A Linux-based Lab for Operating Systems and Network Courses
For many of our students, their experience with our lab turns out to be the first time they have academically dealt with the inside of a computer. Thus, we find ourselves teaching a way of thinking as much as the particular techniques related to the subject matter. The commonplace tasks of debugging a system, such as isolating a problem to hardware configuration, BIOS settings, OS kernel or application, are new territory for beginning students. This lab gives them the chance to gain confidence in a realistic setting.
One criticism that students have made of our approach is, “The real world mainly runs Microsoft Windows—why aren't you teaching us about that?” While their claim is indeed valid when one looks at market share and while any computer scientist who claims to be well-rounded must accommodate the demands of the market, there are significant obstacles to providing the kind of experience we provide using commercial software. The two largest obstacles with commercial operating systems are the lack of source code and the lack of easily available technical support from the software developers. A student who wants to explore the performance differences between several different page-replacement strategies in the file system can do so more easily with Linux and a PC than with any other OS and computer of which we are aware.
Another lesson we learned is that with today's large disk drives and with the use of removable cartridge hard drives, it is possible for a number of operating systems to (more or less) coexist on the same machine and for a wide variety of platforms to communicate over a local network. We think this has provided our students with a taste of the complexity of real-world systems administration (though they will not truly know what that is like unless we make them wear beepers and page them at all hours).
On balance, we find this Linux-based approach an improvement over our previous methods and plan to continue it. We've had very positive preliminary feedback from the students who have used the lab and are looking forward to hearing whether it helps our graduates in the “real world”.
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