Best Linux build for my server?
December 19, 2004 3:01 PM   Subscribe

Forced to reinstall my server, so I'm also optimizing it. Any suggestions on which Linux build I'd be best off using? Some specific issues inside.

I run a Linux server in my office. I use it primarily to host a test copy of the website I maintain, and secondarily to FTP files back and forth between work and home. Today the hard drive started to die (making periodic chunk-chunk-chunk sounds as I type). System isn't dead yet, but is well on its way to the cruftpile.

Here's my issue. I need this server to run, but I can't actually spend money on it. I have other hard drives I can stick in this thing, but they're pretty small (4 gig or less). It currently runs RedHat 9, but the OS takes up a big chunk of the drive as it is, and I haven't fired up the GUI since i first set up the system, so I'd like to maximize my drive space by minimizing my next install. As stated, all I need on board is Apache and an FTP server.

The major setup problem I have with this (aside from drive space) is that I've never installed or run Linux sans GUI, so I'm looking for a build that makes it easy as possible to get this thing up, configured and running, so that I can get back to working on my thesis instead of playing doctor to the poor dying server. Any suggestions are appreciated.
posted by caution live frogs to Computers & Internet (16 answers total)
OpenBSD (not FreeBSD) is very small and supposedly easy to install, but I have no personal experience with it (another admin at work swears by it) and because of that admin's generally high level of competence and experience, I suspect it has a steeper learning curve than some distros (though that's pure guess).

I swear by Ubuntu. Single disk installs everything, you can make it as small as you want, and after first boot, just apt-get install apache/apt-get install [ftp server of your choice] and you're done. Very, very easy to work with in my opinion. :)
posted by littlegreenlights at 3:10 PM on December 19, 2004

I wish you were willing to go with a non-GUI setup, because if you want a linux that will use very little space, the last time I customized slackware I got it under 100 MB without trouble...
posted by shepd at 3:35 PM on December 19, 2004

Anything Debian based is a good choice. Ubuntu included.

apt will allow you to very easily update your server and ensure that the latest security patches are in place.
posted by o0o0o at 3:38 PM on December 19, 2004

I second shepds idea, squeezed a red hat sans gui into a very small spot myself, ditch the GUI, ditch the printerstuff, ditch anything you don't use. That is, if you like red hat. :)
posted by dabitch at 3:54 PM on December 19, 2004

Response by poster: actually shepd non-GUI was my plan: not having done it before i wasn't sure what the recommended setup would be. i had been looking at the slackware site, and figured the mefi penguin fans would know better than i where to go for the least painful setup.

thanks for the suggestions so far - i'll keep monitoring this thread for a few days prior to trying to rebuild this thing, just in case...
posted by caution live frogs at 4:02 PM on December 19, 2004

damn small linux looks interesting, but I have never tried it. (complete gentoo addict for the last few years, i.e. bloat and lots of spare time...)

if you are willing to ditch the gui, slak is indeed the bee's secondary erogenous zones. (gentoo is basically slak for even-lazier-ass-people)
posted by dorian at 4:05 PM on December 19, 2004

(or is that tertiary?)
posted by dorian at 4:05 PM on December 19, 2004

If you want a good, solid, GUI-free setup amd a very secure OS, you can't beat OpenBSD. That said, no matter how well-audited the code in an operating system is (and for the x86 platform OpenBSD's is by far the best, running some 8 years and having had one remote hole in the default install in all that time), it cannot compensate for incompetence on the part of the admin. The learning curve is moderately steep (less than Gentoo, but more than most other Linuxes), but the documentation on OpenBSD .org is amongst the best documentation for an open source product in existence. If you're one of those people who likes to do things by the book and get amazing, solid results, OpenBSD is for you.

That said, the focus of OpenBSD is security, not performance - if you want a performance-optimized operating system with a solid security track-record, look into FreeBSD instead.
posted by Ryvar at 4:52 PM on December 19, 2004

Without a GUI, 4 gigs is a lot of space.

In your situation, I'd go OpenBSD or Debian. Personally, I don't like either, and use Gentoo, but I don't think you want that hassle. I normally reccomend Mandrake, but installing it without a GUI is just about impossible.

