Linux Access in State and Local Government, Part III
K12 Linux may be the mecca of open-source success. As school districts represent a part of state and local government, one has to wonder how their many case studies are practically unknown. As other sectors of state and local governments struggle with budget deficits, political pressure and uncertainty, Linux school projects represent tangible progress and offer empirical evidence of success.
If one wanted to find information about the use of Linux in state government, where would one go? The first thought would be an Internet search engine. Any combination of search terms for state government, though, return a chaotic mess.
If one wants to find information about Linux in schools, a search engine would take you to cyber foundries such as SchoolForge. Once there, you would find the information, tools and materials necessary to forge or make a school and all its parts. If such sites existed for government, we could see more tangible progress and empirical evidence of success for the entire Open Source community.
State and local governments need software applications for numerous tasks, including administration, finance, public works, law enforcement, courts, regulatory compliance, record management, facilities and transportation. The catalog of application requirements might surprise even the most sophisticated consultants. In most government units, facilities exist for services and communication between 1) government and citizens, 2) government and businesses and 3) government and other governments.
To gain perspective on the broad scope and complexity of government processes, you can use the federal Management Agenda Document. Start at section 5.3 in the document's appendix and continue toward the end. From these pages, you can get an idea of the applications required to run at the federal level. Scale each of those down to the state, county and city levels, and the functional requirements still remain large. For example, consider a searchable land deed database at the county level. Add a marriage database and another one for divorces, one for driving infractions, one for birth certificates and another for tax assessments, and you can begin to understand the scope.
Let's change the picture for a moment; imagine a web site for government applications. Instead of building one from scratch, we can put up a LAMP application for each government function that others can download. Suddenly, you have a resource center. If someone needs a 911-call center application, they probably could choose from several.
In the K12Linux domain, if you need an application, you probably would stop at SchoolForge and then click the link to the Seul/Edu Educational Application Index to discover a repository of applications. Here you can find 80 administrative applications that one can download, plus 98 language programs and more. The site contains 612 open-source applications in 23 categories, such as courseware, math and library applications. And that's only one of several K12Linux web sites.
Imagine such a collection of government software somewhere. If we added a news site and resource center, a mailing list and Faq-O-Matic, we would create a community of interest. Linux people already know what community-of-interest web sites accomplish.
If you haven't looked at the K12 web sites, you might have a difficult time visualizing how much Linux has grown. You should want to dig deeply into the sites, as they provide rich content. To begin, the SchoolForge members' page provides an impressive list of people working in the Linux school projects.
Once you've visited this SchoolForge site, you might have a confusing moment when you visit the other Schoolforge site. The URLs are different, but the names have only a slight difference. The second site's full name is Schoolforge News and Journal; notice the lowercase f in this name. The SchoolForge site appears to exist in New York state, and the registrant is Teachers Internet Pages. The Schoolforge site appears to be based in Canada under the name of members.iteachnet.org. The two sites do share content.
One has to wonder if Northwest school districts took ostrich lessons; they must represent the biggest secret in the Linux community. If their successes occurred in New York, Microsoft would be fighting for 5% of the PC desktop share.
In Portland, Oregon Riverdale School began using Linux servers in 1995. In turn, it influenced a number of other Oregon schools to migrate to Linux. I learned of Riverdale whiling leading an article about Linux migration for Centennial Schools, in late 1999.
We discovered that several large districts in Oregon followed Riverdale's example. Those districts include Beaverton Schools, the Multnomah County ESD, Linn-Benton-Lincoln ESD, Lane ESD, Parkrose Schools, Portland Public Schools, Tigard-Tualatin Schools and Umatilla-Morrow ESD. In a recent survey conducted by the North West Regional Educational Laboratory, 79% of the sixty-four educational agencies responding used Linux as a server operating system.
During the Centennial migration, we also learned of a case involving the Multnomah County Education Service District (MESD). MESD provides Internet connectivity for seven school serving 100,000 students in Multnomah County, Oregon. MESD network administrators tested free software in 1998. They installed Linux web proxy servers, realized savings from reduced bandwidth utilization and had a positive ROI within six months. Even with costs of bandwidth dropping since 1998, MESD continues to save $10,000 annually.
MESD also replaced back office services with Linux. The replacement applications included file, print, web, mail and domain name services. The district report savings of $150,000 annually due to reductions in software licenses, maintenance and reduced personnel.
In addition, MESD migrated to an open-source web filtering solution called SquidGuard and added a Linux firewall, for savings of over $15,000 per year. Estimated overall savings run about $2 per student, or $200,000.
In Texas, Senator Carona would have loved to show the legislature the kind of success in Texas school districts that was experienced in the Northwest. When Oregon tried to pass open-source legislation, it had support from special interest groups for open-source software, plus the schools' track records.
Consider, then, that Oregon's information technology group registered opposition to this open-source bill. Also consider that the Speaker of the House killed the bill. We must not forget that open-source software does not provide soft dollars for politicians.
