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Thin Linux implementation right prescription for doctors

A New York medical group sweeps its desktops clean of Windows and Novell and moves in a bevy of Linux thin clients.

TORONTO -- Thin is in with Capital Cardiology Associates, and it has little to do with shrinking waistlines.

The Albany, N.Y., medical group has replaced its aging, mixed Novell-Windows desktop environment with a bevy of thin clients running the Linux Terminal Server project off a central IBM xSeries server. The migration has resulted in a 30% cost savings and 100% uptime since it was completed five months ago.

I cannot see how you wouldn't be better off over a five-year term with Linux. The big surprise is that the return on investment is much, much larger [than anticipated].
Dr. Martin Echt
CEOCapital Cardiology Associates

"Our system and network were getting old. We had a large expansion and doubled to about 200 desktops in a year and a half," said Dr. Martin Echt, Capital Cardiology Associates CEO and self-professed "Unix fan" at last week's Real World Linux Conference and Expo. "At the end, it was still money. I cannot see how you wouldn't be better off over a five-year term with Linux. The big surprise is that the return on investment is much, much larger [than anticipated]."

Taking into account desktop and network maintenance charges, Dr. Echt initially expected to trim 10% to 15% off his IT budget by converting to Linux.

"We are seeing that support costs -- we're not talking about licensing -- have gone way down," Dr. Echt said. "The system no longer requires physical tech support. There's nobody on the floors anymore, there's nobody running around troubleshooting."

The medical group, with 14 locations in the Albany area, had been running Novell file services, NT domains, a mix of Windows 95, 98 and 2000 workstations on old Compaq hardware and newer Dell boxes. Exchange 5.5 handled messaging needs along with Outlook. Fractional and dedicated T1 lines and VPNs handled networking chores, said Jordan Rosen, CEO and founder of Lille Corp., an Albany, N.Y., consultancy that handled the migration.

"We went 100% thin client Linux and eliminated the desktop from the equation as a point of management," Rosen said, referring to LTSP, an add-on package for Linux that allows companies to connect thin clients to a Linux server. Applications typically run on the server, and accept input and display their output on the thin client display, according to the LTSP Web site.

"The beautiful part of it is if you have a problem at a workstation, you will just check the port by swapping the component. It doesn't have to be done by a tech person," Rosen said.

The group is running almost exclusively on open source software, the lone holdout being a Vexira antivirus scanner from Central Command Inc. Sendmail and IMAP are on the backend. Ximian Evolution handles e-mail, local calendaring and the task manager. OpenLDAP is the corporate address book and Webmin manages it. The staff uses Mozilla to access the Internet and OpenOffice as its productivity suite. All of this was done with relatively little push-back from users, Dr. Echt said.

The thin clients use open source BNC as a chat relay, Rosen said. BNC is an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) proxy server that allows users to connect to chat servers by bounding off the IBM xSeries server running BNC.

Rather than managing 200 desktops, Rosen's group keeps its eyes on the central IBM xSeries server. They configured Zabbix, a free monitoring tool, to watch the thin clients and connected it to a text paging system.

"We get proactive monitoring of all systems. If anything comes up that may de-stabilize, we are notified of it before it has a serious impact on the environment," Rosen said. "We focus on making sure those core servers are operating as efficiently as possible."

Dr. Echt, meanwhile, said the conversion from Windows and Novell to Linux took two months, a little longer than he had anticipated. He blamed a few lapses in communication, but overall said the experience was worth the wait.

"Once the conversion was done, there was some mop-up operations to do. Once that was done, [we have been] five months error free," Dr. Echt said. "No user complaints. No breakdowns. We are error free."

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