Using Linux in a Training Environment

One company's experience using Linux as the operating system of choice for their training classes.
The Network Interface Card

For connectivity, a generic NE-2000 compatible card works rather nicely. I have had good experiences with 3COM 3C509 cards, as well as the Intel Etherexpress cards. If you are setting up a full network, be sure to purchase network cards which match any existing or planned wall connections. Don't run out and save a bundle on a rack of AUI-based cards, if you have twisted pair connections in the wall already.

The Video Card

We use and recommend the Trio64, S3-based cards from Number 9. These cards have proven to be quite reliable and versatile under X Windows. This is a tricky area, due to the fact that XFree86 only supports cards with certain chip sets. Other good choices include cards sporting a Tseng-4000-based chip set.

The Printer

Our students are not in the graphic design business, nor are we. A low-end, LaserJet-compatible unit works nicely for source code printing and other small jobs. In fact, even a low-end printer can generally support postscript or PCL raw formats, so working with programs like ghostscript and TeX can be facilitated easily. I think our printers are coming on-line at around $400 per unit—not bad.

Back to Business

While installing, configuring and maintaining our Linux host machines can be somewhat time consuming, the same procedures, when performed on our student workstations, take considerably less time. Depending on which training branch you visit, our student workstations range from older 486/33 machines to newer Pentium 90 desktop models. For a simple TELNET connection, even older XT/AT or 286 machine is capable of running NCSA's freely available implementation of TELNET.

For X Windows and Motif development, a more robust platform is required. Most of our workstations have around 500MB of storage and 8 to 16MB of RAM. DCI is an Authorized Microsoft Technical Education Center (ATEC). As such, we also instruct a number of non-Unix related courses, such as Windows NT development. These courses require considerably more resources on the workstation side. The only common denominator is really the network cards used in the workstations, which are also of the NE-2000 variety.

As far as workstation tools go, we use the following software packages on each of our workstations:

  • NCSA's TELNET Package has truly been a gift from the heavens. It has performed reliably over a sustained time period and is quite configurable on the workstation side. With it, our students are able to maintain multiple TELNET sessions, as well as the occasional FTP to the host to upload their lab work.

  • X/Appeal from Xtreme S.A.S. (Italy) is a remarkable, surprisingly inexpensive X Server for DOS. It supports a number of different video chip sets, as well network configurations. A 30 day trial version of X/Appeal can be obtained at ftp://oak.oakland.edu/.

  • Microsoft Windows for Workgroups v3.11? In a Unix-based training room? Surprised? Not at all. One of the nice things about our setup, is that we use the freely available Samba package to allow Linux to provide shared directory and printer services to our DOS/Windows based workstations. The bulky Windows products used in some of our other courses (PowerBuilder, Visual Basic, Visual C++, etc.) can be installed directly onto the Linux host, freeing up valuable disk storage on the workstations. In fact, we even share the CD-ROM which is installed on the host machine. The student workstations can then access the CD-ROM at any time.

Benefits/Drawbacks

While there are a number of advantages to using Linux as a training solution, a number of drawbacks also manifest themselves over time. Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? I'll let you be the judge.

The Price of the Operating System

Free. End of story. As mentioned earlier, the price of a stable Linux distribution on CD-ROM is exponentially cheaper than obtaining a commercial solution, such as SCO or Unixware. In fact, with the extra cash you have left over, you can afford to subscribe to Infomagic's quarterly Developer's Resource 4 CD set for the rest of your life.

The Price of the Hardware

With PC-based hardware prices falling, you can pick up an adequate host machine for under $4,000. Compare that to the 5-digit price of a proprietary architecture, such as an IBM RISC machine or a Sun SPARC.

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