In short, Linux lacks a track record for open-source software in government. The legislature in Oregon resembles most states in the country. If Linux for government had the organization of the K12 projects, perhaps Oregon could not have dismissed the open source bill so easily, if at all.
The Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) is looking to become the first state IT department to fully embrace open-source software. In its desire to move forward, it can look to K12Linux for a “killer app”.
Of any available knowledge worker technology, the K12 Linux Terminal Server Project possesses the most potential for altering the IT landscape. According to Paul Nelson, one of the creators of the project, over 15,000 schools and businesses around the world have downloaded the software since its release in 2001. Although 15,000 downloads is impressive, it represents only a tiny fraction of the potential audience.
K12LTSP bases itself on Red Hat Linux and the LTSP terminal server packages. The current version, 3.1.0, uses Red Hat 9.0 with updates as the base distribution. K12LTSP 3.1.0 comes in a three CD-set and contains software for creating a file server, terminal server or single workstation. Did I mention it's free?
An impressive case study exists on the K12LTSP web site, featuring the aforementioned Riverdale High School. Riverdale runs version 3.0 of K12LTSP. The school installed eighty diskless workstations and four application servers, with an average cost of $500. Riverdale reported a savings of 50% over the cost of traditional hardware alone, not including software.
As many readers know, government clients have a healthy appetite for thin client technology. And, in many businesses, I see Compaq T30 Evo thin clients struggling for air while connected to Windows 2000 terminal servers. Therefore, Linux solutions have much appeal because they can run Windows applications if necessary.
The story on thin clients includes lower cost of IT management, because administrators can focus on a few servers instead of thousands of PCs across hundreds of miles. They also provide terminal emulation for connecting directly to legacy systems and graphical applications. Finally, one runs into trouble attempting to deny the total costs of ownership benefits.
The city of Largo, Florida finished its terminal server project with diskless workstations in April 2002. The city runs server-based Linux applications on thin-client hardware to save money, minimize support headaches and ease IT budgeting. Largo's systems administrator considered PCs too expensive and management intensive. He did not see them meeting the appropriate level of fiscal responsibility in government. When the time came to migrate from older terminals, the city decided to set up a graphical environment using thin clients.
Largo's 900 city employees have user accounts on a network of 400 Explora 451 thin clients from Network Computing Devices Inc. On the server side, two Compaq servers—a 933MHz dual-processor ML370 and a 1GHz dual-processor ML350—run Red Hat Linux and support about 220 concurrent users. Largo estimates that using Linux saves the city at least $1 million a year in hardware, software licensing, maintenance and staff costs.
In Houston, thin client terminals have become the prevalent platform for knowledge workers. Last week, I reported that Houston went with the SimDesk productivity suite running over Web-enabled protocols. I forgot to mention the thin client terminals.
Demand for thin clients and terminal servers is good news for Linux enthusiasts. With the move toward web service applications and Microsoft's .NET framework, Linux competes nicely. Demand already exists for Linux commercial vendors, ISVs and consultants.
One can only hope that Linux advocates organize government web sites similar to the K12 sites we discussed above. While an associate of mine has written that Texas is ground zero for Linux adoption in government, I notice the DIR already has established a software sharing database. It has received the following testimonial:
The Automobile Theft Prevention Authority at the Texas Department of Transportation was seeking a system to track and monitor Grant Applications to replace an existing system that no longer worked or met their needs. Through GovernmentDomain.com they were able to re-deploy the Grant Tracking System which had previously been developed with state funds at the office of the Governor. This approach saved them time and money and was able to be implemented quickly. The only resource required by the users at TxDOT to implement the system was time from one developer. Once the user requirements for slight alterations to the system were identified, they were able to deploy the system in a couple of months.
I must say the functionality in the system was flexible and extensive compared to what we had, and the Automobile Theft Prevention Authority is very pleased with the benefits of implementing this system.
Bob Brown - Information Systems Division Programmer/Analyst
I hope this concept sets a precedent, and we all can look forward to cooperation among the states. Texas has made a start and that's a good thing. Now, let's all get to work.
The SEUL/Edu Educational Application Index is a directory of school-related open-source software.
The Debian Jr. Project has education-related software packaged for use with the Debian GNU/Linux operating system.
The LinuxForKids site/project promotes free software reviewing and rating available software, with a target audience of children under 10.
BlueEDU is a distribution of the Linux operating system focused on educational packages.
K12LTSP, the K-12 Linux Terminal Server Project, is an easy to install, Linux-based terminal server package designed for schools.
The KDE Edutainment Project aims to create free educational software based on KDE, the K Desktop Environment.
The Free Software Foundation hosts the Savannah software development foundry. Savannah equates to SourceForge with one difference: it's for free software projects. It helps developers by offering stable network and software resources needed to spread their free software and forming a community around each project.
OFSET's Freeduc maintains an index of educational free software.
Tom Adelstein works as a Linux consultant in Dallas, Texas. His current interest lies in the field of web services, security and supporting Linux deployments.