Rescuing a School Technology Program:
Linux Thin-client Overview
by Steve Hargadon
Steve Hargadon, who spearheaded an OpenSource project to assist hurricane Katrina victims, clarifies the benefits of using Linux Thin-clients.
Like many schools, Grace Lutheran School struggled to keep up with the cost of computer technology. With 250 students and an annual technology budget of $15,000, Principal Dennis Fangmann had to be creative to keep his 60 classroom Pentium I and Pentium II computers running. Most of his budget was being used instead to keep the 16 staff computers and Windows network server current, leaving little for student computer upgrades.
What Mr. Fangmann didn't realize yet was that many of the student computers weren't even running well enough for the students to use. As he has since said: "The teachers didn't want to tell me, but as you can imagine, the Pentium I computers running Windows 95 were seen as dinosaurs by our older students."
The solution was to convert those systems into Linux Thin-clients. Converting those 60 Pentium I and Pentium II computers for 250 students was relatively painless. Today the students benefit from having faster performance and the many pre-loaded OpenSource educational programs available for free.
Indeed, schools may be able to save as much as 75% of their technology expenses by using Linux thin-clients and other Open Source software for their computers instead of continuing on the software/hardware upgrade treadmill. Additionally, I've found that teacher and student satisfaction with computing resources increased.
My hope is that other schools and educational organizations will come to better understand what Linux Thin-client technology is and how best to use it.
What is Free and Open Source Software?
Software that is developed openly by a community of programmers may seem like it would be a chaotic process, but it produces extremely stable results long-term--comparable to the processes of democracy and open-market economies. Linux is just one example of thousands of computer programs that have been "copy-lefted," a licensing process that immediately puts the program's code into the public domain while at the same time guaranteeing it will stay publicly available.
The most widely known example of an Open Source software program is the Apache web server software, which is used to run over 70% of the world's internet web servers.
What Is Linux?
Linux (pronounced "linnuks") is a computer operating system, like Microsoft Windows® or the Apple Mac OS (the Linux "desktop" or main screen, in fact, looks much like a combination of the two). Linux is most widely known among corporate computer users because of its quality, reliability, and price. Linux has matured to the point where it is now the preferred platform for most of the worlds more robust and critical computer systems.
Who Created Linux?
In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland, started to write a computer operating system. By releasing early versions of the software under a "public" license, Torvalds provided an environment for many other programmers to work together to improve his software, which became known as Linux.
What Does "Thin Client" Mean?
Thin-client computing is a "back to the future" technology. Before the advent of the personal computer (pc), mainframe computers powered "dumb terminals," which were reliable, affordable, and centrally controlled. The adoption of PCs by organizations as their main computing platform was driven by the variety of software being written for the pc, but resulted in the difficult tasks that most organizations are familiar with today: installing, managing, and maintaining individual computers. In a thin-client network, a powerful computer called a "server" does the actual processing tasks, while significantly less powerful computers act as "clients," just providing the keyboard, mouse, and video-display interaction with the server. In this configuration, the server alone requires maintenance and configuration, significantly simplifying the support tasks associated with computer use.
How Does Thin-client Linux Work?
Linux is extraordinarily well-suited for the thin-client environment. The code-sharing capability of Linux allows a server that might be able to run relatively few programs in Windows® sessions to host dozens of Linux users.
Older PCs are then converted to run as super-fast thin-client workstations, or new specialty thin-client machines can be purchased, and they are connected by a regular computer network to the server.
What Are the Advantages of Thin-client Linux?
Significantly decreases maintenance. This is due to both the stability and the reliability of Linux, and the fact that only the server requires any maintenance or updating. A new program for all users only has to be installed once on the server. Computer technicians can typically support 5-times as many Linux machines as Windows® machines (or more) because Linux is so trouble-free. Also, should a client workstation fail, another thin client can immediately be plugged into the system in its place--without the tedious processes of reinstalling software and restoring data.
Minimizes threat of viruses or spyware. Linux has been built from the ground up with security in mind, and like the Apple Macintosh (based on BSD and very similar to Linux); it is significantly more protected from viruses and spyware that typically plague personal computers.
Requires zero software licensing or upgrade fees. There is an enormous variety of Open Source software programs available for free.
