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The Linux operating system has always been exceptionally versatile, finding use in many areas of computing. From cell phones to super computers, its been all over the show. One little niche its carved out for itself has been in creating versatile network firewalls. These sit at the network edge in a small business, school or whatever, securing the network and possibly also doing filtering, access control and more.

Many distributions have come and gone, but one that has come near to being the top distro is Smoothwall. For more information on the project and on its history, visit the site.

This past week, I was busy working at my old high school again, doing some odds and ends maintenance work, getting them ready for the upcoming term. One of the tasks I did was replace the IPCop firewall I had put in a few months earlier with the Smoothwall. The reasons I did this was because Smoothwall had a much more active community around it, the product is more up to date than IPCop, and there are useful modifications available for it, unlike IPCop. If it sounds like I’m knocking IPCop, I’m not. They do a good job, but it wasn’t meeting the needs that it was meant for anymore. (IPCop was a fork of Smoothwall done many years ago, and has since slowly branched out on their own)

The installation of the smoothie (a beloved nickname for the project) went easily. The 2.6 kernel in the distro really makes things easy and fast. Overall time to install was about 10 minutes, not counting the time inserting a new hard drive into the host computer. Once it was up, I proceeded to set up the ISP details, dynamic dns and so forth, all of which went well. The user interface is really slick and responsive, unlike IPCop which feels a bit sluggish at times. Next step was to let the smoothie update itself. This lead to my first minor gripe, in that there isn’t any form of visible progress when the updates are running. If it was not for the flashing lights of the iBurst device, I would have thought the device frozen. Next gripe was that the box didn’t reboot itself after the updates, which made me nervous, as I didn’t want to reboot the box while the updates were possibly still applying.

After waiting a few minutes, I did reboot, and to my joy everything was running fine. All that was left now was to add one or two mods to the box and configure them. After that, the device just ran wonderfully, and still is. I honestly feel that it won’t have the sporadic freezes that IPCop had, and it will run without issues for months now.

My only major gripe about Smoothwall is that half the features you want are unavailable in the Community Edition. Things like Active Directory authentication, more VPN options and so on are all limited to the paying editions of the product. This seems to be a trend, as most of the other Linux firewall distros follow the same model. A company will release a product that whets the appetite, but leaves you wanting the better product. The only products that I’ve seen that don’t follow this model are IPCop and a FreeBSD based system called PFSense.

All in all, Smoothwall is a worthwhile addition to a small to medium sized network, and for the free price, it does its job extremely well. I look forward to version 4 someday, where I think there will be a raft of new features.

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