GNOME Deployment: Pangea

For immigrants and refugees, the Internet is an easy way to stay in contact with familiy members and to find news about their home country. Murray Cumming describes how an Internet center in Austria uses a small GNOME-based thin-client system to provide access for them.

 

Overview

Linz, in upper Austria, is the second-largest town in a small country. Tradition survives here and is shown by the well-preserved buildings and the dialect still spoken by many instead of “high” German. But the modern world is also welcome, providing up-to-date university training, high-tech jobs, and even a “Museum of the Future”. Not far from the old city’s main square is another example called the Pangea Center.

Pangea is an Internet center for immigrants and refugees with some multimedia activities. There are about 150 registered users from 35 different countries – this year immigrants were mostly from Nigera, Ghana, Iraq and Afghanistan. The project was started four years ago as a spin-off from the Medea multimedia workshop, created six years ago by the non-commerical Radio Fro radio station. Funding comes mostly from the Upper Austrian regional government, with some help from the Linz city government.

Vistors use the computers to communicate with family and friends abroad via email and chat, to stay informed about events in their countries of origin, and to gain valuable computer experience.

Team and infrastructure

There are three employees that make up the Pangea team. The system administrator, Ralph Aichinger, worked previously as a part-time system administrator while studying at Linz University, and Michael is a trained graphic designer who now helps with multimedia and courses. Amra, the manager, first visited the center as a user several years ago, having arrived in Austria as a refugee from Bosnia.

Pangea received fifteen used computers that the city planned to throw away because they were not capable of running newer versions of Microsoft software. As an experienced Linux user, Ralph knew he could use these Pentium 100 PCs (with 64Mb RAM) as thin clients to run GNOME without performance problems. Based on his experience administering Windows
computers, he also knew that GNOME and Linux would require less day to day maintenance work. In particular, he wanted to avoid dealing with daily virus and spyware infections. Naturally, as a non-profit organisation, they were also happy to avoid paying several thousand Euros in license fees.

Technology

Pangea has ten thin client PCs running via X Windows from an Athlon XP 2000+ server with 1GB of RAM on a 100Mb/s network. The office also has a separate set of five thin clients using an additional server.

Debian Linux made the setup very straightforward starting with GNOME 1.4 in Debian Stable. When the client computers were replaced after one year with Pentium 200 PCs with better graphics cards, Pangea upgraded to the Debian backport of GNOME 2.4. And about six months ago, Ralph upgraded the server to GNOME 2.8 using Debian’s testing distribution (which became officially stable only recently).

The LTSP project assured Ralph that this setup would work effectively with his hardware. The thin clients have no noticeable performance problems compared to a modern PC running GNOME locally, even without using any of GNOME’s low-resources options. Ralph simply enabled GDM’s remote login feature on the server, and added init scripts to the clients so that xquery would login to the server when booting.

No user data is stored on the client PCs because all accounts exist on the server. Processor, memory and disk space quotas prevent any user from taking all the resources for himself. Because all applications run in shared memory on the server, some things can actually be faster than a normal PC. For instance, OpenOffice is effectively pre-loaded if another thin client user is already using it, so there is no long start-up time. However, local drives such as CDs and diskettes are not yet visible to the users, because the server is not aware of them. After some research, I discovered that the LTSP project is working on a solution for this.

The majority of web sites are well supported by the Mozilla-based GNOME web browser, including sites that use Flash/Shockwave or Java applets, with only occassional Java problems.

Even though GNOME’s interface (the windows, menus and buttons) can be quickly switched to many visitors’ first languages, such as Arabic or French, the computers are mostly used in German or English, because they are learning those languages anyway. However, GNOME allows them to view web sites in any language or script, and GNOME’s keyboard indicator allows them to write emails while referring to a special on-screen keyboard. Users can print to the networked Kyocera printer.

Although Pangea offers email accounts using GNOME’s Evolution email application, most users prefer to use webmail interfaces that can be easily accessed at other locations.

GNOME’s lockdown features allow the system administrator to prevent changes to some parts of of the desktop such as the main panel. But because Ralph is there to help, he prefers to leave things unlocked so he can make quick changes when a user needs something extra. A simple lockdown user interface would allow him to unlock a user’s desktop temporarily. It would also allow him to more easily specify lockdown in more detail such as specifying which panel applets a user may add to his panel, instead of locking the entire panel layout. I added a page about this future Lockdown Editor to GNOME’s wiki because I think it would be a great project for someone getting involved in GNOME.

Users

Most users arrive at the Pangea center without in-depth computer experience or preconceived ideas, but many have visited Internet cafes. According to the Pangea staff, they have no problems starting to use GNOME’s simple user interface and their questions are usually about specific web sites rather than any technical problems.

Dhia arrived from Iraq four years ago and now has an Austrian passport. He visits the Pangea Center almost every other evening after finishing his work as a gardener. He likes to follow events in Iraq via an expatriate web site and communicate with his friends there.

Ofoed, from Nigeria, has been in Linz for only a few months and finds it very important to read Nigerian newspapers online as well as simply to pass the time with friends.

Other users arrange times to chat online with their families which saves a lot of money compared to an international phone call. And in the future, Pangea might offer online telephony via GnomeMeeting. All this technology helps people to feel comfortable in their new home.

Future & Conclusion

Although Pangea must struggle every year for funding, it hopes to expand to meet the strong demand for its service and to better support its community. GNOME and Linux mean that this can be achieved efficiently. The Pangea Center provides a very valuable resource to these immigrants and it was all made possible by the excellent open source software that is Linux and GNOME.

Discuss this story with other readers on the GNOME forums.

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Posted on September 15, 2005, in September 2005. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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