The Professional Institute for Agriculture and Environment,
Sante Cettolini, is spread over six little
cities in the southwestern corner of the wonderful island of
The six cities are Santadi, Villamassargia, Villacidro, Senorbì, Muravera and Maracalagonis. Until
this past spring, the entire institute ran only proprietary software for
Windows. There was no real interest in free software or in computer
security, for that matter. This was not a deliberate attitude, though,
but a lack of interest in computers as educational instruments, similar
to what we discussed in Part 4 of this
Last year, however, things started to take a different turn at the
School Seat, which is located in Villacidro.
The resident Linux champion there is teacher and didactic director
Giancarlo Dessì (firstname.lastname@example.org). Besides teaching, Giancarlo
maintains the school's Web sites and holds the root password of the
school's network, but he's not an IT professional. He's always been a supporter
of open formats, though, sending out only RTF instead of .doc attachments and
to add OpenDocument support to Microsoft Office. Giancarlo had done some Visual Basic
programming and ASP-based Web development when he came into contact with
Linux and the GNU project in 2002.
At the time, Giancarlo says, Red Hat wasn't simple enough to make him leave Windows, but he
started to know and appreciate the Free Software world and philosophy.
Real love for it, though, came in spring 2004, when Red Hat decided
to focus on corporate customers, and Giancarlo tested Slackware 9.1. In
Slackware he found "in spite of what people say, a clean, simple and easier
to use distribution, if one wants to know how things work under the
hood and set them up manually". Since then, Giancarlo has given a
lecture at the local Linux Day 2004. He also has written several articles and
Software libero nella
didattica and the Italian edition of Linux
The Struggle for Connectivity
School Seat of
Villacidro counts 50 students divided among five classes. The
school acquired its first computers in the mid-90s, about 15 Pentium I systems
with either 16 or 64MB of RAM. None of the computers was networked. By
the end of 2002, the school was wired and connected to the Internet in
the only way possible for a building located in the open countryside: a
bidirectional satellite link from
The link worked only if managed by a Windows box, but the lack of
security offered by the chosen Wingate proxy gave Giancarlo more than his share of headaches.
Eventually he got so sick of the problems that he disabled the Wake on
LAN functionality in the server BIOS.
At the beginning of 2005, Giancarlo resolved to sit down and not leave
his keyboard until he had learned enough Wingate to secure the school
network. After some struggling, he figured out what had to be done. By
then, however, the system had become so messed up that a re-installation from
scratch on the same machine was necessary. And that was the moment when
he discovered that the regularly purchased registration key was no
longer valid. Not knowing how to recover from this, he panicked for a little
while and then went on-line. There he found
Squid for Windows. A
couple of hours later, the school had a proxy without open security holes.
Today, attempts to access improper Web sites are filtered through a list of
keywords loaded by a directive in squid.conf. So far this effort has
been sufficient, because students have been informed that all school traffic
is monitored and that violations are not tolerated. The plan, however, is to
make filtering easier to manage by installing
The Tipping Point
Before installing Slackware, the only free software regularly used in
Villacidro ran on Windows. The school ran Firefox and, on machines with at least
64MB of RAM, OpenOffice.org. In May of this year, the situation changed completely,
thanks to two separate events.
In order to have access to European Community funds, Italian schools
must design and manage their infrastructures according to the procedures
described in National Operative Programs
Nazionale" or PON). When deciding how to spend
that money in Villacidro, Giancarlo suggested the school buy more computers
instead of Windows 2003 and Microsoft Office licenses. At that point,
the school also decided to give up almost all of the Windows XP licenses
it originally planned to buy. Eventually, the school purchased seven desktop and two
laptop computers--all P4 machines with 512MB of RAM--and an additional
powerful server. These purchases finally made feasible the switch to KDE
on Slackware; more on this later. OpenOffice 2.0, Firefox 1.3 and The
GIMP 2.2 have become the most used applications. If all goes well, the chemistry
classes soon will use Kalzium to study the periodic table and,
later on, packages such as
to visualize molecular models.
Also in May, Tiscali sold its Tiscalisat services to the Irish provider
Digiweb. For Giancarlo this
sale meant the arrival of vanilla TCP/IP software stacks and the replacement
of the extant USB modem with an Ethernet one. Digiweb said Giancarlo
now could connect with Mac or Linux, but the company didn't provide any
support for these OSes.
