The Linux Alternative

Amid reports that Linux is often used as a Web-server operating system, I decided to turn an old, mostly stripped 33-MHz 80486 into a Linux Web server. For the Linux operating system, I chose Caldera Network Desktop, which comes bundled with X Windows, an HTTP server, a version of Netscape Navigator, and Perl.

The 486/33 wasn't a speed burner even when it was new, and only had eight MB of memory. Linux will run with eight MB, but Caldera recommends 16 MB for X Windows. I purchased a new hard disk and controller, video card, and CD-ROM drive, and set about installing Linux. The major problem was the CD-ROM drive, a low-end 4X Creative Labs unit that Linux refused to recognize. I finally swapped it for an old 2X Creative Labs drive from another system, which worked fine. I'd been told that more modern and faster CD-ROM drives didn't work as well as older and slower ones, and this was certainly true in my case.

Linux takes awhile to install, but once it recognizes all of the hardware, there is nothing to it. I was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the configuration of X Windows went. With only eight MB of memory, you absolutely must have a swap partition, or X Windows will not start. With an adequate swap partition (mine was 26 MB), X Windows will run, but sluggishly.

Both Netscape Navigator and the Web server work from the X Windows environment. The Web server is the Apache server, a respected public-domain alternative. Alas, eight MB of memory was not enough for the working set of either application, no matter what the swap-space size, so I upgraded to 16 MB. This proved more than adequate, and I soon had both Web server and browser up and running. I used Navigator 1.2; you'll have to check with Netscape to see if newer versions still support Linux. The Apache group are Linux fans, so look for the latest updates to that server at Apache has an X-based, graphical administrator's console, so setting it up and administering files and access is fairly easy to figure out. Setting up the HTTP and CGI directories and assigning permissions took only a few minutes

The documentation with Caldera Network Desktop and its Web software is skimpy. If you don't already know how to set up and administer a Web server, don't expect to learn how from the manual. There are many good Linux resources available on the Web, but most assume knowledge of UNIX. Linux is a good place to learn and experiment, but it is not for someone who doesn't have the time and patience to figure things out without good documentation and technical support. Caldera offers free support through email, but don't expect answers in less than a day or two.

Other Web servers are also available under Linux in general, including America Online's respected AOLserver (formerly GNNserver). Other Web tools also run on Linux, although the selection is somewhat more limited than for Windows or some of the more popular versions of UNIX. Thanks to the interest and talent of the Linux development community, there should always be enough Web tools available to keep Linux a viable Web platform.

My conclusion is that Linux on a Web server is a fine, low-cost solution, as long as you're aware of its limitations. While the 486/33 was more than adequate in hardware performance, be prepared to invest in memory; at least 16 MB, and more likely 32 MB, are required to run the server software and provide speedy access to many visitors. Overall, if you are looking for a fast, inexpensive way to get a Web site up and running and you have a working knowledge of UNIX, there are few better choices than Linux.