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Netbooks: Networking and Managing a Linux portable

Linux netbooks are cheap, popular and probably on a customer site already. How can you connect them to an existing network and make them work with Windows servers and applications?

 


You won’t have missed the arrival of the netbook on the PC scene. They’re the ideal size to have on hand in case a client calls up, wanting something fixed. With a 3G card or a Wi-Fi connection they’re your ticket to a quick fix and a happy customer. Unfortunately that customer isn’t likely to be as happy when they’ve bought their own netbook hoping to get a budget ultraportable and find they can’t use it in the same way as their desktop PC.

 


The first popular netbook was the Asus Eee PC. Built using cheap flash RAM as storage, it used a custom version of the Xandros Linux distribution. Underneath the simple user interface lurks a full Linux system, with many of the features you’d expect in a more mainstream distribution. Getting to it wasn’t easy, but once you were through the hoops you could download and add software. The netbook form factor has since become increasingly popular, and nearly all key vendors, including HP, Dell, and Lenovo, are shipping netbook devices.

Netbooks come with Windows XP but they’re often a little cheaper with Linux (you can run Vista, but it’s not recommended for netbooks’ low-power CPUs and typical 1GB memory). XP is a familiar animal, and if your users prefer to run Windows, you can install it on virtually every netbook: most come with a CD of Windows drivers. Trim out unnecessary files to save space (the Eee manual includes suggestions). If a netbook comes with Windows XP, upgrade it from the default Windows XP Home install to a SKU that can connect to an Active Directory domain.

 

Unless you’ve been working with Linux regularly you’ll find adding a Linux netbook to an existing network something of a challenge. A significant proportion of Linux netbooks are returned to the vendor as unsuitable, but with some work on your part, you can help your clients take advantage of the low cost of Linux.


A different interface

Most users will stick with the simple front ends that come with the standard netbook Linux distributions. Simple application launchers, they can be configured to display alternative applications – and also shortcuts to common Web pages. Applications are displayed in tabs rather than Windows, simplifying the user experience, but possibly confusing users familiar with the Windows way of working. Perhaps the best metaphor for the standard Linux netbook experience is a tabbed Web browser, where individual tabs can be applications as well as Web sites. There’s a lot to be said for this approach as it simplifies things for non-technical users – though power users may well demand something a little more flexible.

 

The common Ubuntu Netbook Remix (a version of the desktop Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron) lets you switch between simple and advanced user interfaces from the menu, so you can get access to a more familiar windowing environment.

 

Things are a little harder with the Xandros derivative used on the Eee, and you will need to make different configuration changes on each model to enable its advanced mode. You may well want to enable it anyway, as it gives you more scope and flexibility when administering a client’s device – especially if you’re cutting and pasting information from the many online help resources.


More than browsing

Netbooks often come bundled with a set of applications, so you won’t need to do much installation work. There will be some training though, as Linux productivity software differs from familiar Windows applications. The OpenOffice.org installation on Ubuntu Netbook Remix and the Eee’s StarOffice both work with Office XP and earlier file formats, as well as the open standard ODF document formats, but not the Office 2007 file formats.

 

Your clients will be able to use their netbooks to create and edit spreadsheets, text documents and presentations. Most also come with support for PDF, so they’ll also be able to read most common document formats. There are also basic PIM functions, with tools for managing address books. There’s plenty of software available for Linux, for most common business scenarios, and most applications run reasonably well on the reduced form factor and with a netbook’s smaller screen.

 

As the name suggests, netbooks are designed to work well on line. They all come with a Web browser – usually the popular Firefox. While Firefox works well with most Web pages, it’s not designed to work with the ActiveX technologies used on many intranets. This can cause compatibility problems, and it’s important to test all key applications to ensure that users get the maximum functionality. Some common services, like Outlook Web Access, offer a simpler version for other Web browsers, and these views will work well with Firefox. Online services, like Google Docs and Gmail will work as well in Firefox as in Internet Explorer. But if users need access to ActiveX-powered intranet sites, you’ll need to install Windows on the netbook instead.

 

Don’t expect to find Outlook on a Linux netbook – or anything that connect directly to an Exchange server via MAPI. The Eee’s Xandros comes with Mozilla’s Thunderbird, while netbooks running Ubuntu use the Gnome Evolution mail and calendar tool. Both support IMAP mail delivery, which can be used to connect to Exchange servers.

