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Graduation Day for Linux - page 2

The First Day of School

  • May 22, 2002
  • By Brian Proffitt

One of the biggest problems any school system seems to face, at least in the United States, is the rapid obsolesence of their computer equipment, as technology advances at a far faster pace than even the most generous school budget will allow.

Harrison described that many of the computers found around the various schools his office supports are Pentium 75, 90, and 95 MHz machines--hardly enough power to run something like Windows. Using the LTSP approach "allows us to leverage all those old machines," he explained.

The concept behind K12LTSP is very simple--hook up a number of thin-clients running Linux to a central terminal server, which serves as the file, Web, and application server all in one. Since X is network-transparent, Linux is already perfectly built to run in such an environment.

While the final mix of applications available to the client will vary from lab to lab according to Harrison, the basic core set of applications remains the same: an office suite with word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation applications (OpenOffice.org), an e-mail appication (Ximian Evolution), and a Web browser (Mozilla).

Because all of the power in the lab system is found in the terminal server, the clients can be as stripped down as the lab personnel want them to be. Often, Harrison said, they will strip out even the hard drive and leave only a floppy drive for a boot floppy. Sometimes not even that, if a boot PROM has been set up for that machine instead.

In his role at Multnomah ESD, Harrison often saw many computer labs that were set up with Windows clients. Given the instability of Windows, the constant threat of viruses, and the sheer ingenuity of the average high school student, maintaining these labs could often require a full-time staff member--significantly raising the bar on the costs of such a lab.

Using the K12LTSP model, labor costs immediately plummeted. Sometimes down to almost zero.

"Two years ago we installed 25 K12LTSP thin-clients in classrooms all over at our K-8 school," Nelson said. "I have not had to work on a single one of those machines since then. All updates and management are done on a single application server."

Harrison and Nelson both added that since the application server is also connected to the Internet, many of the updates and management issues are handled remotely.

The roles each of these men play in the K12LTSP is very specific, Nelson explained.

"Our development cycle generally goes something like this, Nelson stated, "'Eric, the kids in classrooms need the software to do xyz.' 'Paul, there's no way to do that. It can't be done. Well, wait a minute, let me work on that...'

"Eric is brilliant and the best problem solver I've ever seen. I'm a teacher who is good at using technology with kids. I understand what works in classrooms and what teachers need. I tell Eric what we need, he makes it happen. I also do all the documentation and manage the [K12LTSP] Web site, press releases, etc.," Nelson added.

Both men have taken their successful tools on the road, as well. Through personal assistance and the information on their K12LTSP Web site, "we've helped many schools install Linux file servers, too many to recount," Nelson said, "We've hosted many workshops and clinics. We host an install fest in our school every month. We have tremendous support from our local user group PLUG. We've also done training through the StRUT program to help teachers use donated PCs."

StRUT, a computer recycling program, has been instrumental in getting low-cost clients prepared for many new computer labs.

Asked to summarize the benefits of their program, Nelson stated: "We paid less than $200 for each of the clients and all the software we use is free. It is reliable, fast, immune from viruses and malicious student tampering and the kids like it. Even our superintendent uses a Linux thin-client. What's not to like?"

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