Penguin saves public access computing

Public access computing at the Coquitlam Public Library was in danger of fizzling out for lack of money. The Vancouver-area library had installed a dozen Windows PCs in its two branches in the mid-1990s, but there wasn’t enough money to keep up with technological change, vandalism and wear and tear.

By 2003, there were just three unreliable computers at each location.

Users often tampered with the computers, explains Kathy Peters, a library assistant and one of the library’s three technical staff, and this sometimes meant reinstalling software.

“”We just don’t have systems time to deal with all that,”” Peters says. And as technology advanced and the public became more computer-savvy, demands grew.

Enter the DiscoverStation, a Linux-based system from Calgary-based Userful Inc. that allows as many as 10 public access terminals to run off a single PC. The machines are built on standard Intel Corp. Pentium 4 processors, says Tim Griffin, president of Userful. The company chose Linux because it had a lot of the necessary multi-user support built in and because open-source software was easier to adapt to Userful’s needs and offered assurance that future upgrades wouldn’t break its code.

Evan Leibovitch, president of the Toronto-based Linux Professional Institute, says a growing number of public-sector organizations turn to Linux thanks to not only lower initial cost but lower ongoing management costs. For instance, he says, organizations using Linux needn’t track operating-system licences. Though some studies indicate Linux costs no less over time than Windows, Leibovitch dismisses such claims.

Simon Yates, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., says Linux can run on older hardware that can’t handle current Windows versions, reducing hardware as well as software costs.

While costs vary depending on the setup, Griffin says DiscoverStation averages about $400 per station per year. The library calculated that over three years, equipping each branch with two DiscoverStation systems — for redundancy — and 10 user stations would cost 60 to 65 per cent of the cost of putting 10 PCs in each branch. The systems would be less vulnerable to hacking than Windows PCs, and less vulnerable to physical vandalism because publicly accessible parts would be on tables where staff could see them.

Rory Weston, a library computer technician, says the hardest part of the installation was convincing himself it was a good idea. Weston initially saw the deal with Userful as contracting out support of public-access stations and a potential threat to his job. But he didn’t like fighting viruses, replacing failed hard drives and the like, and saw that the move would save money. Now, Weston says, “”I get to spend a lot more time doing things that are more interesting and oftentimes more vital for people.””

There were other concerns, though. How would patrons react to differences between Linux and Windows, and between the OpenOffice software suite on the DiscoverStations and more widely used Microsoft Office applications? How would people feel about sharing a computer? So in late 2003, the library installed a single DiscoverStation system supporting five user stations at its main branch for a three-month pilot. Weston says he was surprised at how fast the installation went — about 20 minutes to set up the whole cluster of stations. Setting up a single PC would take that much time, he says.

Initial public reaction was mixed. “”Some people were a bit concerned”” about the unfamiliar look and feel, Peters says. Library staff had to reassure them that the functions were really more or less the same as with Windows. Patrons got used to the changes, but the initial hand-holding “”was a lot more work than we thought,”” she admits. Part of the key was getting library staff familiar with the systems so they could help patrons. Weston says it helped that because OpenOffice is open-source, the library was free to install it on staff PCs so they could get used to it.

Browser trouble

The pilot went well, and at the end of 2003 the library signed a three-year contract to put 10 stations in each branch.

The library and Userful have worked together to sort out a few problems. The DiscoverStations use the Galleon browser, which is built on the same underlying technology as the Netscape browser and doesn’t always display Web sites the same way as Microsoft’s more popular Internet Explorer. That caused some trouble, Peters says. In some cases Userful has tweaked the browser to correct specific problems. It also comes with an Explorer emulation mode that can be used with Web sites that don’t support Netscape well. “”That circumvents virtually all problems,”” Griffin says.

Originally, the DiscoverStations shared a single diskette drive attached to the central PC. “”Our original philosophy was that floppy drives were going the way of the dodo and that people need to be able to access a floppy drive but they don’t need to have one in each station,”” Griffin says. That might work with more technically adept users, Weston observes, but library patrons had a hard time with it, so Coquitlam asked Userful for separate drives attached via Universal Serial Bus (USB) to the individual stations. “”It’s made a big difference,”” Weston says.

Some library users bring in documents on diskettes to print or edit on the library’s machines. Besides concerns over sharing drives, some patrons had problems with documents produced using older software. Though it supports currently popular Windows formats such as Word files, OpenOffice won’t read some older files. “”We still do have a few Microsoft PCs around,”” Peters says, “”so we basically just flip them to one of those and get the things converted.””

File compatibility with Windows applications is a priority in the Linux community and continues improving, Leibovitch says.

Through it all the customer-vendor relationship held up well. Weston calls Userful’s responsiveness “”refreshing,”” and Griffin credits the library staff with giving his team valuable feedback. “”They’ve been very supportive and very good at giving us suggestions.””

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