December 11, 2001

Linux shines at non-profit STAR Center

Author: JT Smith

- By Jacqueline Emigh -
Linux can be a boon to not-for-profits, especially organizations in expansion mode. If you want proof, ask Sonny Davis, coordinator of information systems at The STAR (Special Technology Access Resource) Center, an assistive technology facility for people with disabilities.

Three years ago, The STAR Center was running a mix of NetWare, Windows NT, and Windows 95 on its largely donated server hardware. Today all 11 servers at the center's facilities in Jackson, Tennessee, are operating Red Hat Linux, version 6.2 or newer.

Now 13 years old, The STAR Center is aimed at helping children and adults with disabilities to live more normal lives. Computer training is a big component, according to Davis, who calls himself the center's "head computer geek." About 60 percent of the center's funding comes from the state of Tennessee's Vocational Rehabilitation
division, and the rest from other government agencies, the United Way, business, and private citizens. Most hardware used at the center is donated, by groups ranging from government to advertising agencies and insurance firms.

The western Tennessee not-for-profit teaches courses in job skills, work adjustment, and more. One program, operated by the center's visual services department, shows people with visual impairments how to use voice input devices. Depending on individual needs and interests, other clients might learn anything from job interviewing and resume building to computer repair or retail sales skills.

Back in 1999, it became clear that the needs of the center's employee and client population were outstripping the operating systems then in use. At that point, The STAR Center was running NetWare on its main box, and Windows NT on its proxy server.

"Our NetWare box was slowing down," Davis says. Demand for services was approaching the limits of the center's NetWare license for 100 simultaneous users.

Davis was less than thrilled with the capabilities of Novell NetWare 3.2, the version then installed at The STAR Center. One problem: NetWare 3.2 didn't support long file names, according to Davis.

Cost of licenses

"Moving to a 250-user NetWare 4.0 license, though, would have cost us an extra $4,000 to $6,000," Davis says. He also ruled out an expanded implementation of Windows NT. Additional licensing fees from Microsoft would have run at least $10,000, Davis estimates, and he wasn't that happy with NT's performance, either. "Our NT proxy server was crashing at least three times a week," he says.

"But we really didn't have even $4,000 to spend, when we could go out and buy a packaged version of Linux from Red Hat for $70 instead. That was the bottom line."

Davis first learned about Linux from an engineer hired by the center in 1999. After setting up a Linux test server, Davis and his IS staff journeyed to the Atlanta Linux Showcase (ALS) in October of that year. For The STAR Center, ALS was an epiphany of sorts. Davis and his crew decided to use Linux to replace all the center's
network server functions.

"Once all the hoopla of the show had died down, we holed ourselves up in a hotel room and drafted a plan about what we wanted to do with Linux. We've been heavy into Linux ever since," he says.

One server at The STAR Center's main site powers an Internet site at http://www.starcenter.tn.org. One
section of the site, "The STAR Center Story," spells out the history of the not-for-profit, which was founded in 1988 by Margaret and Chuck Doumitt, the parents of two visually impaired children. Other content includes poems written by clients; articles by staff and volunteers; and links to additional disability-related Web sites.

"None of our hardware is what you'd really call state-of-the-art," Davis says. By now, though, most of the center's servers are Pentium II-based or higher. "We really benefited a lot from Y2K (Year 2000) conversion. After upgrading to new servers, companies donated their older hardware to us," he recalls.

No big problems cropped up in converting the servers to Linux, according to Davis. "There were some things that we didn't know how to do, and had to learn," he says, pointing in particular to setting up a Sendmail mail server.

"But that'd be true with any OS. Once you've 'got Linux,' you've 'got it.' Linux is very straightforward. If there are any geeks out there interested in moving to Linux, I'd tell them to go ahead. Linux is also a great way to get out of booting up your server every few hours."

The IS department did most of its initial Linux research directly out of manuals and on the Web. In addition to Davis, the team includes a programmer and an engineer, and the center is looking for a computer repair technician/instructor.

The STAR Center still uses some non-Linux software. Some "canned vendor materials," geared to client training, are available for Microsoft Windows only, Davis says. This category includes software for visual input devices, as well as the MIDI devices used in the center's music therapy program.

Over the years, the IS department has also used Microsoft Access 97 tools to design several custom programs for staff, including client tracking software, a scheduling system, a purchase order management system, a telephone message handler, and a donation tracking system.

As a result, The STAR Center is using Windows on its PC clients, and Samba on some servers. The center also uses the Linux Printing.org Database.

Performance boost

Beyond cutting costs, the use of server-side Linux over the past two years has helped bolster application performance, according to Davis. Selina Crawford, a computer user at The STAR Center, confirms the performance boost from her personal experience.

"Performance has been getting progressively smoother and faster," maintains Crawford, an employee at the center for the past 10 years. As assistant to The STAR Center's program director, Crawford uses Microsoft Access-based programs to schedule evaluation sessions between the center's evaluators and clients, as well as to
retrieve database information for the evaluator staff.

Crawford says she's noticed a couple of big performance upticks. One of these happened after the initial conversion to Linux in 1999 and another about six months ago. That's when the center upgraded its network to 10/100 Ethernet switches.

For his part, Davis gives credit to software and hardware improvements alike. "One reason (for the performance hikes) is that Linux has let us split up server functions over several different hardware servers, without having to pay separate licensing fees. Before Linux, two servers were doing all the work. Now that we have 11 servers, we can farm out functions to other servers and better balance the workload," he says.

Davis is hopeful for a 100% Linux deployment at some point. "Thanks to a push by the
GNOME Accessibility Project, more (assistive technology) vendors are starting to include Linux drivers with their products," he says.

The center has "plenty of Windows licenses for workstation users," so end users there remain on Windows for now. But the IS department is also looking at rewriting the staff applications written in Microsoft Access 97 for MySQL, an Open Source database. Davis acknowledges, though, that this could be a time-consuming process. "That in itself is the biggest obstacle. If we were just starting to write applications now, we'd do them from scratch for Linux. Ten years ago, though, Linux was pretty much foreign to us."

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