City rolls out desktop Linux

When the City of Toronto’s Children’s Services Division (CSD) recently decided to migrate 450 of its PCs over to Linux client workstations, it really didn’t raise a lot of eyebrows. According to Jody McConkey, an IT configuration specialist at CSD, the municipal organization has always garnered a rep for running against the pack.

“We’re sort of like the black sheep of the city,” McConkey said. “We’ve never gone with the corporate standard for anything we’ve done.”

The bottom line, according to McConkey, is that with 62 branches, a main office and remote locations including 58 daycare centres, it didn’t make sense from a cost perspective to buy and maintain traditional PCs. The CSD had a total computer/IT budget of approximately $2 million – small compared to other city departments – and there were escalating costs involved in service and support as old PCs were nearing the end of their lifecycle, McConkey said.

CSD looked into acquiring PCs with Microsoft Corp.’s Windows XP but found that cost-prohibitive. “It was about $1,600 (each) to buy a PC and (a) couple hundred to license XP,” McConkey said. The division also looked at new Neo PCs, which were essentially running a stripped down version of Red Hat Inc. In the end, CSD built its own thin clients.

It cost $250 a pop, noted McConkey – all of the client workstations are diskless PCs running a customized “live” CD-ROM-based Linux desktop and feature a modified version of Red Hat 7.3.

“There’s no moving parts…nothing to break down,” McConkey said. “Everything is centrally looked after – we run VNC (virtual network computing) to go into the boxes, everything goes into a central server for home directory, and with no hard drive to bugger it up.”

Each PC has a station ID, which is entered when the system is booted, giving users access to data. The ID also sets the proper IP address for the station – after inputting a username and password, the user is simultaneously authenticated to all the apps and data servers on the network. With the back-end applications and data all residing on varied servers for specific tasks, McConkey noted that workstations are typically only rebooted when moving to a new CD-ROM system configuration. From the front end, users don’t see a difference and are still able to run applications such as MS Office, McConkey said.

In the future, the department plans to decommission an IBM Sequent Server and deploy an additional Sun V480 server to enable faster access to its Oracle applications and save $40,000 a year in support costs. According to CSD, these funds will be used to buy more Sun equipment, notably a 327GB Sun StorEdge Array to provide data storage and management services. “We’ve got five people in our systems unit to support 450 users and that’s it,” McConkey said. “Meanwhile, our licence for Linux is nothing – we do our own support and we’re not concerned about running into problems. And if there is a problem with kernels or drivers, with the open source community, there’s a billion users that have run into the problem already, rather than running to Microsoft for a patch.”

The deployment in place at CSD is a success story for Linux on the desktop, said Chris Heaven, president of BeONix Technologies, a Linux solutions provider. The Belleville, Ont.-based BeONix provided the workstation configuration in the form of “quasi thin clients,” the application and data server deployment, and the published applications (Java, Oracle, StarOffice, rdesktop).

“The upside that has occurred at CSD is that by reducing maintenance at the desktop…they could save a lot of money in human resources,” Heaven said, adding this isn’t about touting a specific OS, it’s about solving a specific business problem and reducing costs.

The opportunity to promote this architecture within other City of Toronto departments is there, Heaven said.

McConkey is trying to do his part. “We’re trying to spread that gospel because we know the other divisions,” he said, adding the City is currently paying “massive dollars” for contracts, leases and support. “I don’t understand how any department couldn’t make a Linux-based solution work because of the fact that it’s open source, it’s so reliable and sturdy and you can manage it centrally,” McConkey said.