Donated Linux desktops no panacea for Australian community center


Author: Tina Gasperson

The Hut Community Centre in Adelaide, South Australia, provides to local residents services like group fitness classes, a community bus, job search help, and computer access. The Centre is staffed mostly with retired volunteers, under the supervision of Hut manager Garry McDonald. McDonald and his staff came to a technological fork in the road in 2003 when aging hardware, licensing costs, and viruses converged, threatening to stop The Hut in its tracks. Fortunately, a non-profit organization called ITShare and open source software came to The Hut’s rescue.In 2003, the centre was running a collection of independent workstations on pre-ATX hardware. ATX is a hardware specification that uses a modified motherboard layout in order to increase the space available for add-in cards and I/O arrangements. In addition to old hardware, most of the computers were running Windows 98, which were extremely unstable and unable to make use of the latest desktop productivity applications. Each computer ran only certain applications, meaning that a user would sit at one machine to do desktop publishing, save files to a diskette, then go to another machine to run spreadsheets, or yet another to type a letter. This “sneakernet” approach led to a rash of viruses introduced by users bringing in diskettes from home.

With no central IT management, users were “blissfully unaware” of hard drive space issues, virus attacks, or the need to maintain the hardware with routine tasks like defragmentation, says ITShare volunteer Peter Gossner. ITShare is a South Australian organization that solicits donations of old hardware in order to recycle computers for needy organizations and individuals. ITShare volunteers recondition the computers and install open source software. Then they provide training and support for the recipients.

The standard box ITShare puts together for its recipients is a 200MHz Pentium with 96MB of RAM. Hard drive sizes and other options like CD and DVD drives vary. ITShare’s standard operating system is Ubuntu Hoary Hedgehog. In the past, Debian was ITShare’s choice because of the organization’s commitment to free software ideals. Ubuntu took over because it is based on Debian but is easier for non-techies to use. ITShare takes applications from parties interested in receiving one of the recycled systems and processes them in order of receipt.

Janet Hawtin, a volunteer with ITShare, says setting up the new network has been “a longer journey” than either ITShare or The Hut envisioned. One reason for that was the state of the donated hardware, she says. “The equipment has struggled at times. We have done more hardware maintenance than would be usual on a new network, and the network has run more slowly.”

The Hut needed an entire network of computers: a server and at least 13 workstations. The Hut bought a new server, which resulted in a “much better experience” for the users, Hawtin says. Heather Trenorden, a Hut staffer who came on board after the transition to Linux had begun, says things have improved “markedly” since the addition of the new server. “The ITShare volunteers do wonders with what they have, but for anyone else going the way we did, it would save many hours of frustration and a lot of grief if they decided up front what things should not be compromised on, such as the server.”

With 65 user accounts and counting, The Hut’s network now includes 10 Ubuntu workstations running GNOME,, Evolution, and Firefox, an application server, a gateway box, and a backup server. There is also a dual-boot workstation and two strictly Windows boxes that sit on the network but don’t rely on the file server.

Gossner, who’s done extensive work on the project, says The Hut’s migration to Linux has been “a major source of frustration and tension. Key personnel from ITShare and The Hut were unable to dedicate sufficient time to absorbing and identifying operational requirements,” he says. “Nobody from The Hut had sufficient IT skills to identify [organizational] requirements, unless they tripped over them.” Gossner also points to what he calls the “stunningly low level of IT literacy” overall at The Hut.

Trenorden says she has found it difficult to become involved in the administration of the network. “I am comfortable with applications and networks and database administration, but I have no idea of systems administration. What is a command line? What does ‘root’ mean? I am trying to do advanced things without knowing the basics. My lack of knowledge must be a real frustration for [ITShare].”

Additionally, the user base was “solidly locked” into previous work modes and applications, both socially and technically, Gossner says, but he adds that most of the frustration is now in the “recent past” and “great progress” is happening.

Trevor Peak, a volunteer on The Hut ITAdmin team, got involved with the project when Hut management asked him to review the support arrangements proposed by ITShare. “We’re fortunate to have ITShare on board to design, implement, and provide initial support and training.” Peak says there are still numerous challenges to work out with the new Linux network implementation. “Many users are still grappling with the concept of a central box that stores all data and runs all the applications for all users,” he says.

“One of the constant themes is lack of contact time with the users. Volunteers only spend four to eight hours at The Hut each week, and generally have low IT literacy. We intend to address these by developing user groups, more specific training, and document HOWTOs,” Peak says.

“I am glad none of us realized how time-consuming the whole process would be,” says Trenorden. “We all might have been scared off, which would have been a great loss. ITShare has been marvelous, and the fact that they are still talking to us says a lot, as we must have just about driven them to distraction.”


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