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In Brazil, a threat to the telecentres turns into an opportunity... for improvement

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By RITS

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL, 13 December 2005

When an intiative in Brazil to promote community telecentres was endangered, the threat was turned into an opportunity. Free Software tools were re-engineered in a way that they became more powerful and useful. Telecenters that are part of a telecentre-network can use the new system to allow roaming accounts between telecenters. So, a user can create an account on a telecenter in one city and go to other city and login with his original account, without having to make another profile for him on the new telecenter.

Brazilian NGO Rits's experience with community telecenters began at 2003-2004 participating in São Paulo's Community Telecenters project. The local government implemented over 120 community telecenters in the capital city attending over 500,000 people citywide with Rits's technical and administrative support.

The project used, at the time, a very customized version of the GNU/Linux free (as in freedom) operating system, based on Debian, but completly focused on attending their specific project.

[Debian, organized by the Debian Project, is a widely used distribution of free software developed through the collaboration of volunteers from around the world. Debian is known for its adherence to the Unix and free software philosophies, and for its abundance of options —the current release includes over fifteen thousand software packages. It is volunteer-driven and doesn't depend on corporate support for its work, winning it many deeply committed fans.]

The idea of the distribution is to use a very favourable cost-benefit structure based on LTSP, or the Linux Terminal Server Project, using a thin-client model network infrastructure.

[A thin client does most of its processing on a central server with as little hardware and software as possible at the user's location, and as much as possible at some centralized managed site. This means that older, and lower-powered, computers can be deployed instead of costly new ones.]

One server that runs Sacix can run 20 (or more, depending on server hardware) thin clients. Thin clients don't need local hard disks, and boot remotely using the network card and load a mini-distribution in RAM just to make the client/server of LTSP work.

After that, all application that run on the clients desktop actually are running at the server. This reduces drastically hardware costs since thin clients can use very low power processors (for example, the Via 600Mhz), low RAM (64/128 would be enough for most) and no hard drive.

It also reduces system administration, since all stations run from the server so an upgrade or maintainence is done only on one machine rather the 20 PCs in a typical telecenter.

When Rits, whose Portuguese acronym stands for Information Network for the Third Sector, entered the project, they started to analyze how things could be better.

By then, support for a network with over 2000 machines running Sacix's older version -- at the time the largest community telecenter network running FOSS or Free/Libre and Open Source Software in the world -- was becoming very problematic.

The distribution was ISO based, so you had to burn a new ISO every time to update the server and completly re-install it. (An ISO image in computing is a disc image of an ISO 9660 file system, that comes on a compact disc or CD.)

Also, performance problems were an issue since more applications were required and hardware detection was almost-completly manual.

In 2005, the São Paulo telecenter project suffered a severe holdback. Funds were reduced and the staff that was reduced to a minimal, to guarantee that the project didn't die.

Since the Sacix project was of deep interest for community telecenters nationwide, and hundreds were already using the old problematic version, at the middle of 2005 Rits, and Coletivo Digital joined forces to support the

Sacix distribution.

With that, the project got a boost. A website with full documentation and mailing lists for community participation were put up to support the project and re-join developers worldwide to help the new development.

For the development part a SVN (version control) was put up to make development as well organized as possible, adopting a Debian/Ubuntu style of software development.

Today, Sacix is developed in a very professional structure, thats wasn't possible in older versions due to the lack of resources at São Paulos Government for this specific project.

The project already counts on the work of two Debian developers working directly in Rits's staff and several other developers nationwide, including a Gnome Foundation Member, using the lists and the SVN.

With this major structure upgrade and also organizational upgrade, the Sacix distribution was totally remade. Starting at the middle of 2005 Rits and Coletivo Digital launched the new version at and Free Software congress in São Paulo on November 5, 2005.

The new version is made as an authentic CDD (customized Debian distribution) which makes it completly updatable with the latest Debian packages via APT, the software tool used to updated Debian software usually via the Fuente: TechSoup Glossary y GenderIT.org ">internet

.

Also hardware detection was deeply enhanced making it possible to run several different hardware thin clients on the same telecenter. A completly new installer, based on Debian's also-new installar, was made for the

project so installation is now much more simple.

Performance issues were also resolved in most parts of the project making the system much more stable and faster since resources now are better distributed and processor load balancing is made using AND and some other techniques.

Together with Sacix, on the CD as an optional install, is a user management software developed specifically for community telecenter use.

The software counts on a web interface running on PHP on the server and a altered PAM module that integrates authentication with the user database created by the web admin.

This system also generates real-time usage reports giving possibility for all sorts of reports like gender, age or ethnic utilization of the telecenter. Also, the telecenter can be part of a telecenter network and use the system to allow roaming accounts between telecenters.

A user can create an account on a telecenter in one city and go to other city and login with his original account, without having to make another profile for him on the new telecenter. This makes usage stats much more

reliable.

Lots of new features are expected to be included on the next versions of Sacix and the user administration system to be launched in April 2006. Work is already in progress.

Native support for the Spanish language is already in the list, since Portuguese and English are already supported on Sacix latest version. Virtual disks for users to access personal files while roaming between

telecenters and other features are planned also.

Rits says it hopes that Sacix can become a standard for community telecenters in Brazil and Latin America and counts on support and development from dozens of partners in Latin America.

Author: --- (RITS)
Contact: info@rits.org.br
Source: RITS
Date: 12/13/2005
Location: SAO PAULO, Brazil
Category: Free Software

(FIN/2005)

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