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Feature: Case Study

Largo still loves Linux

By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller on September 21, 2007 (9:00:00 PM)

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LARGO, FLA. -- This small city on Florida's Gulf Coast runs one of the most cost-effective municipal IT departments around. I last wrote about Largo's Linux-based client-server network in 2002. A lot has changed for Largo's computer-using city employees since then, and even more changes are in the works.

Largo system administrator Dave Richards and his coworkers are excited about bringing the 3-D Compiz-Fusion desktop to Largo. They currently have about 30 users testing it, and other city employees who have seen the demo desktops are begging to have it available on their accounts, too, so a citywide rollout is only a matter of time.

The amount of time that Richards and fellow Largo sysadmin Mike Pearlman and CIO Harold A. Schomaker spend on things like 3-D desktops, which some IT departments might cavalierly dismiss as "eye candy," is the secret to their success at getting users to not only accept, but embrace and even love a Linux-based client-server system, instead of whining about how they'd really rather have Windows.

The Largo IT focus on users would make their system successful no matter what operating system they ran it on, but the use of Linux and thin clients is what makes it cost-effective, even though Largo has now replaced its original, super-cheap thin clients with brand-new Hewlett-Packard units that cost $625 apiece -- or about the same as a decent business desktop with a 3-D-capable graphics card. Unlike typical desktop computers, these clients are expected to last 10 years -- the old ones did -- and require approximately zero maintenance. They have no moving parts and run no software except a rudimentary Debian install, the X Window System, and the GNOME desktop. They have a full raft of USB and other ports, though, so they can do more than "thinner" thin clients. They run no application software at all, which means they will never need any software updates. Instead of maintaining software installations on 600 terminals, Largo runs all of its applications on servers, often with one server dedicated to a single application.

Evolution is Largo's standard email and calender client, with Novell Groupwise on its own application server powering its groupware back end.

GNOME is now the standard Largo desktop environment. The city was running KDE back in 2002, but since then, the admins say, GNOME seems to have become "the" corporate Linux desktop standard.

On the distro front, Largo is using openSUSE as its primary desktopper, with Red Hat running a number of servers. They have maintenance contracts for "a few" servers with both Red Hat and Novell. They also run Citrix in their server room, and through Citrix, make various Windows-based applications available to employees who need them. Richards, Pearlman, and Schomaker all say their distro choices -- and even their operating system choices -- are now driven more by application selection than by anything else. Other than a small group of Mac-using artist-type people, almost all city employees see the GNOME desktop as their standard. Even the few who can't do without specific Windows applications call them up seamlessly through their GNOME desktops.

The underlying operating system has ceased to have any importance for most computer-using Largo employees. They click to call up an application, they run the application, they save their work in their folders, and if a worker moves from one desk to another, she logs out of "her computer" on the old desk and logs into it at her new desk.

Don't forget printing!

The Largo guys go into lecture mode when talking about printing. The thing is, they say, we've all talked glowingly about how someday we'll have paperless offices, but so far computers are generating more paper than ever, especially in government operations. Maybe slick high-tech types like us don't put out much paper any more or care much about printing, but for most users it is possibly the critical computer function.

Networked printing in Linux is still sloppy, varies from application to application in ways it shouldn't, and isn't well-tested in larger networks. With 500 clients -- usually 250 to 300 concurrent users at any given moment during the business day -- and about 68 active printers, the Largo people are often dealing with printing utilities within applications that may have been tested with only 10 or 20 concurrent users sharing two or three printers. "Not even Novell does printer testing on our level," Richards says. So he's been working on his own GUI printing module ("users don't want to type in something like lpr -P; they just want to click to print") that will automatically send a print job to the printer the user has used most recently, but also gives users a choice of printers in case they need to send a job to a printer they don't typically use.

I saw an early version of this little utility in action. It's small, elegant, and simple. Richards thinks something like it should be a widget included in every Linux app to control printing, and he's willing to share his code with anyone who shares this thought and wants to pursue it.

