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A Miniature Linux Office Solution (Mini ITX)

Back in January of this year (2011) I was on-site at one of our local client offices setting up yet another Microsoft Windows XP system for a dedicated use. That PC is there just for running the United Parcel Service (UPS) WorldShip™ software for the client to enter UPS shipments off-line then batch upload them at the end of the day. Of course that software "requires" a Microsoft operating system to run. (As an aside, It irks me that people have to buy a Microsoft license just to run software like this. When are major companies like UPS going to realize it is in their best interest to create this "free" software they give away to their customers and make it available to run natively on Linux? Please do not start with the "use WINE" comments. If I wanted "Windows" software I would use a Microsoft OS. So would most Linux users, I would bet.) When I was finishing up with the shipping system the office manager asked me about setting up a dedicated system for sharing scanned versions of all their client files. They want to reduce the time it takes to look up client information in their several thousand or so paper client records. I told her I would get some prices together and send her some quotes for that.

If you are a Linux administrator for a Linux/SAMBA file sharing system in a mostly Microsoft based LAN you likely already have an idea about my plan. I put together prices for some dedicated Network Attached Storage (NAS) drives. I also put together a price for what I call our Miniature Office Server or Miniature Desktop PC. A system we build around a Mini-ITX board using motherboards from two different manufacturers and Lian-Li Mini-ITX cases. This system is installed with a limited selection of Linux distributions depending on which motherboard is needed for the end-user's desired purpose. In this case I chose Mandriva as it is my personal favorite and the end-user needs a relatively easy to use and configure Linux distribution.

Be aware that this client has never had a Linux system in their office before now. I have mentioned Linux as a possible solution to upgrade some of their systems from Windows XP, and that is still on the table at this point. After reviewing the quotes our client contacted me a couple of weeks later and said to go with the Miniature Office Server system running Linux. Picture of Mini Ofc PC Front We arranged for the parts and built the system once they arrived. After the system ran through diagnostics successfully we installed Mandriva 2010.2 Linux x86_64 and SAMBA. A minimalist LXDE "desktop" with X was included since this client is familiar with using a GUI to manage their systems. I called and arranged for delivery of the new system and set up a time to deliver.Miniature Office Server / Desktop PC Installed with Linux (Back)

I delivered the system thinking it would just be used as a file server to share documents scanned from one of the Microsoft systems in the office. To my surprise this system was to be used not only as a file server, but as a "scan station" with a scanner attached and a real live person sitting at a desk interacting with the PC. There had been a break-down in communication between me and the client. But this was easily remedied once I got the idea of what they wanted to do. Had I realized this in advance I would have installed something other than the light desktop that I installed. Probably Gnome would be my choice in this case as the office manager is an OS X user and Gnome has been favorably compared to the Apple GUI by some. Besides, I am still not convinced KDE in Mandriva is up to being ready for production use yet after the KDE 3.5 versus KDE 4.x fiasco that has ensued over the past many months.

Now the project was not just to configure SAMBA shares for their office LAN, but to configure an Epson GT-S50 ADF scanner and get it working on Linux. So I used Mandriva 'urpmi' to download and install Xsane. Unfortunately Xsane did not "see" the GT-S50. I know that Epson drivers for most of their scanners are found at the Avasys web site. So I accessed the site and downloaded the software and drivers for the scanner there. After installing the Image Scan software and testing it all appeared "okay". The following day was for training the young lady that would be using the system. However, once we began using the Image Scan software it was discovered that the page size could not be adjusted. There were no settings in the configuration to change this so a different solution had to be found. The young lady I was to train left as there was nothing she could do until this problem was resolved.

Luckily, now that the Avasys driver had been installed Xsane was able to "see" the GT-S50. I spent some time figuring out how the scanner would work with Xsane and making mental notes about multi-page scanning, as almost all their scans will be multiple pages for client project records. Then made a few tweaks to the SAMBA setup to allow some of the staff "administration" access to be able to rename and delete documents as needed. Everyone else got read-only access.

