A Linux answer to Windows SBS: ClearOS

The Clear Foundation's ClearOS opens Linux up as a small business server for everyone ... for free.

Linux is used as a server all the time. From branch-offices using Linux and Samba to Google running, well everything, on Linux, it's the operating system for choice for most businesses. Except that is, for small offices. There, Microsoft's SBS (Small Business Server) is the server of choice. The Clear Foundation wants to change that with their ClearOS 5.1 small business server distribution.

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Why has Linux not done well here? It's an odd story. In some ways, Linux has historically done quite well for small businesses. Back in the late 1990s, the Cobalt appliance line did quite well in the market. Sun, in one of their less than bright moments, however, bought Cobalt for about $2 billion in 2000. By neglect, Sun had killed off Cobalt, and small business server Linux, by 2004.

Of course, this is Linux. Why hasn't someone else stepped up? In part, Linux hasn't entered the small business market because Linux distributors haven't focused on it. Only Novell, of the major Linux players, with its Novell Open Workgroup Suite Small Business Edition had made much of an effort in this area. The Clear Foundation's sole focus is on providing small business users with an easy-to-use server.

ClearOS: A Server for Everyone and Anyone

Note, we didn't say 'Linux' server. ClearOS, formerly known as ClarkConnect, doesn't ask for its users to become expert Linux administrators. Indeed, its interface hides all of Linux's complexity away. While it's built solidly on Linux and other open-source programs, a non-technical user could use ClearOS and never know what was his server's hood.

For those of us who do like to know what's going on in the engine, ClearOS's foundation is CentOS, which, in turn, is based on Red Hat's RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) and Red Hat's community Linux distribution, Fedora Unlike many Linux distributions which takes an everything and the kitchen sink approach to what software they include, ClearOS includes only those programs it needs to deliver its server features. Indeed, with its modular construction, you only end up running the software you need to run and not one application more.

This makes ClearOS a very lightweight server distribution. For my tests, I ran ClearOS 5.1 beta 2 on a 2006-vintage HP m7360n. This computer uses a hyper-threaded 2.8 GHz Pentium D 920 dual-core processor, 4 MB of L2 cache, an 800 MHz front-side bus, and 2 GB of DDR (double-data-rate) RAM. It also has a 300-GB SATA hard drive, a dual-layer, multi-format LightScribe DVD/CD burner, a DVD-ROM drive. By most modern standards, this is, at most, an adequate server platform.

You wouldn't know it by how ClearOS ran on it though. The distribution, which used an old-style character-based installation routine was up and running in less than an hour. Better still, I was able to walk my way through its various server functions in just one more hour.

Now that said, I've been a network administrator for longer than I've been a Linux user. Still, everything, and I mean everything, is driven in ClearOS with an easy-to-use interface. If you're not sure what the difference is between QoS (Quality of Service) and RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks), you probably shouldn't be running a network server, but if you're a bit more savvy than that, ClearOS' online User Guide and Support options should see you through.

If you do know your way around what a network server should do you'll have no trouble at all with ClearOS. You won't need to know a thing about Linux to make ClearOS work for your office.

Want real control over your office network? ClearOS delivers. (Click here for full-size image.)

ClearOS comes with almost every server option you could want with a standalone server. It includes anti-virus, anti-spam, three VPN (virtual private network) choices, content filtering, bandwidth manager, a Web server, a DBMS (database management server) and file and print server functionality. Perhaps the best way of surveying ClearOS' options though is to compare them to SBS 2008's features.

Next page: ClearOS vs. SBS 2008

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