UMF techies bypass software

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FARMINGTON – A group of brainy computer lab employees at the University of Maine at Farmington devised a way to simultaneously save the college thousands of dollars and to free themselves in part from corporate-software slavery last year.

Now, their work has been published in one of the world’s top LINUX and UNIX technical journals, SysAdmin, according to a UMF statement.

UMF Computer Network Manager Tom O’Donnell and colleagues Aaron Gagnon and David Irving blended and integrated open-source or public domain software programs to run the school’s server over the course of the last year, O’Donnell said.

Their work allowed the college to stop paying former software proprietor Novell a $15,000 per year fee, putting more money back into other software the computer center needs, center Director Mal Carey said Thursday.

“This past semester was the very first of live use,” UMF spokeswoman Jennifer Eriksen said. “There were very few glitches and it was very streamlined. It not only saved money, but it also freed up the staff to work on other more innovative projects. We’re the only college in the UMaine system that has gone this route.”

Servers provide file storage and printing services at UMF, Carey explained. College computer centers work differently than home offices usually do. Rather than storing personal files on each computer’s hard drive, computer center users (and others on the school’s network) can save their files to a personal folder on the server, and then access that folder from any computer hooked up to the network.

This way, students don’t have to sit at the same computer each day when using the computer center. The server also allows students to print their files without having to be connected by wires to the printer, Carey said.

“We’ve used the extra money to fulfill a whole bunch of functions,” Carey said. “This deals with a little slice of not being as well funded by the state, really.”

State funding for UMF makes up about one-third of the school’s total budget now, Carey said. Years ago, they used to make up around two-thirds of the budget. “That’s created a crunch,” he said.

The open network idea had been tossed around before last winter, but it was last year the three UMF guys started to really get serious about it, O’Donnell said.

“None of us had experience doing this particular thing,” he said.

“We weren’t absolute beginners, but we weren’t rocket scientists either,” Gagnon said. In fact, with the right attitude most technologically-minded people could to it. “You don’t even have to have a bachelor’s degree,” Gagnon said.

The three integrated two programs – Samba and LDAP – with other parts of the college network, and had finished by late August.

“The hardest part was tying it all together,” Gagnon said. “It’s like building a car from scratch.”

Now that it’s been up and running a whole semester, both said it’s also easier to use than Novell.

“They’re both imperfect mechanisms; all operating systems are imperfect or we wouldn’t have jobs,” O’Donnell said. “It requires attention, management, and tweaking to keep things in a stable situation.” But the new system is much easier to fix or work around when there is a problem, they agreed.

“At least you can go look at stuff yourself when there is a glitch,” Gagnon said.

They even called on one of LDAP’s original creators one night, when they were enmeshed in a problem, he said.

And the feeling of accomplishment now that it’s done? “It was just three friends building a car, really,” O’Donnell joked.

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