Debian seems a little easier to update, and OpenBSD tends to be more secure if you leave it alone for a while. If you don't have a public IP address, you might prefer Debian. If you do, go OpenBSD if you want to worry less.

As an aside - I'm assuming by the hard drive size that this server is somewhere around a 300 Mhz processor? It sounds slow, but it is more than adequate for what you are doing. In other words, don't worry about an optimized distribution. I had 20 clients on a similar machine up until 3 years ago, no issues whatsoever.
posted by bh at 5:57 PM on December 19, 2004

I'll throw in my quick recommendation for OpenBSD, along with the others in here. It's small, it's very secure, and it will get the job done with not too much fuss. Learning curve-wise, if you have already run and installed any other distro, than OpenBSD will be cake- just follow the directions.

Since it sounds like your system may even be a bastion host (have direct access to the internet), OpenBSD becomes an even better option.
posted by id at 8:14 PM on December 19, 2004

Response by poster: bh -the server is a 200 mhz (used to be my actual work desktop until about a year ago, sad but true!). it does have direct net access... security-wise, i'm not hosting anything sensitive, but i'd sure like it to remain functional and not end up some sort of spam zombie machine.

(just checked - i think it may really be dead. not responding to ping as of right now. guess i need to see about this reinstall tomorrow, instead of a few days from now.)

sounds like OpenBSD is my best bet. thanks again for the comments, folks!
posted by caution live frogs at 8:30 PM on December 19, 2004

Caution: the firewall the guards my home network is a VERY stripped down and custom-hardened OpenBSD install running on a 200MHz Pentium with 64MB of RAM on a 4GB SCSI UW HD. While I wouldn't attempt to do anything even medium-sized with that kind of hardware, for anything (mail, web) in the under-100-users range it's more than adequate.

If you do run into trouble during your install and have a question or three, you can message me on AIM - my screenname is 'Ryvar' there, too.
posted by Ryvar at 10:00 PM on December 19, 2004

I've worked with RedHat, Suse, Slackware, Mandrake, Gentoo, and Debian(Ubuntu) and I keep finding myself coming back to an all FreeBSD environment. All linux distributions I've worked with seem to suffer from rot over time -- they become difficult to keep up to date and maintain, and eventually require a reformat and re-install.

FreeBSD just feels like a well architected system, with all pieces well thought out and integrated together. I can sit down at a FreeBSD box that I haven't looked at in 6 months, and bring everything up to date (kernel, OS, installed packages) using a combination of cvsup and portupgrade. While all linux systems have some kind of package management tool, overall, I have found that they have let me down in one way or another and left the system in a state where it was easier to just reformat and start over, than to try to maintain the existing system.

OpenBSD is good too (I use it for firewalls), however, it doesn't have as large of a ports collection as FreeBSD and FreeBSD's java support is better (I do a lot of servlet work). If you're looking for a replacement , and especially if it's a server box it would be worth your while to try the switch.
posted by kaefer at 11:35 PM on December 19, 2004

I've used Debian with no GUI installed (which is easy to do) on a 200 Mhz machine with 128M/10G. And it worked fine as a light- duty web and mail server for a couple of years. Unlike kaefer, I never found the need to reinstall; that there was very little installed software and even less that ever needed updating on the system might have helped. I've little experience with *BSDs, however, so someone who's used both Linux and BSD is probably more qualified to recommend one or the other but for me Linux did the job fine.
posted by TimeFactor at 11:50 PM on December 19, 2004

I know I'm a bit late to the thread, but in case you're still watching, you might want to look at Whitebox. It's Redhat Enterprise Linux 3 with all the non-free artwork removed.

The installer has a simple tickbox for gui-less installs, and it has the advantage of a long life - you can use the Redhat updates, and they are committed to keeping it patched til 2008. I have it on 3 servers here and it's excellent. Also it'll be totally familiar, as it's not far off being a stabilised RH9.
posted by Gamecat at 4:54 AM on December 20, 2004

Response by poster: ...and just in case anyone is wondering i changed my mind totally and went with slackware. up and running (barring some minor issues with it not recognizing my ethernet card). but i made it through my first command-like only install and am now happily poking around on the server via PuTTY+SSH (with a whole pile of "linux command line for the hopelessy DOS"-type pages bookmarked).
posted by caution live frogs at 12:08 PM on December 21, 2004

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