November 3, 2004

Linux cures ailing pharmacy network

Author: Tina Gasperson

Family-owned Medicine Chest Pharmacy in Hayward, Calif., was running Windows NT -- until Microsoft pulled support for that operating system. Faced with a choice between a massive expenditure to upgrade to Windows 2000 and the sometimes challenging freedom of going with open source, pharmacist James Cohen decided to think outside the box.The Medicine Chest has been in operation since 1985. It's an independent drugstore that focuses on customer service and the personal touch. The old-fashioned soda fountain up front adds an element of nostalgia designed to create a family atmosphere.

The company has a small network consisting of one server and five intelligent workstations. The foundation application is the Rx30 Pharmacy Management System, a program that streamlines all the functions needed by a typical pharmacy: prescription tracking and filling, drug interaction monitoring, and accounts receivable.

Cohen has done some of his own system administration, but for the past year he's worked with Timothy Tuck, owner of Pervasive Netwerks. Tuck is a Linux guy who makes a living doing IT consulting and outsourcing for small businesses in California. He's not averse to helping clients work out issues with Windows networks, but like any good evangelist, if there's a chance to slip in a plug for Linux, he's right there.

When Tuck started doing the IT for the Medicine Chest, he built a Linux-based firewall and mail server for Cohen and did some port forwarding so the pharmacist could connect to the business network from his home office. But Tuck's real chance to convince Cohen to make a more comprehensive switch to Linux came a couple of months later, during a routine antivirus software installation.

"We were going to load the antivirus on all our workstations to make them more secure," says Cohen. "We were cleaning everything up, trying to prepare for HIPAA." The Healthcare Insurance Portability and Accountability Act establishes a set of national standards for the protection of certain electronically transmitted personal health information.

In the process of getting his system ready for the enforcement of HIPAA and in conjunction with the virus protection, Cohen had Tuck download and install the latest updates for NT. One of those updates broke the system. "Microsoft decided they weren't going to support NT anymore," Cohen says, "and therefore wouldn't supply us with fixes. We'd have to buy new software for the server and five or six workstations at the going rate -- pretty expensive."

Cohen knew he wanted to continue running Rx30. As Tuck investigated their options, he found out there is a version of Rx30 designed to run on Linux. "He convinced me that was a better way to go -- the operating system itself doesn't cost anything. It was just a matter of labor," Cohen says.

Rx30 for Linux is shipped on a CD with a crazy-quilt custom version of Linux, one that Tuck says presented him with more than a few challenges when it came time to migrate the system. "It looks like an old SCO program that was ported to Windows and then back to Linux. We ran into some interesting issues -- for instance, the printer names have to be eight characters or less." There were also some common difficulties with printer drivers and Winmodems.

Cohen says it was difficult to get technical support from Rx30 because its software is built to run on a server and dumb terminals, while Cohen wanted all-inclusive workstations. "I couldn't believe I was the only one who ever wanted to do this, but we managed to get it done. It was sort of tedious in the setup process, but once we got to the other end, it's been really, really nice."

In addition to the server running the hodge-podge version of Linux, Tuck put Mandrakelinux on the workstations and created a clickable shortcut icon for starting Rx30, to make the learning curve less steep for the staff. The pharmacy is sticking with its Microsoft productivity applications for now, using Win4Lin to access Microsoft Office, and a dual-boot system to run Quicken and VersaCheck, neither of which, Cohen says, he was able to run in Win4Lin.

Even with the complications and challenges in migrating from NT to Linux, Cohen is happy. "Some of the stuff wasn't exactly the way I wanted it, but it is running a lot faster than the Windows version," he says. "We're a lot more secure and stable. And I'm not dependent on Mr. Gates anymore."


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