May 5, 2004

Linux in action: A public library's success story

Author: Joe Barr

Over the past year, the Howard County (Md.) Public Library has migrated more than 200 public PCs from Windows 98 and Windows NT to Linux. These PCs are used both to surf the Internet and to access the library's catalogues. NewsForge recently spoke with Brian Auger, associate director of the library, and the IT team responsible for the migration. We wanted to learn more about why and how it was accomplished, and how pleased they are with the results.

The library is located less than 10 miles from NSA headquarters, between Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. It operates five branch locations in addition to the central location. A library employee was recently recognized for her contributions to education, and the library itself received the Accessibility Award for Programs by the Commission on Disability Issues. All six library locations offer free Wi-fi access. The library also offers patrons the use of "kiosk-style" PCs to explore the Internet and search the catalogues.

Why migrate?

Like many others, HCPL was caught between a rock and a hard place. Its 200 public-access PCs were running on Windows 98 and Windows NT. The maintenance costs to patch and maintain them were growing with every new virus or security hole discovered. Windows XP offered an automated solution, but it required not only a cash investment for the software, but also for upgraded PCs. It wouldn't run well on many of the older PCs being used.

The turning point came when Dynix, a major vendor of library software, began to offer a new version of PAC, which enables public access to library catalogues. PAC can be used on any platform with a Web browser. Auger saw it as an opportunity to escape the Windows cash crunch.

IT Manager David Añasco pointed out that Linux was being used at the library even before the migration began. He told us: "We use Linux on old boxes as routers, as firewalls, we have tried to use Linux wherever it makes sense. Our e-mail server is Linux, and we are in the midst of migrating all of our Windows NT domain controllers to Linux."

So it was only natural that, given the freedom provided by Dynix's platform-neutral offering, the use of Linux for the public access machines be evaluated as well. That's where Luis Salazar and Mike Ricksecker come into the picture.

Mike told us: "Luis came to me with the Linux From Scratch project, and it was kind of like, 'Hey check out this site,' I had known by that point that the library was looking at different Linux solutions ... so (we) started dabbling in it and got a working model."

As Auger recently wrote in an article for Library Journal: "Our two Linux luminaries, Michael Ricksecker (network specialist) and Luis Salazar (network engineer), created a kernel and resulting user desktop that closely mimic not only the look and feel of a Windows desktop and browser but lack the unnecessary bells and whistles that come with a standard Windows installation."

Using LFS as a starting point, Luis and Mike were able to build a minimal Linux kernel that included only the functionality required by the "kiosk style" machines. They added the Gnome desktop environment, the Mozilla browser, and to complete the picture. They call the new distribution "Lumix." It's a combination of their first names, Luis and Mike. By the way, it's pronounced loo-mix, not lummox, which is something else entirely.

When asked what the biggest hurdle was in creating the Linux public terminal, Luis and Mike both agreed that it was in locking everything down: setting permissions and removing functionality that patrons would not need. By August, they had a working model, and the project got an official blessing to proceed.

The results

Everyone appears to be happy with the results: patrons, IT staff, and management. The patrons get a machine they can surf almost anywhere with. The only sites they can't reach are those that require Internet Explorer. And while they can't play Shockwave games, Flash- and Java-enabled Web sites display just fine. PDFs can be viewed, and allows MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents to be displayed as well.

The migration seems to have been almost transparent to most of the library's regular PC users. One patron asked Dave as he was walking by one day if he had anything to do with the computers. Dave said yes, and the user thanked him for stopping the pop-up ads.

The IT staff itself is thrilled with the ease of administration. Each PC runs a script twice a day to check for any configuration changes or patches, so they no longer have to visit each machine individually in order to roll out new functionality or upgrades. And each time a new Windows epidemic makes headlines, their smiles get even bigger.

Añasco told NewsForge: "From my standpoint, being department manager, we are saving money because we are not having to maintain something and so again -- I am a certified Microsoft CE -- I have nothing against it, but I just can't stand using it anymore because it is so unstable. "

Library management is happy because of the money it is saving. Those savings come from reduced administration costs and from hardware savings. The software savings are negligible because, as Auger points out, it's almost impossible to buy a new PC without getting Windows on it.

The hardware savings are the result of not having to buy new PCs capable of running Windows XP to replace older boxes which lack sufficient memory and power. That means the 15 new PCs purchased since the rollout are additions to the library's offerings, not replacements. And with no increase in budget required, they plan to add another 20 new PCs before the end of the fiscal year.

The future

HCPL also provides a small number of word processing machines at each location to their patrons; some branches have only two, others have four. The machines feature MS Office running on Windows NT. Because word processing is such a popular service, the library plans on rolling out a new release with a full version of (the current offering is only good for viewing documents) in the near future.

Auger asked that we point out that the library will be glad to help others do the same thing. Lumix is open source, and if you're interested in getting a CD containing Lumix, just send them a request for it by e-mail. What they can't do, he said, is visit your site and install or debug it for you.

Luis and Mike, however, are offering additional assistance for those who require it. They can be reached at the LumixTech Web site.


  • Linux
Click Here!