 

You will need to set up an appropriate SMTP sever for remote netbooks to send mail through. One option is to use Gmail as a mobile SMTP server, though your users will need a Gmail account to use Google’s mail servers, which may not be appropriate for every business.

 

You’ll need to populate address books manually, using CSV exports from Outlook or Notes. There’s no calendar on the Eee – so you may need to set up Web access
to internal calendaring tools (Outlook Web Access is one option). Gnome Evolution includes its own calendar tools. Evolution can share calendaring information with Google calendars or other calendaring servers using the CalDAV protocol – though not with Exchange. Both Thunderbird and Evolution can be used as RSS readers.


Netbooks and networks

One of the biggest problems facing netbook users is connecting to networks. While most distributions include a Samba SMB client, some – like the Acer Aspire One – don’t ship with anything other than basic Internet applications. Where there is SMB and CIFS support, you’ll find plenty of idiosyncrasies, and tools that are at best convoluted, and at worst buggy.

 

If your clients are using a netbook running Ubuntu Netbook Remix then be prepared for lots of support calls, if they’re trying to connect to authenticated resources. There’s a bug in a low-evel library that’s used by the Gnome Nautilus file manager which means that they won’t be able to see shares that need passwords. If your clients have servers that allow guest access that’ll be just fine, but if they’re protecting their information the way they should be, then you’ll need to give your users a workaround. One fix is to mount the shares directly.

 

Mounted drives are by far the best way to work with network resources your clients need to use regularly. Mounting a share under Linux is much like creating a mapped drive on Windows. You’ll need to know the NetBIOS address of the share in question. You can create them using the Linux command line, mounting a SMB or CIFS share with just a single line – though making a mount permanent requires editing key system files, including the fstab file system descriptor. It’s a lot easier to use the tools built into graphical file managers wherever possible.

 

On netbooks running Ubuntu, use the location bar in Nautilus to mount the share by typing in an address using the smb:// format:


smb://<server name>/<shared folder>

Once connected you’ll be prompted to type in the appropriate user name and password.

 

The Eee version of Xandros has a ‘mount network share’ option in the File Manager tools menu. In the dialog box type in the UNC path of the Windows share you want to mount. Xandros will create the appropriate mount point in the /home/user directory, and will store the user name and password needed to make a connection.

 

If users need to connect to Vista or Windows Server 2008 shares you will also need to make some changes to the security policy of your network. The current version of the Samba network share tool bundled with most Linux distributions can’t connect to NTLMv2 authenticated shares. You’ll need to use a group policy object to change the authentication level on your Windows network: there are six levels available.


Level 0 – Send LM response and NTLM response; never use NTLMv2 session security

Level 1 – Use NTLMv2 session security

if negotiated
Level 2 – Send NTLM response only
Level 3 – Send NTLMv2 response only
Level 4 – DC refuses LM responses
Level 5 – DC refuses LM and NTLM responses (accepts only NTLMv2)

Vista and Windows Server 2008 default to level 5, so you’ll have to drop this to Level 3 for Linux netbooks to work with these shares.

 

Use the Group Policy Management tool to choose the appropriate policy (often the Default Domain Controllers Policy in a simple AD controlled network), and then right click to edit in the Group Policy Management Editor. Under Computer Configuration, open Policies and Windows Settings. In the Security Settings section open Local Policies > Security Options. Scroll down to find Network Security: LAN Manager authentication level. Open this and choose ‘Send NTMLv2 response only’. This will allow your network to negotiate NTLMv2 connections with devices that send LM or NTLM requests.

 

It’s a lot easier to connect netbooks to Linux servers or to NAS devices (these are often based on embedded Linux distributions), and to Windows XP desktops and Windows Server 2000 and Windows Server 2003 networks. A netbook is intended to be a lightweight ultra-portable device, often with minimal local storage, so you may need to introduce some cloud-based services and storage to the infrastructure.

 

Ubuntu Netbook Remix can connect to other share types, including the WebDAV protocol used by Microsoft SharePoint, and to FTP servers or servers using the secure SSH protocol. One option is to set up a secure FTP site for file exchange that you can then map to user directories on a client network. Files created on a netbook can be uploaded to the FTP server, where they can be accessed by desktop PCs.


