August 12, 2011, 10:00 AM — You can be the coolest and best-equipped network administrator on the block with Ubuntu Natty Narwhal Linux on a netbook. Netbooks are lightweight and portable, have long battery life, and bright sharp screens -- and, thanks to Linux and open source, you can outfit your netbook with all the software network troubleshooting and fixit utilities you'll ever need.
Small laptops and netbooks make awesome network administrator's toolkits because they support wired and wireless network interfaces, deliver 6 to 8 hours battery life, and, like any PC have the flexibility to be configured however you like. Shop for your shiny new netbook carefully, because life is too short to fight with marginal hardware. You want rock-solid and dependable, not penny-pinching, minimally-speced, and flaky. I favor good reliable Linux vendors such as System76, ZaReason, and Emperor Linux. These shops are Linux experts that support Linux only. System76 offers a complete line of Ubuntu Linux netbooks, laptops, desktops, and servers. (I have a bad case of the wants for their Serval Professional laptop, billed as the world's most powerful Ubuntu laptop.) ZaReason sells netbooks, laptops, desktops, and servers, and offers a choice of Linux distributions. ZaReason builds their machines with open hardware, so they will run any Linux distro (or any other operating system, for that matter) without needing any special tweaks, and are upgradeable rather than disposable. Emperor Linux has a complete line of Linux netbooks, laptops, and tablets, including the rugged, military-speced Panasonic ToughBooks. All three offer customizations and first-rate service and support.
Dell and Hewlett-Packard also sell Linux netbooks, if you have the detective skills to find them and don't mind swatting hordes of "We Recommend Windows!" banners out of your way. Average Linux users can easily create and replicate customized Linux distributions for all kinds of workloads, such as servers, audio production workstations, locked-down laptops, special classroom spins, and so on. It puzzles me how the titans of industry make such heavy lifting out of Linux. But I digress. Let us now dig into tasty open source network administrator software for testing, troubleshooting, and fixing.
Ubuntu's Natty Narwhal
Now we get into the fun stuff. Linux and free/open source software have a long heritage of sophisticated networking capabilities and cross-platform interoperability. Dig under the fancy wrappings on most any commercial networking product and you'll find open source inside.
Linux supports pretty much all networking protocols, thought there may be the odd proprietary one that is not supported. Linux supports IPv4, IPv6, Ethernet, TCP/IP, Wi-Fi, HTTP/S, UDP, DNS, DHCP, SSL, SSH, UUCP, FTP, ARP, ICMP, EIGRP, OSPF, BGP, ATM, NFS, SMB/CIFS, and many more. A good many of these originated in the BSD Unix world, from FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD. All networking operations should be standards-adherent and not some weird closed proprietary thingy whose only "benefit" is vendor lockin. If you are stuck with supporting some sort of odd proprietary protocol not supported in Linux, consider running it in a virtual machine, such as VirtualBox, QEMU, or VMWare, on your Natty netbook.
Linux also supports a large number of filesystems, including those found on Unix, Apple, and Microsoft systems.
Why use Ubuntu's Natty Narwhal? Sure, it's fun to say "Natty Netadmin Netbook," but won't any Linux work? Of course it will, and if you have a favorite, by all means use it. Natty sports the sleek new Unity interface, which is optimized for small screens. If Unity is not your cup of tea, then you can have classic GNOME, KDE 4, LXDE, XFCE -- just like any Linux, you can have whatever you want. You can have no graphical desktop at all and stick to the command line, or mix and match CLI and GUI any way you like.
The key to figuring out networking problems without losing your sanity is to break them down into a basic troubleshooting protocol. Software problems are far more common than hardware problems, with misconfigurations and botched name services ruling the roost. As a general rule, and depending on the specific circumstances, first I test connectivity and then server availability. I usually start close and work outwards one step at a time, from PC to switch to router to server, or however the network is laid out. If those all check out, then I start looking at hardware. Working methodically and in a logical sequence saves much time and headaches.