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Linux in action: A public library's success story

By Joe Barr on May 05, 2004 (8:00:00 AM)

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<!AWAITING SPELLING OF IT MANAGER'S NAME> <ed by cp 5.3.04> 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 OpenOffice.org 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 OpenOffice.org 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 OpenOffice.org (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.

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on Linux in action: A public library's success story

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I.E. Sites

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 05, 2004 09:09 PM
If they go to the extensions page it has a user spoof agent that may help in viewing stupid IE only sites - I have used it and it works pretty well.

but you guys rock keep up the good work and I will definitely write my library a letter and say why are my tax dollars being spent on windows when you could be doing this and offer my services.

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Re:I.E. Sites

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 06:27 PM
The user agent spoofer is a bad idea. The only way for most patrons to enjoy the ability is to leave it set to IE all of the time, thus giving the illusion that the browser is IE all the time. Possibility of improper rendering aside, it doesn't help the move to get people to make sites function with Mozilla, as they tend to think that IE is the only browser out there with real widespread use. Plus, if patrons can access it and one knows/doesn't know what he/she is doing, said person could change the UA string to something obscure, thereby further limiting the websites which patrons can access.

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We should print off copies of this for librarys

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 05, 2004 11:53 PM
If everyone prints up a copy of this article and pins it up on a library bulitin board, the librarians might read it eventually and look into making the switch for their library. Unfortunatly I think I read someware the microsoft made some kind of special deal with most libraries, in order to corrupt the minds of new users.

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Re:We should print off copies of this for librarys

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 10:31 PM
If only! The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation http://www.gatesfoundation.org/default.htm does give MONEY to PUBLIC libraries, but not "special deals" and not for other types of libraries (e.g. academic libraries). I work at an academic library where we support both Windows and Mac OS systems and have trouble making either work seamlessly with all of the different online services that we offer. I'd love to try Linux, but doubt that it would solve all of our problems either.

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Software savings negligible

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 12:03 AM
The software savings are negligible because, as Auger points out, it's almost impossible to buy a new PC without getting Windows on it.
I don't want to sound like an advertisement, but the Dell PowerEdge 400SC with no OS seems like a logical choice. They're 2.4GHz Celerons for between $300-400 (depending on the current discount Dell is offering). No OS. Just throw Linux on it and you're done.

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Re:Software savings negligible

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 12:22 AM


The software savings are negligible because, as Auger points out, it's almost impossible to buy a new PC without getting Windows on it.

I don't want to sound like an advertisement, but the Dell PowerEdge 400SC with no OS seems like a logical choice. They're 2.4GHz Celerons for between $300-400 (depending on the current discount Dell is offering). No OS. Just throw Linux on it and you're done.

Ummm, if you re-read the article, the point that they're making is that if they had been required to stick with Windows, every new PC they bought would've come with it standard - but since they don't have to buy "replacements", they can spend that money on "additions" - which they could most certainly use the Poweredge systems for.

In otherwords, the money that would've been spent to replace older machines can now be used to add more machines to the collection as a whole.

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Re:Software savings negligible

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 12:49 AM
Nice box. I bought one a few weeks ago during a Dell sale for $275 after rebate. I use it as my development unit. I've got Suse v9.0 on it now but have tried Red Hat v9.0, Gentoo, etc...no problems whatsoever.

Also, not to deflect any attention from these guys, as they are in my backyard so to speak, but another Linux success story involving a library and distribution can be found here:

http://www.whiteboxlinux.org/

Keep up the good work on Linux everyone!!!

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Re:Software savings negligible

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 12:51 AM
I wonder if they had considered using a terminal server approach with Linux ala LTSP. That way, they would not even have to worry about adding new machines, only inexpensive and durable thin clients.

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Re:Software savings negligible

Posted by: smurfnsanta on May 06, 2004 01:05 AM
But would you rather be locked into a vendor specific architecture, or own one that's much faster , upgradable, and interoperable with most of the hardware on the planet for nearly the same cost? Terminal servers made a lot more sense when the price disparity was 3 to 1 than they do right now.

