The simplest configuration for this goes something like:
Build one or more servers:
a 'Level 0' server that has a DNS server such as BIND and NIS on it. NIS is by far the simplest identity management solution for Unix/Linux and has been in use since the days of Sun workstations. Read about NIS security and decide if this is acceptable. In most cases it is acceptable for use behind a firewall but not for a publically facing web server. The advantage of NIS is that it's dead simple and you can reasonably expect to figure out how to set it up in a few hours. Administration is also fairly straightforward; take a look at the NIS howto.
Another server running NFS for a file server plus any other services such as mail that you need. In addition, you can use this as a backup for your DNS and NIS servers. Unless you have a heavy load you probably don't need more than one machine for this. The individual apps play together much more nicely than their windows counterparts.
Tune the NFS server as necessary. There are several options for SMTP servers (e.g. postfix) and various IMAP servers and other bits of infrastructure kit. Select ones that you are comfortable with.
If you have application and database servers you can install lightly loaded ones on this server. On a larger 'general' server you could mount multiple volumes and put the database volumes on their own disks. This is particularly attractive if you are using a SAN.
In most cases you do not need servers at the rate of one per application. Linux apps tend to play nicely in their own space and do not usually trip each other up. Save admin and hardware costs by avoiding unnecessary proliferation of server hardware. You are probably better off going for fewer large servers than more small ones.
VMs are less of a win for this than they are for Windows apps where people tend to deploy each on their own server. There is probably no benefit to running the infrastructure on a VM. This also keeps it simple.
If you have an application with a heavy load you might be better off putting it on its own server so it doesn't affect other apps. This also lets you tune the server specifically for that application.
Set up your workstations with the system installed on a local disk and /home mounted off the file server. Users' home directories are mounted off the NFS server and secured through standard system security. This configuration was historically called 'dataless' and gives you a single system image that can follow a user to any workstation with no local state.
Leave a scratch partition on the local disks if you have anyone who needs a large amount of local data storage but make it clear that anything they want backed up should be copied to the file server.
Create a one or more NFS shared volumes. When your users need shared directories make them on these and set up permissions appropriately.
Voila: instant network infrastructure. This is about as simple as linux network infrastructure gets and this type of architecture has historically been scaled to entire university campuses. If you need more secure authentication you can do something with kerberos/LDAP but this is much, much more complex than NIS.
Legacy windows interoperability
Where your users are stuck on windows, you have several basic solutions:
Terminal services: TS or citrix clients such as rdesktop or the Linux citrix client can be used to publish apps from a terminal server.
Emulation: WINE/Crossover or a VM can be used to run windows applications on a Linux desktop
Substitution: Find a substitute (e.g. OpenOffice for MS Office) and use that. In many cases you can do this with 95% of your users and let the 5% that absolutely must have Excel use it on a windows desktop. If possible, find substitutes that will run on Windows as well so they can be deployed to windows desktops where you need a mixed architecture.
Windows Desktops: Using Samba, you can publish the users' home directories so that they can be mounted on a windows machine. If you have a class of users with a legacy app that is not amenable to emulation (possibly a content creation app such as Adobe Indesign) they can run Windows locally and use an X server (xming or Starnet are the best options) to get at the linux apps. Be ruthless about this - make the user prove their dependency and make a business case to keep the windows desktop.
The key here is to treat Windows as a legacy system. Users get to keep their windows desktop if and only if there is no credible substitute for the application - and running the application in emulation is not acceptable. Getting your network interoperability right allows you to migrate users in a phased manner, which avoids the need for a 'big bang' deployment.
Add a firewall for the network and a DMZ as necessary. Public SMTP servers can be outsourced to your ISP or placed in the DMZ. However, servers in this zone should not use NIS for authentication. Consider using OpenBSD for any machines exposed to the public internet. Squid is the canonical unix web proxy software if you have a need to proxy your internet connection.
'Group Policy' has no direct equivalent in Linux as the concept is not relevant when you have centrally mounted user directories. 'Group Policy' is not a requirement but a windows specific kludge based on the single-user origins of Windows where user identity and machine configuration is a very heavyweight structure. Migrating user identity and permissions between windows desktops is a very complex affair.
On unix-derived systems, all per-user config is stored as files in their home directory. When the user logs in their .profile is executed and per-user settings appear in the environment. If they manage to break their environment a simple script will restore the config to a known default. It is very difficult for an individual non-privileged user to do something that damages the machine configuration.
There are a variety of ways to push updates out to workstations. These range from a central repository where systems automatically download updates from a central server (i.e. the default way that desktop distros do this now) to more elaborate enterprise configuration management systems such as cfengine.