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Open source servers serve up challenges

Before you dive into do-it-yourself open source, make sure you know your technology. An expert walks readers through his experience installing and configuring open source server app Mambo.

Open source software is certainly a wonderful evolution in computing, but even if you're a savvy PC user with a lot of commercial software experience, the job of installing and running open source on a server can be a daunting experience. Here's my own vignette.

As an experiment, I recently set out to install Mambo, an open source content management system, on a PC running Windows XP Professional. I'm a fairly geeky PC tinkerer and have been for more than 20 years. I've also used lots of open source applications on the desktop, so I figured I could muddle my way through the process.

Installing an open source server application actually means installing several other programs. In my case, these included Apache, the popular Web server; a Java container called Tomcat; the PHP scripting language and the MySQL database.

None of these are point-and-click installations. All require some degree of custom configuration, which usually means manually editing initialization files. In my case, there were scores of these switches to set. The documentation that comes with these programs is voluminous and impressive, but is not designed for a novice. The "Quickstart" tutorials you find online can be rather daunting. Each one of these products has multiple Web sites devoted to tips and troubleshooting and many have good tutorials. But the quality is erratic, and I had trouble finding step-by-step instruction that matched my specific needs.

I was about to give up when I came upon a terrific tutorial from an independent developer that gave detailed instructions on how to install and configure not only Mambo, but also the underlying systems software. But even then, I spent hours setting parameters.

More than 10 hours after I started, my installation was 90% complete. I had Apache and MySQL set correctly, PhpAdmin was managing the database and the content management server was installed. But I couldn't get past the login screen. I searched for a solution online for another hour but couldn't find anything other than some other people complaining about the same problem. That's when I called it a day.

My reason for telling you this story is not to criticize these fine programs or the people who develop them. It's to point out that the pure open source world -- as opposed to the commercial open source industry -- is still very much a roll-your-own place.

If there's one thing the commercial software industry is good at, it's packaging. Application software companies -- and that includes open source application vendors -- presume a modest level of user technical ability. So they take the time to license, package and preconfigure their products to make basic installation and operation straightforward. This may make their products inflexible, but it also makes them pretty easy to get started with.

The pure open source community assumes a higher level of technical skill. Developers presume that users place a premium on control and flexibility. So they make it a point not to assume anything and to give users the tools to get what they want. In the open source world, you get apples, flour, sugar, butter and cinnamon. In the commercial software world, you get an apple pie.

The commercial open source vendors are addressing this issue with prepackaged configurations that mask a lot of the complexity. Most also offer telephone support or rapid-response email, which are services you won't get if you go solo. You have to pay for these, but depending on the value you place on your time, the cost may be well worth it.

This is worth keeping in mind if you are considering taking a dive into the open source ocean. Open source software on a server is not like open source software on a PC. This could be a great way for you to cut your IT capital costs, but be sure to know your technology well before you dive in.

Paul Gillin is an independent marketing consultant and founding editor in chief of TechTarget. His Web site is

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