Open Source Public Workstations

Open source software lowers libraries' cost, environmental impact

May 1, 2009

In a time where an economic downturn and concerns about climate change are influencing library managers' decisions, many libraries are looking for ways to save money and reduce environmental impact. Open source operating systems and software applications can decrease power utilization while providing a positive patron experience.

Prior to 1999, mentions of any open source operating system in mainstream library literature were hard to find. Linux might have been discussed everywhere in the computer science world, but no one was writing about using Linux and other open source solutions for desktop computing in a public setting. By 2000 Linux was making headway as a server operating system in libraries. Roy Tennant kicked off the year writing about open source software in Library Journal. By mid-decade, discussion of Linux and open source technology in libraries was commonplace. In 2005, these discussions expanded to include use of Linux for desktop computers and public workstations.

Three approaches

There are three distinct approaches to using open source software for public workstations. The first approach is simply to replace the Windows operating system with a Linux distribution on every PC.

The second method is to utilize a multiuser configuration, based on Linux, that supports two to six users on a workstation. The third recommendation is to use the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) software to run a terminal session for every user from a central server or set of servers. This thin-client effort can support a large number of users connected to one server-50 or more, if the server is configured appropriately. It can significantly simplify system administration because the server administers all functions. This approach requires greater technical knowledge but may also result in greater hardware savings, reduced power consumption, and reduced air-conditioning costs.

Organizations using these models report mixed results, but their experimenting with open source public workstations is overwhelmingly positive. They have proven effective in cutting cost and environmental impact.

Two future trends

Two trends that will continue to impact libraries are also likely to help facilitate the introduction of more open source workstations. First, funding issues, particularly in light of the current economic climate, will make it imperative that libraries find ways to spend their technology budgets more efficiently. That alone will continue to encourage interest in low-cost, open source computing solutions.

Second, we can expect to see the continued development of Webbased applications for office productivity and other common functions. Cloud computing utilities, such as those offered by Amazon, Google, Sun, and others, make it possible for application developers to utilize a software-as-aservice (SaaS) model without having to create the infrastructure and middleware necessary for such systems. The result is speedier development of scalable Web-based applications and more options for consumers.

Growth potential

Open source public workstations are an excellent option for libraries looking for cost-effective alternatives to proprietary software. Any systems decision in a library is extremely important, so it is vital for decision makers to consider all angles before making a choice. Still, with growing popularity and a growing number of options available, open source workstations are an increasingly important part of the library technology world.

John Houser is a senior technology consultant at PALINET. This article was adapted from the April 2009 issue of Library Technology Reports.