October 12, 2005

Userful GNU/Linux multi-station software suits general desktop users

Author: Bruce Byfield

While others debate whether GNU/Linux is ready for the desktop, Userful is quietly proving that it is -- and making a profit while doing so.

By combining a mixture of proprietary administrative tools with a modified Red Hat distribution and a GNOME desktop, Userful has updated the concept of timesharing by adapting it to a personal computer. The result is DiscoverStation, a hardware and software solution that connects as many as 10 terminals to a single computer.

The system is being marketed mainly as a way to reduce administration time and costs. Other selling points include security and environmental friendliness, because fewer computers are required.

The system is proving especially attractive to cash-strapped public libraries across North America. Even more importantly, it is being used by library patrons with only minor difficulties.

Hardware, administration software, and security

DiscoverStations' basic components will be familiar to any moderately experienced GNU/Linux user. The hardware consists of standard components and, apart from the customized administration tools, the software and security model consists largely of standard Unix features and configuration options.

Physically, DiscoverStation consists of a single computer linked to as many as 10 stations through dual-head video cards and USB hubs. Each station consists of a keyboard with USB ports and monitor. A station may also have an external diskette drive.

The proprietary software in DiscoverStation consists of specialized graphical administrative tools. In addition to dialogues for setting network connections and the system time, they include graphical user reports, controls for paid printing, and Internet filters that comply with the standards set by the US Children's Internet Protection Act. Administrators can also customize the welcome screen and login menu, and set the amount of time that customers can use a station.

About Userful

Userful was founded in 1999 by Timothy Griffin, now president and CEO. From the start, Griffin says, "We saw open source as the next big wave." The company began work on a kernel-based approach to a multi-station computer, similar to the one implemented by the HP 441, but it abandoned this approach because of problems with supporting multiple video cards.

Since releasing its Desktop Multiplier product in 2002, Userful has focused mainly on library deployments. Userful has 25 employees, is based in Calgary, Canada, and recently opened a second office in Victoria, Canada, headed by Daniel Griffin. In 2004, Userful was named the 15th fastest growing company in Alberta with revenues under $20 million by Alberta Venture magazine.

While not ruling out an eventual IPO, Timothy Griffin says that Userful is not currently considering one. Having "recently achieved profitability," Userful is considering funding options for its next stage of development.

Security is a major selling point of DiscoverStation. According to Timothy Griffin, president and founder of Userful, the foundation of the system's security is GNU/Linux's basic features, such as strong user permissions, multiple-user login, and the inclusion of Security-Enhanced Linux (SE Linux).

In addition, Userful installs with a few basic precautions, such as having only the default kernel in the boot menu, setting the computer to boot only from the hard drive, and not supplying a command line on the desktop. Diskettes and flash drives are automounted on the desktop, but this potential security hole is countered by limiting the login time for each user and automatically wiping the users' home directories when they log out.

A potential weak spot seems to be that the systems allow remote logins -- always a problem in a security architecture. However, remote logins are inescapable in multi-branch libraries. On the whole, Userful seems to have done a thoughtful job of combining off-the-shelf hardware and software, customizing them for the chosen market, and adding its own software to fill in the gaps.

DiscoverStation Admin - click to enlarge

What the public sees

The DiscoverStation desktop fits its target audience of general users almost perfectly. In fact, the desktop is easily the most user-friendly interface for GNU/Linux that I've ever seen.

On logging into a DiscoverStation, users are given a basic menu of items such as Internet, Large Print, Resume, or Kids (Filtered). They can also choose one of 30 languages for the desktop from a pull-down menu.

Before choosing a task, users must agree to terms of use and log in using their library ID. Then the desktop opens, along with the application for the selected tasks. If they prefer, users can return to the login menu when they are finished with a task, or use the desktop menu instead.

The interface is a modified GNOME desktop. The main differences from an ordinary desktop are a counter showing a user's remaining login time, and the replacement of the Menu button with one labeled Start Here.