The following training day arrived and we began again with training on the new system This time, things went much more smoothly. The only glitch with Xsane is it apparently does not have a way to use the dual-sided scanning capability of the GT-S50 scanner. However a work-around was developed that would be satisfactory when using Xsane's multi-page scanning feature. Then one other problem cropped up. Some of the directories created on the Linux side were showing up in the old, broken DOS 8.3 format on the Microsoft systems. This turned out to the a name mangling problem with the version of SAMBA used and ending a directory name with a period, such as "Acme Explosives Co." The simple solution is to not end directory names with a period, and that is what was decided. The only item left to be decided is how much extra drive space may be needed in the future to store thousands of the scanned documents stored as PDF. Of course the eSata ports, shown in the picture above, will be put to use in the event more than the 400 GB available is needed. Logical Volume Management will be used to seamlessly add new storage to the existing storage.

There you have it. A Linux based solution to an office need in a real-world environment. No need for expensive, and/or proprietary, and/or freedom killing sofware. Further, this PC can easily expand its role to include document creation and editing with any of the several word processors available on Linux. Or it could be used to create and edit graphics using The GIMP along with the scanning capability of Xsane. Essentially almost any task that does not require a proprietary Microsoft operating system can be done with this PC. I will let you know if this system gets retasked in the future. In the meantime, feel free to add your comments about other small business Linux solutions that you have done.

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Edit Thu Feb 24 12:55:57 CST 2011: Fix a run-on sentence.

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10 comments to A Miniature Linux Office Solution (Mini ITX)

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Christopher Baluyut and Joe Hermando, tux news. tux news said: A Miniature Linux Office Solution (Mini ITX) http://bit.ly/eLGLfe […]

  • It is always hard to set up that kind of thing with hardware already available.
    As for the Worldship thing, I can only wonder why that is not available in a web interface. It makes absolutely no sense at all to make something like that installable software. If anything, it should be done with Java or something similar which is cross-platform.

    Good luck with the results; it sounds like you got off to a promising start.

  • Charles Cote

    Hi, i'm not a big Microsoft fan, but beeing a consultant myself, i at least know how to do simple maths specialy when it comes to implementing systems at customer sites. You don't mention who was paying for all that time spent setting up the system and going back to you customer because this or that did not work, but it sure costed way more then what a windows license would have costed. Remember, time IS money.

    • Charles,

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, the install and setup labor alone would cost more than a single license for Windows 7 Professional. But as this is basically a server for file sharing that is just incidentally being used for the scanning process I recommended a server solution. The less expensive route for this server is Linux, if one includes both server license pricing and labor for setting up a Microsoft based server.

      You seem to think it would be costless for labor if the end-user chose Microsoft. Do you think a Microsoft 2008 LAN server with a 10 user CAL would actually be the less expensive solution? I can tell you, the license for that alone would have been more than the labor fees to set up this Miniature Office system with Linux. Then after the license costs the client would have still had to pay a consultant to set up that server. Thus adding even more to the total.

      Edit added later: One other little thing, Charles. The Linux system will also never have to have commercial anti-malware installed. People always seem to leave out the cost of adding anti-malware to Microsoft systems when talking about these costs. If anti-malware is desired on this Linux system then a combination of free, open source software can be used for that task. I dare to say clamscan and spamassassin on Linux are as good as, or better than, any commercial anti-malware I have ever installed for a client. Plus Linux already includes a stateful firewall in iptables for which various folks have created GUI front-ends to make it “easy” (as if configuring a firewall properly is “easy” even with GUI tools).

  • Malcolm

    Hi Charles Cote
    Yes the initial setup may cost more up front for Linux deployment than compared to the long term investments made in maintaining and securing a Microsoft Workstation.
    Microsoft solutions are a "pay as you go" systems.  The more you use it the more you have to pay for it whereas once a Linux solution is setup very little $$$ dollars are required.