Given this information about the new Digiweb conditions, Giancarlo had,
to use his own words, "the insane idea to test the new modem and
connection with a Knoppix Live CD". Knoppix indeed did connect to the
Internet all by itself, so then it was only a matter of finding and
copying the correct configuration parameters into the proper Slackware
Emboldened by this success, Giancarlo turned the whole network upside
down. The Windows 2000 server was "promoted" to library database
manager. Proxy and firewall duties were assigned to Slackware and Squid. The
next services to be implemented with free software will be authentication,
centralized directories, Samba and LAMP databases.
What Do Others Say?
Being the only teacher with sufficient IT competence and, above all, the only
one willing to spend time to put it into practice allow Giancarlo to
drive the school's IT policies. The school board trusts him and is pleased
with his results--the system is always up and running, and all of the computers in
Villacidro can be used regularly by teachers and students. For these reasons, plus
the fact that the school's Web site is one of the most compliant
with Italian laws on accessibility, the school is mentioned
Technological Observatory of the Italian Government.
Some colleagues at the institute's other Seats admit to having a bit of
envy regarding the spare time Giancarlo enjoys by not struggling anymore with worms, viruses,
crawling networks and unenforceable security policies. Meanwhile, some
teachers in Villacidro recognize they still don't feel real enthusiasm for the
new platform, but they also admit it has nothing to do with Linux versus
Windows. Some had a similar lack of enthusiasm when switching from Microsoft
Word to OO.o Writer. Others said that they simply don't find themselves
competent enough with GNU/Linux to make the switch and, above all,
stick to it should any problems arise.
The students, though, immediately liked the new platform, as they did at
the other schools profiled in this series (see Resources). Admittedly, most of them care much less about
software freedom and lack of viruses than about the new computers'
larger monitors and all the eye candy of the new interfaces. Even so,
what matters to Giancarlo is that by clicking every possible menu entry,
students are being exposed to a bunch of applications they've
never seen before. Hopefully, this will lead to questions about how to
install GNU/Linux at home.
Linux Is More Efficient than Windows--Right?
Talking with Giancarlo was interesting because his experience with
Slackware exposed the same free software myth that led me and others to start the
RULE project and to my
Namely, desktop free software is not as light on using resources as we'd
like to believe. For Giancarlo, his school was dependent on proprietary
software until this past May in part because most of the computers had
been too old and limited to run an advanced GNU/Linux graphical interface.
Linux, Giancarlo says, is not the optimal solution to keep older desktops
running. This makes sense for servers, he says, but if GNU/Linux is to be
adopted by ordinary users, then we can't believe they'll spend their time
writing commands at the prompt. He adds:
Let's not fool ourselves, if we want Linux to be successful in such
contexts, we need to present GNOME or KDE desktops that make clear how superior
they are to Windows XP: multiple desktops, cool wallpapers, panels showing off all kinds
of nifty applets and utilities.... Whether we like it or not, a default
Mandrake installation is really resource-hungry and decidedly worse than
any Windows [version] from this point of view. To get decent performance out of
32 or 48MB of RAM, Windows 98 is okay.
Of course, he continues, a properly trimmed and configured Slackware
installation would be a decent graphical desktop, but he highly doubts that any beginner
would want to use it for more than a few minutes. He doesn't even want to
do it himself:
Of course, when I sit in front of 256 or 512MB of RAM and
a 1GHz CPU, I feel mutilated without the beauty, speed and functionality
of a modern GNU/Linux desktop. But when I still have to use our old 500MHz
Pentiums with 64MB of RAM, I prefer to boot Windows 98, not Linux.
The GNU/Linux journey of Sante Cettolini has only started, but Giancarlo is
confident that more positive developments will be forthcoming. This year he
plans to devote some of his teaching hours to offering a Linux-based IT class
for beginners. He's sure that such a class will offer students much
better basic computing information than would a similar class offered on
Windows machines. He also believes that within a few months, some students will
be ready to type their first commands at the prompt. Giancarlo
envisions this project as involving three classes over the next two or
three years. The first practical goals are to bring a group of students
to the 2006 Linux Day and to create a task force of young people who will
advocate Linux among their friends. In the meantime, Giancarlo plans to
write some more FOSS-related tutorials to publish on the school Web
site. He is eager to hear from other Linux enthusiast teachers.
"Linux in Italian Schools, Part 1",
"Linux in Italian Schools, Part 2",
"Linux in Italians Schools, Part 3",
"Linux in Italian Schools, Part 4",
Marco Fioretti is a hardware systems engineer interested in free
software both as an EDA platform and, as the current leader of the RULE
Project, as an efficient desktop. Marco lives with his family in Rome,
Articles about Digital Rights and more at http://stop.zona-m.net
CV, talks and bio at http://mfioretti.com
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