Linux in Italian Schools, Part 5: Slackware in Sardinia

One teacher's willingness to dive into free software is helping the entire school to use a network that is newer, more secure and more diverse in its application--and the students love it.

The Professional Institute for Agriculture and Environment, Sante Cettolini, is spread over six little cities in the southwestern corner of the wonderful island of Sardinia. 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 series.

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 ( 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 recently signing the petition 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 tutorials for Software libero nella didattica and the Italian edition of Linux Magazine.

The Struggle for Connectivity

The 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 Tiscalisat. 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 DansGuardian.

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, 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 ("Programma Operativo 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 Yoml 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 files.

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 in the School 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 experiments with Mini-KDE. 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.

Future Opportunities

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, Italy.


Articles about Digital Rights and more at CV, talks and bio at


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loser's picture

you guys are the biggest geaks on the planet!!!!!!!!!!!!! who cares about whatever you guys are talking about!!!!


Anonymous's picture

if you run Linux with KDE in configuration 500MHz 64MB, the problem is in 64 MB. 500MHz is enough for Linux+KDE, but for RAM in my opinion you need 128MB to be ok. (I worked with KDE 3.1.4 on 128MB 2 years ago)


Peter Tandrer's picture

Well, well - when you buy a new computer in these days they should come with at least 256 MB.

Yes, and RAM is not as

Adreano Mueller's picture

Yes, and RAM is not as expensive, as it was a few years ago


Gian's picture

Yes, I agree with you: my pc has a CPU with 1.2 GHz and a RAM with 1GB. I never have troubles with this configuration (only when I'm compiling source I find the CPU too slow but this is not a great problem). In computers of my school the CPU is over 2 GHz and RAM is 512 MB, but they are slower than my pc when KDE is running.

64 MB of RAM are enough for running older versions of KDE (3.1) but the system run slowly

Practical feed-back running Linux in an Italian school

Poul Moller's picture

I read the article and just wanted to give our practical feedback for Linux in an Italian school. The choice of Linux was mainly because of administrative problems of keeping Windows based workstations up-to date and virus free. Virtually all PC were infected so badly and so quickly that it no longer was feasible to manage the installations manually. Further students change settings and installs strange things making the situation even worse. Even teachers sometime install programs that weren’t intended.

Now we have Linux, and the situation is somewhat better. Now we are “only

I disagree with this

Robert Pogson's picture

I disagree with this statement: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.

To get decent performance out of 32 or 48 MB or RAM, even in a Pentium I, use it as a Thin Client connected to a modern machine. One modern machine can serve many such thin clients so the cost per machine is small. If the new machine has 512 MB, it can likely handle several clients. With 2 gB RAM, 30 clients is feasible. I use LTSP. You can use K12LTSP for ease of installation on the server. A floppy, CD, or ROM is all that is needed to boot the clients over the network. They do not even need a hard drive.

Re: I disagree with this

Gian's picture

Sorry, but my knowledge is still too small. I cannot configure a network for running X on a server with some thin client connected. I'm a Linux user only since 2002 but I make progress only since 2004 when I migrated from Red Hat to Slackware, so I've many things to learn before try a network with thin clients.
There is another problem: we have only two servers Linux. The one is a connection server (with Squid) and has 1 GB of RAM and 2 GHz of CPU's frequency. The other (which I will configure next months) has 1 GB of RAM and over 3 GHz of CPU's frequency. I think it is not a good idea using it for running X server: I prefere to use it as a LDAP server, file server, and if it is possible as an internal Web server for a internal information service. IMHO these network services can run in a server with a few of resources but if we use it as X server it will crash easly, I suppose

Don't change the subject... Linux desktop ARE resource hogs!

Anonymous's picture

I disagree with this statement:... a default Mandrake installation is really resource-hungry.

...but you haven't proven it wrong; you just ignored the problem and started talking of an unrelated, albeit excellent, technology. Did you realize it? What you actually did was to confirm that such hardware can be used as Linux desktop only as dumb terminal, that is as a super extension cord of a new computer. "If you haven't the money to replace your old computer...just buy a new computer and hook the two together. Fat chance for a laptop or a single home desktop... Duh!

You missed most of the

Anonymous's picture

You missed most of the original context:
"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."
The laptop or old desktop can run LTSP, and thus use the graphical
interface provided by the existing server -- without being forced to
use Win98.
So, cheer up, you rude dipshit.

