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Nitix Linux Operating System - Debate Between Open Source and Microsoft

Self-healing open source for the small business

There is a new facet in the debate between open source and Microsoft, pitting the flexibility of open source against the tight integration of Microsoft technologies. One camp claims that integration is the key for ease-of-use and consequent cost-savings from reduced administration while the open source advocates are preaching the virtues of flexibility.

Nitix OS, a Linux distribution made by Net Integration Technologies, may actually be able to assuage both camps. Nitix OS facilitates tight integration of network services made possible by the flexibility of Linux open source architecture to provide a comprehensive SMB solution. Net Integration Technologies (www.nitix.com) is a developer of software and networking hardware solutions that are based on their Nitix Linux operating system, which is geared toward helping small businesses manage IT infrastructure.

Nitix has been steadily collecting plaudits for their efforts in providing high-quality, full-featured infrastructure solutions for the small and medium business. Headquartered in Markham, Canada, Nitix was established in 1997 and since then they have built a reseller program that boasts over 1,000 partners and over a quarter of a million end users. Their advantage over other types of software is their autonomic technology and tightly controlled code base where changes in one system or service will be adjusted appropriately in another. For example, the addition of an e-mail server will adjust firewall rules appropriately through the use of their unified configuration system. Nitix CEO, Ozzy Papic, frequently mentions the successes of Red Hat in enterprise Linux but, in the scope of things, Red Hat seems to be focused on the large enterprise while Nitix offers the greatest value to the other end of the spectrum, businesses with less than 100 employees. A Nitix operating system can be deployed in as little as 15 minutes preinstalled on a Net Integration appliance and can be administered with limited human interaction due to self-healing and auto-configuration capabilities. However, this is not a do-it-yourself project; they offer their products through a channel of value-added resellers who do the installation on behalf of the customer.

Technology
Nitix Linux is not based on any other Linux distributions as many others are; it's built from scratch with a very small and tightly managed core operating system that is about 25 megabytes in size. Since it's so tiny, the Nitix development staff can track every bit of code but at the cost of not having common tools like Perl, says Nitix chief scientist Avery Pennarun. It's not extensible but, with their release of the Nitix Application Edition (Nitix AE), they even answer that objection by allowing you to run additional applications or operating systems in segregated sandboxes. Rather than taking a fully virtual machine approach that requires the addition of more kernels and an operating system that may gobble up system resources, Nitix's tactic it to run additional applications that are very similar to the way Linux administrators run chrooted processes or the way BSD runs programs in a secure jail. Guest operating systems are executed as a subprocess of the operating system so other operating systems like Red Hat could be executed in a guest environment provided by the host Nitix server.

Nitix boots in a three-stage process that starts by booting the Linux kernel, then a root disk with minimal driver support, and finally a user disk. This keeps things nicely separated so that the core operating system can be distinct from the user space applications. In addition, this segregated approach makes recovery and upgrades easy: a new operating system update is downloaded and then booted without replacing the last image so in the event of a failed upgrade, rollback to the last known working configuration is painless.

Besides being highly available and easily updated, Nitix benefits from an autonomic engine that allows the server to run with very little human interaction. Rather than storing configurations individually, the autonomic engine pulls configurations from Uniconf (http://open.nit.ca/wiki/?page=UniConf), which is a system-wide configuration system that has plug-in front ends and back ends to allow cacheable strings to be pulled into the configurations for each service. The decisions to manage these interactions among servers and configurations on the system are handled by Nitix autonomic technology that is self-managing using Net Integrator's Net Intelligence. Net Intelligence enables the Nitix-powered server to discover other network information around it. It can make decisions like detecting the need for DHCP to be installed. It also can discern if its connection is secured by a firewall and, if not, activate its own. Not only can Nitix OS protect the network from malevolent traffic, it can also react to malicious changes and overwrite system changes enacted by a virus or a worm.

Product Overview
Built on top of the Nitix OS is a variety of services that are executed and integrated and complement each other. These include file and print services, mail and calendar, and the amenities that we have come to expect of these services like antivirus and antispam technologies. Developed by Nitix, ExchangeIt! is an e-mail and collaboration server that supplies e-mail and provides users with schedule sharing, group calendaring, meeting invitations, and the ability to share contact lists, task lists, notes and folders. For remote access there is TunnelVision, an intelligent Virtual Private Network solution that according to Nitix is fully automated with a 10 second installation per site. It provides automatic route discovery and propagation across the VPN. In addition, Nitix delivers automatic mapping of WIN workstation names to the DNS table. It also works without static Internet IP addresses. The uniqueness of the TunnelVision is that it can discover the other servers and build a VPN network without the need for a skilled security administrator. In addition to the back office infrastructure, Nitix delivers a desktop computing, Expression Desktop, a zero set-up, zero maintenance, developed for a desktop user that is familiar with a Microsoft Windows environment. Pennarun describes Expression Desktop as a fat-thin client solution though, using the vernacular of Shaolin Microsystems (www.shaolinmicro.com), it might be considered more of a "fit client" solution. Besides their initiatives for their own product, Net Integration is also working to certify ISVs to host their applications on the Nitix OS, giving them a broad range of task-specific applications.

Summary
Nitix is a novel approach to the Linux server, blending self-healing capabilities and integration of services to make it a complete Linux server operating system that can address the needs of most SMBs. Nitix also provides the flexibility to expand on their offering through their recently released Nitix AE. They also are giving back to the open source community should they decide to take them up on their offer by making some of their product source code available throughout their OpenNit Web site: www.open.nit.ca/.

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

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