Perspectives Online

Mac minis make big difference for county centers

The College's EIT group, directed by Rhonda Conlon (right), put a team effort into the rollout of new county center computer systems using the Mac mini (held in front).
Photo by Becky Kirkland

When Cooperative Extension county center computer systems needed updating, Extension Information Technology (EIT) responded with some creative and cost-effective solutions. They turned to the Mac mini, Apple's 6.5-by-2-inch desktop computer, for county server and desktop needs. Months of systems tests of the redesigned configurations in eight counties resulted in a recent rollout of the new servers and desktop computers in 64 counties.

And so far, EIT could agree with Apple's Mac mini slogan: "Small is beautiful."

The problems the new servers and desktop computers addressed are many, says Rhonda Conlon, EIT director in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

"The existing Linux servers were aging and needed to be replaced in 2007," she says. "That system comprised application servers in each office with terminals on employees' desktops."

For those unfamiliar with this type of system, terminals don't have hard drives; they access the applications that are installed on a central office server, Conlon explains. "As is typical in that type of multi-user system, employees were not allowed to install their own software on the server. Multimedia applications did not run in that environment (no audio, video, or Flash); the terminals didn't have the ability to read or write to CDs, and there was not a version of Microsoft Office for Linux."

There were support problems, as well. "The offices that EIT supported had used application servers and terminals since the early 1990s," she says. "We wanted to move them to personal computers, but our staffing levels (two computer support specialists) are too low to support Windows PCs from a distance."

EIT was seeking a way that its existing staff could support personal computers on every CES desk with Microsoft Office software, multimedia capability, and user freedom to add software, while still providing reliable file backup and recovery services.

"The most promising possibility," says Conlon, "was Mac mini computers on the desktops and Apple Xserve servers. Apple loaned us a server and other equipment for the month of August 2005. With that equipment we were able to test thoroughly enough to determine that it was a supportable option for the county offices. We tested the systems into early 2006 and learned about the operating system. After promising technical results, we realized that the Apple Xserve servers were cost prohibitive, so we redesigned the system using Mac minis as servers. This cut projected roll-out costs by about $500,000, compared to using Apple Xserve servers."

EIT obtained funding to do an eight-county beta test using the redesigned configuration in April-May 2006. The "real" rollout started in November 2006 and was completed on March 1, 2007, with 64 counties obtaining Mac equipment. The other sites are already supported or will be supported by their county IT units by July.

Already, Conlon says, the new system has enhanced compatibility with campus systems, significantly improved users' ability to work with photos and other multimedia, provided freedom to install additional software as needed and added a robust disaster recovery and backup plan for the county systems.

"On the support side, we also now have the ability to use Apple Remote Desktop to remotely manage individuals' computers," says Conlon. "With users' permission we can take control of their desktops from here in Raleigh.

"This is a big factor - us being able to support the computers remotely."

Equally impressive, says Conlon, "is that we were able to redesign a system to fit within budget constraints. Using Mac minis on office desktops is a bit of a departure to begin with, but using them as servers is a fairly 'outside the box' solution to specifically meet our needs for disaster recovery and file backup."

The rollout has definitely been an EIT team effort, Conlon says.

"Computer support specialists Nathan Snodgrass and E'very Ware have been key throughout the entire process, from initial system design to installation in the 64 offices," she says. "Our system administrator Janyne Kizer also has contributed to the testing, system development and client preparations."

Additionally, information management agents John Dorner, Bruce Emmons, Adrian Gaskins and Robert Neely, along with Conlon, have been heavily involved in training efforts, with secretary Dana Temple organizing the logistics.

"Even EIT's four application developers have assisted in various ways," Conlon says, "from helping deliver equipment around the state to assisting with computing support calls to filling in for me at meetings, while the rest of us have been absorbed in the rollout. And our Help Desk employees have had a big role in answering questions about the new systems."

- Terri Leith