Why Linux is the Logical Choice for the Classroom
by Mark Rais, senior editor and author of Linux for the Rest of Us 2nd Ed

In this introductory article, I summarize the benefits of using OpenSource software in an educational environment, where budgets are often tight and staffing support is minimal. Using a Linux "thin-client" configuration, this article shows the stark contrast between a Microsoft based lab and a Linux lab.

There are roughly four billion people on the earth who are too poor to have independent access to any form of computer technology. However, a super majority of the world's economy is driven by information technology and computer skills are a key ingredient to personal growth.

For a number of reasons including acquisition costs, many people do not have access to use computers. We don't need to point to the extremes to understand this. We haven't to go to the villages in Sierra Leone, the forests of Uganda, or a metropolis of Zambia. Athough I've tried to address technology in Africa as well. We can see the technology divide even in our own cities.


At the core of this great divide that often impacts our schools and children is the cost basis of computer hardware and software. Fortunately, hardware costs today have declined greatly. At last, it is the cost of software that remains inhibitive.

Put yourself in the shoes of a person of authority ready to help your school create a simple computer lab. You have no great ambitions, simply a desire to allow your school kids to access computers. These are not easy shoes to wear, I know.

You begin by asking for donations of used computers. There are a great number of used computers that today simply end up being dumped in trash cans. So it's viable to ask individuals and companies to donate these old machines. Thanks to generous hearts, your organization receives some systems.

But even with the used computers being donated, with all shipping costs included, assuming every system arrives without any breakage, you still have plenty of work to do. Believe me, you can't just take a dozen used computers and plug them in and find them useful.

"You can't just take a dozen used computers and plug them in and find them useful."

Instead, you must first sort through the old equipment to find common systems, setup the lab by reinstalling or changing hardware, then watch the lab immediately degenerate because students fiddle with files, settings, etc. Finally, you start the significant cycle of maintenance and support of this simple twelve computer lab. The total costs, assuming that you receive all of the hardware donated, is in time and support.

A Microsoft Example
You receive a dozen systems as "donations." However, there is no Microsoft authentication certificate pasted to the side (which every major dealer knows is important). Instead a version of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office is installed on the system with no verification it was ever properly licensed. So, because it was a nice donation you can simply ignore this issue because you had nothing to do with it, right? Wrong!

The government of Zambia, as one example, was given stern warning to crack down on piracy by Microsoft. We're talking about the nation of Zambia in Africa. One of the world's poor nations and Microsoft is asking them to cough up money for software licenses.

It is true that not just upon the basis of human law but also upon reason that we DO INDEED HAVE TO PAY for licensing, even if it is simply to upgrade the software to keep the lab useful in the future. Microsoft and other software vendors have added security features to try to assist with this compliance.

"We do indeed have to pay for licensing, even if it is simply to upgrade the software to keep the lab useful in the future."

Now take the total number of computers and multiply by the cost of each piece of software you need installed such as Microsoft Windows (~$79 US), Microsoft Office Student edition (~$120 US), Adobe Photoshop Light (~$49 US), and MacAfee antivirus and internet security software (~$49 US). In the lowest possible scenario these will add up to around $3,500 US.

That's just software prices alone, and does not include essential hardware such as network cards, cables, and a classroom server.

Don't forget that you also need money to connect to the Internet. How are you going to ensure that when your students get on the systems they will not go to dangerous sites, or pickup new Trojans before you've done your latest update for viruses on all twelve machines? This will require an additional cost for some form of firewall router. Finally, it also takes much time and effort to maintain the twelve systems.

Most important of all, if you ever want to increase the total number of stations or build another lab, all of these costs are repeated for each new station.

But today, there is another option. It is GNU/Linux and OpenSource. Using Linux is not a new or uncommon principle. Major organizations including Google, Amazon.com, IBM and Walmart have benefitted significantly from Linux use.

An OpenSource Example
You receive a dozen used computers. Some are so old the hard disks fail to boot, others include various atiquated versions of Windows and other software.

