Homewood SUSE desktop migration cuts costs

The library of a Guelph, Ont.-based mental health and addiction treatment centre has solved its IT budget constraints by replacing its Windows operating system with multiple workstations that run on a single Linux PC – effectively avoiding the cost of deploying energy and space-consumptive single-user desktops.

Homewood Health Care, with the help of Edmonton, Alta.-based Novell partner Omni Technology Solutions Inc., deployed Desktop Multiplier for SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktops (SLED) powered by Userful, the Calgary, Alta.-based provider of the technology.

Homewood was looking to use recently obtained funding to replace the old Windows NT 4 systems with eight Windows XP workstations, but quickly realized that hardware, operating system and licence costs overshot its budget of $11,000.

The Desktop Multiplier for SLED was ideal given the total tab of $6,000 for two computers, including licences, that would run eight workstations, said Chris Giles, network analyst of information services at Homewood.

“[Librarian staff] wanted us to save money, magically cut $4,000 or $5,000 out of the bill, and the only way to do that was this solution.”

Despite the shift to a new technology platform, staff and patients have easily adapted, and in fact, have experienced better system performance, said Giles. Running demos and launching an initial pilot phase certainly eased the transition, as well.

Giles, who about a couple of times a week made IT support calls to the library to fix operating system issues, observed “considerably less visits” that now centre around “valid questions about using resources they have access to. That’s a nice change.”

Besides cost savings, running multiple workstations from one system has freed up space in the library, said Giles.

The easy transition to the new setup is due, in part, to the fact that multiple workstations running on one system is transparent to the user, said Trevor Poapst, director of global marketing & channel strategy at Omni. “In most cases, users don’t even realize that they’re sharing a single PC.”

Running pilots to assess usability and to ensure requirements are being met are a great way to ease the initial apprehension that may exist prior to shifting to a new operating system, said Poapst.

Omni also partnered with hardware OEM partners to provide a certified hardware bundle to customers, making deployment smooth. “That’s a solution where everything comes preinstalled, preconfigured, and that takes a lot of the guess work out of migrating to Linux for organizations.”

The technology also allows organizations to leverage their existing infrastructure – conduit, wiring, Internet drops, said Poapst, “as opposed to having sufficient infrastructure to support separate single user desktops.”

Building on the success of the library system overhaul, Giles said Homewood is discussing other areas within the facility that might benefit from the Desktop Multiplier, such as the patient lounge to help residents better communicate with family and friends. They’re also looking at installing systems for “low-functioning users” with rudimentary needs like a browser and word processor.

Running multiple workstations on a Linux operating system is great for organizations under IT budget and support constraints, or for those facing the reality that the workload may not necessitate a full-blown PC, said Ross Chevalier, CIO/CTO of Toronto, Ont.-based Novell Canada Ltd.

Also, he said Omni’s offering allows customers to tap into the technology built into the Enterprise Linux Desktop to provide “some level of controllability, or what we would call lock-down to simplify the user experience and to prevent them from getting into places where inadvertent changes can sometimes cause problems.”

Technology like Desktop Multiplier allows everyone to share the same equipment but, in fact, have their own account, said Vince Londini, research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group, “which is something that mainframes have been doing for decades so it’s taking that approach and bringing it to a PC box.”

There is certainly a market for technology like Desktop Multiplier among very small businesses looking to multiply less than 10 PCs and who have a limited IT staff, said Londini.

And the shift from a Windows to Linux platform is not a difficult one for the user considering SUSE Linux, he said, has a decent user interface. “The end user will have to learn a few things differently, [but] the burden falls more to how IT is going to support this.”

But with further expansion, he thinks virtualization technology may be a more viable solution given its flexibility. “I’m thinking this could be useful for very small businesses. For anyone who wants to do this over long distances or wants to do this for more than a dozen PCs, there are better solutions available that are also free in terms of the software acquisition costs.”

Businesses that don’t choose the virtualization route may fear the learning curve or are merely looking to take advantage of existing hardware, said Londini.

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