New Samba improves Windows mimicry

Programmers release a major update to the software that lets Linux computers mimic Windows machines, encroaching further onto Microsoft's turf.

Stephen Shankland
Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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3 min read
Programmers have released a major update to Samba, software that lets Linux computers mimic Windows machines, encroaching further onto Microsoft's turf.

Samba lets a computer share files or manage print jobs like a Windows file server or print server. Like the Linux operating system on which it often runs, Samba is open-source software collaboratively developed by many people.

The new version 2.2 of Samba brings the software up to speed with Windows 2000 changes and adds several other improvements. Jeremy Allison, one of the lead Samba programmers, calls it a "major update" that will help Samba systems slip more smoothly into Microsoft networks.

The software offers cost savings not only because customers don't have to pay for the server operating system, but also because they don't have to pay "client" license fees for all the computers that use the server.

And Microsoft appears to be feeling the pressure. The company has been aggressively pushing a version of Windows 2000 that computer makers may customize for jobs such as file and print servers, luring big names such as Dell Computer, Compaq Computer and Maxtor to ship these "Windows-powered" products.

One major change for Microsoft--indeed, a first, according to Maxtor--was the elimination of client access fees for a Windows special-purpose file server. That change means that as with Samba systems, any number of computers may use files on the server without paying Microsoft.

"Microsoft is certainly coming to understand that if they're going to provide software for the world of server appliances...it has to be competitive with other appliance environments," said IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky.

License fees are a major pain for corporations, Kusnetzky said. In addition to paying the fees, companies must pay administrators to make sure all needed licenses are obtained and that auditors are satisfied that no one is shirking requirements.

"People believe Microsoft's method of licensing...is very complex," Kusnetzky said.

A Microsoft spokesman acknowledged that Samba provides pricing advantages over the company's software but dismissed Samba as inadequate overall.

"Even though Samba aims to lower users' costs, it lacks the integration and management features that help customers lower total cost of ownership," said Steven Adler, a product manager for Microsoft.Net server marketing. Microsoft client access license fees are "negligible" compared with the overall cost of installing and managing computing equipment, he argued, and large customers get high-volume licensing deals, "negating" any of Samba's cost savings.

Adler said Samba has inferior support for Microsoft authentication and file system standards and doesn't support encrypted file systems at all.

While Microsoft has lured several companies to its operating system for special-purpose file and print server "appliances," Samba also has commercial appeal. Hewlett-Packard is using Samba for a print server appliance.

New Samba steps
One major change to Samba 2.2 is the ability to slip into a Windows 2000 network easily without having to be specially configured, a feature called "single sign-on," Allison said.

Another change lets Samba servers automatically send computers the software needed to use a particular printer. HP personnel helped get this feature working, and HP's John Reilly has been named one of about 10 Samba programmers authorized to make changes to the software, Allison said.

Samba 2.2 also can act as an "authentication source" for Windows 2000 computers, meaning Windows 2000 machines can be fooled into thinking the server is a Windows server.

Writing this authentication feature was a "nightmare" requiring months of work, Allison said. "The main problem is getting something that works without crashing the (Windows) NT/2000 client." Luke Leighton and others working on an alternate version of Samba called Samba TNG discovered the protocol Microsoft uses for the task, Allison said.

The new version also works within Microsoft's structure for setting rules on which computers get access to which files on a server.

Samba ships as part of products from IBM, SGI, VA Linux Systems, Red Hat, Caldera Systems, Procom, Veritas, Sun Microsystems, and others.