From the author, re: Linux desktops being resource hogs

Marco F.'s picture


sorry for stepping in only now. As the article author, I do have all the original context and then some, so I feel entitled to step in. Looking at both the original critic (the "Don't change the subject..." post) and your exquisite reply, I must say I agree with the former. LTSP is an excellent thing, but is simply not always applicable. Not in the original context that you and R. Pogson seem to keep missing.
When you have a computer which cannot, for any reason, be connected to a more powerful server (as it was the case in that school, in many homes etc..):

  • It cannot be an LTSP client, no point to keep talking about LTSP
  • It cannot (with those specs) run satisfactorily any modern Linux desktop distro, and I have more than my share of personal experience with this.

so, it is true that you haven't proven that Mandrake (or Fedora, etc..) can be a decently usable, stand alone desktop on such computers
Regards,Marco Fioretti

Sorry, I did not follow this

Robert Pogson's picture

Sorry, I did not follow this strand for a while. My comments above were made from years of experience of schools in Canada where there are 1 to 10 students per computer and a small school may have 50-200 computers. It is an expensive task to try to upgrade the hardware or software on that many machines but it is trivial to make thin clients of them and have them connect to a single modern terminal server. For about $1000 I can get enough server to run 30 thin clients, about $33 per client. In a small school where there is not much money, the $1000 may be an insurmountable obstacle. I was thinking of the $33 per client which does not seem like much here. Consider that folks pay $500 to $1000 just for software on one machine with Windows. In Canada governments and businesses donate their old machines for free use in schools, so the $33 per client would be a major part of the IT budget lasting for years. I use ten year old machines giving access to a full GUI desktop all the time.

If a LTSP server is out of the question, one could add a little memory to some of the clients and use them as a server via OpenMosix which makes a cluster of machines on a LAN serve as a super computer. 512 MB, costing $50 is enough to permit connection by ten clients, although it would be slow...

Try something designed for the purpose.

Anonymous's picture

I presume no-one making these claims has tried Damn Small Linux or Puppy Linux.

from the author, re: Try something designed for the purpose

Marco F.'s picture

Personally, I know DSL, PuppyLinux, UbuntuLite etc... (not to mention RULE, of course) and I often use blackbox. However, you seem to have ignored Giancarlo's explicit explanation of:

  • (in the article) why interfaces like DSL won't work with non geeks
  • (in his last comment) the real world needs and time constraints of non programmers

W.R.T the second point, also remember that the more specialized a Gnu/Linux distro is, the harder is for a non programmer to find usable support online

Marco Fioretti

Re: Try something designed for the purpose

Gian's picture

won't work with non geeks

Sorry Marco: what means "geeks"?
I haven't found this word in the dictionnary :$

the harder is for a non programmer to find usable support online

This a great problem for GNU Linux diffusion. The philosophy of Gnu Linux and as a rule of free software is people must know what they use, so they must study and learn OS, platforms, and software.
We have to remember which many people aren't good at new tecnologies and cannot learn in best mode. These people will never have a good practice, whether they use Windows or not. How to approach these people? They need support, they need a simply and intuitive interface... I know many people which have problem in using keyboards or right-click of the mouse, many people which don't know what is the difference between a DOC format and a RTF format. This concept is well-know to project-men of Mozilla or the success of Firefox or is because these project are looking to different targets, so they are useful in the basic platform for principiants but they are powerful with the extensions for experts.
The target of MySQL is a database administrator and a client-server developper, so this platform can have an hard interface because these people know what they have to do, but the target of Base will be a secretary, a student, a lawyer, an housewife. They will never study ODBC driver or SQL, so a "database" application must be how MS Access with graphical and visual interface.
I think GNU Linux graphical interfaces as KDE are useful for many people, people which otherwise use Windows because is easy. In the future it's possible which many people improved their knowledge and they can choose between a Blackbox or a KDE, between Mandriva or Debian, between kwrite or vi but is necessary that these people won't escape when see a console first time.


Gian's picture

Hi, thanks to Marco Fioretti and his article about our adventure with the free software. In my school we are only beginning and I have not a solid experience but I hope that in the future we can improve about use of GNU Linux and the FOSS into an educational context.
Meanwhile I'm giving a lot of little satisfaction with the free software.
I'd like inform the visitors of this article which the link of our website won't work because the websites are down for a temporary problem with our mantainer. But you do not lost anything :-D

Sorry for my bad English. If somebody posts some questions please write in easy English, so I can understand it ;-)

Linux in Italian schools-slow speed with kde desktop

Anonymous's picture

Have any of you tried the lightweight distributions? I have been using "Puppy Linux" for the better part of 2 months. I boot from power on to the desktop within 50 seconds. The desktop is not KDE admittedly, but JWM. I find the desktop very comfortable to use. I am using Sylpheed for email and firefox 1.5 for net browsing. If curious, check out site:

Re: Linux in Italian schools-slow speed with kde desktop

Gian's picture

Have any of you tried the lightweight distributions? I have been using "Puppy Linux"...

I never used light distributions and I do not know Puppy. I think is more useful (for me) study and learn on only main distribution, as a Slackware, a Debian, or a Mandrake, for example, because I wan to learn well one of these for using its such as workstation such as server.
Next time it is possible study a "minor" distribution in particular contexts. Sorry but my free time is very small and I have some priorities.