Government // Enterprise Architecture
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2/20/2009
03:27 PM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Linux, nComputing, And Overheated Classrooms

Educational institutions are consistently cited as one of the best places for open source to take root and flourish. The best way to find out more about how that works is to ask the people right in the trenches, and so this week I spoke with, Scott Hershauer, director of technology for the Greensburg, Ind., Community School District, about the use of Linux and open source in a high school setting. And aside from saving money, they also cooled off the classrooms a bit.

Educational institutions are consistently cited as one of the best places for open source to take root and flourish. The best way to find out more about how that works is to ask the people right in the trenches, and so this week I spoke with, Scott Hershauer, director of technology for the Greensburg, Ind., Community School District, about the use of Linux and open source in a high school setting. And aside from saving money, they also cooled off the classrooms a bit.

Scott's scenario came to my attention through nComputing, a system that shares one computer's processing power across a whole slew of thin clients. The host computer can run Linux or Windows, and the thin clients are themselves powered by open source. The Greensburg folks had received grants from the Department of Education, and were interested in seeing how nComputing would stack up against individual full clients running both Linux and Windows.

The nComputing solutions were set up in four classrooms, running OpenSUSE 10.2 (an OS that nComputing itself had used during the product's development phase). They ran from 15 to 32 clients on a single quad-core host, and got performance comparable with what they had with the "fat" clients. "One of the advantages to nComputing is that if we need to make a change, we only need to touch the host and not each individual box," Scott pointed out. "When you only have two hosts in each classroom, tops, that means we only need to touch eight machines [for four classrooms] instead of 120 [the total number of student seats]."

How did the students and teachers adapt to using Linux? "The students adapted very quickly," Scott told me. There were some comments here and there about OpenOffice as opposed to Microsoft Office, most of them in the vein of OO.'s Impress not being up to par with PowerPoint (I ditched PP for Impress a while back), but for the most part people adapted quite well. Teachers even went so far as to burn copies of OO.o for the students to use at home, so they wouldn't have file-format conversion issues when going from Word to OO.o and back again. Another major boon to the teachers came by way of Moodle, an open source package for courses and test automation.

With nComputing, the total cost savings by their own best estimates come out to something like $300 a client. This is not including the cost savings of power consumption, since the thin clients only use a couple of watts each (as opposed to the 350+ for a full client!). One other thing immediately obvious when using the nComputing clients: the classrooms were both cooler and quieter, since the thin client machines are solid-state, passively cooled devices. "We didn't even think about the noise level or the ambient heat issues until it was actually in and running."

One of the original Linux configurations they were using for the classrooms was Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which they deployed in conjunction with Satellite Server to let them push configurations down to the individual machines. Unfortunately, they only had a 90-day trial with that product, and while Red Hat's support team was helpful, it was clear the school might be better off with a company that was actually focusing on education (as there was no educational pricing for anything they were using). To that end, they turned to Ubuntu -- something they had considered using back when they were first figuring out nComputing, but which they skipped because of problems at the time with Active Directory integration. (Those issues have since been fixed in Ubuntu.) Another issue -- not a deal-killer, though -- that they ran into was the use of some classroom-test programs which only run in Windows. The easiest solution for that, it seems, is to set up a Windows server as an nComputing host so that both Linux and Windows clients can be run off the same box as needed.

The most important thing: is it likely that they will stay with Linux? The short answer is yes, although Scott also made it clear that a big part of the reason they got as far as they did was because they had folks on staff with Linux expertise. Let's see if that remains the case in the future.


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