Linux solution in library’s good books

Windsor Public Library (WPL) has cut down on maintenance time and infrastructure costs by deploying a Linux-based solution that enables several workstations to operate simultaneously from a single shared computer box.

WPL, which opened its 10th branch in February, deployed about 200 Microsoft Corp. Windows desktops, mostly for staff use, in March of 2004.

But public computer access was a different story. Since 2000, patrons had been using thin client workstations at all branches — a setup that wasn’t working out too well, according to Marc Pillon, the library’s IT manager. “The initial thought at the time (of the thin-client deployment) was that we would deliver several applications off of two major servers and that they would serve 65 different terminals,” Pillon said.

Internet Explorer (IE) was the first application the library made available to patrons so they could access the online catalogue and surf the Web. But providing Web access posed some security issues, Pillon said. For example, when a person using one of the terminals would change the home page, occasionally to a “highly inappropriate” site, it would change the home page for all the other terminals and would require resetting. It took a lot of work to lock down the two servers to prevent that kind of access, and even after the library’s two IT staff members took appropriate security measures, incidents still occurred, he said.

IE’s stability and uptime were also difficult to maintain, Pillon said. Whenever IE was running on all 65 workstations, the servers’ performance would plummet. That eliminated any hopes of installing other applications.

“Internet Explorer doesn’t need many resources. But if we got (Microsoft) Word or other software that requires many resources, the concern was that it would affect all users across the network,” Pillon said.

Desiring to deliver more services, the library decided to replace the thin clients with a more robust system. Pillon’s boss had seen a demonstration of Userful Inc.’s 1-Box Desktop Multiplier solution at a conference and asked Pillon to contact the Calgary-based vendor to set up a demo of DiscoverStation, the library version of 1-Box, at WPL’s Central Branch.

According to Userful, 1-Box sits on a single PC, and by adding extra video cards to the PC, the software enables up to 10 users, each with their own keyboard, mouse and screen, to work simultaneously off of one computer box.

During the test phase, which started in December 2003, the public had a chance to use the system. WPL wasn’t sure how patrons would respond to a non-Windows environment, but Pillon said they quickly adapted. The Linux environment looks much like Windows — it has a start menu, a task bar and icons at the desktop to start OpenOffice and the other applications that come with DiscoverStation.

Pillon said there are some compatibility issues between OpenOffice 1.1 and Microsoft Office, mostly when it comes to document formatting. “But the amount of money that we are saving really makes that a small inconvenience, and the patrons are aware of some of those issues and they accept them.”

The purchase price of the original thin client solution was more than three times that of DiscoverStation, and with the elimination of the maintenance headaches associated with the previous terminals, those savings are even higher, Pillon said. DiscoverStation offered about 40 per cent savings compared to a PC solution.

Userful provides remote maintenance for a yearly fee. “My staff rarely have to deal with any issues — if there are any software upgrades or updates, or if any maintenance is required, Userful takes care of that,” Pillon said, adding that the low-maintenance nature of the system, which required no extra staff training, was probably one of the system’s most attractive benefits. Whereas library IT staff previously spent a total of 10 hours a week maintaining the terminals, they now spend only two hours on the DiscoverStation systems.

WPL now has 15 DiscoverStation PCs serving 80 terminals, with four to eight terminals running off of one PC. Deployment was simple, Pillon said — WPL’s IT staff just took the solution out of the box, plugged it in and turned it on. In contrast, deployment of the thin client solution required the help of IT staff from the City of Windsor. Implementation started in March 2004 and was finished in May. Since then, the library has enhanced its services, particularly in its Employment Centre, where patrons can bring in a resume on a floppy disk, make changes to it and print it out at the library.

Pillon said IT managers should be careful about implementing 1-Box if they have specific requirements for Microsoft software, such as children’s games that only run on Windows. WPL has a few PC stations with Microsoft Office in case a patron needs it, and some of the library’s Children’s Centres, which offer Windows-only educational games, also have PC solutions in place.

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