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A Tale of Two (Linux) Cities

Is it possible to run a city government on Linux?

Ask IT managers in Bloomington, Indiana, or Garden Grove, California, and the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Bloomington, a college town with 65,000 citizens, has been running most of its back office on Linux since 1999. An hour south of Los Angeles, Garden Grove, which has a population of nearly 170,000, has been doing the same thing since 1995.

Linux and open source in city governments got widespread attention last May, with Munich, Germany's blockbuster announcement that it planned to migrate some 14,000 city employees onto Linux systems.

In the U.S., a growing number of cities are starting to turn to Linux. Houston, Texas, runs its Web and domain name servers on Linux. And school districts in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, are making growing use of the open source operating system.

But, with the possible exception of Largo, Florida – population 70,000 – which has garnered attention for its efforts to migrate its desktops to an open source desktop suite, few cities are running the bulk of their IT operations on Linux.

Bloomington and Garden Grove have been quietly doing just that. Both cities have about two dozen Red Hat Linux servers, running mostly on IBM hardware, which handle everything from Web and file servers to accounting programs to geographic information systems with maps of city streets and storm drains.

And both cities plan to increase the amount of Linux and other open source software they're using. Bloomington is in the process of migrating its Oracle databases from HP-UX servers onto Linux; Garden Grove has been busy porting some of its legacy applications from Raining Data's D3 (formerly Pick) database to PostgreSQL running on Linux, and is about to launch a new content management system running on the open source Zope application server.

Looking for the Best Solution
But don't expect either city to be running only Linux anytime soon. "We're realists," says Charles Kalil, Garden Grove's IS manager. "We look for the best solution. And sometimes we need applications that aren't available on Linux."

Police in Garden Grove, for example, record arrests and store mug shots on a booking system running on Microsoft Windows NT and SQL Server. The system the police department wanted didn't run on Linux, says Kalil.

The situation is largely the same in Bloomington, which has bought four Windows servers since it began migrating to Linux in 1999. "We always try for Linux first," says Rick Routon, Bloomington's IT operations manager. "But I don't know that it's possible to go 100% Linux."

And both Garden Grove and Bloomington are still running Windows on their desktops. Garden Grove has looked at open source desktop environments like OpenOffice, and hopes to eventually begin replacing some of its 600 Windows PCs – especially, says Kalil, in light of the "ever-rising cost of owning Microsoft software."

But that won't happen in the immediate future, because Garden Grove city workers make heavy use of the shared calendaring feature in Microsoft Outlook, and Kalil hasn't yet had time to locate an alternative. For the moment, says Kalil, "we're still very dependent on Outlook."

Even where Garden Grove still uses proprietary software, however, it has found ways to use open source to extend the reach of the proprietary programs.

The city used ODBC, for example, to integrate the police department's arrest record system, which runs on Windows, into its Linux-based intranet, so officers could look at mug shots from their desktops.

"Without the integration," says Kalil, "if officers wanted to do a lookup, they would have to go to one of the two workstations that actually runs the software. We've now taken what was available on two machines and made it available on over 100 machines."

Product Evaluation:
'Download and Use'

That has made life easier for Garden Grove's police officers. So have other changes stemming from the city's use of open source, such as a Linux-based system for storing digital photographs. The system uses check sums to guarantee that the pictures have not been altered, so they can be entered as evidence in court.

Open source has also made life easier for Garden Grove's IT department. Evaluating new products, for one thing, has become much simpler, according to Kalil. With open source software, he says, his staff "spends no time writing RFPs or seeking approval for funding. Researching an open source product is simple: just download it and use it."

And both Garden Grove and Bloomington have found that moving to Linux has reduced the support burden on IT staff, in large part because of the operating system's stability.

Routon can't recall a single instance over the last four years of a problem with Linux bringing a computer to a halt. "Unless we take a system down on purpose," he says, "it just doesn't go down."

The city has at least one server – the machine that holds the maps and photos for the city's geographic information system – that is nearing three years of continuous uptime.

Prior to 1995, Garden Grove had been using SCO Unix and Data General's DG-UX. When the city shifted to Linux, "we found that most of the problems we were having with the other two operating systems just didn't exist," says Kalil.

Neither Garden Grove nor Bloomington has a maintenance contract for Linux support, but that doesn't seem to worry either city's IT managers. Both cities are used to providing most of their own support, and have found plenty of help available on the Web when they need it. "There's a tremendous amount of information available on the Internet," says Kalil.

Both Garden Grove and Bloomington have also discovered another benefit of using open source: it's saving them money.

The shift to Linux has saved Bloomington "a tremendous amount of money," says Routon. Most recently, the city bought Intel-based servers running Linux, instead of new HP-UX servers, for the Oracle databases, which Routon estimates saved the city about $20,000.

Garden Grove has seen similar savings. Kalil estimates that Linux and open source are saving the city more than $70,000 a year over using proprietary software.

A Tale of Many Cities
Can other cities take advantage of Linux to see similar savings? Kalil thinks so. He just finished a white paper detailing Garden Grove's experiences with open source, and the savings it has realized, which he hopes to share with other local governments. "We'd like to encourage other shops to use open source," he says.

For city governments just getting started with Linux, Kalil suggests setting up a spare computer running Linux in a lab. "Take some time to play with Linux, use it as a development server, and then investigate using it to meet your production needs," he advises.

While Garden Grove and Bloomington have written many of their own applications, there is also a small but growing number of open source applications available to city governments for free. Governmentforge.org is a new organization dedicated to providing these applications to local governments.

But it's also possible to get started using Linux with straightforward, everyday applications like file or print serving. "It's very easy to set up Linux and Samba as a file server," says Kalil.

It's also easy to deploy Linux as a Web server, he says, for use either as an external server or an intranet server.

Kalil also suggests that cities with large, complex WANs look at using old computers loaded with Linux as routers. "It's a very affordable way to meet your networking needs," he says. "Each surplus computer used as a router can easily save a city more than $1,000. Many distributions of Linux are already optimized to work as routers, and some will even accept Cisco commands."

With many city budgets being hit hard by the economy, Kalil believes that open source will become increasingly attractive to local governments. "Linux offers cities many ways to keep budgets down while still offering the same level of service," he says.

And as more cities become aware of that, Garden Grove's and Bloomington's Linux stories will likely become a tale told in many cities.

More Stories By Dan Orzech

Veteran high-tech journalist Dan Orzech has more than 15 years
experience in the computer industry, and has written extensively
about Linux since the mid-1990s. He is the author of the entries on
open source and Linux in the "Encyclopedia of Computers and Computer
History," and the former editor of OpenSourceIT.com and CIOupdate.com.

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