWDOWN

Consider the choices: Find out about various veersions of Linux:

Redhat

Caldera Systems

Turbolinux

Debian

SuSE Linux

The Linux Kernel Archive

Making Linux more secure:

Bastille Linux

Snort intrusion detection www.snort.org

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