In-Depth

A Wing and a Prayer

Build a server-based network—including a Web site and e-mail—from scratch for $2,000? For this consultant, that required resourcefulness and some “outside” help.

I’m not a religious person. Really. But when I was recently asked to put together a 10-user network with backup and shared Internet access from scratch on a $2,000 budget for a small church, someone or something was paying attention.

I visited the church on a crisp Saturday in March. There were dozens of workers both inside and out knocking out walls and nailing down roofing, and between the orange extension cord and broken shingles were my two contacts, Richard and Pastor White, both pseudonyms for two of the nicest but most computer illiteratepeople I’ve ever met (though Richard had at least touched a PC before).

The Challenge
After a couple of hours of discussion and a brief tour, they said they wanted a four-computer “lab” for Sunday school and the like, a PC in the front office, one in the pastor’s office, one in his wife’s office (both of which were about 50 feet away from the front office), one in the finance office (about 80 feet from the front office) and one in a community room that also served as a nursery. They also wanted a way to share files, a printer, Internet access, a Web site and, of course, internal and external e-mail. All for two grand.

My first task was to figure out how I was supposed to come up with that sort of hardware for virtually nothing. The only thing that came to mind was a charitable donation, because, quite frankly, there was no way this kind of stuff could be had at that price. There had to be someone out there willing to part with something old but still useful.

Intervention #1
After several frustrating calls, I struck gold with a large manufacturer in town who was in the process of replacing some 4,000 production PCs. I’m still struck by both the luck in finding this company and the generosity they showed in providing almost everything I needed. In fact, they didn’t even need to see the church’s non-profit paperwork because their old machines were going to scrap, anyway!

In a matter of days, I drove off in my truck with 10 Pentium 120s, one Compaq Proliant 1400 server (no hard drives), 10 Windows 95 licenses, a 16-port Intel Express 10MB hub and a DAT backup tape unit. Total cost: $600.

My next trick was to find CAT5 cable. I found an electrical retailer and picked up a 200-foot roll and some ends for about $120. With the equipment stacked in my house, I built these machines one by one—wiping the hard drives, adding memory and loading Windows.

After a week of poking and prodding, downloading obscure drivers for these old computers and creating a general mess in my living room, I finally got the machines working. Now all I had to do was find some hard drives for the server, build some cable and we’d be golden. It never occurred to me that finding hot-swappable SCSI drives for something that old would be as difficult or expensive as it turned out.

I have a cool little program called Copernic that searches Internet search engines for defined criteria. I entered every possible combination of “Compaq-Proliant-Hot-Swappable-1400-RAID-SCSI,” but found next to nothing. What I did find was over the $300 mark and I knew the church would have a hard time swallowing that. I even went back to the large manufacturer I got the server from but they didn’t have anything, either.

Intervention #2
Just as I was ready to buy a few IDE drives and “force feed” them into the SCSI bays, I learned about Express Technology, www.etiexpress.com. To my amazement, I found three 9GB SCSI hot-swappable drives for under $150! Yes, three 9GB drives isn’t much, but for the price (and knowing what the church would do with it), I was satisfied. A week later, I had the drives installed, Windows NT Server loaded (this box was way too puny for Windows 2000), and combined with the cables I made while waiting for the drives, my network was rocking.

I headed over to the church on a Saturday, thinking I could have everything nailed down in one day. I unloaded my truck and set all the machines in place. Then I set up the server, hub and tape drive in the front office because it was the only office with a lock on the door at the time. I wired the server and receptionist’s PC to the hub, and because I’d already set up the accounts before delivery, she was up in no time. The rest required imaginative wiring through the drop ceiling. As most of the tiles weren’t in place yet, I figured it would be easy. Tossing a wire across the hall to the nursery area was fairly easy. I strung in along the baseboards, and Richard was up.

Wiring the lab required drilling a hole through the wall from the front office into the lab and stringing it through. I pulled the wire through, and in about 45 minutes the lab was up. I had three long runs to go and it was only about 2 p.m.

I thought of using a patch panel, but they aren’t easy to come by, and I’d already stretched my budget to near breaking point. It was either string individual wires or have a lot of stand-alone boxes, which wasn’t what they wanted.

