December 10, 2008

K12Linux founders hand off project to the Fedora community

Author: Tina Gasperson

Two Oregon educators who founded the K12Linux project seven years ago are glad that they have been able to hand that project over to Fedora, the home they always meant for K12Linux to have.

Paul Nelson and Eric Harrison met online when Nelson, a classroom teacher and technology director at a small school in Portland's Riverdale School District, went looking for Linux help. "We were doing everything on the back end with Linux, but I was spending a lot of time keeping the Windows desktops running. I thought how nice it would be to use Linux on the front end too. I posted a notice on the local user group mailing list." Harrison, then a Multnomah County IT Services support tech, befriended Nelson, and the two had an idea: make a specialized Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) distribution that would allow schools to use thin clients running Linux on old, inexpensive hardware.

Nelson and Harrison started K12LTSP, as it was known then, so they could show other schools how to use Linux in the classroom. Harrison met Jim McQuillan, the founder of the LTSP project, and told him about the school project. McQuillan recommended building on LTSP, so Harrison and Nelson started working on a proof of concept they could present to Red Hat.

"Our goal," says Nelson, "was to use Red Hat, and produce an installer that would install all the LTSP parts. The end result would be a working terminal server that anyone could install as easy as installing Red Hat. Part of that goal was to have Red Hat take over the work of distributing and maintaining the project. We didn't think it would take very long. It took seven years."

Harrison, who worked tirelessly as the lead developer on the project until it became a Fedora community effort, agrees. "We thought we'd do a first implementation and somebody would pick it up. But the original design of the terminal server software didn't integrate very well into a distribution. The original LTSP was an entire distribution on its own, with custom glibc, xserver, everything. So for Red Hat to take it on would double their quality assurance load." When Red Hat didn't immediately jump on board, Harrison, who was on the verge of burnout, still wasn't willing to abandon the project. "The fundamental flaw with K12LTSP is that is has mostly been me doing the grunt work," Harrison wrote on a related mailing list. He turned to the Ubuntu project for integration help.

"[Ubuntu founder Mark] Shuttleworth said he was interested but saw the same integration issues. We worked with Ubuntu and LTSP to come up with a way to make it easier to integrate LTSP into a distribution." Harrison's work led to the creation of the Edubuntu project, a parallel to K12Linux. Then he went to work "preaching to the choir," as he put it, "about how much we all have in common and how important it is that we all work together." His evangelistic approach finally brought the help he needed. "We worked together to backport this integration into Fedora," Harrison says. "We used actual packages from the distribution so that the amount of programs unique to the terminal server piece is very small. That makes it more manageable."

By early 2008, LTSP5 packages were "trickling" into the Fedora repositories, and with the release of Fedora 10, K12Linux was a full-fledged integrated piece of the distribution.

Needless to say, Harrison's workload on the project has decreased dramatically. "It's gone from 'I do all the work' to 'other people do most of the work,'" he says. "I feel great. The work that I used to do was unique. By making that investment in redesigning the core technology so that it is easier to integrate into distributions, now we have lots more development resources."

Nelson hopes that K12Linux will become a familiar name in schools all over the country. "The last great step is to be able to call up a vendor and say, 'I'd like to buy a K12Linux lab," he says. "You could do that with a reseller. Or call Dell, and they'll know what you're talking about, but you wouldn't be able to search their Web site and find the price. Hewlett-Packard too. HP produces nice thin clients for $150 or $200, but they don't market them. I don't know why they don't, but that's the next step. Whoever takes that step will start to sell way more of them."

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