November 5, 2007

LTSP saves old hardware in Brazilian doctor's office

Author: Flavio Henrique Araque Gurgel

Integrated Neurology Service SINEURO's office, located in São Paulo,
Brazil, migrated from various versions of Windows (from 98 to XP) on a network
of five computers with eight nonskilled computer users. I was the consultant in
charge, and I spent no money on new hardware. Thank to the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP), hardware that's too old for new
versions of Windows runs Linux applications just fine over a network from a server.

Before the move, the office had some problems with software licensing. Piracy
is a common problem in Brazil, where pirated software can be found in big and
small companies alike. Because Linux is free, it can provide an alternative to
commonly pirated Windows software.

Before I made any recommendations, I performed a hardware and software
inventory. The machines in the office ranged from a 486 to a Pentium III.
Everything connected in a 10/100Mbps wired network, and the Pentium III acts as a communication server to share an ADSL connection to the Internet. In addition to the mixed Windows versions, some of the machines contained Microsoft Office 95 or 97, file utilities, and shareware, some of which included spyware. There was no antivirus software. All machines ran a proprietary scheduler and patients database called Tot-Win that users shared on the network.

The 486, Pentium II, and Pentium III machines were too old for new versions
of Windows, but the office had no money for new computers. Fortunately, Linux is
lighter than Windows, and free to boot. I started considering how LTSP could be
used to boot the old hardware as graphical terminals and run applications from the server.

My first step was to test the Pentium III's performance. Was it possible to
run Debian and KDE on it comfortably? I upgraded the memory to 768MB (the maximum I found in local stores) and installed Debian sarge, KDE, and OpenOffice.org. Using Wine, I was able to run the proprietary Tot-Win application with some adjustments. I also installed Secure Shell (SSH) to use for remote administration.

Next, I removed the hard drives from the clients and made a boot disk that
booted them remotely from Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) on the
Pentium III. With LTSP, when I had to adjust the client configurations, I could
do it by making changes to only the server.

Problems arose on the first day of production: Opening OpenOffice.org was too slow, and even Konqueror, the file manager for KDE, was too slow for file
activities. Debian had an old version of GNOME in its repositories, so I switched to the 6.06 Long Term Support (LTS)
version of Ubuntu, which was current at the time and had a newer version of GNOME. Nautilus, the file manager for GNOME, is snappier than Konqueror, and Ubuntu's ooqstart-gnome package made OpenOffice.org run at an acceptable speed. Success at last!

I didn't even have to do any training. The users like Linux and don't want to go back.

After everything was working, I made subsequent adjustments remotely via SSH.
My client made support requests by phone or instant messaging. I only had to go
to the office when a computer had hardware problems.

Users still have occasional difficulties, but a lot less than when they were running Windows. I can easily teach them how to resolve their problems in the GNOME environment. If they need a new application, I can connect remotely via SSH and use the apt-get command.

The Brazilian government says that all software related to public services
should have a Free license, but this is not the case yet. However, I could work around this problem by using Java and Wine.

After one year, I upgraded Ubuntu, because the client wanted to use the new
features implemented in the latest version of OpenOffice.org. The GNOME in
Ubuntu 7.04 Feisty Fawn is even snappier on the Pentium III.

Without purchasing any new computers, I was able to eliminate license fees
and piracy complaints, employ remote administration through SSH, and make the
users happy. Don't let anyone tell you that Linux isn't ready for the business
desktop right now.

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