In Review: Interoperability Headlined 2004

If the name of the game on the modern network is interoperability, 2004 was a good year for networking. Here's how Linux and open source software led the way, and a look at a few other highlights (and low points) from the past year.

By Carla Schroder | Posted Dec 29, 2004
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More Interoperability

Much of our focus at Enterprise Networking Planet is interoperability. Most network/system administrators and users don't want their infrastructure and data held hostage to a single vendor, and must be able to mix and match according to their needs. There does not yet exist a vendor that is capable of supplying every need, and if there were such a vendor they would get uppity and not treat customers well. So competition and being able to select software and hardware from a variety of sources serves customers best.

Linux and the Free/Open Source software world continue to lead the interoperability pack. If it weren't for F/OSS, many commercial software and hardware vendors probably wouldn't even try, and many would put all of their energies into vendor lock-in. Interoperability comes in several forms. The simplest to implement is a server that serves all client platforms, like a mail, DNS/DHCP, FTP, NTP, LDAP, orWeb server, or HTTP caching proxy. The clients of these servers don't care what platform the servers run on, as long as they do their jobs.

File-sharing across platforms is enabled by programs like WebDAV and Samba 3. WebDAV is an Apache add-on that makes sharing files over a network easier than ever. Samba runs on Linux, and it serves as a Windows NT4-style domain controller for Windows LANs. It provides file, print, and authentication services to both Windows and Linux hosts, and it can even integrate Linux hosts into a Windows Active Directory domain.

Also falling under the interoperability category are basic network utilities. As long as networking standards are the same for everyone, different operating systems can talk to each other. Packet sniffers like tcpdump and Ethereal read and analyze TCP/IP packets from all platforms, and help to quickly sort out network problems. Our old friends ping, traceroute, and mtr are still indispensable network connectivity diagnostic tools. These all originated on Unix, but many have been ported to Windows. And if your fave Unix/Linux utility has not been ported to Windows, you can probably run it on Windows via Cygwin. Cygwin is like having a Linux machine inside your Windows box, allowing you to run all of your favorite Linux utilities without needing a second PC.

The next step is data interoperability, and again the leader towards open, universally-compatible data formats is F/OSS. The OpenOffice suite does a good job of importing most Microsoft Office files, though it's not perfect. Even better is OpenOffice's native file format is based on XML, which is an open format, so that developers can create compatible applications. Which means your data will always be accessible, even if OpenOffice disappears from the face of the earth. But that's not all- OpenOffice runs on Linux, Windows, Mac OS X, and most Unixes. And it is available in over three dozen languages. It doesn't get much more interoperable than that.

There are a number of Linux file-format conversion utilities, such as catdoc, which extracts the text from .doc files; pptHtmlm, which converts .ppt to HTML; and pdftotext, which converts .pdf to text. ht://dig uses these and other format converters to render all manner of document formats into nice, universal HTML.

Microsoft took a step towards interoperability with Unix/Linux with Windows Services for UNIX 3.5 (SFU). SFU brings Unix resources into Active Directory and simplifies authentication across the two platforms. Unlike Samba, it does not serve Windows 95/98/ME clients, and the name is backwards -- it's really Unix services for Windows. Still, it's another useful tool for the sysadmin's toolkit.

The lack of directory services has long been a hindrance to Linux sysadmins of larger networks. Sure, traditional Linux gurus are supposed to be able to knock off complex custom scripts with hardly a thought, or effortlessly shape OpenLDAP into a sturdy, useful structure; but us mere mortals really want something like Active Directory. Keep your eye on Samba 4, as it promises to deliver directory services on a similar level to Active Directory.

Tux Dons A Suit

2004 was a phenomenal year for Linux. That little upstart hippie operating system is making inroads everywhere, powering everything from handhelds to old 386s to stout workstations to mainframes to giant clusters. Commercial vendors are growing fat on Linux. IBM sold nearly $2 billion worth of Linux servers. Red Hat saw four consecutive profitable quarters, helped along by ditching their free-as-in-freeloader edition of Red Hat Linux, and concentrating on selling Red Hat Enterprise Linux for actual money. However, they have not turned their backs on the free-of-cost crowd: Red Hat sponsors Fedora Linux, which is developed jointly by Red Hat engineers and community developers.

