Learning About Linux

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

Budget restrictions often limit the level of computer technology available for everything from church office automation to Sunday morning worship.

Now, even churches on a shoestring computing budget can take advantage of features worth thousands of dollars, for next to nothing.

This article explores Linux as a cost effective alternative to the traditional Microsoft environment by presenting a real-life case study of Linux in the church.

What is Linux?
Quoting directly from www.linux.org, “Linux is a free Unix-type operating system originally created by Linus Torvalds with the assistance of developers around the world. Developed under the GNU General Public License, the source code for Linux is freely available to everyone.” A Linux timeline is available on the Linux Journal website at http://www.linuxjournal.com/article.php?sid=6000

Despite typical connotations of Unix as an archaic operating system, Linux is quite the opposite. It has not just one graphical user interface, but many to choose from, and all of them fully customizable in look and feel. You can even make it look and feel just like Windows, or a Macintosh computer for that matter. And, Linux is well known for its rock solid stability – systems stay running for hundreds of days without even a glitch.
If the word “free” caught your eye, it gets even better. Anybody can download Linux for free or purchase a packaged distribution at any major computer store for well under $100. Either way, you can install it on as many computers as you like.

Does this sound too good to be true? You can decide for yourself as we take a look at a real-life example of Linux in the church.

Dalhousie Community Church (www.dccnet.org) in Calgary, Alberta, is a healthy growing church of about 400 participants. As the technology needs of the church grew, it became apparent that implementing a traditional Windows based environment would quickly become cost prohibitive.

Network Backup and Recovery
The network was comprised of workstations in a peer to peer configuration with shared folders accessible by other staff members. None of the computers had an appropriate backup solution in place and managing the individual shared folders was becoming an administrative nightmare. A Linux file server was put into place using Samba (www.samba.org), the equivalent of Windows file and printer sharing. An immediate cost saving was realized by redeploying an older Pentium 150 MHz computer for this purpose. Destined for the dumpster due to the ravenous resource requirements of Windows, this machine had a new lease on life with the much lighter hardware diet of Linux. Each staff member could now access their home directory files through a new network drive letter (H:) on the Linux server. Since this server also had an internal tape drive, it was a simple matter of writing a script to be run automatically on a periodic basis to copy files to tape. Another script was also written to perform nightly backups of user files to a backup folder in their home directory. This enabled staff to perform “self serve” file restores by simply dragging copies of the files from their backup folder to the original location.

Easy High Speed Internet for Everybody
The church already had shared dial-up Internet access, however, it was prone to problems as the modem resided in a workstation that could be rebooted at any time, severing the connection. Compounding the situation was that the phone line was shared by the fax machine. This meant that while staff were browsing web pages or sending email, inbound faxes could not be received.

A cable modem was installed and an old Pentium 100 MHz computer, also destined for the dumpster, was loaded with Linux and two network cards. Using NAT (network address translation), the Linux firewall computer (without a monitor, keyboard, or mouse), would seamlessly allow concurrent web browsing and email by all the computers on the network. No more missed faxes, no more aborted sessions, a security gate against hackers, and most of all, simultaneous fast access for everyone.

A growing concern was the increased reception of “junk” faxes which not only tied up the fax line but wasted fax paper and imposed increased wear and tear on the fax machine.

HylaFax (www.hylafax.org) is an extremely powerful fax utility available for Linux. Once loaded on the Linux file server and a fax modem installed from the former dial-up access computer, inbound faxes were now able to be received by the Linux file server. Once a fax is received, it is automatically converted to Adobe PDF format and emailed to the office secretary. The fax can then be forwarded, printed, or just deleted. The fax server software can even be programmed to reject faxes from repeat junk fax offenders. Outbound faxing from any Windows application is also possible – just print a document to the “fax printer” and a dialog window pops up allowing you to enter the fax cover information before transmission occurs. The existing fax machine is still used for outgoing faxes that are not in computer format.

PDF Document Creation
The built-in capability of PDF document creation was used in the mailing of Sunday bulletins. Traditionally, this was done via regular postal mail. With a number of international mailings, the cost increased rapidly. Now, the office secretary simply prints the bulletin as usual, however, choosing the “eBulletin” printer (a Samba pseudo printer) causing the document to be converted to PDF format on the server. Another script periodically checks for the existence of this PDF file and then emails it to a list of recipients.

Remote Support
pcAnywhere is a useful Windows application for providing remote user support by taking over a users keyboard and mouse and viewing their screen remotely. Similar functionality was achieved with Linux by installing on each staff computer a free Windows client program called VNC (Virtual Network Computing) and coupling it with SSH (Secure Shell) on the Linux firewall computer. A secure encrypted channel is created between the support individual’s computer via SSH and the Linux firewall at the church. The screen, keyboard, and mouse movements can then pass freely and securely through this channel in order to assist staff.

Other Applications
A web based trouble ticketing system for property related matters also runs on Linux. An open source package called Request Tracker was installed to easily assign and keep track of property repairs and maintenance issues. The office secretary fills in a simple web page with the required information and the appropriate individuals are dispatched via email and/or pager. A database is automatically updated with the pertinent information which can later be used for reporting purposes.

Recording the Sunday sermon for inclusion on the web site has also been streamlined. Previously, a second tape was recorded to be later played into a computer to be digitized. This meant that if the sermon was thirty minutes in length, it would take another thirty minutes to digitize the sermon. Linux has sped up this process by recording the sermon live from the audio mixing board. An older Pentium 75 MHz computer with a sound card was used (no monitor, keyboard, or mouse necessary). A script on the Linux computer is run automatically on Sunday morning to record the sermon to a file. After the service is over, the computer compresses the audio file and transfers it over the Internet to the webmaster’s computer. When the webmaster arrives home after the service, it takes barely five minutes to shave off the start and end of this file to the appropriate points and upload the resulting file to the website.

Comparing Costs
The following table shows the cost of the features implemented at DCC for both Windows and Linux environments.
A more in depth cost comparison, entitled Linux vs. Windows Total Cost of Ownership Comparison by Cybersource Pty. Ltd. is available at http://www.cyber.com.au/cyber/about/linux_vs_windows_tco_comparison.pdf This study was published in April, 2002 and one of the staggering figures included in their scenario of a 250 user network relates to software licensing. For the 250 user Windows network, the licensing cost was $282,973.50 (U.S. dollars). For the same 250 user Linux network, the cost was a mere $79.95!

Linux on the Desktop
The biggest stumbling block for Linux on the desktop has been the availability of applications such as word processors, email, presentation programs, etc. This obstacle has largely been eliminated by the OpenOffice project (www.openoffice.org). OpenOffice is an open source equivalent to Microsoft Office that includes a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation graphics that will read and write the files from Microsoft equivalent products like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. The entire suite is available as a free download in both Linux and Windows format. Ximian Evolution is an Outlook look-a-like from Ximian Inc. (www.ximian.com) that provides email, contacts, calendar, and task lists. You can even synchronize it with your Palm Pilot just like Windows does with Outlook. With Ximian Evolution on Linux, you are automatically immune from Windows viruses as you are no longer in a Windows environment.

So what’s the catch?
The good news is that there is no catch. You just need to have somebody available that is knowledgeable about Linux. The same caveat applies for a Windows environment.

While Linux has nearly the equivalent features of Windows (and possibly much more depending upon your requirements), where it really shines is the bottom line – you can deploy the Windows features you want in an equivalent Linux environment for next to nothing and achieve a higher level of stability as a result. Who wouldn’t be interested in that?