Some of you hardworking system and network administrators are blessed with lavish budgets that permit you to purchase every little piece of equipment and software you think you need to have. Some of you hardworking managers understand that hardware and good quality software is cheaper than labor — buy it, fire it up, and get on with it. But while the world abounds with all sorts of useful expensive gadgetry and software, you don't always have to pay top dollar to get top performance. That's the miracle of Linux and the Free/Open Source software world — not only is the code free as in freedom, oftimes it is free of cost.
I get rather bored with all the emphasis on free-as-in-freeloader; the emphasis is supposed to be on free-as-in-freedom. Free from the license police, free from unscrupulous vendors hiding backdoors and spyware in their code, free from shoddy or stolen code, and free to build on the work of talented coders. Still, free of cost is nothing to scorn, and I am thankful for the astounding abundance of great free (in both senses of the word) software. It's the biggest and funnest playground in the world.
So before you rush out and burn through a bale of purchase orders, take some time to research your options. Any Linux distribution can be made to serve in nearly any kind of network role: firewall, router, proxy, caching, Web, mail, FTP, DNS, VPN, or DHCP server, traffic shaping, intrusion detection, network monitoring and status — just about anything you need. The trick is learning how to make it do these things. Fortunately there are a large of number of specialized Linux distributions and utilities that are designed to make hard jobs easier.
For example, do you really need that glamorous router for four figures? Is it really necessary to spend a big chunk of change on a firewall appliance, or wireless access point? Perhaps an old PC running IPCop, Smoothwall, FREESCO or LEAF will do the job, with the added bonus of keeping the old PC out of a landfill. These pack a lot of functionality into a small bit of code. IPCop is my #1 choice for a good all-around network appliance: it supports proxying, DNS, DHCP, VPN, routing, dialup, traffic shaping, and lots more.
Proxy/caching HTTP server? Squid's one of the best, plus it includes simple access controls and bandwidth throttling.
Instant messaging? Jabberd2.
Secure, fast, yet easy FTP server? Try vsftpd.
You don't have to recycle an old PC, either. Old PCs aren't always as reliable as you need, and they take up a lot of room. Why not splurge on a small form factor system, like Soekris or Mini-ATX? You'll pay only for the hardware, saving plenty of money on server and client-access licenses.
Even though all of this great software is offered free of cost, keep your eye peeled for PayPal links. If you use it and like it, show your appreciation in the form of money. You'll still come out ahead, and the developers will put it to good use.
Carla Schroder is a self-taught Linux and Windows sysadmin, who laid hands on her first computer around her 37th birthday. She's a freelance consultant, supporting both Linux and Windows users, and integrating Linux and Windows on the LAN; primarily Linux servers and Windows clients. In addition to her regular appearances on EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet, She is the author of the Linux Cookbook and writes Linux howtos for several computer publications.