Maryland Library Benefits from its Switch to Linux

Ian McIntosh interviews Amy de Groff, Head of IT for the Howard County Library, about their switch to GNU/Linux and implementation of Groovix, an Ubuntu-based distribution.

In 2004, the Howard County Library in Columbia, Maryland, made news when they switched 300 of their public computers from Windows to an in-house Linux solution. Recently, they upgraded those computers to a version of Ubuntu distributed by Groovix. Amy de Groff, Head of IT for the library, answered some questions about making the switch to Linux and implementing Groovix.

Before switching to Linux, what software was the library using?

Before we moved our customer machines (we call them PACs for Public Access Computers) to Linux, they were running Windows NT®. A former IT person had shut down a great deal of the functions, access, etc., but the machines remained a constant source of support: icons changed to tacky images, items saved to the desktop, etc.

How did the library first get interested in Linux? What aspects of Linux were attractive?

We got interested in Linux because two of our IT guys (former UNIX® administrators) were big fans. What we liked about it was the ease of management from a remote location (we have six branches and, at that point, two IT guys managing the machines) and the ability to strip off functions, applications, and services that we did not want.

The financial aspect was also attractive, but it was actually not the first thing we fell in love with. I see it as an added bonus and a wonderful service to our community that I can offer a streamlined desktop and save money!

How was the first switch?

The first switch was from the NT environment I described above to LuMix, [a Linux distribution] designed and managed by Mike Ricksecker and Luis Salazar.

LuMix basically just had a browser, Mozilla, stripped to bare essentials. We put it on all but three machines at each branch, leaving NT on those with MS Office 97.

LuMix ran like a top for nearly two years, but customers wanted more. They wanted word processing, they wanted access to USB flash drives (we’d shut that down in LuMix and it was not available on our NT version) so we started thinking, ‘What next?’

One option was, of course was to rebuild and upgrade LuMix. Mike began work on LuMix 3.0 (as we were tentatively calling it).

At the same time, we researched the vendor world, and we found two interesting options: a Canadian firm called Userful®, and a technology called Groovix, built by Open Sense Solutions.

We chose Groovix. Hard to quantify why; it just felt more open and we liked the support staff very much.

How long did you evaluate the Groovix/Ubuntu solution before deciding to move forward?

We evaluated Ubuntu for two months. To be honest, I was sold ten minutes in, but I knew I had to give it more time and use. I am truly amazed at the usability of Ubuntu—I think it is down-right ELEGANT.

What expenses were associated with the switch to Groovix/Ubuntu?

It cost us around $20,000 to upgrade the memory on the 300 PACs (we went from 128 to 512), and we spent $25 on the software (yes, twenty-five dollars).

We pay for support from Open Sense Solutions—a flat, yearly rate that is about 1/10th of what we pay for other enterprise-wide software.

And we bought T-shirts for staff for the launch day.

Had we remained a Windows shop and chosen XP instead, we probably would have replaced the hardware entirely, anticipating the move to Vista. At around $800 for each of 300 machines, that would have cost $240,000.

What has the library done with the money saved so far by this switch?

Some of the money we saved so far has gone to hardware—we bought lovely 19” flat screens for every single machine.

Is it safe to say that the library will continue to save money in the future as a result of switching to Ubuntu?

Very safe to say. We’ll continue to use the funds for service: computer training, books, movies, programs, and hardware upgrades.

What kind of requests for help has your staff received from patrons?

Our requests for help/help desk tickets have dropped by 40% since the Windows NT days. Most customers sit at the machine and work away, requiring no help. Customers who are less comfortable on a computer have questions, but they are not Linux-based. Instead, ‘How do I bold text?’ or ‘How do I add a page break?’ The kind we’d get with any application.

Most help desk tickets now are hardware problems, a hard drive dying or a machine being unplugged (one of the most common ones, actually).

How has the staff responded to the switch?

All in all, they are fine.

We have a few staff who are reluctant to move to OpenOffice. They maintain that because it is free, it is not as good. I really don’t agree with that opinion. We are moving all staff to Ubuntu desktops this fall and winter so, soon, they will be using OpenOffice. I do hope those who are uncomfortable come around. I work hard to do one-on-one training and to be a cheerleader for them.

Have you had any problems with the new Ubuntu computers?

The only problem is that a few websites, for example some college grade sites, require Internet Explorer. They don’t work here. And we don’t apologize for that. We encourage our customers to express their frustration to their colleges.

We had one machine that kept ‘turning off for no reason’ a while back; of course all assumed it was the ‘third rate’ open source software. Turned out the user was a leg swinger: she was bumping the power switch! As a leg swinger myself, I can relate to this story!

Is there any software that the library would like to use that is not available in Linux?

The sole piece of software we can’t use here is the CLIENT for our integrated library system. It is a shame, because this vendor’s plan, presented to us three years ago, was to be entirely web-based by now. It was because of this plan that we were comfortable doing all that we have done.

That vendor changed course, and while I could have chosen to change course with them and abandon our vision of Linux system wide, I will not. I can’t let any vendor dictate how I spend taxpayer money. We are likely to part ways with this vendor in the coming year.

What barriers do you see preventing other libraries from switching to a similar solution?

I think the biggest barrier facing libraries in doing what we have done is fear of the unknown. We ran into this of course. When people started using the software they would often come into my office sheepishly and say, ‘Um, this is not a big deal,” and I would smile and say, ‘YUP!’

Can library patrons play a role in getting their libraries to evaluate open source software?

Library patrons can and should request an accounting of what software costs, especially with [Windows] Vista® on the horizon.

Patrons should ask, ‘Why? Why move to Vista? What does it give me as a customer?’

I had one Vista user tell me the 3-D functionality was cool. I said, ‘What does that do to get my customers information about my collection?’ There was no answer! Is ‘cool’ worth taxpayer dollars?

And most libraries will have to replace EVERY machine to run Vista.

Bring them an Ubuntu install CD! I do it all the time!

Thank you so much for your time, Amy!

It was my pleasure! I am proud of what we are doing and I would love to help other groups use Ubuntu. I would also like to hear about other projects or applications that your readers think would be nice additions to our deployment!

Amy de Groff can be contacted at

About the author

Ian McIntosh is a freelance software developer from Cambridge, MA, currently living in Mendoza, Argentina. In his free time he works on Luz, an open-source music visualization application for GNOME.

Discuss this story with other readers on the GNOME forums.


Posted on December 4, 2007, in December 2007. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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