July 24, 2003

Gambling on Linux pays off in Nevada

- by Karen D. Schwartz -
When Churchill County School District in Fallon, Nev., asked Dan O'Barr to find a replacement for an aging and expensive PIX firewall in 2000, the technology manager for the school district learned it would cost $20,000 to upgrade the hardware and acquire additional licenses through Cisco Systems. O'Barr decided he had nothing to lose by trying to create a firewall with Linux. Even though he didn't have much experience with the operating system at the time -- and virtually no experience using it in a firewall environment -- he was confident that he could learn how to make it work.

O'Barr ordered a small rack-mounted server from Dell Computer Corp. for about $1,300, downloaded a copy of Red Hat Linux, and proceeded to create a firewall. The result was a firewall O'Barr says was as good or better than anything the school district ever had with the PIX system -- at a significant cost savings.

After that success, O'Barr was hooked. He learned everything he could about Linux, becoming a vocal proponent -- and a thorn in the side of Nevada's Department of Information Technology, which had a history of support for Microsoft products. He became well-versed in Linux, eager to try it on other projects. He would soon have his chance.

Soon after the firewall project was completed, O'Barr left the Churchill County School District for a position as network administrator of the Nevada Department of Corrections. There, he faced his biggest challenge yet. After spending a year maintaining and troubleshooting an inmate records management system called the Nevada Criminal Information System (NCIS), he was promoted and tasked with consolidating the Department's networks, communications, and infrastructure around twisted pair Ethernet and TCP/IP.

Because the department's systems ran on different platforms with different networking schemes, the challenge was daunting. NCIS was developed in Revelation, a DOS database development environment based on PICK, with software residing on Netware 3.12 servers and client 286 machines connected via ARCnet cabling and IPX. A second system, which allowed people to share files via the Internet, ran on a Dell PowerEdge 4400 running Windows 2000 Server. A third system housed a DB2-based banking and inmate accounting system, running on an IBM AS/400 with Twinax cabling and leased SNA lines.

O'Barr set about his task by switching from the State of Nevada's Microsoft-based Web server to one running Red Hat Linux 7.1, the Apache Web server, and Web scripting language PHP, all on a donated Dell Pentium II workstation. He installed PostgreSQL, an open source database, and used it to add an inmate search function, which allowed state employees, attorneys and the general public to access inmate data from the legacy NCIS system -- data that had never been accessible to anyone except state employees. The system went live on Sept. 10, 2001, but its success was overshadowed by the events that followed, so the system was never formally announced or demonstrated to the general public.

Even without publicity, the Web-based system has become quite popular. In one recent month, the site received 35,000 unique visitors, and averages about 10 percent growth each month. Today, law enforcement agencies might check the system to determine if a crime may have been committed by a recently released prisoner, attorneys may use it to help build their cases, families access the system to determine the location and visiting hours of incarcerated relatives, and victims of crime use it to check that perpetrators are still in prison.

O'Barr's suspicions had been right. Linux fit the bill -- and the price was right. O'Barr relied on donated PC equipment and downloaded software, creating a system without cost, except the cost of his time. That was extremely important, especially in Nevada, which is growing so fast that the government has had to find ways to provide services for a growing population without additional funding, O'Barr says.

As usage grows, cost savings continue to mount. "We significantly underestimated how valuable a public relations tool a Web site can be if it's done right," O'Barr says. "The Web site has cut down tremendously on the amount of calls and questions that our public information desk receives, and it's been a great help in getting information to the public."

That initial Linux success at the Department of Corrections gave O'Barr enough confidence to turn his attention to the Nevada Staffing Information System (NSIS), a staffing and overtime system written in Visual Basic and Microsoft Access. Because Access doesn't scale particularly well, efficiently handle the amount of data generated, or work well over a WAN link, O'Barr and his team developed a front end around Microsoft Access with PostgreSQL on the back end. Since the client computers already had Access, the net cost, other than man-hours, was $0.

Over time, O'Barr has found additional benefits to using Linux. For state government -- and for the Department of Corrections in particular -- security is paramount. Although O'Barr says that Microsoft's security is first-rate, "you get the feeling that Open Source software is generally written by folks in the trenches," he says. "It may be rougher around the edges, and not always as 'nice,' but it has been more secure by design."

O'Barr's confidence in Linux' security has been borne out by time. Other than two unplanned interruptions in service due to a hard drive/controller problem, the system has experienced no downtime in the two years it has been operating. And that's particularly important with systems operating behind prison walls, he says.

To make Linux work in any environment, O'Barr says it's critical to train network administrators in how to use and troubleshoot the system. "Linux isn't really that hard to manage if you understand networking, but if you don't -- and a lot of people who run Windows networks really don't understand networking -- you'll have a hard time," he says. To prevent problems, O'Barr recommends taking the time to learn the ins and outs of the operating system. Once you do so, day-to-day management should be just as easy as managing Windows, he says.

But despite the clear benefits of Linux, it may not be for everyone. In addition to making sure network administrators can handle the operating system, O'Barr says a generally technically proficient staff is imperative.

"Look at your staff and see who already knows Linux or can learn it. Then ask yourself if the software you need exists, or if you can readily create software for Linux that will work. If the answers to both questions are yes, there is no reason not to go with Linux. But if you've got people who call Microsoft on a regular basis or have a key application that can't tie into it, you might be better off going with commercial software," he says.

As for Nevada, O'Barr says the future of Linux is bright. One major reason, he says, is cost.

"If I were to buy Windows XP Professional to put on a PC I have right now, it would cost $200, and Microsoft Office would cost another $340. That's $540 in Microsoft software alone just to have a functioning computer," O'Barr says. "I can put a version of Linux on it with OpenOffice and it will meet the needs of 80% of our users."

To increase usage, O'Barr would start by outfitting just a few early adopters with the Linux systems. "The only way to prove it works is by getting it in under the radar," he notes. If the pilots work well, the Department may consider rolling out Linux workstations to as many users as possible.

But before he gets to the point of Linux on the desktop, O'Barr plans to move away from NetWare 3. By upgrading to Netware 6.5, he will be creating a migration strategy, because Novell network services are being ported to work on top of Linux. If everything goes as planned, all of the Department's file and print serving will be moved to a Linux kernel, with NetWare services potentially operating on top of it. The system would replace any Windows servers now in use as well as the NetWare servers currently used for file and print sharing.

As word of his success spreads, O'Barr is finding out that other agencies are either using Linux or considering its use. He recently found out that Nevada's Department of Health has 12 Linux servers, and more state agencies also may be experimenting with it, although nobody will talk about it.

"Sometimes it's political suicide to say you're going to do it when everybody loves Microsoft, so they don't say a word, yet they are meeting critical business needs and doing great things," he says.

Karen D. Schwartz is a writer and editor based in the
Washington, D.C., area, specializing in technology and
business issues.

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