Tech Audit

A Lot for a Little

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There may be no free lunch, but there is near-free computing.

We spent $50 at a surplus store for a Pentium III 650 megahertz computer with 256 megabytes of RAM. It was an old Gateway, complete with a 17-inch monitor, an ergonomic Microsoft keyboard and a Microsoft mouse. The 14-gigabyte hard drive was clean, no operating system. Back at the office, we had a strip of junk RAM and managed to upgrade RAM to 384 MB.

The goal: Determine whether we could take a junk machine, load it with free open source software and find it feasible for running a law office.

We knew part of the answer: We are already running one of our Lotus Notes servers on the Ubuntu Linux operating system, using weak, but not junk, hardware. Ubuntu, which according to the Web site means “humanity to others” in an “ancient African” language, is free. This setup performs admirably, serving multiple Windows desktop machines.

Desktop Duty

The traditional rap on Linux is that it’s great for a server, but not ready for prime time on the desktop. Can ordinary users toss Microsoft Windows and use Ubuntu? We loaded Ubuntu on our “new” junk desktop. Ubuntu comes with OpenOffice, so it contains a Microsoft Office compatible suite for word processing, spreadsheets, databases and presentation. That solves a major problem for all but the most pure Microsoft shops. Also with Ubuntu is a Linux version of the Firefox Web browser. Our office uses Firefox as the standard on our Windows machines, so the Linux version feels like home. So far, so good.

Ubuntu comes with Synaptic Package Manager, which installs any of nearly 18,000 free programs. We searched Synaptic for a program to compose outlines and found a couple of choices, but they did not look full featured.

So we decided to install Wine, the free open source Windows compatibility layer for Linux, which theoretically allows you to run Windows software on a non Windows system. Then we downloaded our favorite Windows outliner (not free) and attempted to install. Ubuntu knew to have Wine open the outliner’s .exe install file, but it promptly crashed. The problem appears solvable, but we did not have time to fix it before deadline. While Notes can be installed on individual PCs using Wine, we find Notes’ mail and calendar work well through a Web browser. Our custom databases, however, would require some Web optimization before they would be fully functional in a browser. Ubuntu has a plethora of print drivers, and others are available on the Net. And Westlaw functions identically on Ubuntu as on Windows. Presumably, so would Lexis and any browser based research database. Furthermore, speed is good on Ubuntu Linux—much better than Windows would be on an equivalent machine.

The amount of open source software available for Linux is incredible. For most everything else, Wine should suffice, though it may require a stronger machine than our junker. The fact that we could not get Wine to run in the 15 minutes we devoted to it shows some of the pain that can quickly use up the Linux cost advantage.

So while our test machine may be junk, Ubuntu is not. There are all the Unix tools available that many won’t want, but some will find indispensable.

If you are a true cheapskate, on a tight budget or just want to play (particularly if you are about to discard an old dog machine), try Ubuntu. Functionality you never imagined could be free.

And there is nothing to prevent you from loading Ubuntu onto a strong new machine. It may please even more, whether as a server or a desktop. All kinds of Ubuntu help is available on the Internet.

David Beckman and David Hirsch practice in the law firm of Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa. Contact Beckman by e mail at [email protected] or Hirsch at [email protected].

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