October 10, 2005

Old school cuts ties with Windows

Author: Tina Gasperson

The Mall School for boys in Richmond, UK, has been around for 133 years, and to IT head Sue Warrington, it seemed like the prep school's Windows network was almost as old. Recently, the school got rid of its aging collection of "fat client" PCs and purchased a brand new network of Linux thin clients, including all the software a bunch of 4- to 13-year-old boys could possibly need, for a lot less than a proprietary solution.

Warrington teaches computing to the Mall School's 350 students, and "looks after the system." When it came time to renew Windows licenses, she had a problem with the cost. Budget concerns meant that she would have to find a better solution, and cutting back on the number of workstations was not an option -- there were only 13 PCs to go around because it was too expensive to provide more.

In July 2005, Warrington contacted Sirius, a local IT consultancy that specializes in providing open source software solutions. By the end of the summer break, Sirius project manager John Spencer had helped the school replace the aging Windows network with a cutting-edge Linux thin-client network that consists of 28 workstations and a server running the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP). The new system cost less than £15,000, which Warrington estimates is about 60% of the cost of a Windows equivalent, with no expensive licensing fees.

Ten of the 28 new machines are traditional dual-boot PCs that allow the staff to use Windows XP to run the school's administration software. The rest of the workstations are thin clients used by the students, with access to software packages controlled via the server. The thin clients provide all the usual advantages over machines with hard drives: lower maintenance costs, less down time, and less admin time. An extra benefit for the school is lower electricity bills: the Mall expects to save more than £1,000 on its power bill each year.

Warrington says the boys took no time catching on to the new system. "The students are very quick. Once they got into OpenOffice.org they realized a lot of the features are the same." And Warrington likes it too. "I'm quite happy to work in the open environment. It's a lot smoother."

Many of Warrington's sysadmin tasks are easier in Linux than they were on the Windows network. For instance, "adding a new user is much easier. It takes me only seconds -- in the old environment it would have taken a lot longer."

In addition to the OpenOffice.org suite, the Mall School is running Scribus desktop publishing, the GIMP, Tux Paint, Firefox, Evolution, and TuxTyping, among others. Warrington is happy. "It's a lot more reliable," she says, "and it's all free."


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