Simplifies computer infrastructure. Because all work is actually done on the server, a user can log in at any machine, having access to their saved work and preferences whether they are on a computer in their classroom or one in the library, or anywhere else in the school that the thin-client network is set up. Thin-client Linux can even be extended to allow students and teachers to log in from outside of the school.
What Are the Limitations of Thin-client Linux?
It is without question that it is not Windows®. While most students can quickly and easily switch between an Apple Mac, a Windows® PC, and a Linux thin-client (the graphical interfaces are quite comparable), some schools are hesitant to consider the unfamiliar.
There are some programs written for Windows® that aren't available in Linux or do not have a comparable Linux counterpart yet. In most cases, schools keep some computers running Windows for these specific applications and using tools like rdesktop, even Linux thin-clients can access these computers easily.
Streaming video, sound, CD and floppy access, and some USB availability require special configurations to work over a thin-client network and require some technical experience.
Linux technical support is perceived to be less readily available than support for Windows®, although the many active Linux communities invalidate this premise.
Why Is Thin-client Linux Such a Good Fit for Schools?
In addition to the advantages listed above, Linux thin client addresses two aspects of computer use in schools that have been particularly problematic.
Schools are expected to provide computing resources for students, but many find that it is an enormous financial burden to do so. Detailed studies indicate that most schools spend on average $2400 per computer per year, factoring in the purchase price, upkeep and maintenance costs, software licenses and upgrade fees, virus- and spyware-protection measures, and staff time. If the principal has to take the role of computer technician, as is sometimes the case, his or her valuable time that is needed for other projects is often spent diagnosing and repairing computers. Many schools will spend a substantial amount to modernize their computer technology, struggle to keep it running for three or four years, and then find that they have to spend an equivalent amount again to keep current. Thin-client Linux may not meet all of a school's computing requirements, but it can take care of a very large percentage of general computer use by students (web research, word processing, spreadsheet use, and presentation-building), thereby freeing up funds for other school programs or salaries.
More than ever, colleges and businesses are indicating that fewer and fewer students are coming out of school with adequate computer technical skills—at the very time that computers have become more widely available in schools. This is because the focus on Windows® and commercial (or "proprietary") software that has dominated school teaching environments does not easily allow for the teaching of computer and programming skills that are more ubiquitous and foundational. Not only is there an expense to the commercial software, but most of the code of that software is protected, or hidden, thereby limiting some important learning that might take place. Some students are trained in what is deemed to be "complex programs," but are actually skills that the business world classifies as "clerical."
Open Source programming software is free and as highly regarded as many commercial software programs, and capable of running on much older computer hardware.
Therefore, Linux and Thin-clients become a logical choice for the teaching environment, even though they do not have the marketing dollars behind them which drive the adoption of software by schools. The exodus of programming jobs from the United State to India and other nations appears to be directly linked to their ability to be more open to choosing alternative programs and solutions.
Linux and thin-clients have typically been considered only by schools that have hit a financial impasse and have been forced to search for an alternative; only then do they discover that it is often not just better for the school because of price, but also because of the end-result of its use.
How Do I Learn More?
Please visit www.TechnologyRescue.com
Steve Hargadon is president of Hargadon Computer. Steve spearheaded a humanitarian technology project after Hurricane Katrina called PublicWebStations.com, featured on ABCnews.com. Steve focuses his attention on thin-client Linux installations, and has deployed Linux in schools in Hawaii, California, Utah, and Indiana under Technology Rescue (www.technologyrescue.com). This summer, Technology Rescue set up and managed the Open Source Software Center at the National Educators Computing Convention in Philadelphia, the world's largest educational technology conference for teachers and technology coordinators.
This article comes courtesy of Steve Hargadon, published by reallylinux.com with permission.
This brief opinion piece should not be construed as factual information, and only contains the opinions and personal experiences of the author at the time of publication. Reallylinux.com could not find information in this article that at the time of publication was inaccurate. However, the opinions and personal experiences that have been posted do not express the opinions of Reallylinux.com. Linux is a registered trademark of Linus Torvalds. Microsoft and Microsoft Windows are trademarks or registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation both in the United States and Internationally. Pentuim is a registered trademark of Intel. All other trademarks or registered trademarks in this opinion piece belong to their respective owners.