August 2, 2005

City of Kenosha is a beacon for Linux

Author: Tina Gasperson

In 1836, when the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, was just a wilderness settlement on the bank of Lake Michigan, and the roads were dirt trails, pioneers built a primitive lighthouse from the stump of an oak tree. They called themselves flamekeepers, and took turns tending the wood fire beacon that helped captains navigate the marshes in the fog and the dark. Almost 10 years ago, Ruth Schall and Tig Kerkman of the City of Kenosha IT department became flamekeepers of a different kind. Back then, Linux was an infant operating system, but Schall and Kerkman saw its potential and pioneered an entire city's technological infrastructure upon it, making themselves a beacon and a guide light for all those who would come after them.Not many would follow at first. Schall, the city's MIS director, says some people thought they were freaks. They would get calls from vendors trying to sell the latest efficiency applications, and when Schall would tell them they were running Red Hat Linux, they'd say, "Sorry to bother you," and hang up.

Before Linux, the city of Kenosha was an SCO Unix shop. At that time it was getting more and more expensive to maintain Unix servers, and with so much of technology moving to the Internet, Schall saw the writing on the wall and decided to give Red Hat a try. "We thought, let's bring Linux in on some less crucial applications, like the DNS server and the mail server. We brought in some small machines to get a feel for what it was like to work with it. It didn't take too long to convince us it was pretty secure, and the stability was excellent. So we started to look at what else we could migrate over."

By 2002, the entire department was running on Linux, including about 25 Red Hat Enterprise 4.0 servers and 300 thin client desktops. Only one non-Linux server remains -- a Windows machine that runs a proprietary state government program that the city must file reports through.

Schall says Red Hat has always been the distribution of choice. At first it was just "a toss of the coin," but she says they really wanted to have someone they could go to for help. "I wanted a vendor that specialized in Linux." Even so, Schall says, they don't use their support package very often. "There's a gigantic amount of help out there. Just post a question on a Linux site and you'll have tons of answers. It's amazing, the amount of support you can get from the open source community."

Over the years, the challenges have been few for Schall. "We had a very smooth transition because we came from a Unix background. There was a lot of acceptance from our end users, because we were moving from text-based to a graphical user interface." The biggest challenge has been selling the idea that they are a "non-Microsoft shop" to new people coming on board. "Someone came in from another community and they wanted to use a certain software package for keeping track of calls," she says. Since it didn't run on Linux, it had to go.

She's also had some resistance from end users who were reluctant to switch from the WordPerfect they've been using for years to The migration to that productivity software began in 2003 because of the cost factor and the need to upgrade to more current software.

The City of Kenosha has realized huge cost savings since it switched to a Linux infrastructure with thin client workstations, says Schall. She estimates that, in the beginning, they were shaving at least $100,000 a year off the budget. Today that figure is higher, and the savings come mostly through reduced staffing needs. "With all those desktops, network administration, the help desk, new hardware -- our staff is one and a half people. We could not do that if we were running PCs; we'd have to at least double the number of IT people."


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