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Linux Thin Clients Do the Job

For the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Linux makes life easier

When the North Carolina Cooperative Extension needed to overhaul the computer system for 1,200 users in multiple remote locations, systems programmer administrator Janyne Kizer found that Linux on thin clients was the best solution.

The North Carolina Cooperative Extension is a joint effort between the state of North Carolina, most of the state's 100 counties, and NC State University. Each participating county has an office that accesses the system, which serves a network of agricultural support staff. 4-H agents, state agricultural agents, plant pathologists, etymologists, and other staff make use of the network to assist farmers with agricultural management. Ninety servers are spread around the state to support 1,200 users, with some as far as six hours from the IT support staff's location.

From Solaris to Problems with a Windows Test Deployment

The decision to use thin clients had been made long ago, since the Extension had been using Solaris on thin clients from NCD. When it was time for a large-scale upgrade, the original plan was to switch to Windows terminal servers. But to make Windows terminal servers work, many of the workstations would have to be upgraded, making the move more costly than expected. The team started the process anyway, and set up 10 Windows servers as a pilot.

The servers were set up to synchronize their Active Directory settings, but problems were encountered. Many of the counties still had low-bandwidth connections, and because the servers had trouble synchronizing under those conditions, there were some days when some users couldn't log in at all. Eventually, it became clear that a Windows deployment wouldn't work within the limitations of the available network speed and current number of IT staff. The team found that the network infrastructure simply wasn't adequate to support Windows terminal servers. With state and local government budget constraints, upgrading the networking wasn't an option. According to Rhonda Conlon, director of Extension Information Technology at NCSU, the network cost alone to upgrade to T-1 speeds would have been nearly $65,000 per month. So when the team turned to Linux, it wasn't primarily because of the cost savings of software licensing. They were simply looking for a solution that would work within their existing environment so they wouldn't have to upgrade the network.

Linux Thin Clients Did the Job

With Unix experience, it was natural to turn to Linux. Kizer and her staff decided to test Linux terminal servers on the existing thin-client systems. If it worked, then they would deploy Linux for the whole system. They chose Red Hat from a short list of about three distributions. One factor was that Red Hat was based in their home state, and they liked the idea of using a North Carolina company. There was also a campus computing environment at NCSU already using Red Hat, and they wanted to take advantage of existing expertise.

They put together the basic applications that users would need, then put out some beta test servers. They had the first site up within six weeks. Next, they installed Linux servers at five sites. Everything worked just as they needed, so they deployed a total of 90 servers to complete the overhaul.

The thin-client hardware, some of it seven years old, was easily reused with minor memory upgrades. Red Hat was chosen as the distribution provider, along with StarOffice, BlueFish (HTML editor), GAIM (AOL-compatible instant messenger client), Mozilla for Web browsing and e-mail, the Netit text editor, and GIMP (a Photoshop-like program).

Kizer tried to maintain continuity wherever possible, so as not to change everything all at once. Users were already familiar with Netscape browsing and e-mail, for example, so going to Mozilla was easy for them. The Extension purchased a support contract for StarOffice.

Kizer said, "We are a very small department, with one system administrator, two support people, and two part-time undergraduates working the help desk. We are able to handle 90 remote servers and 1,200 users. We would have needed many more people to handle a Windows deployment, but we couldn't hire people because of budget constraints. Linux solved a lot of problems for us."

As Conlon says, "We were willing to spend the money on Windows, but we couldn't make it work with the network infrastructure. When we factored in other things such as additional support costs, hardware upgrades, etc., then it was clear that we needed to go with Linux." In the end, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension enjoyed significant savings. Conlon's estimate of the initial license savings is about $368,000. The ongoing license savings is about $150,000 per year.

User Acceptance

User acceptance has been a bit of an issue, but Kizer believes some of it is simply the resistance to change that is common in government environments. "A user recently got upset that a file he created at home in Microsoft Word wouldn't open in StarOffice. When we looked at it, we found that it wouldn't open in Word, either. Because the software was new to him, he was quick to blame StarOffice, when the problem was really a corrupt file." She has found that users will sometimes complain in a general way about their new systems, but when asked what work-related tasks they are unable to do, they don't have specific complaints.

End users receive training from their local office technology liaison and from several trainers employed by the state. The IT staff gave a series of train-the-trainer sessions, and the training staff did the rest. The local technology liaisons also help users with issues. None of the IT staff has received any formal training in Linux.

Support Issues

The only real problem uncovered after deployment of the new system was solved in house. When some remote sites ran into problems printing from an envelope feed, Kizer uncovered the source of the problem as an incomplete printer driver. Her team solved the problem themselves by fixing the driver, and submitted it the Linux community. You don't have to be an expert Linux kernel hacker to improve the operating system. With access to the source code, you can make changes to meet your requirements, and bug fixes will benefit the community at large.

The free support has been the best available for Kizer's team, but they have also purchased support from more than one open source vendor. Her strategy in keeping current on technical issues is to read technical books and magazines, and become active on the local Linux User Groups lists. Kizer is lucky to have two groups nearby with plenty of expertise - NC State has one on-campus, and there is also a very active group nearby in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

'My Life Is Easier Now'

Kizer's advice to other technical managers thinking of migrating to a Linux thin-client solution is to go ahead and do it if you can. "It just makes your life a lot easier. It's super easy to support, with great disaster recovery. When we started this project, we typically had an average of 100 problem tickets open at any given time. Now that we have made the switch, we have under 25 open tickets at any given time. We probably spend as much time supporting the 100 on-site Windows users as we do the 1,200 offsite users. The system is very stable."

Open Source Software Utilized
The North Carolina Cooperative Extension provides Linux desktops on diskless thin-client hardware with all the office basics for 1,200 remote users scattered around the state.

Open source products used are:

  • Red Hat Linux on diskless workstations
  • Mozilla for Web browsing and e-mail
  • StarOffice
  • BlueFish for HTML creation
  • GAIM for instant messaging
  • GIMP for image editing
  • Netit for basic HTML editing in plain text

More Stories By Maria Winslow

Maria Winslow is the author of The Practical Manager's Guide to Open Source, available at http://www.lulu.com/practicalGuide and can be contacted at [email protected]

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