You spend ~$600 US to buy a brand new computer from a local retailer. I must point out that today, even in Zambia you can get a decent computer, such as an HP workstation, from a local vendor in Lusaka. That having been said, the system comes with plenty of RAM, a big fast hard disk, and reasonable performance processor.

You place it at the front of the room and call this new computer the Server.

Now it's time to address those crusty old donated systems. You take a screwdriver and open each of the twelve computers. Within a few moments you find the hard disk and pull the wire connecting it. The hard disk has been disabled.

Now you install a new network card into each system and connect them to the lab Server.

You're tired, so you take a break, drink something smooth and refreshing and move on. It's been almost an hour.

You temporarily attach a monitor, keyboard and mouse to the Server and install a specialized version of Linux that includes the Linux Terminal Server. I prefer the K12Terminal Server pack that uses RedHat Fedora.

Included in this bundle is the OpenOffice software that includes a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a presentation program, and all fully compatible with Microsoft Office. You can find details regarding K12Terminal Server here.

But this is only one of about forty different programs included. You also get the Gimp program that let's students become artists. You have Ximian Evolution email program that resembles Microsoft Outlook. You also get a major dose of internet connectivity and security software. All of this comes free and included on the same CDs.

Within about 40 minutes the installation is complete and you can begin to connect and configure each of the silent, but highly useful terminals (which use to be twelve junk computers).

Notice that the Server connects easily to the DSL line. Second the Server now connects to the lab network using another Ethernet card.

Also notice that the Server's firewall software settings are protecting the entire lab. More importantly, as soon as a terminal is configured (takes about five minutes if the hardware is in working order), that system can now get on the Internet, and use programs on the Server.

Above all, no student can tamper with the settings, accidentally delete vital files, or get Trojans and viruses that are very common with Microsoft networks.

"Above all, no student can tamper with the settings, accidentally delete files, or get trojans and viruses."

The lab is also uncommonly quiet. No hard disks making their whirring noise. That saves you the time for routine maintenance on the disks, on software, on upgrades. It also ensures that even though those donated computers were utterly used and old, they can potentially last for years.

All upgrades to software are done one time on the Server. And all software upgrades on the Server are FREE.

You save incredible amounts of aggravation and time, plus money. When it's time to add four new students, you connect and configure their terminals and within minutes they have access.

This incredibly low cost and easily maintained method makes even more sense in large scale lab settings. For example labs in South Africa greatly benefit from OpenSource where 80 schools received 32 computers each (see www.shuttleworthfoundation.org website for details).

Imagine eighty schools with thirty two stations at a minimal estimated cost of $150 per machine for software licensing and $50 for future upgrades. That's potentially $384,000 for the initial setup if these schools had instead chosen to use Microsoft products. The cost does not include the additional possible $128,000 for future upgrades. This also does not take into account that maintaining thirty two individual computers takes far more time than maintaining only one Server.

Using OpenSource software in educational settings makes logical sense. You save the precious money for more urgent school needs such as paying teachers. You also save precious time and energy in technical support. The best part. This process is highly scalable. That means you can use the techniques to reach a country not just one classroom.

For those who are still not convinced, I recommend that you at least evaluate the OpenSource software that runs on Windows.

This is important since even those organizations that qualify for the Microsoft Donated Computer Operating System (DCOS) Program still need to pay for other software. The program only provides OS licenses for qualifying organizations and does not include any additional software. Note there is also usually a per license fee included with this option.

Therefore, even if you never plan to leave Windows, you can get CDs of the most popular OpenSource programs from the OpenCD site, or you can look at this list from OSSWIN project.

If you're hesitant but curious to try Linux, then I strongly recommend you purchase a set of Linux Knoppix Live-CDs. This allows you to run Linux on any system without installing it or changing your current OS. It simply boots from your CD-ROM drive and allows you to see for your self the power of OpenSource.

My hope is that every educational institution will find the cost savings and reduced maintenance that accompanies Linux/OpenSource classrooms.

If you're interested in real world examples, take a look at this Linux Lab case study or this one, among the many case studies.

Mark Rais, author of Linux for the Rest of Us 2nd Ed, dedicates his time and energy promoting OpenSource technology, especially among the poor and where a technology divide exists.

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