Church volunteer quells IT chaos with Linux

The Church of the Epiphany found IT salvation, with a little help from Linux and Samba.

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Jeff Squyres had used Linux to quell chaos in a high-performance computing lab, so he had no qualms about wielding that weapon again in his volunteer IT job.

Jeff Squyres
Jeff Squyres

Squyres does double duty in IT chaos control. As assistant director for high performance computing at the University of Indiana's Open Systems Laboratory (OSL), he manages IT resources and supervises graduate students and staff researchers. In his spare time, he is the only IT person for the 15 employees and 20-plus volunteers using the computer systems of the Church of the Epiphany, a Catholic congregation in Louisville, Ky.

"I use Linux in both situations, and they are definitely different usages in both scale and scope," Squyres said.

At IU, 75% of the systems he manages are high-performance computing servers running parallel and scientific applications, and 25% are dedicated to system administration, mainly clustering issues. "At the church, it's mainly e-mail, Web and file hosting," he said.

When Squyres became the IT point man at the church, he encountered a fragmented IT environment. In what he calls a "slow urban sprawl," users had developed workarounds to the problem of not having a central file server. This incremental, many-year evolution of user-crafted processes created an environment in which many disparate islands of information existed but couldn't be found or shared easily.

Squyres took this in and came to the obvious conclusion: "We needed a central file server because the environment was too chaotic, with individual users sharing data and files from their workstations, a lack of centralized backups of critical data, etc."

The 3,743-member Church of Epiphany runs Windows 2000 and XP Pro on desktops and Linux on servers. Primary applications were e-mail, a database holding details on parishioners, a financial management application and Microsoft Office.

Squyres' first move was to set up .pdf document generation via the open source file server, Samba, running on Linux.

"Piggybacking it on a Linux server was certainly cheaper than any commercial solution," he said. "Linux offered, by far, the cheapest TCO, including integration issues."

The Linux/Samba setup worked well for about a year, but Squyres eventually determined that better integration was needed in the form of a Windows domain with scheduled backups.

The church also needed a faster response to business-critical issues on the Samba on Linux system than a single volunteer could provide. After all, Squyres couldn't always address the church's IT problems in the middle of a UI workday.

For a small environment like this one, Squyres knew he had to find a system that was "as transparent as possible so that people could focus on their jobs, not the technology supporting them." So he looked at software that had minimal impact on users while delivering sound IT practices, such as having "My Documents" automatically stored on a server.

In his evaluations, Squyres found Microsoft products too expensive. He'd examined those options because the church has a Microsoft-workstation environment.

"We found that PDC licenses cost in the tens of thousands of dollars per year," Squyres said. "This was untenable for a small church."

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Squyres wanted to stick with Linux because of its cheap cost and remote maintenance capabilities. "This was a great boon in the initial deployment," he said.

Further research led Squyres to FileEngine, a GNU/Linux-based file server that includes redundant hard drives, backup, data security tools and access control.

A product of Server Partners LLC of Indianapolis, the FileEngine turnkey file server is rented to businesses for three years for just over $200 a month, with all installation and support services included. After three years, the company can rent a new server or keep the server and pay $100 a month for monitoring services. It carries no per-user license fees.

FileEngine's low-cost, automated backup capabilities and support services were a good fit for the church. Server Partners had in-house Samba experience and could set up a full Windows domain and integrate the entire environment. Squyres didn't have to be involved. So, Server Partners was chosen.

Since the installation, Squyres has had to spend much less time on the file server side of his volunteer IT work. Some of the benefits he's logged include:

  • Hands-off maintenance and management -- "The majority of maintenance happens remotely and behind the scenes," Squyres said. "IT is black magic voodoo to users, who don't know or care how things work; they just want to get their work done." A phone call is all that's needed to add a new user to the domain or a new share or get some of the permissions changed.
  • Flexibility with security -- FileEngine's central authentication enables users to log in to the file server on any workstation. That's helpful in an environment where volunteers need to use any random workstation that is currently available.
  • Easy, reliable backups -- "We initially used tape backups with hand-crafted scripts, which never worked fully properly," Squyres said. FileEngine's backups are automated, requiring only that a user put in a new writable DVDs each morning. "Having reliable, trivial-to-use backups has definitely saved us multiple times already," he added.

Overall, letting support from a Linux server vendor is a less problematic option for the Church of Epiphany because its staff doesn't have to worry about something going wrong while Squyres is off-duty.

"For a business-critical server, relying on finding and keeping a volunteer who has the necessary skills is not a good idea," Squyres said.

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