Novell leaped headfirst into the Linux arena by purchasing SuSE Linux. Novell now has the potential to provide a complete line of products and services, from servers to sophisticated network services and management to the desktop.

All of this means hardworking network and system administrators have more choices than ever- not only are there more good options than ever for users who want commercial support, the number and quality of free Linuxes continues to grow as well.

Spam, Spyware, Malware Are Worse Than Ever. Duh.

The law is spectacularly helpless when it comes to spam and malware. The Can-Spam Act didn't do a thing to stem the sewage tide of spam that batters our servers and clogs the Internet. If anything it emboldened businesses who were leery of entering the spamming game because of its tarnished image. But Can-Spam gave spam a thin coating of legitimacy, just enough to encourage a new flood of "Hi! You came into my store once! So it's OK for me to send you messages! If you don't like it, just say so!" spams. A friend gave me a wonderful solution for spam. Everyone who has ever received a spam gets to line up to slap the spammer, one slap per spam. The spammer is then given the opportunity to opt-out of receiving additional slaps from that person. Once that is settled, it's the next spammee's turn.

Remember, the issue with spam is not that the bulk of it is fraudulent -- the problem is we are subsidizing spammers. So what if suddenly overnight it all became legitimate and honest? It would still constitute over 80% of all email traffic. It would still cost ISPs and end-users hundreds of millions of dollars in bandwidth and administrative costs. It would still shift the costs to the carriers and the receivers, and mail admins would still be caught in an expensive, time-consuming escalating war.

Spam's partner in crime, malware, which includes viruses, Trojan horses, rootkits, worms, and suchlike, continues to rise like the great Mississippi River flood of 1993. Malware is everywhere: instant messaging and Voice-over-IP (VoIP) are fresh new fields for the bad guys to pollute and despoil.

California's anti-spyware bill is doubtless only the first of many well-intentioned ineffective laws. Here's a hint for legislators: Don't listen to the Direct Marketing Association and its ilk. Listen to end users and technical experts. (As if! But we can dream.)

However, as it always does, Linux tries to help everyone, even Windows. You can use Knoppix, the Linux on a live bootable CD to run a virus-scan on Windows PCs. It works from a guaranteed clean disk and uses the latest, most up-to-date virus definitions. You can also use Knoppix to download the latest patches and updates for a Windows PC, so that you can install them before connecting Windows to the Internet.

Security Issues Break New Ground

Living in a networked world, with a continual parade of exciting and useful new developments, is fun itself. It also has its downside: every new protocol and gadget means another potential security problem. Instant messaging and peer file sharing are both two-edged swords with especially sharp edges. Yes, they are great and useful in the enterprise. And they are potentially big trouble when misused.

Unintended consequences bit hard on Google's Desktop Search tool. While it sounds like a great idea- bringing Google's fabled near-telepathic search powers to users' desktops- it also has the potential to traverse network links it has no business on, and cache sensitive corporate documents. And Google is not alone -- Yahoo and MSN are also planning to release similar tools.

Wireless security may finally be approaching coherence and usability, which is welcome news as wireless becomes faster, more reliable, and easy to administer. And wireless is extending its reach, becoming viable for the "last mile" of broadband, and someday freeing customers from the tyranny of inadequate land lines.

IPv6 is fast approaching launch. Beat the rush and start practicing on it now. IPv6 promises better net security with built-in IPsec, easier administration and freedom from horrid NAT kludges.

Looking Ahead

What lies ahead for 2005? Who can say? All I know is it's a great time to be in IT; we're still in kindergarten. I plan to live until we have Star Trek-style computers that we can simply issue verbal orders to, and bore my grandchildren with horror stories of typing and mouse-clicking, and other primitive, barbaric computing practices. They won't believe me, of course, but that's all right. That's the way it always is.

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