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Linux Makes the Grade in California Schools

A few growing pains aside, a Linux deployment in a Santa Rosa, CA elementary school district is maturing robustly, letting teachers and students stand apart from their previous dependence on Microsoft Windows while they try on new open software attitudes.

The transition in Santa Rosa from Windows NT 4 to Ubuntu Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) might not get an A+ mark based strictly on smoothness, suggested Jordan Erickson, who’s been overseeing the seven LTSP school networks ever since their launch about three years ago through his company, Silicon Valley-based Logical Networking Solutions (LNS). But overall, the Linux deployment is ranking highly with the seven schools involved, because it saves them money on Microsoft licenses, spares them from Windows upgrades, prevents computer viruses, and spurs greater collaboration, Erickson said.

The school district in Santa Rosa decided to switch to LTSP following a pilot program at a Boys and Girls Club in Petaluma, CA. Initially used in an after-school program for six-to-14-year-olds, the implementation at the kids’ clubhouse is still up and running, along with a smaller deployment at LNS, for a grand total of nine managed LTSP networks, all in Sonoma County. LNS administers the whole configuration from its offices in Santa Rosa, using Virtual Network Computing (VNC) over Secure Shell for Workstations (SSH) tunnels.

Each of the eight remote sites also has its own server, which serves up LTSP to the Koolu thin-client systems accessed by the kids for classroom lessons, after-school homework, Internet research, and--during lunch-time and the late afternoon--computer games.

Although some of the schools already had older Compaq PC workstations at the outset, other classrooms were just heading into computerization with the use of Neoware E100 or HP T5530 thin clients.

Linux-enabled applications used by the schools have revolved around the OpenOffice suite, Firefox browser, and Typing Tutor, a commercially developed program which teaches kids to type. Some of the schools are also running Virtual Machine (VM) Terminal Services for legacy Windows-based classroom learning applications, Erickson said.

Meanwhile, in its own offices, LNS has been running a custom virtual machine--hosted on the same LTSP server--along with a Windows-driven QuickBooks accounting system and Linux applications that include OpenOffice.org; Firefox; Thunderbird, for e-mail; Sunbird, for shared calendaring; Dia, for network diagramming, and a number of others. Shell scripts are utilized over the SSH tunnels to automate tasks such as synchronizing the directories on each server from a master.

"We’ve experienced a few hiccups with the VM," Erickson acknowledged. "We’ve also had some problems around OpenOffice and Firefox... Firefox has well known issues with LTSP, anyway," he added.

Erickson also noted, however, that LNS has been able to work out a lot of the glitches by communicating with other Linux community members through the Pidgin and XChat software applications.

The spirit of collaboration in Santa Rosa has been contagious, stretching into classrooms, too. Erickson concedes that, at first, LTSP underwent considerable opposition from some teachers.

"These teachers were so accustomed to Windows that any change was difficult for them," according to Erickson. "They’d say, ‘This is just weird.’"

LNS, however, taught the teachers they could do just about anything in Linux that they’d done in Windows--and more importantly, showed them how.

"After the teachers gained more mastery, they flipped a 180-degree turn. They grew excited about troubleshooting, and they were proud to be able to get to the point where they could solve problems even without our help."

Erickson contended that, along the way, Adobe’s lack of support for Shockwave Director on Linux has posed one of the biggest stumbling blocks to LTSP in the Santa Rosa schools.

"Adobe has finally added support for Flash Player on Linux, and that’s helpful. But there’s still been absolutely no response from Adobe to requests from the community for a plug-in to Director," he charged. As a result, teachers in Santa Rosa have been dropping a Director-enabled application formerly used during the first three grades of school. "And there have been some hard feelings against Adobe," Erickson said.

For the sake of underlying stability, Santa Rosa has been sticking with the Long Term Support (LTS) versions of Canonical’s Ubuntu Linux, beginning with Ubuntu 6.04 and migrating along to 8.04, the current deployment.

Hardware upgrades have been performed, as well. "We are putting stability and security first," Erickson said. "And we’re had zero viruses with LTS," he added.

Meanwhile, though, in the interests of greater ease of use, Erickson--who owns LNS--recently hired a subcontractor to develop a new graphical user interface (GUI) for Ubuntu LTS. At the same time, thought is now being given to putting lab technicians in place at each of the remote sites on the LTSP network, for on-site help to teachers and children.

Still, however, LTSP is bringing huge benefits to the elementary schools of Santa Rosa, and it promises to do likewise for other school districts, too, according to Erickson.

Beyond slashing the costs of Microsoft licenses, taking giant steps away from Windows permits the schools to hold on to their software investments. Particularly with LTS versions of Ubuntu, older software "doesn’t stop getting supported, the way it does in Windows," he said. Moreover, proposed changes to the OS "are examined in light of how they might potentially break other things."

Also as Erickson sees it, thin client systems can produce additional cost savings by providing better energy efficiency than Windows PCs.

"Schools these days just don’t have all that much to spend. They can apply the money they save from LTSP to other needs, such as books," he observed.

"The use of Linux and open source also gives schools a chance to collaborate with others, no matter where in the world those schools are located."

 

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