Why Use Windows Server When You Can Samba?

New Samba 3 attempts to replace NT for Window users' file/print needs, and it works well with Active Directory to boot.

Sick and tired of paying Microsoft Software Assurance/Licensing 6 prices for Windows file/print services? If thats you, you should learn to do the latest Samba 3 file/print server dance from the Samba Team.

Samba is a well-known, open-source drop-in replacement for Microsofts Server Message Block (SMB)/Common Internet File System (CIFS) powered file and print services. The newest version, Samba 3, is just out, and it works better than ever with Active Directory.

NT administrators who are facing expensive upgrade choices as Microsoft plans to stop supporting NT 4 server with its domain-based networking on Dec. 31, 2004, should look carefully at Samba.

While Microsoft now offers a far better upgrade route from NT Domains to AD with Windows Server 2003 and Active Directory Migration Tool 2.0 than Windows 2000 offers for NT users, Allison thinks that the high cost of upgrading will convince Windows administrators to try Linux/Unix-based Samba.

John Terpstra of the Samba Team goes even farther, suggesting that Windows shops could migrate to Samba 3 servers alone and abandon the W2K/Server 2003 AD paths. His reasoning is that you would avoid the initial costs of buying Microsoft server operating systems and the continuing costs of Microsofts Licensing 6.

Me? I cant argue with that.

Its not as radical a step as it might sound. With a Samba-only solution, the Windows desktop stays in place. From end users perspective, their file/print operations remain unchanged. At the same time, the Samba Team claims that companies will see a significant total-cost-of-ownership savings over a Windows server approach.

Technically, the most dramatic change Samba 3 has to show up over its predecessors is that it seamlessly integrates into a Microsoft AD domain in both native and mixed mode while providing a sign-on for Unix and Linux clients into an AD environment.

In basic functionality tests (by Yours Truly), Samba does indeed work easily in NT Domain in mixed or native mode. For example, XP and Windows 2000 clients could work with shared drives on Samba 3, NT, W2K and Server 2003 without a hitch. And to the users eye, there arent any differences among them.

I also found, however, that an untuned Server 2003 is faster than untuned Samba 3—or Samba 2, for that matter. But when you take into account that Samba 3 is free, can run on almost any Linux or Unix box, and requires almost no maintenance work whatsoever, the TCO makes Samba a much better price and performance deal.

Samba 3 also fully implements Kerberos 5 authentication, SMB signing for tamper-proof file serving sessions and SCHANNEL security for secure remote procedure calls. In addition, Samba implements UNICODE character sets.

While American and Western European IT shops could care less about UNICODE versus ASCII, its a major deal elsewhere. Indeed, according to David de Leeuw, head of the Medical Computing Unit at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, "With the release of Samba 3, we are able for the first time to store our files on the computer servers in any language we want. Filenames in English, Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, and scores of other languages, used by our staff and students, mix without problems," thanks to Sambas UNICODE support.

Within and without the English-speaking IT world, Samba 3 will be taken seriously by those interested in alternative ways of bringing file and print services to their Windows users.

As for myself, I like Samba 3 a lot. Ive been running it since the late betas that were available this summer. It runs fast, and I never have to worry with it. And, since I run a mixed NT Domain/AD LAN, thats saying something.

Indeed, I had less trouble getting Samba 3 to work with my network than I did with Server 2003. While I deplore Microsofts failure to include backward application compatibility, Server 2003s file/print is the easiest Microsoft file/print serve to manage I had ever seen—until now. Samba is still easier and far cheaper.

Let me put it to you this way: Even if you dont like Linux, but you need Windows-style file/print (and not a whole lot else from your servers), you really owe it to yourself and your company to give Samba a try. When it comes to the file/print dance, Sambas the best step of all.

Linux & Open Source Center Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about Unix and Linux since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.