A Linux answer to Windows SBS: ClearOS

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

By , ITworld |  Operating Systems, ClearOS, Linux

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.

[ And the best Linux desktop distro of all is... ]

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

ClearOS vs. SBS 2008

Collaboration and productivity
Here, SBS has a clear lead. ClearOS, while it includes Kolab Groupware, doesn't have a real answer for Windows SharePoint Services 3.0. If your office is sold on SharePoint for working on joint-projects, you're not going to want ClearOS.

Database
ClearOS moves ahead though when it comes to databases. Besides including the popular MySQL, the server includes the full set of Linux developers' favorite Web development languages, Perl, PHP, and Python. SBS Standard has no answer at all to this. If you want a DBMS, Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Standard for Small Business, you'll need to shell out more money for SBS 2008 Premium Edition.

E-mail
SBS uses Exchange Server 2007 Standard Edition for e-mail and basic groupware functionality while ClearOS use Kolab for the same purposes. While both programs will let you use Microsoft Outlook for a client, Kolab doesn't offer all of Exchange Server's features. On the other hand, if you just want full-featured e-mail functionality and your office isn't married to Outlook, Kolab will do just fine. If you want a more complete Exchange replacement, you'll need to look at other server programs such as Zimbra or Open-Xchange.

Anti-virus and anti-spam
Both include anti-virus programs to guard your e-mail users. ClearOS uses Clam AV while SBS uses Forefront Security. Forefront also provides some anti-spam protection, but, for my money, SpamAssassin, which ClearOS includes is the gold-standard for server-based anti-spam protection.

File & print
For basic file and print, the two offer similar functionality. ClearOS can work in a Windows domain or AD (Active Directory) network. I tested this out on my own hybrid domain/AD network which uses SLES (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server) 11, Windows Server 2003, and Server 2008 R2 for its main servers. Thanks to Samba, ClearOS' file and printer shares were immediately available to my Windows PCs. Besides Windows and Samba's' SMB (Server Message Block) file-sharing though, ClearOS also supports ftp and FlexShare, which provides a single way to handle file transfers over SMB, ftp, or e-mail.

Network Services
While SBS and ClearOS both support some of the most common network services, such as DNS (domain name server) and DHCP (dynamic host configuration protocol), ClearOS offers a far greater number of valuable network services such as a choice of VPNs and security features such as intrusion-detection and advanced firewall protection.

ClearOS gives you all the control you could want over your mini-company firewall. (Click here for full-size image.)

Web server
SBS used to include a Web server, Microsoft's IIS (Internet Information Server), now though it connects users to Office Live Small Business, a Microsoft Web hosting service. ClearOS, as you might guess if you know anything about Linux, includes Apache. It also includes the Squid Web proxy server and web caching program so that users insider your network can get faster access to frequently accessed Web sites.

Conclusion

ClearOS isn't for everyone. A small office with a sophisticated IT tech may find that rolling their own server combination with Novell's small business Linux server would give them more flexibility. On the other hand, if you know something about networking, but not Linux, ClearOS is a fine choice.

As for SBS, I'll put it to you this way. SBS Standard 2008, with five CALs (client access license) now costs $1,089. If you want the database with that, you'll need the Premium Edition, which will run you $1,899. ClearOS' price? Free. Zero. Nothing. Oh, and you can have as many users as your server can take before its hardware starts melting down.

You can see for yourself though if ClearOS is for you. You can simply download a fully working copy of the operating system for yourself.

You can also download a trial copy of SBS 2008 if you want to do your own compare and contrast of the two.

As for me, I'd install ClearOS for a client without any hesitation. It's easy to set up, it will be easy for them to maintain, and it will give them all the server most small businesses will ever need.

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