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Centeris CEO: Managing Linux servers in a Windows world

Two years ago, Linux and Windows didn't play well together in the data center. But not any more. Today, Linux is creeping into Windows-only worlds more than ever.

As Linux servers continue to pervade data centers at increasing rates, one of the biggest challenges to strike IT managers is getting those servers to work well with their existing Windows systems.

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As a result, technologies like Samba have made a market out of getting the two operating systems to play nice. However, Samba can be a bit complex for the everyday administrator, so companies like Centeris Corp., a Bellevue, Wash.-based startup, have sprung up with products to minimize the confusion. Centeris and others produce software tools specifically designed to make interoperability as painless as possible.

Recently, Centeris CEO Barry Crist sat down with to talk about why the landscape for cross-platform server management is improving with the integration of Windows and Linux servers and how virtualization is already emerging as the next big technology in the space. What's the landscape looking like today for cross-platform management?

Barry Crist: Since about two years ago, the landscape has changed. Windows is still dominant with Exchange and Active Directory. Those technologies are really unchallenged. But what has changed is Linux is now very mainstream in the SMB market, and that was not the case two years ago. We have seen it come in at the networking edge, on the firewall, maybe with something like an Asterisk phone system. But then you have seen it start to expand -- and a lot of times, that has been done absent from corporate directive. It may have entered via a very specific application, like a Linux content management system in support of a Windows system.

And, like Linux, when this landscape for cross-platform management formed, it did so oftentimes without the knowledge of C-level executives?

Crist: Yes. I can't tell you how many conversations I have had with customers about that. We are very bottom up and sell to the system administrator type or to the operations managers. And when you go to the execs of these Windows-driven companies that may be using 10% Linux, the CIOs will tell you they aren't running Linux. These Linux servers show up absent from any corporate strategy. So, then you have the challenge of wanting to manage them in a Windows-dominated environment; you want to manage them in a similar way to Windows.

One of our customers, the Nixa school district in Springfield, Mo., is the fastest-growing school district in that state. They have 24 servers and four are Linux -- starting at the network edge. For them, student records were an area where they felt Linux security would be better. But then the question was: How do we integrate this with Windows? It became what they called the 'vacation dilemma.'

So what was the "vacation dilemma" with these Linux servers?

Crist: Well, they had a Linux advocate in a Windows environment, but we heard that this IT person could not go on vacation because no one else understood how the firewalls were configured or how Samba was set up or even how to complete a very simple check of performance logs. For the Windows administrator who has some knowledge of Linux, the Linux paradigm is so different to them. All of these basic and day-to-day tasks make it brain-dead simple for someone with experience on Windows.

When you describe it as brain-dead simple, do you ever have someone experienced come in and feel as though the software has been dumbed down in some way?

Crist: That's probably not the right term. For someone who knows how to manage Windows servers, we go about it in a way that is very familiar. Also, one of the features we incorporated into 2.0 is the power user feature, specifically referring to someone who is a Linux power user. Users can set up an SSH shell, so if you want to break into command line, then people are allowed to do it. It allows you to authenticate against Active Directory using command lines.

What's happening now with 64-bit x86 computing and Linux?

Crist: With 64-bit two years ago, there was virtually no demand for it in SMB. It's not 100% yet today, but analysts are saying it's like 80% of SMBs have it deployed or are talking about deploying it.

When you say your customers are "asking or planning" for 64-bit, what are they giving for reasons why?

Crist: It's primarily price-performance. They are more comfortable with it. However, in addition to those, I think an ancillary topic to this is virtualization. I think 64-bit is much more mainstream in the SMB space than virtualization, but people are still thinking about it. Some are even testing it. If people are going to start moving big time into virtualization, they want to have as much horsepower as they can.

So now we're on to the rise of virtual machines. We're not quite there yet, but this technology is very popular. How is virtualization going to change things for your industry in the next nine to 12 months or so?

Crist: It's going to change the landscape -- it just makes sense. Today they can just stand up a virtual machine. No one wanted to do it at first -- they thought it was too risky.

But, today, the ability to turn on and try new technology because of virtual machines is incredible. If something gets walled off and then gets messed up, you can just erase it. The technology makes things five to10 times more efficient than what we had two years ago. That said, it does mean the servers you buy are big high-end, bad-ass servers.

And how about your thoughts on Xen?

Crist: Right now we are just info-gathering, and we'll look to that in the future. As a startup, you want to get something that is emerging but don't want to spend a lot of time and energy on it before it is ready for market.

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