Rescuing a School Technology Program: Linux Thin-client Overview OP/ED - www.reallylinux.com
Rescuing a School Technology Program:
Linux Thin-client Overview
by Steve Hargadon
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Steve Hargadon, who spearheaded an OpenSource project to
assist hurricane Katrina victims,
clarifies the benefits of using Linux Thin-clients.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
is Free and Open Source 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
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.
(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.
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.
Does "Thin Client" Mean?
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.
Does Thin-client Linux Work?
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.
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.
Are the Advantages of Thin-client Linux?
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.
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.
zero software licensing or upgrade fees. There is an enormous variety
of Open Source software programs available for free.
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
Are the Limitations of Thin-client Linux?
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.
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.
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.
technical support is perceived to be less readily available than
support for Windows®, although the many active Linux communities
invalidate this premise.
Is Thin-client Linux Such a Good Fit for Schools?
addition to the advantages listed above, Linux thin client addresses
two aspects of computer use in schools that have been particularly
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.
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."
Source programming software is free and as highly regarded as many
commercial software programs, and capable of running on much older
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
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.
Do I Learn More?
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
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.