Linux at California University

Mr. Dinsel tells us how his former college is using Linux as a web server and teaching tool.

Nestled along the banks of the Monongahela river of western Pennsylvania rests California University of Pennsylvania, a college engulfed in the world of Microsoft Windows NT, Windows 3.11 and the old age of Vax. Yet new hopes arise for a productive network of powerful servers and real world applications that don't cause the budget to keel over and die.

Until recently, the Math and Computer Science department was without its own server. The faculty had to rely on other departments for a storage utility for software. Methods for teaching classes about the World Wide Web and the Internet were limited to the amount of help other departments could offer. Creating and maintaining departmental web pages was a difficult task—creation was done on an individual's machine, copied to disk and given to the public relations office for uploading. These tasks were not only tedious, but also inconsistently available and relied heavily on the schedule of other departments.

Several solutions were available for the department. It could deal with the situation as it was, or sacrifice a good chunk of the budget by acquiring an NT server. As politics sometimes dictate, the University departments and staff are governed by a guideline or trend in the computing industry where the only options visible to them are the ones being put into place in other locations on campus. With NT on the rise throughout the campus, the department felt that changes would have to wait, as the money for a machine capable of running NT (not to mention added software costs to make it perform the required tasks) was not in the budget.

Linux had been taking the world, and the author, by storm for a few years. Unfortunately, the computing community is sometimes blind to inexpensive alternatives such as a free operating system. For the last few years, new software has meant new hardware because programs were getting larger and more memory intensive. The consumer has been eased into accepting this as a fact of life, so much so that when they aren't required to spend money on upgrading, they feel uncomfortable. Convincing people that “free” is not a sign of poor quality can be quite a challenge.

Solutions

After months of discussions and meetings, the Math and Computer Science department and computer center agreed to give Linux a try. Even though Linux had appeared in other locations on campus, the department heads were still reluctant. Fortunately, a mid-grade 486 machine was available on the department floor. Because of the availability of an “older” machine, and the excellent quality of Linux software, the budget was not affected since there was no need for a a hardware upgrade. Linux is content to run on yesterday's hardware.

As a stepping stone into the world of non-traditional computing, a web server was set up initially for use by the department. Because of strict computing policies and the thin ice the project started out on, only faculty members were given accounts on the server.

The department now had a place to hold their web pages, that also allowed easy access for updating and maintaining them. CGI, server side includes (SSI) and other web page tricks could be utilized by the departmental web pages, because the department now had control over security on the server. Previously, security policies were defined by outside forces, and web pages were limited to basic hypertext tags.

Linux was proving its worth. The uptime on the server had surpassed the typical operating cycle on the NT servers. With continued discussion and meetings, other possible uses of the server became apparent.

The university offers a course that introduces students to the World Wide Web, the Internet and Windows (typically 3.11 and NT). Before the existence of the Linux server, the department was limited by its dependency on other departments, and so could not offer a very well-rounded view of the topics. Students were limited in what they could do with their web pages, and Internet/Intranet working skills were weak.

Using the Linux server, anonymous FTP (uploading and downloading) became available. The lab assignments could now be placed on the server for students to retrieve individually. Essential software packages (that have a tendency to be broken or removed from the workstations) could be placed in a Samba directory for students or professors to access and reinstall.

With the advent of Linux, labs ran more smoothly and students had the potential to learn more because of the dynamic and powerful tools Linux has to offer. At the same time, campus policies regarding student web pages and computer security could be upheld. The use of TCP wrappers, httpd configuration and IP firewalling can limit access to web pages, shares, FTP and more. Thus, students' access to the server was limited to inside the University domain.

All of these tasks were accomplished without weeks of waiting for another department to find the time to implement requests from the Math and Computer Science department, and without tying up valuable space on the campus NT servers. Linux has proven its worth and reliability to the department: new ideas and uses for the server are discovered and pursued weekly. Most of all, the fear of not being able to afford software solutions has disappeared.

Building a place for Linux on campus has been an ongoing struggle. With persistence, and the backing of the Linux community (through excellent software and boundless innovation), there is no stopping the powerful force of Linux.

Jeremy Dinsel is a former student at California University of Pennsylvania, where he studied Computer Science and operated the Math and Computer Science Linux server. He welcomes questions and comments and encourages western Pennsylvanians to join wplug—a Linux organization (http://sighsy.cup.edu/~dinselj/wplug/). He is now webmaster for SSC and can be reached at jeremy@ssc.com.

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