September 21, 2007

Largo still loves Linux

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

LARGO, FLA. -- This small city on Florida's Gulf Coast runs one of the most cost-effective municipal IT departments around. I last wrote about Largo's Linux-based client-server network in 2002. A lot has changed for Largo's computer-using city employees since then, and even more changes are in the works.

Largo system administrator Dave Richards and his coworkers are excited about bringing the 3-D Compiz-Fusion desktop to Largo. They currently have about 30 users testing it, and other city employees who have seen the demo desktops are begging to have it available on their accounts, too, so a citywide rollout is only a matter of time.

The amount of time that Richards and fellow Largo sysadmin Mike Pearlman and CIO Harold A. Schomaker spend on things like 3-D desktops, which some IT departments might cavalierly dismiss as "eye candy," is the secret to their success at getting users to not only accept, but embrace and even love a Linux-based client-server system, instead of whining about how they'd really rather have Windows.

The Largo IT focus on users would make their system successful no matter what operating system they ran it on, but the use of Linux and thin clients is what makes it cost-effective, even though Largo has now replaced its original, super-cheap thin clients with brand-new Hewlett-Packard units that cost $625 apiece -- or about the same as a decent business desktop with a 3-D-capable graphics card. Unlike typical desktop computers, these clients are expected to last 10 years -- the old ones did -- and require approximately zero maintenance. They have no moving parts and run no software except a rudimentary Debian install, the X Window System, and the GNOME desktop. They have a full raft of USB and other ports, though, so they can do more than "thinner" thin clients. They run no application software at all, which means they will never need any software updates. Instead of maintaining software installations on 600 terminals, Largo runs all of its applications on servers, often with one server dedicated to a single application.

Evolution is Largo's standard email and calender client, with Novell Groupwise on its own application server powering its groupware back end.

GNOME is now the standard Largo desktop environment. The city was running KDE back in 2002, but since then, the admins say, GNOME seems to have become "the" corporate Linux desktop standard.

On the distro front, Largo is using openSUSE as its primary desktopper, with Red Hat running a number of servers. They have maintenance contracts for "a few" servers with both Red Hat and Novell. They also run Citrix in their server room, and through Citrix, make various Windows-based applications available to employees who need them. Richards, Pearlman, and Schomaker all say their distro choices -- and even their operating system choices -- are now driven more by application selection than by anything else. Other than a small group of Mac-using artist-type people, almost all city employees see the GNOME desktop as their standard. Even the few who can't do without specific Windows applications call them up seamlessly through their GNOME desktops.

The underlying operating system has ceased to have any importance for most computer-using Largo employees. They click to call up an application, they run the application, they save their work in their folders, and if a worker moves from one desk to another, she logs out of "her computer" on the old desk and logs into it at her new desk.

Don't forget printing!

The Largo guys go into lecture mode when talking about printing. The thing is, they say, we've all talked glowingly about how someday we'll have paperless offices, but so far computers are generating more paper than ever, especially in government operations. Maybe slick high-tech types like us don't put out much paper any more or care much about printing, but for most users it is possibly the critical computer function.

Networked printing in Linux is still sloppy, varies from application to application in ways it shouldn't, and isn't well-tested in larger networks. With 500 clients -- usually 250 to 300 concurrent users at any given moment during the business day -- and about 68 active printers, the Largo people are often dealing with printing utilities within applications that may have been tested with only 10 or 20 concurrent users sharing two or three printers. "Not even Novell does printer testing on our level," Richards says. So he's been working on his own GUI printing module ("users don't want to type in something like lpr -P; they just want to click to print") that will automatically send a print job to the printer the user has used most recently, but also gives users a choice of printers in case they need to send a job to a printer they don't typically use.

I saw an early version of this little utility in action. It's small, elegant, and simple. Richards thinks something like it should be a widget included in every Linux app to control printing, and he's willing to share his code with anyone who shares this thought and wants to pursue it.

But the metatopic of the Largo IT guys' rant about printing isn't really printing. It's a deep, full-voiced chant that goes, Listen to your users, watch your users work, and see how you can make their work easier. (repeat)

A possible solution to Linux audio bugaboos

Desktop audio can also be a problem. I hadn't heard of PulseAudio before my visit to Largo, but Richards talked it up pretty highly. He says it took a lot of the pain out of trying to get ALSA and ESD and other Linux sound systems to work at the same time. I'm trying it now. Lo! It works on my Ubuntu install, and so far I'm not getting some of the frustrations I've had with one sound device blocking access to another one, thereby forcing me to manually stop one sound daemon to use the almost inevitably different one required by the next sound-using application I want to run.

Richards wrote a blog entry about PulseAudio. A lot of his blog entries contain information valuable for individual desktop and small business Linux users, not just the full-tilt enterprise or client-server crowd. I've been reading through his archives myself, and learning from them.

Why doesn't your city or county do what Largo's doing?

Richards, Pearlman, and Schomaker can almost say in chorus, "They used to say nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. Now they say nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft."

Largo's IT budget is less than half of what similarly-sized municipalities typically spend for similar (and often less reliable) computing power. That's great for Largo taxpayers, but the city (Bradenton) and county (Manatee) where I live have standalone Windows PCs sitting on almost every desk, so I am not getting nearly as much bang for my tax dollars that go toward IT as Largo residents get for theirs.

I am going to send a copy of this article to my elected officials. In at least a few cases I will need to print it out and send it on paper, because not all of my local elected offiicials know how to read email. But I will go to that trouble, not as an act of Linux advocacy, but because running a Largo-style client-server network can produce significant savings for our local IT departments.

As Richards points out in another blog entry, Gartner says that even IT operations that stay with Windows (probably because they are afraid, uncertain, or doubtful about using other operating systems) but move from discrete desktops to server-resident Windows can produce a 48% saving with no reduction in functionality.

Naturally, moving to Linux and free software at the same time can produce even greater savings.


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