But the metatopic of the Largo IT guys' rant about printing isn't really printing. It's a deep, full-voiced chant that goes, Listen to your users, watch your users work, and see how you can make their work easier. (repeat)

A possible solution to Linux audio bugaboos

Desktop audio can also be a problem. I hadn't heard of PulseAudio before my visit to Largo, but Richards talked it up pretty highly. He says it took a lot of the pain out of trying to get ALSA and ESD and other Linux sound systems to work at the same time. I'm trying it now. Lo! It works on my Ubuntu install, and so far I'm not getting some of the frustrations I've had with one sound device blocking access to another one, thereby forcing me to manually stop one sound daemon to use the almost inevitably different one required by the next sound-using application I want to run.

Richards wrote a blog entry about PulseAudio. A lot of his blog entries contain information valuable for individual desktop and small business Linux users, not just the full-tilt enterprise or client-server crowd. I've been reading through his archives myself, and learning from them.

Why doesn't your city or county do what Largo's doing?

Richards, Pearlman, and Schomaker can almost say in chorus, "They used to say nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. Now they say nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft."

Largo's IT budget is less than half of what similarly-sized municipalities typically spend for similar (and often less reliable) computing power. That's great for Largo taxpayers, but the city (Bradenton) and county (Manatee) where I live have standalone Windows PCs sitting on almost every desk, so I am not getting nearly as much bang for my tax dollars that go toward IT as Largo residents get for theirs.

I am going to send a copy of this article to my elected officials. In at least a few cases I will need to print it out and send it on paper, because not all of my local elected offiicials know how to read email. But I will go to that trouble, not as an act of Linux advocacy, but because running a Largo-style client-server network can produce significant savings for our local IT departments.

As Richards points out in another blog entry, Gartner says that even IT operations that stay with Windows (probably because they are afraid, uncertain, or doubtful about using other operating systems) but move from discrete desktops to server-resident Windows can produce a 48% saving with no reduction in functionality.

Naturally, moving to Linux and free software at the same time can produce even greater savings.

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on Largo still loves Linux

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Largo still loves Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.102.223.142] on September 21, 2007 11:47 PM
Can you expand on the Mac user community in the city? Last I read on Dave's blog he had Mac apps like Photoshop running on the Linux desktop...there was a screenshot of it, anyway. I am a designer myself and I'm pretty comfortable with any platform, so I wonder if the Mac users are just making excuses, or what?

I can't imagine what a graphic or web designer for a city would be doing that is so niche-fancy. My city contracts out professional design work to local businesses (like me, and I use Linux most o' the time).

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Re: Largo still loves Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 64.174.30.242] on September 24, 2007 02:39 AM
As a Mac based agency I can say color matching, PageMaker and AI support are something they need if they work with any commercial printing houses, not only that but also font support. While Scribus/Inkscape are incredible, if the art department has a library of AI art or PageMaker stuff it would be a challenge to get it over to Linux equivalents and maybe a challenge to get their to press when there. (if not standard paper sizes and print formats)

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Re(1): Largo still loves Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 89.111.143.84] on October 01, 2007 09:07 PM
Next versions of both Scribus and Inkscape come with decent PDF/AI import

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500 clients?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.248.236.96] on September 22, 2007 04:23 AM
How does a "small" city government need 500 clients?

No mention of office software; are they using OpenOffice? If so, how is that working out?

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Re: 500 clients?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.17.124.172] on September 23, 2007 01:43 AM
They are using OOo last I heard. Largo also help fund the Word Perfect filters for OOo from what I remember.

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Largo still loves Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 216.46.133.10] on September 22, 2007 05:14 AM
I love stories like these. Makes me feel that the arguments I've been spouting for years are vindicated. One minor suggestion, Could you make a non-teckie version of this artical. One that describes the political, and business reasons they got into it in 2002, and then brings us up to date. It would be nice to have a business case to be able to point to.

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Re: Largo still loves Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 219.137.66.239] on December 16, 2007 04:31 AM
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Damn commies

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 86.137.49.29] on September 22, 2007 06:52 PM
This is a slippery slope. Not only does it take work away from our own hardworking, multi-billionaire monopolists, but it'll inevitably lead to things like adoption of the metric system and formulation of foreign policy in accordance with international law.

I fear for this great nation of ours.

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Re: Damn commies

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 70.164.45.99] on September 22, 2007 10:31 PM
:-D

OH, NO! We can't actually follow internationally accepted standards like the metric system that actually MAKE SENSE! What's wrong with you for even SUGGESTING this heretical thought? We're the UNITED STATES OF AMURRICA, don't you know that? I oughta drop a nukeular weapon on you for your blasphemy....

