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What's the Best Network Operating System?

Choices, Choices: What's the Top Net Operating System?
~ By Charlie Schluting

It's an eternal debate: Which operating system is the very best ... the one for which we'd forsake all others?

We'll begin by examining how effectively a network or systems administrator can operate using the various tools available on several platforms, including Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux, and FreeBSD. Operating system usefulness should ultimately be determined separately for each task: desktops for administrators, desktops for users, and servers. It doesn't make sense to talk about how Microsoft's IIS makes a computer insecure when grandma will (hopefully) never be using that feature. The journey beings with a few examples of tasks that administrators do on a regular basis.

Sniffing the Wire
More often than they'd like, administrators need to sniff packets from the wire to examine various anomalies on their network. This may seem like a straightforward task, but it really isn't. You must have a network card that supports promiscuous mode, so the hardware will read packets that aren't destined for it. Most 10/100/1000 Ethernet cards support this mode, so in Linux, FreeBSD, and OS X it normally "just works" when you run tcpdump. Sniffing wireless packets isn't nearly as seamless. Many wireless cards, such as the Airport, do not support this mode of operation. However, this isn't an operating system issue, it's a hardware limitation.

Key Terms To Understanding Net Operating Systems

Operating System
The most important program that runs on a computer. Every general-purpose computer must have an operating system to run other programs.

server
A computer or device on a network that manages network resources.

platform
The underlying hardware or software for a system. For example, the platform might be an Intel 80486 processor running DOS Version 6.0. The platform could also be UNIX machines on an Ethernet network.

Sniffing packets in Windows, however, requires third-party programs. There are numerous commercial packet sniffing application for sale, but free ones exist too. Ethereal, a favorite among many some Unix users, is available for Windows. It does require that a Windows-based libpcap (called winpcap) library be installed first, but operates very well once it's installed. In short, packet sniffing is a common task, and can be done from any operating system.

Using Serial Ports
Talking to servers, routers, and switches with your serial port is always an interesting experience. It can seem that each device has its own settings and requirements. Thus, the capability to quickly change serial port settings, or define multiple profiles, is a requirement.

Shipped with Windows, HyperTerminal does the job. Its terminal emulation isn't always the best, but most of the complaints result from users not using the correct terminal type. HyperTerminal provides a mechanism to create multiple saved profiles, so dealing with various serial port settings isn't too cumbersome. Many people dislike HyperTerminal, but you can get the job done using it.

In Solaris, Linux and FreeBSD the options are all the same. They all come with the "tip" program, which uses /etc/remote to define profiles. It works well enough, but new users generally prefer to install minicom, which builds on all Unix operating systems and provides the same functionality.

OS X, however, presents some challenges. Most Apple hardware comes lacking a serial port, so you need to purchase a serial-to-USB adapter. Some of these adapters come with drivers for OS X, so the only remaining issue is finding an application to talk to the serial port. Minicom can also be installed on OS X. It seems that you can get the job done with any operating system, again.

Trunking for Peace
When operating a network with many virtual LANs, the operator might need to access a specific network directly. Instead of plugging his or her laptop into a switch port configured to live on a specific VLAN, he can instead run a trunk to his workstation. The VLAN trunk is the method by which switches and routers connect together to share networks. If you connect a trunk to a desktop machine, you can configure it to talk directly to specific VLANs. This is very beneficial for troubleshooting, and makes sniffing packets on all networks much easier.

The idea is that you'll need to create multiple interfaces, one for each network you wish to talk to. Since this is on a VLAN trunk, you also need to specify which VLAN tag is being used, so it knows which packets to send to the new virtual interface. When configured properly, an administrator can easily bring up an interface in any VLAN that exists on the trunk. Beyond simply sniffing broadcast packets, this is very useful when troubleshooting routing issues too.

802.1q (the trunking protocol) is supported on a few select gigabit network cards from Sun. Before the latest patches, VLANs were quite painful to get working on a SunFire V210 with Solaris 9. It's supposed to work, but results vary.

In FreeBSD and OS X, creating a new VLAN interface and assigning IP addresses is a snap. The required commands are built into the ifconfig utility. Linux provides the vconfig utility that provides the same functionality. More expensive network cards will handle VLAN tagging (i.e. adding the VLAN id, within hardware). It can be difficult to tell whether the VLAN tags are dealt with in hardware vs. the operating system's software in Linux and BSD. The telltale method is to run tcpdump and see if the VLAN identifications are in the packets. If not, then they are being stripped by the hardware before the operating system gets the packet. This can be quite confusing at first, but the ability to do this in software means that any network card can be used to talk 802.1q.

Windows doesn't support 802.1q natively, but some network cards' drivers do provide this functionality. The Intel Pro cards come with a simple GUI for configuration of VLANs. It works, but this is dependent on the network card and vendor's software.

These are just three examples of tasks that many people perform daily. In a more general sense, most people will use SSH or a remote desktop to manage a server, which can be done from any operating system. There are likely numerous other examples of administrator utilities that function only partially on the various platforms.

In general, the more advanced features are going to show up in open source operating systems first. Others may show up as feature-limited versions in commercial operating systems, or may not appear at all. A given platform's usefulness to an administrator is mostly going to depend on what the administered servers are running, and, of course, that person's level of comfort with the operating system.

Did You Know...
In general, the more advanced features are going to show up in open source operating systems first. Others may show up as feature-limited versions in commercial operating systems, or may not appear at all.  ~ Enterprise Networking Planet, Source Article

Related Terminology: Webopedia > Operating Systems


By Charlie Schluting
Adapted from Enterprise Networking Planet
Last updated: December 23, 2005


Related Links

EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet 
EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet provides practical advice and news for running and managing an enterprise network. In-depth articles and news cover topics such as network management, network monitoring, servers, communications, Internet telephony, operating systems, and much more.
Networking OSs: Pick a NOS, Any NOS?
Security isn't the single most important aspect of choosing an operating system. It should be considered, and it's especially important to know by what means the OS deals with separation of privileges; but it shouldn't be the sole determining factor. You still have to get stuff done. And if you're using in-house applications that demand a specific server, you don't have choice.

Mind Your Packets with Ethereal
Ethereal is the Number One tool in the sysadmin's toolkit. It lets you read the literal, raw traffic going over your wires.

Webopedia's "Did You Know... All About Open Source"
Open source usually refers to a program in which the source code is available to the general public for use and/or modification from its original design free of charge.

Groovy Gadgets For Network Gurus
One of the first things a hardworking Linux network admin learns is to never ever throw anything anyway, because somewhere, someway, someday, you might need it. Or even if you don't need it, you just never know what clever hacks you'll be inspired to perpetrate.




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