  • […] A Miniature Linux Office Solution (Mini ITX) In this case I chose Mandriva as it is my personal favorite and the end-user needs a relatively easy to use and configure Linux distribution. […]

  • As a "certified" Microsoft Professional and now an avid fan of Open Source and Linux making it as the preferred solution going in to the future. I can't help but comment on the fact that unless customers are open minded and care about technology at all these situations are few and far between. Also it seems you downplayed the problems and the time lost by the worker training that, it in itself would have gotten some let's say attention if it were my business. As an ex-business owner and running business at high levels, clients don't want to hear, well the SAMBA DOS 3 file naming convention is causing this etc. They want you to bring their equipment in set it up download the drivers for the extra equipment if not already onsite and walk away with a scanning workstation. Unfortunately these devices, with the exception of the older drivers not working with Windows 7 or Vista, are made to work with Windows. A small office also usually doesn't need a Windows server operating system to be a simple file server. Just share the folder and on the workstations setup a mapped drive, obviously with any granular security settings you may need. The kicker for me though is the fact that dual sided scanning is something that is expected without issue. Granted you will run into setup issues but they are usually not needing someone who knows about configuring any open source package you may need. Again I'm more of trying to play devil's advocate but it's all for the betterment of free software hopefully. Most small offices nowadays want to be able to do alot on their own and fiddle their way through things and in "our" world (Linux/Open Source) that isn't going to go over to well. By the third "Google" and sometimes snobby answers, they're right back to the safe arms of Microsoft. They will all tell you business small and large, they want someone to call that will respond and if need be stand behind the software. In this service oriented world of open source they don't feel like they have that and for small business paying a Red Hat etc will end up costing the same if not more for the "per machine" service agreement. We still have some details to make our software a viable solution in some cases. Unless the client and the person doing the work have an understanding of what you could be in for sometimes this scares people away. Linux is obviously slated well in the server space where the techies are usually more knowledgeable and in house IT will use the solution they are most familiar with. But even in those cases I've watched companies spend several 10's of thousands of dollars without flinching, for what they thought the piece of mind that their money making would not be interrupted by a driver,configuration or any other reason that can pop up if the staff isn't Linux savy. I know I brought up several issues but the landscape is so variable out there we need to clean up some loose ends. Just to name one package management, when people hear Linux they think they can plug in any one they desire and they'll all play well together but nowadays filesystem layout is customized, locations of config files change on a whim of the next guy trying to make Linux user friendly. Damnit let it stabilize and play by some standards then maybe we've got a shot. Stop creating yet another package manger, changing what the system uses to boot, put folders and config files in one place. It can seem like a big mess looking down from a distance. Just my two cents guys and gals. If frustration is sensed it is definitely because I want to see this all become reality. But I'll stay tuned I even registered for my Linux User number lol. While still running a Windows partition, and no it isn't only for gaming. I believed Mark Shuttleworth was coming along strong with his ideas then all of a sudden he started with his heavy handed "I know no one likes it but it's not a democracy" thing. If your interested you can follow my shameless plug and see my blog where I rant once and a while http://joehacker72.wordpress.com.
    Peace
    Joe

  • Henry Keultjes

    To the best of my knowledge, we were the very first company to transact business with UPS via a manifest that our Pick system generated.  I do not see any real problem doing that again.
    Henry Keultjes
    Microdyne Company
    Mansfield Ohio USA

  • Zlatko ?uri?

    Henry, 
    You mean, you didn't install the UPS software, you used your own solution?

  • There are web-based scanner solutions available.  One is LInux Scanner Server (discontinued) which I developed a patch for:

    http://jhansonxi.blogspot.com/2010/10/patch-for-linux-scanner-server-v12.html

    LSS is basically a shell script. One Ubuntu user who helped me with that has cloned it with a PHP version called "PHP Scanner Server". It adds a lot of features like setting the scanning area via paper size or a selection windows like Xsane. It doesn't have its own project site yet so you have to find the latest version attached to the LSS Ubuntu forum thread:

    http://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=1519201&goto=newpost

    There is also phpSANE http://sourceforge.net/projects/phpsane/ Unlike LSS/PSS it doesn't have file management on the web server. The users have to save each file locally.

    (Editor: Cleaned up awful looking HTML. Not the fault of the O.P., but our theme’s comment code.)

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