Saturday, October 01, 2005

What Are the Limitations of Proprietary Software?

Proprietary software, or software in which the code is hidden and protected (which is what most of us are used to using), might be compared to a car with a sealed engine compartment, limiting the users ability to diagnose, fix, or improve on their purchase, and requiring the manufacturer to be involved in any problem solving. Like this protected car, proprietary software can be very functional and have real value to the user. There are some real drawbacks, however, to this model:

1. Programmers or students are limited in their ability to to learn both how the software and their computer work (just as with a sealed-engine car, there can only driver's training courses, but not shop classes).

2. Users have a limited ability to address problems or errors that arise, as they require the manufacturer's involvement to be fixed, and which is done on the manufacturer's timetable (like having to take your car to a special, authorized dealer for any work).

3. Manufacturers can go out of business, or can determine that they will no longer support existing software, leaving the users without any support or requiring that they purchase new software (like having to a car the manufacturer will no longer service).

Why Is Thin-client Linux Such a Good Fit for Schools?

Linux thin client addresses two aspects of computer use in schools that have been particularly problematic.

The first is financial. 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, only to find that three or four years later they have to spend an equivalent amount again. 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. Just as a family might need a more costly car for vacations and car-pools, but drives a more modest sedan or pickup truck to run local errands, there is no reason to use the most expensive computers for regular tasks.

The second aspect is academic. 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. Not only is there an expense to the commercial software, but most of the code of that software is protected, or hidden, thereby eliminating some of the most significant aspects of learning that might take place. The students are then trained in what appear to be complex programs, but are actually learning skills that the business world would classify as “clerical.” There is another unfortunate consequence to this model. Not all students who learn to use a $500 program on a $1000 computer are likely to be able to afford those on their own after they graduate, putting them in the position of not being able to continue to practice their skills, or potentially pressuring them to use “pirated” versions of the software. Open Source programming software, which is 1) free, 2) as highly regarded as any commercial software, and 3) able to run on older computer hardware, becomes the logical choice for the teaching environment, but does not have the marketing dollars behind it which drive the adoption of commercial software by schools. The exodus of programming jobs from the United State to India and other lower-income countries would appear to be a direct result of their ability to learn those programs which are most needed, not those which have been most vigorously marketed. Linux and thin-client Linux 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.

Linux Thin Client: How It Works, Benefits, & Drawbacks

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. (It's even better than that—the second user of a program on a thin-client Linux network is generally able to start the program faster than the first user because the code is already loaded into memory.) 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. While usually priced close to the level of a low-end pc, a new thin-client machine is typically very small, quiet, and energy-efficient, since it does not require many of the components that a regular pc does.

What Are the Advantages of Thin-client Linux?
  • Significantly decreased maintenance. This is due to both the stability and the reliability of Linux (the “uptime”--or time between reboots--of Linux servers is often measured in years), 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.
  • Control of individual computer usage. A user is not able to load pirated or problematic software on an individual machine, and only those programs which the school wants students to be using are loaded on the server and thereby are available on the workstations.
  • No virus or spyware vulnerability. Linux has been built from the ground up with security in mind, and like the Apple Macintosh (which is based on Linux's cousin, Unix), it is significantly immune to the viruses and spyware that typically plague personal computers.
  • No software licensing or upgrade fees. Not only can you now purchase a computer that will run 50 or 60 workstations at what most of us remember paying for a single-user pc only a few years ago, but you can put the Firefox web browser and the Open Office productivity suite on that server, and much more, without any purchase or licensing costs. In fact, a thin-client Linux server can come loaded with dozens of free educational and productivity software packages, all of which are part of the Open Source software community. eWeek magazine recently reviewed Open Office and recommended that any organizations with fewer than 500 employees use Open Office as their primary office suite. Firefox web browser itself is extremely popular because of its safety and security features. Students are not getting anything less with Open Source software.
  • Log-in independence. 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.
  • Students who work with Linux and Open Source software right now are going to find that they are way ahead of their fellow students in college and the workplace. Because the Open Source software movement allows a greater amount of flexibility and the actual viewing of the software code, those students interested in a computer career can have a significantly richer educational experience working in Linux.

What Are the Limitations of Thin-client Linux?
  • It's not Windows®. While most students can quickly and easily switch between an Apple Mac, a Windows® pc, and a Linux thin client, many teachers and school boards are unfamiliar with Linux. Because computers and computer education are already something of a “black box” for them, they are reluctant to add something else, not realizing how much Linux will help them.
  • It's not Windows® part II. There is a great abundance of free Linux software available, but you can't purchase it at your local office-supply store then just load it on a computer. Not only are Linux programs written specifically for Linux, but the installation process is different since almost all programs are free and are installed over the internet.
  • It's not Windows®, part III. There are some great programs written for Windows® that just aren't available in Linux or don't have a good Linux counterpart. In most cases, schools keep some number of computers running Windows for these specific applications. Another option, since thin-client Linux does not require the workstations hard drive, is to run both Window® and Linux on the workstations (called “dual booting”) depending on the need of the classroom at the time.
  • The Thin-client methodology that allows the cost-effective reuse of older, less powerful computers (you can easily use a Pentium or Pentium II computer) also means that you are transferring a lot of video data over the computer network. Some graphic-intensive programs (mostly games) consume more bandwidth than is readily available, and therefore can't be used.
  • Streaming video, sound, CD and floppy access, and USB availability require special configurations to work over a thin-client network.
  • Linux technical support is perceived to be less readily available than support for Windows®. It is true that most schools have technicians who are not trained in Linux. Many schools also rely on an informal network of parents with computer knowledge, and while a great deal of Linux help is readily available that way, those contacts have not previously been made.