October 4, 2006

Library system migrates from Linux -- to more Linux

Author: Tina Gasperson

The six branches of the Howard County Library system in Maryland provide 300 computers to their clients. This week, every computer has been upgraded from a "homegrown" Linux kernel, to Groovix, an Ubuntu Linux derivative.

Amy Begg De Groff, the library's IT director, says Howard County libraries are well supported by its patrons. "We get very gracious funding from the county residents, but the majority of the money goes to [book] collections and payroll. So the funding just doesn't keep up with our IT needs." Because of that, five years ago, the library was exploring alternatives to Microsoft Windows and its steep licensing fees.

De Groff says the library created and deployed a custom kernel that provided patrons with a browser to search the catalog and access the Internet. They wanted more. "Word processing, instant messaging, sound, video -– they just wanted more, more more," she says. "When they walk in and see a computer, they expect it to function just like it does at home."

The library wanted to grant its patrons' wishes without leaving Linux behind. "We were very committed to open source. We exploring building another kernel or going with a vendor." De Groff says they looked at Userful's DiscoverStation, a popular choice with other public libraries moving to open source software, but "we felt locked down with too many of the options. We didn't like the look of it –- we wanted to offer something as close to XP as possible. And with Userful, what we found is that as we slowly took away functionality, we broke other things."

The other alternative De Groff tested was Groovix, an Ubuntu-based distribution that provides many of the options consumers expect from their desktop experience. "After I saw the Groovix deployment, with RealPlayer and other media support, there was no turning back. We begin piloting in January and it went effortlessly." De Groff tested the operating system on her existing hardware, upgrading the RAM from 128MB to 512MB. "The bulk of them are Dell GX150s with some GX100s," she says. "The newest machines are four years old." De Groff also added GCompris, a GPLed educational software package for children that includes more than 80 games.

De Groff advises other libraries considering a move to open source software to do their homework first. "I recommend an extensive survey of customer activity," she says. "We talked to our staff and they said the customers were searching the catalog. But when we talked to the customers, they said, 'We're reading email and doing online banking.' And then when we tracked hits, 70% of them were to MySpace. They may also be banking and need a secure system, but the audio and video are obviously very important as well. Your feedback from the staff isn't always consistent with the data you're going to generate -– so put it all together and meet all those needs." And don't forget training, De Groff says. "You need to extensively train your front line staff. We did three hours of hands-on, mandatory training."

De Groff says the biggest benefit of the upgrade has been the added functionality at a cost that is a fraction of what licensed proprietary systems would have been. "We spent $2,000 in tech support and $25 system-wide for the software," she says. "The biggest expense was the RAM upgrade, which cost $20,000. Oh, and I bought some T-shirts."


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