UK charity builds Linux network on a shoestring

Alone in London has built an effective office network for 30 people for under £70 a seat with second-hand and open-source components

At the Open Source in the Voluntary Sector conference in London on Wednesday, charities described how they'd managed to make the most of their IT budgets by using Linux, including a London-based charity which saved more than £28,000 by using Linux Terminal Server to build its network.

Homeless charity Alone in London spent less than £2,000 to set up a network of 30 PCs from scratch, compared to a similar-sized charity which spent £30,000 on building a network using proprietary solutions and new PCs, according to James Holland, who ran the project at Alone in London.

Holland said the network was based on Linux Terminal Server, a free open-source add-on package for Linux that connects low-powered thin client terminals to a Linux server. Applications appear to run on the clients but really execute on the server. Holland pointed out one advantage of this set-up is that software runs faster than it could if the clients were running as full PCs.

"The thing to remember is that thin-client PCs run over the network at the speed of the server -- so you can have old 486 or Pentium PCs running as fast as much more expensive computers," said Holland.

The main cost of setting up the network was the purchase of a dual Pentium 3 server at a cost of around £1,000. The rest of the PCs on the network use the original Pentium chip and were donated by a city firm. All Holland needed to do to revamp these was install network and PCI graphics cards bought online at a cost of less than £20 per PC.

The only other cost was less than £250 for the cable, connectors, crimper and switches of the network infrastructure - in total, the network cost under £2,000. The PCs on the network run Red Hat Linux 9, OpenOffice, Evolution for email and Mozilla for browsing, saving Alone in London further costs on licences for desktop applications.

Holland said the main problem he faced was resistance from the employees to an unfamiliar operating system. "People complained, 'It's not like my computer at home'," said Holland. "Everyone has Microsoft Windows at home so they weren't happy about using two different systems," said Holland.

His solution was simple: don't give users a choice. "You have to force people to use a new system -- if they have an alternative, they'll use that instead," said Holland.

Alone in London is not the only charity to have built a network on a tight budget. Max Hertzberg, a co-ordinator for training charity Seeds for Change, said that he built a network for seven users for less than £500.

Hertzberg bought a 1.5GHz server second hand for £300, £1,700 less than the market rate. Like Holland, he didn't bother buying new PCs -- but instead of getting a donation he ended up retrieving his from the rubbish.

"A lot of computers are chucked out by companies. Rather than buying computers, I fished seven (old Pentium machines) off a skip," said Hertzberg.

The only other cost that Hertzberg had was networking infrastructure. Seeds for Change used the same technology as Alone in London, setting up a network of thin client terminals linked to a Linux server.

Hertzberg agreed with Holland that the main advantage of this technology was that the old terminals run as fast as the server on the end. He said that the system also makes backups easier. "You don't have to back up all seven machines -- you only have to back up one server," said Hertzberg.

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