For Rhode Island portal, Linux rules

When Jim Willis decided to use Linux software for Rhode Island's new rules and regulations portal, many in the state's government doubted it would work.

He not only quieted the naysayers in four months but also convinced a handful of state agencies to test Linux servers and applications for everyday operations.

'There was a lot of resistance to using Linux in government,' said Willis, the special project consultant for Rhode Island's Office of the Secretary of State. 'But I saw this as the perfect opportunity because of speed and cost factors and the ability to change some people's minds about open-source software.'

The system has turned many doubters into believers. Ninety-five agencies now use it to submit Adobe Portable Document Format files with information on rules and regulations to the Secretary of State's office.

Last month, the office added a feature that will e-mail users when items of interest to them are approved. More than 240 residents have signed up to receive that notification.

Deployment of the portal took only six months and cost $3,000, Willis said.

'When people saw what we were doing and for such a small cost, credibility shot up,' Willis said. 'Many people thought this would take several years to complete.'

The agency waited for more than five years to receive the state legislature's permission to develop an online catalog of rules and regulations, Willis said. Former Secretary of State Jim Langevin, now a member of Congress, originally drafted legislation to give his office the authority to require state agencies to file rules and regulations electronically. It passed as a part of current Secretary of State Edward Inman's Opening the Doors of Government initiative last year.

Willis agreed to work on the project under the condition of using Linux.

'I wanted to model the site after Freshmeat.net, an open-source library,' Willis said. 'I looked at the state site similarly because agencies upload rules and regulations and residents download them, similar to the sharing that happens on Freshmeat.net.'

A great price for apps

Willis designed the portal using Apache Web server software running under Linux Version 7.2 from Red Hat Inc. of Research Triangle Park, N.C. The system stores the rules and regulations on an open-source MySQL database from MySQL AB of Sweden. Willis received the applications for free and customized them to fit the portal's needs.

The software runs on a 1-GHz Dell PowerEdge 2500 server. Most of the project's funding went to hardware, Willis said.

'If we would have done this on a Microsoft platform, it would have cost us several thousand dollars in software alone,' he said. 'Dell comes with Linux preinstalled, and the software is hardware efficient, meaning you can get good performance with less powerful hardware. We wanted to make sure the system was scalable so we went with a higher-end Dell server.'

Agencies submit PDF files through a form written in PHP scripting language and created in HTML on an Internet browser. Once the form is filled out, the user is prompted to attach the regulation or rule in PDF and submit it to the Secretary of State's office.

'We wanted to make it as easy as possible,' Willis said. 'We provided about six tutorial sessions, and once they saw how easy it was to use, employees felt more comfortable.'

Rhode Islanders can search 1,700 regulations. Willis modified an open-source search engine to turn the PDF files into text that becomes separated by the search engine into column sets. This lets residents search by keyword, agency, date or other search criteria. Residents who sign up for e-mail notification receive announcements on a daily or weekly basis.

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