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Re:Software savings negligible

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 04:06 AM
Um, I think you missed something. The previous poster seemed to be referring to www.ltsp.org which runs on any breed of linux (Red Hat, Debian, Mandrake, Suse, Peanut etc.) I don't see where there is any lock-in in that.

The other part of your post makes sense, except for one thing. Usually there is an administrative factor with individual desktops that is nearly removed from the thin client model. That's an ongoing time cost, not a hardware cost, and it is legislated by the environment.

It appears that the linux distro that these guys put togeather brought that administration headache down to a level they were comfortable with. However, from my experience, I would guess that the previous poster would probably be correct about the lowered costs by using the thin client model.

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Re:Software savings negligible

Posted by: mt_nixnut on May 06, 2004 07:10 AM
I have used it for several years now and can say without hesitation.


You will save time and money with LTSP (K12LTSP in my case)

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Re:Software savings negligible

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 01:30 AM
You can infact get a refund for Windows if you dont want to use it on your new PC. It may be a hassle, but for hundreds of new machines the cost would be well worth it.

http://www.macobserver.com/news/99/january/990121<nobr>/<wbr></nobr> windowsrefund.html

There are several other sites that discuss this also. just google for it.

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Clickable Link

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 02:30 AM
<A HREF="http://www.macobserver.com/news/99/january/990121/windowsrefund.html" TITLE="macobserver.com">here</a macobserver.com>

Also, Just to add.. Getting a refund is doable, but it would certainly make more sense to buy OSless pc's (or even build them yourself)

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Re:Software savings negligible

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 03:09 AM
I do not know what the situation is in the US but in the UK it is no problem to get whatever PC you want custom made at much lower than retail prices. If you want them all to run the same software, it can be copied onto the hard disks before assembly. For just web-browsing, hard disks would seem unnecessary anyway.

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Re:Software savings negligible

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 03:43 AM
Why bother with Dell if you can buy Compaq D330 that comes with Mandrake Linux? You will save $125 per machine. I did buy two last year in Dec. Support EOMs who support Linux, Dell doesn't and they need to be taught a lesson. It is a matter of principles.
Great job guys.

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Gates Foundation

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 12:45 AM
The major hurdle to my public library here in Tulsa, OK is that most, if not all, of the public access PC's were purchased with grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I don't know for sure if there is an official stipulation in the grant that the PC's run exclusively MS products but I would think so.

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Re:Gates Foundation

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 01:09 AM
You may want to check the grant - Although I'm sure the grant may have something to say about MS, if you purchase hardware with the grant I don't think they can say what you do with the computer AFTER you get them.

- Ken

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Re:Gates Foundation

Posted by: Jeremy Hogan on May 06, 2004 05:40 AM
> I don't know for sure if there is an official stipulation in the grant that the PC's run exclusively MS products but I would think so.



The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is an official not-for-profit entity and cannot make any such stipulations on their donations. If they do, let your state's Attorney General know. The grant allows you to purchase PCs, so you can't abuse it and buy a new car with it. You have to buy whatever PCs with whatever OS you want.



Now there is that agressively worded MS OEM agreement that says the OS has to stay with the PC it came with, but that does *not* mean you can't install another OS, just that you can't use your MS license on another PC.

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Re:Gates Foundation

Posted by: Beauregard on May 07, 2004 01:39 AM
What the Gates Foundation donated to Libraries (at least here in Louisiana) was hardware (servers, workstations, networking equipment, etc, with the software installed).

Libraries could have changed the software (with, of course, loss of support) at any time in the project. Our site, <A HREF="http://library.beau.org/" TITLE="beau.org">Beauregard Parish (Public) Library</a beau.org> agreed to be a regional training lab (got more computers that way) so we agreed to run them pretty much as issued for awhile so that the Gates Foundation could use them for training.


