Across the Country, Local Governments Are Giving Linux a Hard Look

From Florida to Washington State, Linux appears to be infiltrating the IT departments of local governments across the country in much the same way it sprouted up in corporate IT shops: from the bottom up.

And in a few places, like sunny Largo Florida — population 70,000 — Linux use is no longer limited to a few non-critical applications, but is now supporting large chunks of governmental infrastructure.

Largo, with some 850 employees, runs more than 400 Linux-based thin clients rather than PCs. The city is moving towards adopting the open source OpenOffice desktop suite, although today, workers use programs like WordPerfect on Unix, and Microsoft Excel and Powerpoint, which they get to through software from Citrix.

The city also runs its Web server, and a city work order dispatch system, on Linux.

Thanks largely to open source software and the low-maintenance thin clients, the city’s IT budget — about 1.5% of the city’s overall expenditures — runs about half what similar-sized cities spend, says Harold Schomaker, Largo’s CIO.

But Largo is by no means the only local government using Linux in the U.S.:

  • Garden Grove, Calif., and Bloomington, Indiana also both run much of their IT operations on Linux servers. In Bloomington, the city’s emergency dispatch system, running on Linux, dispatches 7,000 ambulance calls a year, as well as police and fire crews, for both the city and surrounding Monroe County.
  • The Houston, Texas, city government runs its Web and domain name servers on Red Hat Linux.
  • An IBM mainframe belonging to Pinellas County, Florida is home to a database of county court records, which can be searched by the county’s 900,000 citizens. The system, running on Linux and IBM’s WebSphere middleware, gets more than 50,000 hits a month.
  • The email system for the Los Angeles school district runs on Linux. Other school systems, such as the one in Portland, Ore., are installing Linux-based thin clients in classrooms for student use.

    Cincinnati, Ohio, Newport News, Virg., St. Louis, Missouri, and Austin, Tex., among other cities, are also reported to be either using Linux or seriously evaluating it as well. A number of smaller governments — Jefferson County, Colo., St. George, Utah (population 50,000), and Chappaqua, NY (pop. 15,000), for example — are also using Linux.

    So are various departments in state governments across the country, including Rhode Island, Texas, Washington State and Oregon. “Every agency of any size in the State of Oregon is probably using open source at some level,” says Deborah Bryant, an IT policy planner for the state’s Department of Administrative Services.

    Low-hanging fruit

    IT vendors are taking note of the potential of this market. “The two areas where we’re really seeing Linux being adopted today,” says Adam Jollans, the Linux strategy manager for IBM’s software group, “are in the financial arena and in government and the public sector.”

    But while it’s clear that local government is “definitely adopting” open source software, says analyst Stacey Quandt, who follows Linux for Forrester Research, many government IT managers are moving in that direction only cautiously.

    Typically, she says, “they start with the low hanging fruit” — like domain name or Web servers — and then progress to higher-profile applications.

    Jefferson County, Colo., for example, whih has been running Linux on servers for several years, is now looking at using Linux on the desktop, as well as the open source Jboss application server, Quandt says.

    And Houston is exploring the possibility of migrating its Oracle database servers to Linux, according to Kevin Pate, an IT consultant who is helping the city define its Linux strategy.

    IT budget have been slashed

    Driving the move to Linux, for many cities, is the state of the economy. “A lot of cities’ IT budgets have been slashed,” says Largo, Florida’s Schomaker, “and a lot of what they have left to spend is going to their Microsoft support contracts.”

    Garden Grove, California, which uses Linux throughout its IT infrastructure, is saving money in many ways with open source, says Charles Kalil, the city’s information systems manager.

    For example, the city used to pay $7,000 a year to a records management company to pick up its backup tapes and store them off-site, Kalil says. It now backs up all its systems to one centralized Linux backup server, which then copies the data over a wireless connection to another server offsite.

    The school district in Portland, Ore., found that Linux was “extremely inexpensive to put in,” says Scott Robinson, the district’s chief technology officer.

    The Portland schools are using software from the Linux Terminal Server Project to put Linux thin clients in its classrooms. One Linux system serves about 15 thin clients, says Robinson, which give the students access to the OpenOffice desktop suite.

    So far, some 600 thin clients have been placed in 20 of the district’s middle schools and high schools.

    The project has “virtually doubled the number of students we can serve,” Robinson says, “compared to using standalone PCs with a hard disk and Windows software. It has allowed us to stretch our dollars much more effectively.”

    Part Two: Battle in the state house