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Linux taken for a ride in the Old West

Open source can be a boon for the public sector, as the man leading Steamboat Springs' open source moves explains

Three hours drive west of Denver and over 2000m up in the Colorado Rockies, lies the town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It has a long tradition of ranching, although nowadays it is better known as a winter resort, due to its location below one of the largest ski mountains in North America. The town only has a total population of around 10,000, although around 15,000 people visit the town every week during the ski season.

But although it is a town steeped in tradition, the city administration is open to new technologies, and has been using OpenOffice.org, Firefox and various other open source applications for a number of years. It has been using Linux servers for five years and is considering a move to Linux desktops in the future. Open source has also proved invaluable to Steamboat Springs and its neighbouring towns in enabling e-government services.

ZDNet UK spoke to Kent Morrison, the manager of information systems at Steamboat Springs, to find out more about the city's migration to open source. Morrison is responsible for two other members of staff in the town's IT department, which supports 160 networked workstations and approximately 220 email accounts across the town.

Q: Steamboat Springs' first use of Linux was on the server. What sort of applications are you running on these servers? Are you still running Microsoft Windows servers as well?
A:In the last five years we've made a lot of progress — we've moved all our file and print servers, approximately 90 percent of our Web server activity and several mission critical applications to Linux. The server running a mission critical revenue generating application has been an extremely stable machine — if it hadn't been for a major power outage, it would have been running for three years without a reboot.

We maintain a Windows 2000 Active Directory domain because of our relationship with another local government department and still have Microsoft Exchange 2000. Altogether we have six Windows servers and seven Linux servers, but this year we intend to retire Exchange and replace it with an open source application.

What open source messaging and collaboration server do you plan to use? Will you migrate the mail clients also?
We're still deciding which open source [server] product to use. Ideally for the users I would keep using Microsoft Outlook and attach it to a different backend. But I don't think that will be practical so we'll probably switch to a Web-based interface for users.

Do you use commercial or community Linux distributions?
We use a blend of the two. We run systems such as our backup applications on Fedora [Red Hat's community distribution], but decided to buy Red Hat Enterprise for our mission critical server. Red Hat Enterprise is not an inexpensive product, but we can call the company when we want to and get immediate answers. Although, when we have problems with our less mission critical servers, it's amazing how quickly we can find an answer by searching on the Internet.

What about Linux on the desktop — is this an option for your organisation?
We've discussed it. With Linux' ability to emulate Windows improving every year, we see that as a possibility. We would build a Linux image for the majority of users, but for the 20 percent of users that run Windows-only applications we would keep them on the same platform. We would try to make a Linux desktop look like our Windows environment [the organisation currently runs Windows 2000, but will start rolling out XP this year] as we don't want to retrain our users. We don't have a time frame for installing Linux yet, though.

We've already installed OpenOffice.org and Firefox on users' machines so people can slowly get accustomed to them. We put these applications on our replication images in 2003, so since then every time we replace a workstation we use that image. Then, when we sit a user down in front of their new machine we say, "it has Microsoft Office and...

For more, click here...

...a product called OpenOffice, so if you have basic word-processing or spreadsheet activities that don't need to be shared with someone that uses a different product, you should try OpenOffice — it's simple to use."

Basically, we are familiarising them with the idea that they can do word processing and spreadsheets in an environment that's not Microsoft. In the future, when we reduce the number of Office licence purchases we can shift people more gently.

But are people actually using the open source applications? Surely, they'd rather use the application they're familiar with?;
We have had people say, "we want to do flow charts, can you buy me [Microsoft] Visio?", so we said: "take a look at OpenOffice Draw." It's not 100 percent stable, but it's enough for what most people want to do with a flow chart. The people who asked that question are now using that application.

Someone asked me a couple of months ago for a project management tool. They didn't have sophisticated project management requirements, but they needed to share it with individuals outside the organisation. I looked for an open source tool on the Web and found dotProject. It took a bit of tweaking, but we are already seeing some success with using this. The coolest thing about it is that project managers can send members of the public a link, and they can simply log on and look at the data.

