City saves with Linux, thin clients

Largo, Fla., says its choice of Linux servers and thin clients is saving the city at least $1 million a year, and that its IT staff is happily short on end-user support calls.

The sun is shining on Linux in the Florida peninsula of Pinellas County. At a time when Microsoft Windows dominates the corporate desktop, the City of Largo has chosen Linux.

The city runs server-based Linux applications on thin-client hardware to save money, minimize support headaches, and ease IT budgeting.

David Richards, systems administrator in Largo, realized years ago that PCs required a lot of management support and were an expensive computing proposition. "It didn't measure up to fiscal responsibility in government," he says. So when the time came to retire the green screen terminals that served the city's 1,000 employees, the city decided that rather than deploy a network of Windows PCs, a better evolutionary step would be to set up a graphical environment via thin clients.

Today, 900 city employees have user accounts on Largo's 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 7.2 and support about 220 concurrent users.

Richards estimates that using Linux saves the city at least $1 million a year in hardware, software licensing, maintenance, and staff costs.

For the City of Largo, running a full Linux client on a PC was never an option. "We didn't have PC hardware," he says, and the city wasn't about to make such a hefty investment. The city would have had to purchase about 400 desktop PCs, and then plan to replace those systems about every two to three years, the average PC lifecycle. Replacing one-third of them each year would have cost about $150,000 annually, says Richards.

By contrast, Richards says the city has spent very little on Linux thus far. For example, the operating system was virtually free, each Compaq server cost about $9,500, and it cost about $8,000 for the hardware to run Oracle. Maintenance costs are expected to remain flat as applications move from Unix to Linux, and perhaps drop a bit as NT applications are ported to Linux. Only two or three of the city's 10-person IT staff are needed for end-user support because there are so few calls. "With our NCD thin clients we won't look at additional desktop hardware expenses until our 2007 budget," Richards says.Since 1993 Largo had been running OpenLinux Server and UnixWare on Intel-based servers. But Richards says it was clear by 2000 that Santa Cruz Operation, which owned the products at the time, wasn't doing well, and that Linux was the future OS of choice on the Intel platform.

Richards first introduced Linux into Largo's IT infrastructure in 2000. He chose Red Hat Linux 6.2 for its bundled Web servers and Netscape browser. Within a few months, Red Hat introduced the KDE interface with the 2.4 kernel of Linux in version 7.1. With that, the City of Largo was ready to test Linux as a server for thin clients.

The city let 20 people test Red Hat's thin-client Linux for about four months in early 2001. Richards says he selected a variety of users from a cross section of departments who understood that beta tests result in crashes and lockups. From the tests, the IT department learned how KDE worked and discovered which features needed to be disabled because they beat up the network--games and some screen savers among them. In mid-2001 Richards turned Linux 7.1 loose on the city.

Several months later, when Red Hat 7.2 was released, the city upgraded its server. It added the second Compaq server in late 2001. Today city users are split between the two machines, with each machine supporting about 110 concurrent users. In the event that either server goes down, the other server can handle all 220 users. In fact, Richards says, either server could support up to 300 concurrent users.In addition to the KDE desktop environment and Web browsers (both Netscape and Opera), the City of Largo also runs an Apache Web Server under Linux.

The thin clients also have access to Excel and PowerPoint running on Windows NT Server, thanks to Citrix Systems Inc.'s MetaFrame, and Unix-based applications, including Groupwise 4.1, WordPerfect 8, Oracle Financials, and several police applications. The city has a 20-server farm to run the NT, Unix, and Linux applications.

But Linux is the future direction of Largo, says Richards. In fact, Linux will be the city's core operating system in about 12 to 18 months.

Oracle 9i runs on Linux and the city has a project underway to create a central storage area for all of the city's data. Largo is also moving the whole city to OpenOffice (the open-source alternative to Sun Microsystems' StarOffice) that will replace the respective word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation functions of WordPerfect, Excel, and PowerPoint. Richards expects the OpenOffice project to take about one year because the city has 17 years' worth of WordPerfect documents, and OpenOffice lacks a native WordPerfect import filter.

The city is exploring e-mail server options, and plans to turn off GroupWise in the next few months. "Whatever we deploy to replace GroupWise, it will run on Linux," says Richards.

While Richards enjoys the challenge of developing a stable IT infrastructure with OS-independent thin clients, he admits that Largo's IT strategy isn't for everyone. It depends on an organization's existing infrastructure, staff, expertise, and budget.

"If the people at the top want PCs," he concedes, "then it's tough to win the thin-client debate."

Would moving to Linux servers and thin clients work for your organization? Share your thoughts in TalkBack, or e-mail us.

Description Product Company
Server Proliant ML350 Compaq

Server Proliant ML370 Compaq

Thin client Explora 451 NCD

Description Product Company
Application suite OpenOffice

Collaboration GroupWise Novell

Data base Oracle 9i Oracle

Financial applications Oracle Financials Oracle

OS Red Hat Linux Red Hat

OS UnixWare 7 Caldera

Presentation program PowerPoint Microsoft

Server OS MetaFrame Citrix Systems

Server OS OpenLinux Server Caldera

Spreadsheet program Excel Microsoft

Web browser Netscape Navigator Netscape

Web browser Opera Opera

Web platform Windows NT Server Microsoft

Web server Apache Web Server Apache Software Foundation

Word processing WordPerfect Corel