Communities a virtual success

20 May 2005

Fast communications pipes create a demand for information and another Meath County Council scheme, Communities Online Together, is in prime position to exploit the added bandwidth. Under the scheme, which recently won an Eircom Innovation Through Technology Award, local community groups are given space on the county council’s website. They are also given the training and tools necessary to make full use of that space.

Since the scheme was launched 195 local groups, ranging from residents associations to schools to sports clubs to senior citizen groups, have registered and so far 125 of them have their websites up and running. The council is adding new ones at the rate of 10 per month.
What is interesting from the council’s point of view is that it gained experience in the use of open source software. “The Communities Online Together project was a great opportunity for us to learn about open source,” says John Lawlor, head of information systems. “We used Lamp (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) architecture for the websites and Mambo as the content management system. We developed templates that we were able to push out to the groups.”

According to Lawlor, the technology was straightforward. “We also found the maintenance approach easy. Based on that experience, the libraries want to proceed with another project. They already provide internet access but what we want to do now is provide additional functionality to users. Again, this is a good opportunity to try an open source approach and find out which systems are useful to people.”

There is a degree of risk management but because this is not a mission-critical system it provides a good learning experience for Lawlor and his team. “We hope to give people access to word processing and spreadsheets. There are open source products out there that can be used,” he says. “There are also open source browsers and mail clients. Not only can we keep costs down but we can look at the way forward.”

Another possibility being considered is the use of Citrix and thin-client technology. “This would reduce our maintenance overhead,” says Lawlor. “Thin clients have an attraction for an IT department because of the reduced overhead. However, we want to take a careful look and make sure it would be compatible with our open source targets. But there may be other areas of the library service, such as applications, where it might be possible to go with Citrix if we can.”

According to Lawlor, the deployment of Citrix has implications beyond the library. In a sense, deployment at a project level is a rehearsal for deployment at corporate level. “Deploying at a project level will take us through the planning process and allows us to deploy it correctly when we come to doing it at a corporate level. We have seen thin-client technology working in Louth and we would like to go a little bit further. There is no point in putting in something such as this if we don’t try to push the envelope a bit.”

Lawlor is also overseeing the upgrading of the county council’s IT infrastructure. “We have a large number of server-based applications and we want to look at how we can consolidate these to reduce their number and at the same time beef up their robustness, reliability and security,” he says. “That may or may not involve using additional types of technology. There are a lot of products on market that give you better use of servers and storage and we will certainly investigate them all and at the same time do a certain degree of hardening of the systems from a security point of view.”

In the county hall, the local area network has been upgraded to gigabit Ethernet. “We now have much faster data going through our switches and cables and we are looking to improve this further. We have redesigned the network to give more fibre connectivity between locations and this has made a noticeable difference in speed to end users.

“In a wider context, we have been working with leased-line technology to connect our area offices and libraries and for the foreseeable future we will continue in that vein. That being said, I am looking at wireless technology. We are already using some unlicensed spectrum at the moment for connecting the enterprise centre and the county hall. The enterprise centre houses our geographical, roads engineering and IT development staff. We also have a wireless link to the fire station and through that to Navan Town Council offices. The problem is with all of the development going on in Navan we occasionally lose line of sight.”

By David Stewart