Building a Unix Box
If you're thinking about applying for a networking/tech support job without Certificate IV in IT - forget it. You'll be up against other candidates who have strived for this qualification and higher, and no-one will look at you twice.
If you're thinking of doing Cert IV Networking without Unix skills, forget it; you won't get the certificate without passing System Software I & II. And if you haven't got passes in these subjects, then it shows you weren't prepared to try hard enough and you'll get passed over.
The bottom line is you MUST know some Unix to be a networker and don't kid yourself that you'll get a decent job without it.
I've watched some people deluding themselves over the years and they never get the jobs.
The sooner you accept the inevitability of these statements, the closer you will be to achieving your goals.
Conversely I have seen several students obtain positions on the strength of their well earned Unix skills. It's not just the technical knowledge, by getting through the course you are demonstrating that you have skills such as patience, concentration, tanacity, commitment and a good analytical ability.
You don't have to be an expert - that can come later. Just go to class and do the work and practice, practice, practice. And what better way to practice than with your very own Unix box at home, to love and cherish.
A box from bits
One of the many things which insufferable Unix freaks keep pissing their pants over is how the operating system runs on really old hardware. We can use this fact to our advantage because we're building a working Unix box on a budget. This means Pentium I or older vintage hardware. Hell, maybe even a fast 486 DX-100. Really, this stuff is throw-away crap to most people and a potential goldmine to us-who-know. By a budget, I mean we're not gonna spend much more than 50 big ones and will probably manage with a lot less. Time to ask around and get those spares together.
Firstly here's what you don't need. If you've already got a computer at home you won't be needing a second monitor or keyboard. Just use the ones from your main system to install everything, and once the Unix box is up and running, you can control it with ssh. And no Gerald, you won't be needing a mouse either. We're talking hard-line command line interface here, not some namby pamby wet-behind-the-ears GUI, thank you very much.
What you will need is a motherboard and CPU and some RAM. Add to this a hard disk, say around 1GB - more for more storage - and a network and graphics card. Go for PCI for the NIC, although you could probably get an ISA jobbie to work with a bit of fiddling.
The graphics card can be anything - it's just gotta display 2 colours and no pictures, so no sweat there. Although you could borrow the CD-ROM from your main machine, it's a bit of a pain in the arse to have to take it out and really, it is handy to have a CD reader in the server and they're cheap as chips..
So we've got a pile of working bits - everything fires up on the test bench, with just the motherboard plugged into the power supply, which you secretly borrowed from your dad's PC ("Why's my bloody computer not booting!?") and the system's got plenty of mojo for running Unix on. Finally you need a case to stuff everything into. Now here's where it can get really interesting.
Conventional wisdom sez you've gotta have a tower case for a server and a tower or flat box for the workstations. Except what about those cool rack mounted things. They're as flat (and expensive) as buggery and they do look soooo coool. Well why not do some fancy stuff with your new server and tart it up a bit!?
The least you can do is attach a cool BSD Daemon sticker, but why not a custom paint job or install millions of fans and make a BSD hovercraft? Look at the case modding sites, they'll stuff a motherboard into anything which will stand still long enough. Why not go for an old hi-fi amp case or use your dad's fishing tackle box. Or you could stuff it in an unfeasibly large cabinet which takes up half the living room and looks like a mainframe. Whatever! The only limit is your imagination (and space).
See elsewhere under Unix Adventures for how to install FreeBSD, but as soon as it's up and running ssh will be enabled by default. Just add a username to the wheel group so you can su as root and also configure the BIOS not to halt on keyboard or monitor errors. If you haven't got a hub, make up a crossover cable and connect the server directly to your PC. Finally, once the network is working, you're ready to unplug everything except power and the network cable.
I dunno, there's just something very cool about having a server sitting there, ready to practise all those exquisite regular expressions on. You can set up FTP to transfer files, Apache to host a web site, IMAP email, PHP, PERL, MySQL; you could even set it up as an internet gateway with firewalling or an mp3 server or use it for backups. The possibilities are endless, and as long as it looks good, who cares!?
One thing I can promise you - the more you use Unix in a meaningful way, the easier it will get and you will probably find yourself digging it big-time and preferring it to the alternatives. I know I do..