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State Government Leads the Way with LAMP

An online database using open source tools

Jim Willis, director of e-Government Services for the Rhode Island Office of the Secretary of State, was a consultant for the state when he implemented an online database using open source tools. The ability to use open source technologies was a condition of his hiring, and the state has benefited as a result of his leadership.

Putting Linux in Plain View

The first project Willis undertook was an online rules and regulations database available to the public and other government agencies. It was the proof that open source tools could deliver value for less. The whole project was delivered for $40,000 with Willis working alone part time for four months. Because the new online database faced the public, it was the perfect test for open source value.

Willis was promoted to director of e-Government after the next election of a new Secretary of State, and he took on the role of advising other agencies on the use of open source. A high-level member of the new secretary's staff was well versed in open source, and encouraged a more open attitude toward Willis' proposals. A trend of working to improve efficiency in IT has also worked in favor of open source adoption.

The LAMP Development Model

A major trend has emerged in Internet development utilizing four open source tools or platforms: Linux for the operating system; Apache for the Web server; MySQL for the database; and PHP, Perl, or Python for the custom code (LAMP). Willis used these tools for the rules and regulations database and was able to complete the project in less time than other development models would have allowed.

Willis has been consistently pleased with the performance of the MySQL database. It is running on a Dell server with Red Hat preinstalled, with almost perfect uptime. MySQL was also included in the Red Hat installation. Agencies use a custom PHP form to upload their regulation files in PDF format. Willis was already familiar with PHP, so it was a natural choice. Some freely available Perl code was adapted to provide certain functions as well, but the vast majority of development occurred using PHP.

A big advantage of open source is that help is easier to find. Willis recommends developing staff who are able to find the solutions to problems because no one has memorized how to handle every situation. You just have to know where to look. "I've called Red Hat for support just once, when I was getting started. Google is really the first line of support."

Saving Time Is More Important Than Saving Money

After his initial success with the rules and regulations online database, Willis looked for other ways to use open source software. He started by replacing an Exchange server with Courier IMAP and QMail on Linux, and replacing Outlook with SquirrelMail, a Web-based e-mail client. Users were having trouble with Outlook, and his staff was spending too much time supporting it. Willis picked the e-mail system as a good migration candidate because he knew it would save both money and time. It took Willis' team two days to migrate the mail server. They saved money in licensing costs by replacing Windows and Microsoft Exchange, but the biggest benefit has been the free time to devote to other projects. Willis says that he saves between 6–10 hours per week of support time with the new system. The reliability of open source software on Linux is allowing him to pursue other projects that will benefit the public.

Cost is still an issue, of course. Before starting on any migration to open source, Willis does an informal analysis to find out how much it will save the state. In his case, it's sufficient justification to proceed.

Web Servers and Databases

The next step was to start migrating Web servers and database servers. Willis had several Microsoft IIS servers that needed to be upgraded. By now, his staff was familiar with Apache, so they used Linux and Apache as a replacement for Windows and IIS. There was one glitch, however. They had previously written Active Server Pages that needed to be converted to PHP and Perl.

According to Willis, when you have applications "write" code for you, rather than code by hand, it's hard to know later what you've done. This made it somewhat difficult to convert the applications. They tried some conversion tools, such as asp2php. It worked sometimes, but Willis found that it was easier to rewrite the applications. Most of them were just database query scripts, which were easy to rewrite, and took about 3–4 days per script. All of the servers that Willis' team has converted have paid for themselves already.

Advice for Other States

Now other states are asking Jim Willis for advice in adopting open source. His advice for getting started is to take on a small migration project first to prove to colleagues that it will work. "Don't pick something critical for the first project.

Pick a server that provides an important service, though, that people will be able to see in action."

He generally plans a migration when one of two things happen: he is tired of always supporting a problem system, or he needs to purchase an upgrade.

Open Source Software Utilized

The State of Rhode Island Secretary of State's office saves 6–10 hours per week of support time with a migration to Linux and a Web-based e-mail solution, instead of Microsoft Exchange and Outlook.

Open source products used are:

  • Red Hat Linux
  • Apache Web server
  • MySQL database
  • PHP Web scripting language
  • Courier IMAP, QMail
  • SquirrelMail

More Stories By Maria Winslow

Maria Winslow is the author of The Practical Manager's Guide to Open Source, available at and can be contacted at [email protected]

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