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Large Plans for Linux at Marist College

The Red Foxes and the Penguin

  • June 17, 2004
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

Marist College, a smallish school in Upstate New York, gained large-scale attention a few weeks ago, when it became one of just three OSDL-affiliated research labs worldwide. Actually, though, the college has been quietly at work on Linux- and open source for at least ten years now. Marist's recent initiatives include Project Greystone, a Web-based learning project with national aspirations.

In Project Greystone, a joint effort with IBM, Linux virtual machines (VMs) are serving up content to Marist students and faculty, as well as to their counterparts in two local public school districts: urban Poughkeepsie and a rural district known as Highland.

At the moment, the Web-based content includes eight computer science courses, liberal arts classes such as Writing II and "The Meaning of History," and graduate courses for faculty.

On the computer sciences side, coursework runs the gamut from Web programming to distributed systems, according to Dr. Roger Norton, dean of the college.

"Students used to turn in their homework on floppies to get a grade. But now, we can go up to their Web sites instead and check their work as they go along," Norton said during an interview this week.

"Students are learning computer sciences in a real Linux environment," he added. In the Web programming class, for instance, undergrads work with languages such as Java and PHP. In the distributed systems class, they're responsible for deploying multiple servers ranging from chat to Apache Tomcat.

High school students in the Poughkeepsie and Highland districts are taking advanced placement courses from their homes. Meanwhile, some of their teachers are earning postgraduate degrees via distance learning.

"In the State of New York, teachers are required to get their master's degrees within five years of gaining provisional certification. This can otherwise be a tough requirement to meet, because of the time involved in traveling to classes. A teacher could be driving for hours," Norton contended.

Project Greystone uses a variant of Red Hat Linux. Marist is running the Linux VMs on top of two zSeries mainframes, a Model 900 and a Model 990. The same two machines are being used for e-mail, as well as for some production apps.

In another Linux implementation, this one funded through an NSF grant, Marist is collaborating on Globus-based grid computing with RPI, Lehigh College, SUNY Geneseo; Argonne National Labs, and IBM Hawthorne.

On the other hand, a Franklin D. Roosevelt Web site -- hosted at Marist for the US Library of Congress -- runs on an MVS-based mainframe. Marist's Voyager library catalog system operates on AIX. "We also have a few rogue Macs and some Windows apps," Norton acknowledged.

Plans are now under way, however, to port Marist's WebSphere-based course management system to Linux running on blade machines, and ultimately to Linux VMs.

"There are portlets up there for discussion groups and online attendance, for example," said Project Greystone Lead Howard Baker, of IBM's Poughkeepsie facility.

The course management system also includes training modules for "new teacher support," addressing topics such as time management and teacher/parent conferences.

"We're also working with Marist on support for rich media and Web streaming. We're prototyping this on Windows, but then we'll move it over to Linux," noted IBM's Baker.

Aside from the Marist College campus, OSDL's other research lab facilities are in Beaverton, Oregon and Yokahama, Japan.

Norton and Baker each credit Marist College President Dennis Murray for acting as a catalyst for Linux teamwork between Marist and IBM over the past decade or so. "A lot of people don't know this, but Marist College was really the first place to distribute Linux source code for the S/390," Baker pointed out.

IBM also provides internships for Marist students, and hires some of Marist's computer science graduates. Marist is located in Poughkeepsie, where IBM maintains a local site.

Beyond supplying students with highly marketable skills, the college's use of Linux brings advantages ranging from lowered costs to easier manageability, Norton maintained.

"We're running more than 500 VMs for the computer science students. If a student messes something up, it will only bring own one VM. We can recreate the VM in minutes. If we tried doing similar in Windows, we'd need 500 physical machines, and it'd probably take a lot longer to bring things back up again," according to the college dean.

"My hope is to �go national' with this new program. We're already in talks with the State of New Hampshire, which has the highest number of home-schooled students in the nation - a lot of them in very rural areas."

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