In the year 1421 by the Shire Reckoning, Frodo Baggins (“Frodo”) set up a small company Hobbitware.com, to sell stuff made by the Hobbits to Men. Along with some of his friends, he established an office in Hobbiton, where in a short period of time more than 80 bright and young hobbits were employed full-time to promote hobbitware on the world-wide-web.
Hobbitware.com was a forward looking company ably led by Frodo, and had a vibrant community of employees which thrived on the company's Intranet, managed and nurtured by Samwise Gamgee (“Sam”), the system-administrator who was a trusted friend of Frodo and had loyally supported him on many a past adventure. Sam was passionate about gardening and had brought the same passion and loving care to system administration.
These pages recount how Sam went about building and maintaining this Intranet for Hobbitware.com. It is hoped that these prove useful to system administrators who are looking to building an Intranet for their organisations.
NOTE: These pages are not designed to be a step-by-step guide that spoon-feed the information needed to set things up. They merely serve as outlines of the processes involved and provide pointers to useful information and software. They are a direct result of the author's frustration with the unavailability of guides, at least at the time of this writing, that provided a useful summary of what is involved in setting up an Intranet for a small organisation with limited bandwidth.
By no means are these software, or the way they have been used, the only way to do things. A system administrator must evolve a process that works best for his setup, hopefully using these documents to get a head start.
It would be worthwhile to examine the general systems setup in the company before we see how Sam implemented the Intranet for it. Being a small company with limited resources, they had outsourced the hosting of their site to a service provider who managed the entire hobbitware.com domain for them on their servers, providing WWW, FTP and Email (SMTP/POP3) access to them, all easily administered by a secure web-based interface. Every hobbit in the company had been given an email account (with an address of the form email@example.com) with which they could stay in touch with their friends and customers. The company's site could be accessed as www.hobbitware.com, where customers could view their catalogue of products, place orders, track orders, etc.
The company initially had a SLIP/PPP dial-up connection (56Kbps) to
their ISP, which they upgraded to 64Kbps ISDN, and later 128Kbps ISDN,
as their size grew. Sam had the bright idea of using a hardware
proxy, instead of wasting a machine for connecting to their ISP,
which made connecting to the Internet a trivial matter for the
hobbits - they just had to set the hardware proxy as their
“default gateway” and they could access everything on
the Internet transparently. The proxy also provided a limited
amount of protection from external malicious crackers trying to
connect to internal servers containing sensitive data.
This setup was not without problems however. The hobbits used email as the primary means of communicating with each other (including for official communications) and wasted a lot of bandwidth unnecessarily when they sent mails to other hobbits in the same office. Moreover, as most of them had common interests (being young, unmarried, nerdy hobbits) they ended up visiting the same sites on the Internet - each hobbit browsing the same site independently of the other hobbits - which resulted in a lot of unnecessary traffic.
Pretty soon, everyone was complaining about the lack of
bandwidth. Frodo was appalled that there was not much
bandwidth available for essential tasks (processing customer
orders, etc.) and he asked Sam to do something about the
Sam spent several days and nights analysing the problem and trying to come up with ways to solve it. He scoured countless Internet sites in search of a solution and was finally able to put together a proposal for an “Intranet server” that would try to eliminate extraneous traffic on their Internet link as much as possible. His idea was to cache as much information as possible locally, including web pages, common downloads, emails, DNS queries, etc. He got the go-ahead from Frodo and was given a machine to host the Intranet server (whatever it meant), with a somewhat low-end configuration, but with ample disk space. Frodo promised him a better server if his idea proved useful and reliable.
Sam wanted to get the best deal: he wanted a super-reliable system that cost him as less as possible (because his allocated budget was next to zilch) and was easy to maintain. And because he was new to it all, he wanted a good support base. After much evaluation, he decided to use the Linux operating system, which was a free, robust operating system supported by enthusiastic developers around the world, who contributed to the whole effort purely for the love of it. It was particularly suited to being a server for network services and ran extremely comfortably on low-end configurations. Moreover, Sam was able to find stable, mature versions of almost everything he needed to implement his vision, with a whole lot of supporting documentation. What more could a hobbit ask for?
Sam chose the Slackware distribution for installing Linux on the server, as it featured extremely stable and tested versions of all the packages and was quite flexible, when compared to other Linux distributions. He also opted to have ReiserFS filesystems on the server for better tolerance to power failures that could otherwise corrupt the regular ext2fs Linux filesystem and, more importantly, for better performance. In this, he was aided immensely by the SlackReiser package. Sam also decided to configure and set up a 2.4.2+ version of the Linux kernel because it featured immense performance improvements, native ReiserFS support and was even more stable than the previous versions.
With the operating system set up, Sam went about implementing the company Intranet following these steps:
- DNS Server
- Email Server
- Caching Proxy Server
- Shared Files Server (for MS Windows)
- Intranet Web Server
- Newsgroups Server
It is not as if Sam did not look at other operating systems or server software for his Intranet server - far from a Linux zealot, Sam in fact was most comfortable with Microsoft Windows NT, and the software available on it. However, with the kind of limited resources and budget that Sam had, Windows just did not work out for him. For example, the most natural choice for Sam was using Microsoft IIS on Windows NT. However, it required him to get a Windows NT Server license, which was just out of question for him. He just couldn't find free or cheap, yet reliable, server software on Windows. For example, the only reasonable caching web proxy servers that he could find for Windows were Microsoft Proxy Server and iPlanet Proxy Server, both of which were exorbitantly priced.
He also looked at the other operating systems for PCs, most notably
though he liked the stability and general robustness of this system,
he just didn't find enough resources on the Internet to help him
out with the setup. And to be really frank, Sam did have
some experience with Linux, so he was a bit biased towards it.
Sam's wisdom and effort helped the company make the maximum utilisation of their then scarce resources. The Intranet went beyond its original goals of helping save bandwidth and helped create a community of hobbits working for the company with a level of sharing and camaraderie hitherto unseen in the industry. Hobbitware.com became a model for other companies looking to improve resource utilisation and employee satisfaction. Frodo was immensely pleased with Sam and gave him a big bonus and a raise.
Over time the company grew in size and acquired
a much fatter Internet connection, but the Intranet server continued
to serve the community of hobbits merrily at work there, even though
bandwidth-saving was no longer a primary requirement.
The author expresses his gratitude towards Torry Harris Business Solutions, his employers at the time of this writing, for providing the infrastructure and support needed to test the concepts given here.
Words can not do justice to the value of the effort of thousands of people from around the world who have provided us with software of such superior quality for free, and others who have written documentation that helps us use them effectively. The author hopes to contribute to this effort in his own small way.
And last, but not the least, the author wishes to specially thank the late J.R.R. Tolkien for creating “The Lord of The Rings” - quite possibly the best fantasy fiction ever penned - and Mark Fisher for creating the superb Encyclopedia of Arda, a fantastic guide to the worlds of Tolkien.