Originally Published: Monday, 6 November 2000 Author: Emmett Plant
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Std View]

Linux and the Franklin Institute

You like science, don't you? The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia's premiere science museum, is using Linux to help inform, entertain and enthrall its patrons. Read more about it in this week's Linux.com Weekly Feature!

For anyone growing up in the greater Philadelphia area, the Franklin Institute is a well-known field trip excursion. Hundreds of school buses descend upon the Franklin Institute every year, and for good reason. The Franklin Institute is the area's largest science museum and home of the walk-through human heart. They've also been in operation for the past 176 years.

From biology to the physical sciences, the Franklin Institute is a fantastic place. The local NBC news affiliate culls the Franklin Institute weather center for weather reporting and amateur radio enthusiasts use the Institute's repeater on a daily basis. The Mandell Future Center features exhibits on Earth science as well as the massive Tuttleman IMAX Theater.

Think it ends there? Not a chance. The Franklin Institute is absolutely huge, and there's no way you could enjoy and absorb all of the exhibits in a single day. IMAX theater aside, the museum plays educational shows as well as laser productions in the Fels planetarium, and high-tech 3D programs in the aptly-named 3D Theatre. The second floor alone features exhibits on bioscience, electricity and aviation. Third floor? Sports science, weather station and mechanics.

The fourth floor covers math science and welcomes museum visitors into the astronomy exhibit and the Bloom Observatory, including telescope. This article can't even begin to cover the fantastic exhibits and educational explorations inside the museum. Outside the museum and back to the classroom, the museum integrates the current exhibits with outside websites and lesson plans for educators.

Partnerships play a big part of the Franklin Institute, as well. From their website:

The Center for Innovation in Science Learning (CISL) is a division of The Franklin Institute Science Museum that cultivates the development of important research, projects, and partnerships. The center's portfolio of programs, which has a longstanding establishment of alliances with many corporations and organizations, underscores the Institute's commitment to science learning research.

The Franklin Institute is partnered with companies (Unisys) as well as organizations (The National Science Foundation).

Another important partnership for the Franklin Institute is the wonderful relationship between the museum and a small penguin named 'Tux.' A small start-up company called LinuxForce maintains all of the Franklin Institute's Linux operations. While the Institute is very well-known and venerable, funds are just as scarce for any other large educational facility. A very large portion of new additions to the Institute in recent years have come from patrons and charitable trusts. Rather than hire a full-time Linux administrator, the Institute hires LinuxForce on a contract basis to perform key administration tasks.

LinuxForce has set up a webserver and workstations for the Institute, and they handle the Institute's UltraSeek search engine. This past weekend, they've been moving forward and replacing an IRIX system. Within the next week or two, Linux will be running the museum's main website, located at http://www.fi.edu.

Fans of the Debian GNU/Linux distribution should be proud to know that all of the Linux machines at the Franklin Institute are running the 'potato' version of the distribution. Moreover, as time passes, the Institute keeps finding uses for Debian. LinuxForce's Chris Fearnley fills us in on the details.

"On this new webserver, one of the reasons for the upgrade is because they want to do some video conferencing on the server, as well as the website. We're going to be setting up one of the Linux-based video conferencing systems, which is why they're opting for a big, beefy box to handle those video conferencing needs."

The kiosk clients for the 'Science Pulse' exhibit are all running Linux and Netscape. According to Chris, those machines need to be rebooted once a month because of Netscape memory-eating tendencies.

How did Linux get into the Institute in the first place? Read on.

The Institute has been on the internet since 1994. Back then, UNIX was the way to go, so they got an IRIX box for their webserver. The college graduates who were working there at the time, managing the network and making the technology decisions, were early Linux advocates. Judith Bush, one of the original people at that time, was the key to getting Debian accepted at the museum. When Judith moved on to greener pastures, the museum chose LinuxForce to step in and manage all of the Linux administration for the Institute, giving the museum the opportunity to outsource the work rather than hire a full-time administrator to handle the workload.

While no system is perfect (those kiosks do need a monthly reboot), Linux is leading the way in Open Source technology at one of America's finest educational institutions. From web infrastructure to kiosk systems, Linux hides beneath the surface, serving up page after page of relevant science information. Soon, Linux will play a larger role, facilitating video conferencing and connecting the Franklin Institute's staff and patrons in real-time audio and video to locations world-wide.