Providing Affordable Workstations for Your Campaign Office
The last article on Setting up Office for the Campaign, was basic and general enough to cover the gambit starting from the dining room campaign office of a candidate seeking election in a rural county or small municipality. This article assumes that that you're needs are greater.
If your campaign plan involves bringing together multiple volunteers in an office setting to move the work of the campaign forward, reading this article could save you thousands of dollars or alternately make possible campaign capacity you might not have thought possible.
Even with consumer grade machines now available for $300 or $400, the cost of equipping an office with multiple desktops can quickly add up.
Most personal computers spend more processor cycles waiting on humans and network connections, than actually doing work for their users. Understanding this makes it possible to turn Pentium-I class machines retired from service for the back of the closet six and ten years ago, into work stations for volunteers who are doing the work of your campaign.
A Pentium 3 class machine (still used and often available in larger cities for under $150.00), or even a late model Pentium 2 ($50.00), either with enough memory ($50, $100; you can never have too much memory), can enable a handful of workstations recovered from the backs of closets. The Georgia Green Party office used a late model P2 processor as an LTSP server for a six client network.
Clients and servers are a framework for thinking about how computers communicate with each other. Your dialup modem (if you are still using one) uses a Peer-to-Peer Protocol (PPP) to establish a connection to the internet. But once established, most communication from then on is with one or another server <--> client protocol. Your web browser (client) makes a request of a web server (server), which returns a document which is then rendered by the local client application. Your email is accessed through an email client which interacts with your email server. (This is true even if you use your browser to access your email client served to you as a web application).
LTSP stands for Linux Terminal Server Project. It refers to a set of applications which permit an ordinary computer to make its desktop applications available on remote client desktops across a network connection. Your LTSP server has two network cards in it: one to talk to the outside world, and one to talk to the local network.
The LTSP server becomes what is known as a gateway between the Local Area Network (LAN) and the Wide Area Network (WAN), in this case the Internet itself.
Recycled no-cost client machines, with only 32 or 64 mb of memory, a boot CD or floppy, no hard drive but both a network card and a video display card can host a modern secure desktop, for an end user. The boot CD has the machine contact the LTSP server over the local network. The server responds by sending it a kernel to boot. The client machine creates a small RAMdisk, boots itself over the network and then mounts shared file systems which are hosted on the LTSP server.
The local processor on the client machine is responsible only for the graphical display and interactions with local peripherals (printers and such). The server machine serves any application installed (including the ones mentioned in my last blog), and provides the memory and processor necesasry for running those applications.
So how many recycled workstations can a single LTSP server serve? That is completely up to the specifications of the server. For my larger setups, I've never had more than a 350 mhz processor and 256mb of memory to throw at the problem. But we had reasonable user experiences on the work stations with four clients working at the same time. The documentation for the LTSP project reports one office where fifty active work stations were supported by a server (available at retail for perhaps $1200 or $1500) with twin P4 processors and 2gb of RAM, with the load average rarely topping 1.00. Most of these work stations were apparently running browsers, email clients and office suites.
Its an investment, building an LTSP network, requiring some technical skills. But it could be a solution which makes a functioning office possible for a low-budget campaign. And its a solution which makes sense even if you are investing in all new equipment for every desktop. Using the client-server model lowers maintainance overhead.
If every workstation in the office boots off of only one server, that means that you have only one server to upgrade, maintain, backup and secure from abusive access. The LTSP's file sharing architecture, while protecting the privacy of one user's files from another user's curious eyes, also allows a great deal of flexibility to permit files to be shared among users, for a common local database to be built with appropriate access controls. And upgrades made at the request of a single user can instantly be made available to every user who's machine boots from the server.
Its hard to beat the economics of an LTSP server. Ask the IT folks who work with your campaign if this might be a feasible solution for your campaign.
[img_assist|nid=82|title=A Diagram of the LTSP Network Topology|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=100|height=99]