At the end of the period agreed on for training, we were free to convert them to Linux. We deeply appreciate the hardware that the Gates Foundation made available to us even if we do consider that particular group of pc's to be 'the reborn'<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:-)

Initally we installed RedHat Linux. They are now being upgraded to John Morris' <A HREF="http://whiteboxlinux.org/" TITLE="whiteboxlinux.org">WhiteBox Enterprise Linux</a whiteboxlinux.org>

High on our list of pluses is that we can allow our patrons to do lots of things like download and chat without fear because an application John put together for us allows us to restore the computers from image - this is done automatically on a timer or can be run on an individual computer when the need arises.

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Is it a joke??

Posted by: smurfnsanta on May 06, 2004 12:49 AM
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.



So rather than just recompiling the kernel in an hour on say, Debian, they built their own distro? If the hardware runs '98 and NT, I can't imagine why you couldn't use existing distros to speed development by several magnitudes.



Sorry if I'm out in left field here, but it sounds exactly like the type of project you slap people for. I think it's referred to as YARW, 'yet another reinvention of the wheel'.



At least security reports and updated binaries won't be available unless or until these guys create 'em. Brilliant, in the autistic head banging sense of the word.

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Re:Is it a joke??

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 01:15 AM
Actually, since they only wanted a kiosk style with limited functionality, it would be similar to MS if they just loaded a current distribution rather than putting on only what they wanted.

The beauty of Open Source - get to play with only what YOU want, not what someone else THINKS you want.

Personally, I run Slackware (www.slackware.com) which is what I would have started with (simple, easy to specify what to install/customize/etc., but with all the bells and whistles if you want them), but, hey, this was a government operation (g).

At least they thought outside the box and actually TRIED something that works.

- Ken

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Re:Is it a joke??

Posted by: smurfnsanta on May 06, 2004 02:11 AM
Yeah, I'm still really puzzled. I have a dozen linux distro's installed, and can admire your good sense as a Slacker. Would've been perfect for a small distro, though I might've used Vector then, seeing as it's such a tight distro outta the box.

-Meat Wad

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Re:Is it a joke??

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 02:58 AM
I think the words to look for are, "Linux from Scratch". These people know what they want and they know how to do it. If I was doing it (I am a clueless newbie) I would have made 200 copies of Knoppix and set the PC's to boot from CD - job done. At least I would not break anything and the punters would not either. Lets just give credit where credit is due - this is a brilliant piece of work!

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Re:Is it a joke??

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 03:38 AM
Think about it for a second. They wanted to pare down what they put on the computers to a minimum and have only what they needed to satisfy their customers. It was probably no more trouble to go to "Linux from Scratch" than it would be to create the scripts to customize a current distro.

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Re:Is it a joke??

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 01:00 PM
If you have never built a system with the LFS book, then I don't really think you have a voice in this. LFS is not all that complicated. On top of that, there is a sub-project called ALFS (Automated LFS). AKA, an unattended installation of LFS. Nothing more than a booting linux box. Then you simply add what you need. Its not as though they had to sit and babysit each and every box, entering commands every few minutes to hours. If they are 1/2 as clever as they are shown in this artical, they figured that part out.

To top it off, they very simply could have built LFS for the lowest common demoniator, burned a copy of their shinny, new, exactly what they wanted, Lumix and be done with it. IMO, much easier to add what you want than to figure out what you don't want and if you can remove it.

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My library is having a bake sale to raise funds...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 03:17 PM
...and I'm going to drop off:

  • 1-¼ C Sugar

  • ½ C Flour

  • ½ t Salt

  • 1-½ C Water

  • 3 Eggs, separated

  • Zest from 1 medium lemon

  • Juice from 1-½ medium lemons

  • 1 T Butter

  • 1 Baked, cooled 9" pie crust


  • And then I'll hand them a recipe written in <A HREF="http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/West/05/10/offbeat.klingon.interpreter/index.html" TITLE="cnn.com">Klingon</a cnn.com>

    btw, the library is not located in Oregon (or California).