And you got it wrong anyway, it's not "damn commies" anymore, it's "damn turrurists." Please, get it straight from now on.

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Re: Damn commies

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 59.178.57.7] on September 24, 2007 06:51 AM
Is the original "damn commies" post a sarcastic post? If it's not then exposes itself for its evilness.

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Hey...where's the MCSE rant about how "Linux suxx0rz"?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 70.164.45.99] on September 22, 2007 10:35 PM
Hey, there's something missing here...we don't have an MCSE-type or similar showing up to admonish us to "get the FUD". What's going on here? Have they all temporarily crawled under their rock because SCO's going kablooey? Where's Rob Underling or Boreen O'BlahBlah to astroturf? I miss their antics....

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Largo still loves Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 68.59.156.142] on September 22, 2007 11:50 PM
Don't worry too much for M$ though. Largo still has need of Windows and MSSQL and perhaps a few other MS related products. Their Police Department is as of 2006 a SunGard OSSI software agency. This is a M$ based product with a MSSQL back end. They looked hard for a linux or other thin client solution but settled for the OSSI product. Not much, if anything usable, in the way of Linux public safety applications. By public safety apps I mean primarily; Records Management, Mobile Field Reporting and Query, and CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch.)

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Re: Largo still loves Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 70.190.34.85] on September 23, 2007 03:22 AM
Some of the best RMS/MFR/CAD/etc... Public Safety applications are based primarily on Solaris, and run just fine on Linux with a little vendor support (which they do offer). Yes, many of these applications are MS based, but the largest and most capable products in this space are Solaris based.

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Largo still loves Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 61.66.11.143] on September 23, 2007 06:33 AM
My father, before he died, was getting threatening letters from Redmond regarding the authenticity of his computer software. He lived in Largo, and bought a used computer for his work. The computer came with an operating system. This was around 2002. I wonder if anyone else got these same letters.

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Project documentation? wiki?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.212.49.168] on September 23, 2007 11:33 AM
It would be nice if guys at Largo would somehow document what and how they do. As well as problems they encounter - and how they solve them.

It's a good chance few of us are getting - to build infrastructure from ground up to be Linux-based. It's not always easy to work with Windows users, who suddenly start demanding workarounds for their Windows applications which are obviously not implemented in Linux servers.

I have bunch of question I would have wanted to ask. If the people at Largo would have built-up some wiki containing the project and deployment details, that would be just great.

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Largo still loves Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 64.142.51.19] on September 24, 2007 05:15 AM
These kinds of articles are great, the more details about Linux desktop deployment in the business, the better.

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Largo still loves Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.146.251.29] on September 24, 2007 12:43 PM
Thanks for very interesting article. Keep up the good work. Regards
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Enterprise Printing

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 64.241.37.140] on September 25, 2007 01:47 AM
The O'Reilly book "Network Printing" described a way to administer a large number of geographically-dispersed printers with a couple of people.

The solution they put together several years ago would be outmoded now, but the ideas behind it would probably be useful here.

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GNOME desktop on thin clients?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 134.100.6.5] on September 28, 2007 03:27 PM
From me, thanks for the nice article as well! I just wonder why there is a GNOME desktop on the thin clients when at the same time, it is said that all user applications run from the central server. Rudimentary Debian, X11, of course, but GNOME desktop? Or are these just some rudimentary things in order to increase the remote applications' performance?

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Largo still loves Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 89.61.253.45] on October 09, 2007 10:35 AM
Thank you for this interesting article
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chat

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 88.242.169.117] on November 30, 2007 09:05 PM
Cleaned up
[Modified by: Anonymous on December 10, 2007 09:19 PM]

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Largo still loves Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 88.236.106.118] on December 09, 2007 09:59 PM
Cleaned up

[Modified by: Anonymous on December 10, 2007 09:18 PM]

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Re: Largo still loves Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 88.236.106.118] on December 09, 2007 10:13 PM
thkan you

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Largo still loves Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 85.103.3.159] on December 10, 2007 10:18 AM
Cleaned up
[Modified by: Anonymous on December 10, 2007 09:18 PM]

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