Linux in Government: Stanislaus County Does Linux with a Best Practices Slant

by Tom Adelstein

If you call the Stanislaus County administrative offices and ask for Richard Robinson, be sure to specify that you want to speak with the director of strategic business technology. If not, you most likely will get the county's CEO, who has the same name. When you reach the technology director, you will meet a former Accenture (Anderson Consulting) professional steeped in high-level consulting methodologies. In two years, he's reduced costs in his department by 30-65%, depending on how you want to figure it, by using Linux and open-source technologies. According to Robinson, he's only getting started.

"In 2002, about two percent of the county's computer servers were Linux", Robinson recently told reporters from the Modesto Bee. "This year, about one-quarter of the servers are Linux. That number is expected to increase to more than one-third by next year." Robinson also said that "he expects the county will save money in the long run by moving to Linux because it won't have to pay software licenses every year, which nickel and dime you to death and can be very costly".

After reading this article, I made a call to Stanislaus County and found Robinson. He gave me another number to a VoIP phone, and soon we starting talking about Linux and saving taxpayers money. After a few minutes, I realized Stanislaus had cornered a pro.

Welcome to a High-Tech County

A couple of years ago, meeting government officials interested in Linux surprised me. Recently, the incidence of inquires has become somewhat commonplace, especially with initiatives being introduced in states such as Massachusetts, Virginia, Mississippi, Rhode Island and Utah. People in government work want to know how they can join the march to open-source.

Even with this flurry of new activity, I hadn't come across a government organization with the sophistication of Stanislaus County--welcome to a well-run, model county government. I personally wish government people in Dallas County, Texas, would take a look at how Robinson and his colleagues do business.

If you make it to the Stanislaus County Web site and dig around, you'll find some interesting business technology. This county has a vision, mission and values. It sounds like an MBA program in action. But according to the communities, these people walk the talk. According to the Web site, the Board of Supervisors have fashioned some priorities, including:

  • Ensuring a safe, healthy community.

  • Facilitating economic development.

  • Delivering excellent community services.

  • Promoting efficient government operations.

  • Achieving multi-jurisdictional cooperation.

  • Providing model community leadership.

The board also created a vision of "a county that is respected for its service in the community and is known as the best in America". In line with its vision, the board established a mission that states, "Stanislaus County serves the public interest by promoting public health, safety, welfare and the local economy in an efficient cost-effective manner." Finally, the board puts its values up for all to see. "We:

  • respect each other.

  • partner with our customers.

  • encourage ideas.

  • focus on prevention.

  • create leaders.

  • take pride in our work.

  • share our learning.

Imagine these values in action, and it's not surprising that this organization has turned to a commodity hardware platform and deployed Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Strategic Government in Action

Although Robinson and I discussed the strides made in his department, I also found this information on the county's Web site. That's something rarely seen in the US; it certainly does not happen where I reside.

The Strategic Business Technology (SBT) division provides information technology services and support for all county departments and divisions. These services include but are not limited to Help Desk, desktop support, financial and payroll system support, shared countywide information technology infrastructure support, email hosting services, wide area network support, local area network support, internet services, application integration/development, electronic document management services (EDM), geographical information systems services (GIS), county website support and technology/business support.

This past year SBT delivered the ability to provide real-time streaming audio and video broadcast through the internet and the intranet, a new Check Reconciliation application for the County Treasurer, a GIS polling location site application for the Clerk Recorder, a GIS application, with the addition of (20) new layers, for the Children and Families First Commission, as well as a new county website. SBT has also provided substantial "in-house" technology training for the county in the areas of operation systems and architectures, telecommunications, programming languages and end user applications.

Planning the Right Way

During our discussion, I asked Robinson for some specifics about how the county decided to move to Linux. "The county made the case", he told me. "They wanted a strategic plan for IT that specifically spelled out change. They wanted to get away from the mainframe, lower costs and maintain a proficient staff capable of working independent of vendors. In other words, no vendor lock-in. That led us specifically to Linux and open source. We decided to use open source Java tools deployed on Linux. Our primary back-end is JBoss."

Additionally, Robinson decided to use a train-the-trainer approach to fulfill the county's requirement for staff proficiency. He selected a core team and went with them to get the training they needed. They then came back and built a series of Linux courses for county employees. Two of the courses include:

Linux/ICJIS and Linux Fundamentals for Systems Administrators and Support Staff

The Linux/ICJIS training segment will cover a set of Linux-related topics related to Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) applications, and to the ICJIS Sheriff (ICJIS.SD), District Attorney (ICJIS.DA), and Public Defender (ICJIS.PD) applications in particular. Linux is an extremely broad topic, but there are a number of ICJIS platform touchpoints with Linux operating system facilities that require specific treatment. The training segment will cover some or all of the following: - Network Time Protocol (NTP) and cross-site time synchronization. - Network architecture for deployment and ongoing ICJIS application development. - Linux accounts and permissions. - SMB filesystem. - ICJIS application deployment hardware configuration - JBoss application server deployment overview. - Remote access for ongoing ICJIS development and maintenance. - Oracle 9i deployment overview, including backup considerations. - External interface requirements, including Web services interfaces. - Application startup, re-start, and performance monitoring. Note: This is not ICJIS application end-user or business administrator training, but an overview of ICJIS topics specific to Linux deployment.

Linux Administration -- Intermediate

During the course of this training students will work in a hands-on environment, delving deeper into the essentials of Linux administration.. SBT laptops running RedHat 7.3 and 9 will be provided. Copies of slides used in training will be provided. Lesson I - Return to the command line Additional system commands, utilities Advanced Package Management Shell scripting revisited Red Hat 7.3 > 9 differences Lesson II - System Administration System processes and Job Control Mounting file systems File permissions, advanced topics User roles SSH, scp, RSA authentication Lesson III - Advanced Networking Linux as a Windows Server Samba Linux as a DHCP Server dhcpd Linux as a DNS Server -- named Lesson IV - Advanced Security System Hardening Firewalling Logging Prerequisites: Linux Administration Essentials or equivalent Linux administration training or experience. Intended Audience: Department system/network administrators and support staff.

As you might notice, Stanislaus isn't paying lip service to its Linux and open-source initiative. The above material represents some serious training for serious people.

What's Next

As Robinson and I discussed Stanislaus County's other accomplishments, such as the server consolidation to Linux and the migration of major law enforcement applications, he said his next initiatives involved finding a Linux desktop and moving the eGovernment Web sites to Apache on Linux. Currently, he's doing pilots for both projects.

Stanislaus County has taken an intelligent approach to achieving its strategic IT plan. The county began in the back office and systematically has moved on to areas with the highest return on investment. I couldn't have done a better job myself, and I don't know anyone else who could have either. Kudos!

Tom Adelstein lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Yvonne, and works as a Linux and open-source software consultant locally and nationally. He's the co-author of the book Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop, published by O'Reilly and Associates. Tom has written numerous articles on Linux technical and marketing issues as a guest editor for a variety of publications. His latest venture has him working as the webmaster of

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