    And we have to add characters to get passed the lameness filter, so we do this: abcdefg, hijklmnop, qrs, tuv, w, x, y & z. Now I know my abc's, woncha sing along with me...abcdefg, hijklmnop, qrs, tuv, wx, y & z...

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    Re:Is it a joke??

    Posted by: randomjohndoe on May 07, 2004 12:49 AM
    I think they turned to LFS for the second most popular reason: They looked around and didn't find an existing distro that met their needs. (I'm assuming the most popular reason is to really learn linux.)

    As someone else pointed out, they (Luis and Mike) wanted a very minimal distribution and it is easier to build one with LFS than try to strip down a full distro. Another reason for using a minimal distro, and this wasn't mentioned in the article, is that the PCs can be loaded by PXE boot. Each library branch has a server, so if they add a PC installation is as simple as plugging it in and turning it on.

    Also not mentioned in the article: They modified Mozilla to remove a lot of its menu items and functionality to limit it to what they felt appropriate for a public terminal. For example, you can save downloads only to the floppy drive. This prevents users from cluttering up the hard drive and also makes it easy to protect their privacy: Shut down Mozilla, and everything is cleared. The system restarts it after a couple seconds.

    They wanted to build a system that would provide library patrons with the functionality they had under Windows, but which even a malicious user would not be able to damage.

    And the reason I have this information is that Luis and Mike spoke at a meeting of the Columbia Area Linux User Group (calug.com).

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    Re:Is it a joke??

    Posted by: smurfnsanta on May 07, 2004 03:10 AM
    I think they turned to LFS for the second most popular reason: They looked around and didn't find an existing distro that met their needs.


    Perfectly valid reason. I'm definitely surprised, but as long as dev didn't cause an exorbitant charge to the library, great.


    I'd definitely be interested in hearing a summary of their experience and whether they'd approach the problem set the same way again, having done PXE setups myself for 700+ servers on established distro's (stripping Apache to mod_perl, fastCGI, etc.).

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    Five years and going strong

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2004 02:35 PM
    I know several libraries which have been using linux desktops for five years on the public stations and many of the staff stations. For political reasons some of the staff machines are dual boot and still have MSwindows. However, the days of those legacy machines is numbered.


    It was most the the difficulty in keeping MSwindows running that caused the switch. On any given day of the week, many of the expensive MSwindows machines were out of commission. They've had no downtime except for a burned out monitor and some ISP outages since moving to linux. The hardware is all second hand so the MS tax does not directly cause a problem.

    Most patrons can't tell the difference or don't care, except that the linux machines are faster that what they're used to at home. One of the public terminals is designated as 'experimental' where new versions, distros, apps, or other tricks can be inflicted on the public (after being tested on the staff).


    I will try to goad some of the principles into writing to newsforge.

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    It Works Here Too

    Posted by: Beauregard on May 06, 2004 10:46 PM
    The Beauregard Parish (Public) Library serves a rural Louisiana area with a population of 31,000. Our automation system, web and Internet services (including ISP services to our patrons and wireless), patron Internet labs, staff workstations and mobile computer lab all run Linux.

    We were a regional lab site for the Gates Library project and with the full knowledge (if not excitement) of the Gates Foundation, we changed the op system on the computers at the end of the grant project (2nd year if I remember right). We do appreciate the equipment which was donated by the Gates Foundation -- we just don't like using the Microsoft Software Products.

    Like the Howard County Library, we chose to 'roll our own' Linux. John Morris, our network tech, developed WhiteBox Enterprise Linux when RedHat changed their business model. His work is now receiving worldwide attention - WBEL can be downloaded from <A HREF="http://whiteboxlinux.org/" TITLE="whiteboxlinux.org">whitboxlinux.org</a whiteboxlinux.org>

    For years, we've been trying to shout the news that open source solutions work for libraries and other public service agencies. Thanks, Howard County and NewsForge for helping make this point.

    For more information, contact the Beauregard Parish Library by sending an email to help at beau.org or visiting <A HREF="http://library.beau.org/" TITLE="beau.org">library.beau.org</a beau.org>

     

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