The first project I tried this with is a redevelopment project. There are many people involved in this project, including the Steamboat Ski Corporation, the city administration, members of the planning commission, the architect and business owners. If we used a commercial project management package, everyone would have to buy a licence, or I would have had to pay for the Web interface option, which is expensive — commercial vendors who sell collaborative project management packages can charge up to $30,000.

You said that you're using Firefox. Do your users still have access to Microsoft Internet Explorer?
We have a few Web sites that our users have to access that require IE, so we didn't remove it from their machines, but we have trained them to use Firefox as much as possible because it's less vulnerable — most of problems we have with spyware come in through IE.

Can you tell me more about the e-government project based on open source software that Steamboat Springs is hosting and developing?
North-west Colorado is a sparsely populated area with many small towns. As our local government organisations are so small we recognised the only way we could do Web delivery of government services was by pooling our resources.

We found an open source content management system called Typo3, which is an enterprise CMS that rivals commercial products costing $60,000. A local firm in Colorado with experience on the LAMP platform customised it for Typo3.

We currently have beta sites developed for two towns and a county — to show local government officials and city or county staff how it works. These sites will go live to the public over the next six months or so — Steamboat Springs' site will go live on 1 May, Craig and Moffat County's site will go live this summer. Over time these sites will offer the same services that you get into your town hall or county court house, for example, you will be able to pay your parking ticket, register your dog, or sign up for a recreational activity.

We're publishing the project online so it's freely available — anyone who wants to get involved right now only has to download...

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...the components from our Web site. We haven't yet developed a site on Sourceforge, but will be doing this in the summer.

We would love to have other organisations using the product. For example, if a small rural community in Australia implemented the system and added an animal registration module, they could contribute that module back to the project and everyone else could use it. That's the beauty of using public money to develop open source software. We're very grateful that our elected officials realise that's true and gave us some money to develop it.

Have you had any interest from other local governments in the US?
I demoed the software at the National Association of Government Webmasters conference in September 2005 and we had some enquiries. There are some smaller city governments that are investigating use of the product.

One of the big reasons people look at it is because they realise it's not perfect, but is a strong starting point that doesn't cost anything.

Why do you think some local governments in the US are reluctant to use open source software?
I think the main reason people don't use open source is due to lack of appropriate skills or familiarity — once the technicians or decision makers become aware of what's possible, they start to become really excited about open source. My boss was really sceptical five years ago when I told her about the direction we were going to take. But now, every month you can read in magazines about open source being used in the public sector.

Do you notice a change in attitude toward open source within the public sector?
I believe the increased visibility and the ever increasing environment of acceptance is helping quite a bit with open source adoption in the commercial and government market. There is still some resistance — mainly from people who I believe are primarily motivated by fear.

There's this perception that if you buy a product and pay for a licence, there's a company that stands behind it and if it breaks and lets you down you can say: "but I bought it in good faith from a big company and thought I was making the right decision". But what we find in practice is that, in terms of the system and its reliability, you are no safer spending money for proprietary products than you are spending the time and money to learn open source.

If you buy from a big company, you can get through to support people and they will answer your questions. But what if the company says it's releasing another version this year and you have migrate to it, because in another year they will abandon the previous version. You are forced to upgrade.

For example, we have a particular [proprietary] product that we have used for a couple of years. It's a fine product, but the manufacturer told us a year ago that there is a required upgrade that will cost us $15,000. I put that in the budget for 2006, but the city council says we can't afford it. The manufacturer does its best to provide support, but I'm literally running an obsolete product because I couldn't afford an upgrade.

Aside from what you've talked about just now, what are the main advantages of running open source?
Within the Linux environment, technicians are so much more confident and satisfied — there is so much flexibility and stability with Linux. That one element — confidence and satisfaction — is huge in this industry, as you can never afford to pay your staff as much as you want to.

Another big advantage with open source is that when you want to change it, you don't have to sign a non-disclosure agreement to get the source code, as it's there already. I wouldn't say the overall cost of operating open source products is any lower — we still spend money on training and occasionally hire consultants to help us out — but once we know how to do it we don't have continuing costs. Maybe that's the biggest financial advantage — it costs what it costs to get started, but the ongoing costs are lower as there are no licensing or new version costs.