Thin Linux clients deliver Internet to library patrons

A Connecticut public library shaved thousands off its IT budget using a Linux thin-client implementation to bring Internet access and search capabilities to its patrons.

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Where would you look to find Linux in the library? Under computer science or operating systems, perhaps? If you're at the Otis Library in Norwich, Conn., you would need look no further than the search terminal right in front of you.

The library is using Linux thin clients in a setup delivered by systems integrator Open-PC of Chelsea, Mass. The benefit of this arrangement is twofold: Not only did it allow the library to deliver much-needed Internet access to its patrons inexpensively; it also made librarians' lives easier.

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According to Cornell McNair, the library's IT Manager, limited Internet resources necessitated the use of what he called "time-out software." "Staff would have to get up and put in a password. Once a week, we'd have to change the password," he said.

Open-PC was able to write code that allowed the library to automate this system. Tom Curl, Open-PC director of research and development, said that librarians "don't like to be PC cops" and tend to be introverted and non-confrontational. The automated system allows librarians to keep their noses in their books.

At the same time, the new system keeps library patrons from waiting in long lines to use a computer. Prior to the implementation, the library had only seven computers for public use. McNair said that there just weren't enough computers to keep up with the demand for Internet access.

McNair said the library had considered a Windows turnkey reservation system on Dell computers that, according to Open-PC's estimates, would have cost them roughly $1,200 a seat, not counting anticipated Windows licensing and upgrade fees. "We had a big budget cutback and that went out the window," McNair said. The cost of comparable thin clients is about $450 per seat, not including monitors.

While $1,200 a seat might not sound like an incredible expenditure for an enterprise, for a public library it is virtually unthinkable. Paul Ballantine, President and CEO of Open-PC, explained that in addition to having a tiny IT budget, most public libraries are understaffed.

With limited resources, the library had to get resourceful. Using its existing machines rather than buying new ones, the library turned its old PCs -- 400 and 700 MHz Pentium boxes -- into thin clients by switching their hard drives with bootable ROM drives.

Curl said Open-PC to provided only four new thin client machines because the library was able to convert the rest of its computers. However, Curl said that his company usually discourages converting old PCs because doing so eliminates many of the advantages of thin clients.

The thin clients (both the new boxes and the converted PCs) are connected to a central terminal server running K12LTSP, with mirrored drives for reliability. K12LTSP is based on Red Hat Linux and the Linux Terminal Server Project, and it was designed for educational use.

Despite being a kind of beta site for Open PC, the library's transition was surprisingly smooth. "There were a few bugs they were working through, but for the most part it went fairly well," McNair said. "The public went from Windows to Linux and surprisingly, there weren't very many problems with that."

Library patrons were able to adapt to using OpenOffice, instead of Microsoft Office, very quickly. McNair said, "They sort of miss the templates" Microsoft Office provides for resumes and other documents. However, library staff has been able to create new templates for their patrons and save them in OpenOffice.

And the system is still running fine. McNair and OpenPC's Paul Ballantine concur that both the staff and the patrons are happy using Linux. The library is working to iron out issues such as floppy disk access for its patrons.

Another area in which Linux has proven successful for Otis Library is security. McNair said that previously, the library had been using a proprietary program called Fortress, which had a per-seat license and "had to be tweaked" each time a flaw was found. With Linux, McNair said, "from the get-go you decide what they can and can't do." Now the library has no problems with security.

The library has also incorporated a separate Linux server box running Ret Hat 9.0 for their children's library Internet, using open source filtering software Squidguard and Dans Guardian, McNair said.

McNair advised that other organizations looking to migrate to Linux and/or thin clients should be sure to plan ahead with care to avoid surprises. "I thought I had spelled out exactly what we needed… some things had to be tacked on," he said.

Curl said Open-PC had to add some network switches to hook things up, along with some portable Sony USB diskette drives. The library also bought a scanner and a copy of PowerTerm, a proprietary terminal emulator program, for use at the circulation desk.

"Spell out in glaring detail what it is you need to do; look ahead a year from now. Do it right the first time," McNair said.

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