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Real World Computing

Linux flunks high school

Posted on 22 Nov 2005 at 15:13

David Moss dons his teacher's hat and looks at the cost of switching from Windows to Mac or Linux at his school

With today's staggeringly high fuel costs our electricity bill is starting to look like the debt of a small town, never mind a small school. Switching ICT (Information Communication Technology) equipment off is obviously one way to help combat this particular expense, but I've started to look around for other things I could do. Like many system admins around the country, I took a hard look at just how my systems work, in both hardware and software terms, and what, if anything, I could do to lower the cost of ownership.

One of the things that teaching ICT and maintaining several networks on a small budget teaches you is that you need to be extremely flexible in many areas. For example, the ICT curriculum doesn't specify which operating system you should use or, indeed, which application software, but the fact of the matter is that nearly all materials available have been written around Microsoft Windows and Office.

There's still a need, however, to provide other OSes and software for learning purposes as part of the ICT coursework requirement that pupils be able to talk with some degree of knowledge about what else is available and how it could have been used to aid them with their coursework. (I say 'could have' because I run a lot of Windows systems to enable the school to teach computing to anyone from nursery age right through to their GCSEs, but I only have a few 'other' systems and software with which to provide the aforementioned alternatives for my GCSE students.)

My 'others', as you've probably guessed, are assorted Macs and Linux boxes, which are relegated to this category for two reasons, the first being availability of course materials and the second being cost. Left to my own devices with an unlimited budget, I'd be happy to provide all the students with Apple iMac G5s or PowerBooks to wander around between AirPorted classrooms, then wave them off home each evening with their portables bearing their homework in a seamless fashion, to synchronise with their personal folders when they return to school the next morning. Setting up net boot Macs over the wire from a server is particularly easy, and Remote Desktop is particularly well suited to running a classroom. Unlike Microsoft's offering, which merely allows you to connect to a remote server, Apple's has a master control computer run by the teacher that can take over one, several or all of the computers in a class. You can also look at what they're doing, with or without remote control, plus a whole range of remote administration, software installation and other handy options.

It's amazing how much the iPod has done for Apple's credibility in the eyes of the current generation of school pupils. I shudder to think what the replacement cost of the average child's school bag would be these days, what with their mobile phones, iPods and god knows what other gadgets. Many already have their own laptops and these are making more and more frequent appearances as they wake up to the idea that ICT is here to help them as a tool, and isn't just another subject to be learned.

I don't go down this Mac route simply because I can't afford to: the machines are too expensive and, while they're undoubtedly drop-dead gorgeous, I can purchase so much more in the Windows market for the same money. So the Macs have to sit on the sidelines and become the toy of the GCSE years, for coursework purposes only. The basic numbers are compelling - a barebones Dell 1U server starts at around £400, while an XServe costs £1,899 plus VAT. Of course, the XServe comes with an unlimited client OS licence, whereas the Dell is bare, but that's a significant price difference to bridge, and it gets no narrower when you start to look for client PCs. I hate to plug Dell again, but it was knocking out perfectly adequate desktop PCs for less than £200 the other month and, while that's exceptional, you can regularly pick them up for less than £300. Laptop comparisons are equally scary: entry-level PowerBooks cost around £1,000, compared to, say, a Dell at less than £400.

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User comments

Locked In

Mr. Moss, you definitely face a hard task to properly service your clients, the students, teaching staff, and administrative staff of the school. Diverse software, diverse hardware, and diverse operating systems.

I'm sorry you didn't find Linux a panacea. Listening to some folks rave about Linux, Macs, or whatever, you'd think they provided some kind of magical cure. Sorry, they're all just tools with advantages and trade-offs.

In a historically Windows-centric environment and you as a Windows-centric person, you'll be hard pressed to escape its clutches. I happen to believe you should stay open to all tools at your disposal.

In working with Linux, you'll need to be open to places where it fits in a non-disruptive manner. As a file server, a web server, a host for virtualizing a couple Windows servers, or as an application server for a school-specific piece of software (e.g., Moodle).

At the same time, you're mixed up environment lends itself to putting Windows applications on Terminal Server or Citrix servers so the desktop the user selects is neutralized. If you're looking at major hardware upgrades to deal with Windows 7 and the cost of provisioning everyone with Office 2010, it might be time for another tool to be considered.

There are other schools in England that have been successful in putting Linux to good use. It's hard to believe you are not aware of any and can't contact them to find out how they managed while you seem convinced you can't. To ignore a valuable tool like Linux seems a bad idea for the school, and for you as a modern-day administrator.

Finally, I hope some nefarious person at the magazine chose the title for your article without your consent. Otherwise, you'll have pulled down upon your head some very distracting grief for no good reason.

Good luck.

By noesam on 23 Jan 2010

It seems that what you've got is a big bundle of interdependent stuff that you can't dare change. That's fair enough if you're ok with that.

By steviesteveo on 14 Jun 2010

It doesn't have to be all or nothing...

They key part to service delivery in schools is, and increasingly will become, the separation of the application and the user experience from the delivery platform. The applications your users require should be independent of the platform they choose to use to access them. Increasingly students have their own laptops on which you can't hope to manage or control software or smartphones on which you might not even be able to install the software. You can allow students to benefit from technology they've invested in (or have because of special educational needs) and you can give them access to school applications or the whole desktop experience including access to data and controlled internet access from anywhere at any time. There are RDP and ICA clients for most platforms both traditional PC, eg Mac Windows, Linux and new iphone, ipod, ipad, android etc allowing access from almost all platforms. Importantly the data never leaves the school and applications can be updated without needing access to the user's platform! In school low power "thin devices" can be used reducing power requirements both for the PCs and for auxiliary services eg air con and extending the lifespan of the hardware. Applications can be introduced one at a time, it doesn't have to be an All Linux or all Mac or All windows environment, the best elements of each can be used to best effect where appropriate.

By cjohnsonuk on 19 Sep 2010


Surely the answer would be to throw in some Ubuntu workstations running VirtualBox hosting your Windows desktops. You can even find tools that will convert a physical machine to a virtual machine.

By Caltor on 12 Aug 2011

Holy old article Batman!

Posted on 22 Nov 2005 at 15:13


By PaleRider on 19 Aug 2011

Holy really old article Batman!

Honestly, latest Real World Computing. This article is SIX years old. Pull it or revisit it.

I don't think I will be renewing my subscription, the new format has highlighted a noticeable deterioration.

By Deadtroopers on 23 Dec 2011

Update to 2012

Mr Moss you are spot on (of course). Microsoft continues to give huge discounts to the educational sector, to ensure that the little darlings are brought up correctly, and you (and your suppliers) are locked in solid.
These tactics are gradually being eroded, I think, with the recent availability of Android and even, dare I say it, the Raspberry Pi.

By rogerggbr on 16 Jul 2012

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