Linux flunks high school

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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