Tackling the Linux Network for Small Business – Part 1 – Goals & Overview

I’ve been working on a Linux driven network for my family’s small business, Froedge Machine. It’s been an awesome, engrossing experience so far working on this – and the farther I delve the more I realize just how approachable this type of project is. I’m far along enough in the project now that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and am confident enough to start teaching others how to do this – because it’s really, really, insanely cool. So without further delay, here were my goals in approaching the project:

- User authentication required across the network
- Proxy / captive portal
- Varying permissions / workgroups
- Software running in an intranet – not on the cloud (everything from accounting to project management, to timecard entry, to security systems), and accessible via VPN and in some cases web services
- Automated backups, storage and system updates

The first thing I did was hire another network admin to just come in and talk to me for a few hours. He was more of a hardware focused guy, which was fine, because I had no idea on even basic things – like the difference between a switch and a hub (basically that a hub “floods” traffic while a switch routes it intelligently more detail), or how to put an RJ45 on a Cat5e cable. I spent some time checking out Rate My Network Diagram to see some examples of large and small networks, and the physical and virtual components that compose them.

On the software side, I knew I wanted to run Ubuntu Server as our central server, despite the advice of many seasoned network admins on ServerFault who advised “Just use windows server, man, it’s a rock, and everything will just work (as a disclaimer, my experience with Microsoft products is it usually does just work, however klunkily).”

My rational for going with Ubuntu was:

  • I already knew Ubuntu fairly well, as I’d been running it for web servers (and doing all the configuration myself) for a couple of years.
  • Open source means I can make it do whatever I want
  • In the future, clients will be increasingly cross platform (ie I don’t think we’ll be running all PCs in 10 years – several people are using Ipads at work, a few run Linux at home, I use a macbook, and a lot of machines and devices that we could plug into the network run on Unix)
  • Ubuntu is crazily well supported.
  • Did I say I can make it do whatever I want it to?
  • The internet (the biggest network I know of) runs on UNIX

Since choosing a platform and defining some goals, I’ve accomplished quite a bit. So far I:
1. Ordered / assembled of my hardware
2. Got Ubuntu Server running on the machine
3. Configured my managed switch
4. Set up a DHCP server
5. Configured 802.1x authentication via RADIUS and got it working on Mac, Linux & Windows clients
6. Got internet connection sharing working
7. Set up a DNS cache / server

I’ve got a lot left to tackle, but I’m encouraged by the progress I’ve made so far. One of the toughest parts about this project has been the lack of information that brings all of the pieces together in context, yet also drills into detail on the implementation. I’d like to dedicate some time to writing a series of posts which drill into each piece of this project – hardware, networking and software. Hopefully, it will save some time for someone else out there who wants to tackle this kind of project.

The first post will be about hardware – illustrating the physical pieces that go into a computing network and the pieces that they play, and providing some recommendations on what you can get started with. Stay tuned!

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