I now had to make two runs, one about 50 feet and the other about 80. The only practical way to do this was loop all three wires through the hole created for the lab wiring along the lab baseboards, then up the wall into the ceiling where the long stretch began. Pulling the wire through the hole and ultimately to the ceiling was fairly easy, but now I had to get the wire all the way down to the finance, pastor’s and pastor’s wife’s offices.

Tennis Balls and Duct Tape
I’d brought a couple of tennis balls and a roll of duct tape along for this purpose. I taped the cable to the tennis ball, stood on the highest rung of a step ladder and heaved the ball as far down the partial ceiling as I could. Sadly, the ball only made it about two-thirds of the way before falling through the open ribs of the drop ceiling where a tile was supposed to go. I couldn’t just reel it in because while in flight, the ball managed to hit a couple of joists and tangled the wire.

I had to climb into the ceiling to retrieve it. I made it a few feet, stepping awkwardly, yet gingerly, onto joists and braces. I then misjudged a step and became a human wishbone as my leg poked through a tile. The pain in unmentionable parts of my body notwithstanding, I hoisted my leg back up slowly, trying to regain some footing. Finally, after losing about 10 pounds in sweat, I made it to where the cable was tangled. I was able to untangle it and pull the ball up, whereupon I tossed it, successfully this time, to the intended office. I stayed where I was in the ceiling for the next run, had Richard string the wire and toss the second ball to me, and I again tossed it into the correct place. The last run, the 80-footer, was done practically the same way, except that it had to go right, rather than left, from where I was perched, through the plastered ceiling of the congregational area and into the finance office behind the altar.

I was drenched but happy as pie that we finally got the wires where they were supposed to go. I plugged everything in, made sure they could see the network, and called it a day, as it was about 6 p.m.

The following Saturday, I returned to the church to set up Microsoft Mail for internal use. I also plugged a modem into one of the lab boxes, downloaded a freeware proxy program, and shared the connection, despite it being a dial-up. (I had to keep it alive with yet another freeware program, but again, the price was right.) I also had the licenses for NT Server and the necessary client access licenses. They topped $900, but that couldn’t be helped.

I got the e-mail working, leaving only Web design and publication to do. I got some ideas from Pastor White and Richard and left for home.

It took me a few days and several calls and faxes back and forth, but I finally got a little something created in FrontPage they liked. Since publishing to a free ISP (banners and all) was all we could afford, I set up an account on Virtual Avenue, www.virtualave.net, and posted the site. I set up Hotmail accounts for everyone who needed one, and life was good. After training everyone on the care and feeding of the network (including regular backups), I considered my job done.

Touched by an Angel
I was asked to speak in front of the entire congregation at the grand opening a few weeks later, and the audience included a regional pastor and a lot of friends. I was almost giddy when I spoke to the nearly 200 people about the work we did. My presentation included the Web site, which brought more than a few oohs and ahhs. That and the applause made the entire project worthwhile. I’d built this thing quite literally from scratch, and when people patted me on the back and asked for my card after the service, I just smiled. The parts cost about $1,700, and I charged $300 for labor; but that was just fine with me. Besides, as much as I would have liked to take full credit, somewhere, somehow, I believe I had a little help from above, and that help didn’t cost anything.

Meeting the Challenge
Putting together a little network on a skimpy budget wasn’t the easiest thing in the world. Would I do it again? You bet. Want to know why? It was the challenge. Of course, I would have liked to have put in the latest and greatest, which would have taken our little non-profit a lot further. It’s just that I had to quite literally think about what I had to do.

This means that I had to be creative. I couldn’t just go to the Dell site and place a credit card order for a server and some new boxes. I had to use a little fancy footwork to find someone willing to either donate stuff or sell it for next to nothing, and while it may have sounded easy, it wasn’t. Fortunately, most people know that churches traditionally have no money. What’s more, I had to do the wiring myself. That meant learning how to make CAT 5 cable, then stringing it through some of the most unholy places, using methods I’d never thought of before. The bottom line is that, because I actually used my brain (and learned a few things in the process), I felt good about what I did and would do it again.

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