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(!) Making the Connection

By Anthony E. Greene

Somewhere in the shuffle the original querent's message has been lost, but basically, they asked about connecting their hospital together, so that the doctors could communicate with ER and ICU, staff could access suitable records or charts, etc. The doctors are not dumb people, but they already have a specialty and a job to do, so it has to be a pretty clean setup.

You could setup a PPP server and use the modems to make dialup PPP connections. This would allow you to use graphical network applications such as browsers, FTP clients, and network file managers such as GNOME's GMC.

Distributions and Packages

Without knowing more about what resources you have available, I cannot make specific recommendations. Red Hat, Mandrake, Slackware, Debian, SuSe, and Caldera all come with the tools you'll need to setup a network. I have not used Corel but I've read that they left some server and development packages out. That may be fine for home desktops, but in a business environment I'd want a distribution that includes everything I might need and lets me choose what to leave out or disable. You will need some server packages to implement a solution and you will want development packages available in case you need some tools that are not available in a package.

Data Entry

First you need to figure out what applications will be used for data entry. Eventually, you may find you need a database application, but it sounds like what you need right now is something that generates documents that can be shared. If the results are to be typed out as free text, a text editor is probably the best way to go. The text editors that ship with GNOME (gedit) and KDE (kedit) are both adequate, but something like Nedit has fewer bugs and more power. If you need to use templates for data entry, you could either create some read-only files as templates or create templates in a StarOffice for use with its word processor.
For something with a little more familiarity to GUI users, AbiWord can edit plain text, RTF, and simple DOC files. It has a toolbar that any Word user could use with no problem and is fairly lightweight. AbiWord is part of GNOME Office and ships with the Ximian (Helixcode) desktop.
There are some Open Source medical applications available. Try searching for them at Freshmeat <http://www.freshmeat.net/>;, Sourceforge <http://www.sourceforge.net/>;, and Google <http://www.google.com/>;.

Desktop Applications

If you really need an integrated solution for Linux desktops at a minimal cost, StarOffice is a good choice. The latest version (5.2) is still a serious memory and resource hog and takes time to startup. But once it's running, its speed is reasonable, considering its large feature set.
I haven't used Applixware, but it is supposed to be very usable and programmable. The latter may prove useful to you if you plan to use it for data entry. Applixware is not free, but is a lot less expensive than MS Office.
For intranet browsing and email, I still recommend Netscape Communicator 4.7x. It works fairly well, is stable on non-Java pages, and supports LDAP and HTML mail. These last two features are very useful in an organizational mail client. Netscape 6.x does not support LDAP and StarMail's LDAP interface is too difficult to be useful. An LDAP server is not too hard to setup for small organizations and is great for maintaining an organizational address book.


After the data is entered, you will need to make it sharable. I suggest each department have a directory that only they can write to and any authorized use can read. Setting up these groups and permissions is not too complicated, but is more than I want to cover here.
The key thing about sharing is deciding what protocols you will use to share. Client applications for FTP and HTTP are easy to use. Both servers are easy to install. But the permissions scheme for HTTP is separate from the system user and groups settings. That makes it complicated to setup if you have multiple groups of users that need different permissions. So I don't recommend using Apache and HTTP to share the documents.
You can use FTP, but the WuFTPd server that has shipped with many distributions is an almost constant source of security problems. Just make sure you disable anonymous logins if you choose to use FTP. Web browsers are great FTP clients because they can launch external applications to view documents. The only real problem with FTP is that passwords are sent over the network unencrypted. On a small, closed network this should not be a problem.
This is probably more than you expected, but it's just enough to get you started. Running a network will mean learning a lot at first, but it should run well after it's setup.

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Published in issue 65 of Linux Gazette April 2001
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