Connecting Unix, NT Takes Learning Samba

Lori: Last week we said goodbye to long-time columnist Brooks Talley, who has hurried off to take up his new full-time occupation developing our Web site, InfoWorld.com. So this week I get to introduce my new partner, who may be familiar to many of you. My co-author is now Kevin Railsback, a former analyst and now West Coast technical director at the InfoWorld Test Center. Kevin has loads of experience in networking, as well as with Unix and Linux, his favorite platforms. You'll see his byline often in InfoWorld.

You'll also see a change in format beginning with this column. We will now discuss a topic without kicking off with a reader's question. Rest assured we'll still be reading our e-mail for ideas, but we'll also enjoy the freedom to explain things in ways we hope will be more valuable to you, rather than answering specific and perhaps narrow questions.

Many of you have shown an interest in Samba, due to a recent article in which a reader wanted to have his users map to a virtual drive that combined data from various NAS (network-attached storage) devices. Samba, an open-source project from the Samba Team, is a tool for connecting Unix and Microsoft Corp. Windows platforms.

Although Samba is not well known, it is used in many organizations and has been adopted by many vendors who distribute it along with their products. The Samba Team, a loose-knit group of open-source developers, provides the free, downloadable, open-source software called Samba for Linux. It is typically used by companies running Unix/Linux and Windows NT servers. Samba is transparent to end-users and integrates into a Windows NT server domain, making Linux machines appear as Windows machines. In this way users can seamlessly share files and devices from either platform.

By deploying Samba, users can map to a shared directory by a single drive letter. Because Samba integrates with Windows NT, Samba can use the NT domain controllers or the Linux machine for authentication, or it can allow your Linux server to act as an NT domain controller, if you wish. The Samba software runs on a Unix or a Linux server. Although Samba is free, you'll find some versions available with vendor support at a cost. SGI, for example, offers its professional version, Samba for Irix, for US$300. Other vendors that have implemented Samba include Cobalt Networks and SCO. For a complete list visit the Samba Web site at www.samba.org.

Many readers wrote to tell us they were using Samba to connect and share NAS devices. Some were using Samba on Linux, whereas others were using SCO by creating a shared directory and then mounting any shared drives. Here are a few of their tips:

Michael Miller says using Samba and SMBFS (Server Message Block File System) in combination allows a Linux box to mount an NT server SMB (Server Message Block) share and perform as usual. Samba allows a *nix directory to be made available as an SMB share. You can aggregate the NAS shares by mounting them onto the Linux box in a single parent directory (e.g., /mnt/nas). Then make that parent directory available via Samba, so the Windows clients can mount it with a single drive letter.

Bruce Bauer offers a low-cost solution: Set up a Linux file server running Samba and mount the NAS into the Linux file system using NFS. Map a single drive letter in the Windows clients to the Linux file system. NAS devices can be moved into and out of the Linux file system at will with no change to the Windows clients.

Now I'll pass the Samba token to Kevin, our Linux guru.

Kevin: Thanks for the kind words, Lori. Samba is a great tool for any network manager who needs to integrate Unix and Windows servers and clients. Once Samba is set up, the use of Samba servers on your network is transparent to the end-users who attach with it.

On the server side, setting up Samba can be a bit of a chore for new Unix administrators. But the handling of the Samba configuration files and the password database is made easier with the Samba Web Administration Tool (SWAT). With SWAT, you can set all of the important configuration options, and you'll enjoy step-by-step information on what each setting does and what the defaults should be.

Once the Samba server has been properly configured with SWAT and users have been set up, getting client machines connected is a breeze. Simply point to the server in Windows Explorer to map a drive and enter the user's user name/password pair. Or if you've set up Samba's NT domain security and your users are already validated by NT, they'll have seamless access to the Samba shared resources.

As Lori mentioned, this can be a great way to connect your users to NAS and other network resources. You can realize another major benefit of Samba with server-to-server sharing. By sharing out a partition on the Linux or Unix server via Samba and connecting to that with the existing NT backup machine, all system backups can be handled from your current backup machine. There is no need to add a new Unix-based backup system or set up special file transfers. As long as the NT server can attach directly to the Linux/Unix box, it will perform its normal backup procedures.

Samba is also a good tool for migrating from one server OS to another. If you are a predominantly Windows shop but are adding Sun workstations for some users, for example, Samba allows those users to continue to attach to the file-and-print servers. Conversely, if your company uses Solaris servers and is adding Windows clients to the mix, Samba on the server side would allow them to connect to existing Sun server machines.

Any way you look at it, Samba is an excellent addition in any network manager's toolbox. It is a must-have tool for mixed-platform environments in which users and administrators need access to both Unix and Windows file-and-print resources without requiring special files or tools to be added to every Windows desktop.

Kevin Railsback is West Coast technical director in the InfoWorld Test Center. Lori Mitchell is a senior analyst in the Test Center.

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