Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Linux for Schools--Magic or Not?

ACE (Academic Computing Environments) has been sending an
email to the school community about a program they have for
converting obsolete PC's into high-performance student
workstations for a fraction of the cost of new computers.

In a nutshell, what ACE actually provides is the technology
to have the older PC's run as a "thin-client"--which means
that a server runs the programs and the PCs just display
the video and accept keyboard and mouse input. Because the
server runs a version of Linux, all of the software is free
(including the relatively robust OpenOffice program), there
are no virus issues to deal with, and maintenance time is
substantially reduced. ACE also claims that this system
qualifies for E-Rate funding, so even schools with no
technology budget can implement it.

So, we had two questions. First, does it actually work?
And second, are the Linux-based programs (including
OpenOffice) functional for a school environment? We can
answer the first, you will have to help us answer the
second.

We ordered a demonstration system, and two large boxes
arrived two weeks ago. Inside one box was a pre-configured
new 2.0 Ghz server with two network cards. The other box
contained an old 333 mhz (Celeron) Dell(tm), a 10/100
network switch, ten extra network cards, and ten boot-up
disks. It took us about 30 minutes to get everything
unpacked and to connect network cables in the right
configuration, but then it took all of 3 minutes to boot up
the server and the workstation and be up and running. We
then took an another PII-400Mhz Dell computer of our own,
set it to boot off of its integrated network card, and it
was up and running in even less time. I've never used
Linux before, but I have to admit I was amazed. The
machine booted up and was browsing the web much faster than
our speedy Pentium 3 tech machine. I have set up computers
for years, but never so fast and so easily. I then took an
old PII Compaq(tm) that we'd never even fired up and hooked
it up to the system. It was up and running in about 5
minutes--for some reason the network card it had didn't
work, but when I replaced it with one of the network cards
ACE sent, it fired right up. Again, testing by booting up
and browsing the web showed a significant performance gain
over our day-to-day Pentium 3 work computers.

So, the technology seems to work. More than that--this
aspect of ACE's solution does border on "magic." Without
having to worry about each individual PC's hardware and
software setup and configuration, maintenance, and
troubleshooting, the time savings should be dramatic. Not
to mention no need for anti-virus software or program
licensing for both the operating system and productivity
software--OpenOffice files are said to be extremely
compatible with Microsoft Office(tm). We still have some
questions for ACE, since we couldn't figure out how to save
a file to the local PC's floppy disk, or how to get sound.

We'd like you to help us answer the second question. We're
also looking for a school or district which might want to
be involved in a larger trial-program test. If this is of
interest to you, please send an email directly to me
(steve@hargadon.com) and I'll make individual contact with
you.

By the way, another company, VentureCom, is advertising a
similar "thin-client" system using Microsoft(tm)
technology, which we'll hopefully discuss in our next
newsletter (we haven't been able to get it to work yet).