Printers and updates
Of course it’s always possible to connect a Linux netbook to a Windows network by reimaging with a copy of Windows XP. However, Linux’s small footprint has advantages – despite a very different user interface, and a very different underlying architecture. You can find drivers for most common hardware, including printers, along with equivalents for most common Windows applications – as well as tools for working with Windows networks. Download drivers from the hardware manufacturer’s support sites, or install them from the bundled install media.

If you’re used to working with Windows you’ll find the process of installing additional drivers on Linux hardware very different from the familiar graphical user interfaces. Most drivers install via command line scripts, and require superuser access – so make sure you type commands correctly. Uninstalling isn’t as easy, so be prepared to manually stop background services and to delete files by hand.

 

One problem facing users of early Eee PCs is updating the OS. While Xandros is based on Debian and can access its many different application and patch repositories, the small amount of flash storage can easily fill up if you download updates directly: save them onto a large SD card or USB flash drive and then run the updates.

 

Later Eees have larger storage (and Windows models use standard hard disks) so aren’t affected by this problem. In some cases it may be necessary to reimage a device completely to recover from a failed update. You can also use flash drives to install new versions of the OS, treating them as bootable storage.
 

 

While most netbook Linux implementations can be updated over the Internet, you need to be careful when it comes to device drivers. Many of the recent Intel Atom-based netbooks use standard chipsets, though you can find the same model of netbook with several different wireless hardware (especially with Dell’s Inspiron Mini 9). If you need to update or replace device drivers it’s best to start with the manufacturer’s support pages – and if necessary – its own software repositories.


The various Linux software repositories are powerful tools, especially when used with the built-in installers used by most netbook distributions. You can use them to download and install new applications, as well as updating with new versions

as required. It’s important to note that updating one application can mean updating others, as installs will often require installing new versions of system libraries. This process should be handled automatically by the updater tools.


Stay away

You don’t need hands-on access to work with a netbook. Remote access to netbooks can be surprisingly easy, which can be an advantage if you find the keyboards too small for comfort. Most come with a version of VNC installed – or available from online repositories. Once you’ve configured the server with passwords you can log in to a client’s machine from anywhere with an Internet connection, even using a Windows PC. There are VNC clients for a wide selection of PC operating systems, as well as for many smartphones (including Windows Mobile, BlackBerry and the iPhone). You won’t always need a graphical tool to work with a netbook, as many Linux administration tasks can be handled from the command line, so you can use a telnet client.

 

Netbooks aren’t going to go away. They’re forecast to be one of the top-selling device formats in 2009, and with companies like HP, Dell, Toshiba and Asus shipping new netbook devices, there’s plenty of support for them at a vendor level. Linux netbooks won’t be as easy for you to manage as their Windows equivalents, but once you’ve got them under control, they can be a valuable addition to your clients’ networks.


Acer Aspire One forum
www.aspireoneuser.com/forum

HP Mini-Note User
http://forums.mininoteuser.com

Samsung NC10 Users
www.nc10users.com

Eee User
www.eeeuser.com

Linux Questions: latops and netbooks
www.linuxquestions.org/questions/linux-laptop-and-netbook-25/

Netbook User
www.netbookuser.com


Step By Step

 

 


1. The Asus Eee’s Xandros Linux simplifies mounting disks. First choose the type of share you want to add, and the user you want to connect as.

 


2. Fill in the details of the share you want to add, using its full UNC path. Xandros will set up a mount point automatically, though you can choose your own.


3. If the mount point you want to use isn’t present you’ll be asked to create it. Click OK to mount the share.


4. Log in to the Windows server with the appropriate account. You’ll need to use a local or a domain account with access privileges.


5. You can now use the netbook’s file manager to explore the mounted share, and open files as needed.


6. Most netbooks allow remote access using a built-in copy of the VNC screen sharing program. You can use any of the many VNC viewers to connect to and control a netbook.


7. On netbooks with Ubuntu, you can quickly switch between the tabbed launcher and a standard Ubuntu desktop.


8. Linux discovers and connects to most common network printers. You’ll still need to install a printer driver. If one’s not available, print to PDF and then copy and print from a PC with the appropriate drivers.


9. Make sure that you configure a netbook’s VNC server to only allow password-protected access – it’ll prevent unauthorised access to a netbook’s screen when it’s connected to a public network.


10. Just like Windows, Linux uses services that you’ll need to enable and disable as appropriate.


 
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