The application menu is also modified, with task descriptions replacing application names. However, once opened, the programs are instantly familiar to GNU/Linux users. Selecting Word Processor or Drawing, for example, starts OpenOffice.org, while Photo Editor opens the GIMP. The Web browser is a Mozilla variant. The overall selection is small -- about three dozen choices -- but tightly targeted to a general audience. Administrators can transfer to the root account from any workstation by using a keyboard shortcut to open a login screen.

Users can save to the /home directory for their workstation or to automounted external drives, and programs can be modified for the duration of their session. When users log out, the home directory is wiped and returned to its original state for the next patron. Home directories also revert to their original state if a workstation is inactive for a certain period of time.

Next: What clients and users say

I talked with the staff and patrons of two libraries in British Columbia, Canada, where DiscoverStation is deployed. The comments I received suggested that, in practice, DiscoverStation may fall short of the 80% savings in IT costs the company claims in its Product Guide. However, Userful's claims that 80% of IT administrators preferred DiscoverStation over their previous solutions and that 91% of library patrons were pleased or had no problem with the technology were probably accurate. Most criticisms were mild and supplied in a context of general approval.

DiscoverStation Desktop - click to enlarge

At the Coquitlam Public Library (CPL), 30 minutes from downtown Vancouver, Userful DiscoverStations have been deployed since September 2003. There, enthusiasm for the solution is unqualified. "I'm a really big fan," says Rory Weston of the system department. "Given that there's only a couple of us, it's saved us a lot of time."

Jim Scott, manager of systems and technical services at the Greater Victoria Public Library (GVPL), is slightly more tempered in his enthusiasm. The GVPL has been using DiscoverStations for slightly less than a year, and Scott finds that the solution is still "a little quirky." He mentions customers having trouble printing, burning CDs, using OpenOffice.org, and requiring more "coaching on peculiarities" than he originally anticipated. So far, Scott estimates, deploying Userful's solutions costs about as much as a Windows-based solution.

However, Scott acknowledges that the solution is relatively new, and that minor problems are inevitable in any large-scale transition. Noting that Userful's multi-language support is especially attractive to the Victoria region's multicultural population, Scott reports increased demand for the library's computer services in the last year, and suggests that patrons are "voting with their feet. It's a platform that has a lot of potential," Scott concludes. "We've certainly been recommending it. It's a good solution."

Observing and talking to patrons at both libraries, I would have to agree with Scott. At the GVPL, the main cluster of DiscoverStations had few vacancies the weekday afternoon I visited. The DiscoverStations at the Coquitlam Public Library did not fill up until classes at the high school across the street broke for the day, but were consistently used to 60% capacity before then.

If anything, the trouble at both libraries is that the services are too attractive. Although most library patrons use DiscoverStations for Web access and word processing, both libraries have had trouble with teenage boys using the machines for games. In Coquitlam, teenage girls using them for chat seemed almost as great a problem the day I visited. In Victoria, Scott solved the problem by "social engineering," suggesting that the gamers would have better response times at ordinary workstations.

In Coquitlam, the library is experimenting with Userful's booking appliance to meet the high demands. Users can reserve a DiscoverStation for a maximum of an hour per day, with the hour spread out over as many as six sessions. Several patrons complained that the booking system was inconvenient, but the need for time limitations points to the high demand for the DiscoverStations.

When questioned, patrons expressed general satisfaction with DiscoverStation. However, one or two with home computers had slight trouble navigating the unfamiliar GNU/Linux tools -- a response that is only to be expected with anything new. Three-quarters had no idea what operating system they were using, and expressed only mild interest when told. The system was clearly meeting their needs, and that was what mattered most to them.

Conclusion

To date, Userful has focused largely on the library market. However, having established itself in library services, the company is now looking for new markets. Daniel Griffin, vice president of library services at Userful, says that DiscoverStation could find niches in public computing, including schools, computer-based training, community centers, and Internet cafes.

In addition, the technology behind DiscoverStation is also the basis for Userful's DesktopMultiplier, which is aimed at Linux vendors and home users, and the company's DesktopServer, which is aimed at call centers and general office users.

Meanwhile, the fact that people can walk in to libraries and use DiscoverStation with only minor difficulties suggests that Userful has done what some commentators claim is years in the future: It has created a GNU/Linux system that anyone can use.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge and the Linux Journal Web site.

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