Linux for the Long Haul

Linux proves its worth more and more as you use it.
Speed Gives Life

Now, pay close attention, not only has Linux dramatically increased in usability and features during the last five years, but on the same hardware, it also has increased in speed. In other words, an upgrade really feels like an upgrade! In retrospect, try this with Windows. Our current base of computer hardware, which was modern in 2002, would not even run Vista, let alone run it faster than XP. However, our latest Linux upgrade is noticeably faster than the Linux we ran a few years back. In fact, our 2002 computers that average 256MB of RAM feel faster and more responsive than today's typical computers running Windows XP or Vista, and we have the latest in open-source software installed.

So, let's finish our TCO analysis. Not only did switching to Linux save us money in the initial switch, but also, every time I perform a system upgrade by typing emerge -vauKD world (it's that easy), we're saving money. We don't have to pay a company for every upgrade of every application for every seat. More important, I'm not forced to throw away good hardware and purchase new equipment in order to implement my software upgrade cycle. If we were running a “Microsoft shop”, I'd have to retire almost every computer in our school and purchase all new equipment in order to upgrade to Vista. Now that's an expensive upgrade.

Although money is a big deal to a private school, there obviously is more to consider when switching an organization to a different operating system. A major consideration of mine was the “free as in freedom” roots of the Free Software movement. As the school's system administrator and the guy who has to make it all work, I have enjoyed this freedom during the past five years. I've taken advantage of being able to access and modify the source code. Many of my administrative duties have been simplified by customizing Linux for our school setting. Whether it is writing my own bootscripts or even creating my own software, I've been able to tailor our computer network in ways that I just could not easily or even legally do with proprietary software.

Windows Genuine Disadvantage

There also is a freedom from worry. I don't need to concern myself with Windows Genuine Advantage, product activation and per-seat licensing. With Linux, you don't need to worry about how many processors your servers use or how many cores your next desktop computers will have. You don't need to consider special license restrictions for virtualization. You don't have to endure audits from the Business Software Alliance. As our band teacher loves to say, “No worries!”

Freedom extends outside the four walls of our school as well. For example, although can read and write Microsoft Word documents, the real advantage is that I can provide a copy of this software freely to any teacher or student, especially if that person can't afford to buy Microsoft Office. Anything we do in the classroom, students can do at home using their own copy of the free software we use. This gives us a tremendous advantage as an educational institution.

There's something else I consider when thinking about freedom—the freedom to access my data. I personally don't mind the existence of proprietary software in the world, but I strongly oppose proprietary standards and protocols that lock users from their own data. I want our documents, whether they be school records or a student's homework, to be accessible via an open and well-documented format. A recent experience in trying to access my own data stuck in a locked, proprietary format has made me appreciate all the more the true strength of open software and standards—freedom!

Five years is a long time to consider the wisdom of a decision. As the school's system administrator, I shoulder the burden of maintaining our computers, our network and our servers. What has it been like administering Linux since the switch? I'll be honest. There have been times when I've spent days trying to get something working right in Linux. However, I still use Windows enough to know that administering a Windows network isn't all cake and ice cream either. My experience with Linux is that once a setup is working, it stays working. Sometimes the initial setup takes longer, but once everything is configured right, it just works and works well. With distributions like Ubuntu, even that initial setup is becoming easier.

The Real Customers

Now, let's talk about the users of our Linux desktops. I'm a teacher as well, so I have to use Linux in the same way our teachers and students use it. That said, I'm a geek, and sometimes we geeks need to see the world through the eyes of a typical user. Personally, I love using Linux! I'm using it right now to type this article, and never do I think, “Oh, how I miss Microsoft Word.” Never!

In fact, it's when I'm in a Windows environment that I find myself missing this feature or that feature. This is why the argument that says Linux is playing catchup with Windows is so flawed. Sure, Linux uses a mouse and icons and menus exactly like Windows does, but what else would we use? Is a hybrid car not innovative just because it uses a steering wheel like every other car? I say, “hogwash!” Many features found in open-source software are innovative, many of which only recently, if at all, have found their way into Windows. For example, I love my multiple desktops, and my productivity suffers without them. I love tabbed browsing and have used it for years. I love KDE, but even more important, I love how the desktop environment is not welded to the operating system. Users can chose KDE or GNOME or IceWM or have no GUI at all (great for servers and robots). I love, love, love the power of the Bourne-Again shell (Bash). I could spend the entire article sharing wonderful features that are unique to Linux. However, let's get back on track.

My experience has been that average adult computer users don't understand or even care about the power of multiple desktops, scriptable shells and so forth. For them, using a computer is a means to an end. They have a job to do, and the less the computer gets in the way, the better. The challenge comes when adults are faced with the unfamiliar. I stress adults here, because working with children and teenagers has been a totally different experience. Second-graders come into the lab and, with ease, use Linux to perform any task they would in Windows or Mac OS X. Teenagers line up and ask me to burn them Linux CDs for their home computers. However, most of you reading this probably deal with adults, and we adults are often old dogs.

They say that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. I don't agree with that, but sometimes old dogs do growl and fuss and even bite when forced to learn those new tricks. This can be especially true if the users aren't very computer-savvy to begin with. This means they are relying on icons, menus and options being at specific places and doing specific things. For this reason, many open-source programs try to replicate the feel of software with which the majority of adults are familiar. This is understandable, and it makes the transition easier than you might think. Although I had a few instances of resistance when we first switched to open-source software, most of the staff adapted quite well. Training is needed, but that mechanism already should be in place, regardless of what software an organization uses. Software and user interfaces change over time, and users find themselves adapting, regardless of whether the switch is to Linux or the latest version of Windows. Although adults often resist change, they can change. Actually, after a little time, they become comfortable with the change and may even be glad for the change. I know many average computer users who now sing the praises of Writer, for example.

It has probably become apparent that during these last five years, I've become an advocate for Linux and open-source software in general. However, it would be dishonest of me to sing praises only without revealing the pitfalls I've encountered over the years.



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ROI for Linux and Windows networks.

JS's picture

Hypothesis: One of the issues that really affects ROI is the variation in the price of Clue (TM) needed between having an effective and manageable Linux network and what is required for a Windows network.

In this case, Michael Surran has demonstrated capabilities and commitments to education and quality that are frankly amazing and deserving of respect. (I tip my hat!) With such a person in charge, ROI really does come down to a comparison of the software costs as the person in charge can make the system work either in Windows or Linux, and the staff cost is the same (i.e. Mr. Surran's salary!) If the educator in charge is not as capable or committed, then you run into a case where you need to hire in the expertise needed to install and maintain the system. It is fairly easy and cheap to locate and hire a person with enough ability to deploy and manage a Windows network. There's lots of people who have done enough of the Microsoft cert courses to at least get stuff up and running. A linux person of sufficient capability to do an effective job would IMHO be harder to find and more expensive to hire.

Is this not a big reason why ROI can be a problem for Linux in education? If we could rely on having capable and knowledgable people like Mr. Surran running educational networks then Linux is going to have a lower ROI, but consider the case of the teacher who thought Linux was illegal: Can you imagine having that sort of ignorance in the person in charge of a Linux network? It would be a disaster.

Just my $.02

Good article

cmnorton's picture

I've maintained our school system should, if for no other reason, begin looking at Linux. It's going to be a long road to convince.

Filling the Gap

JD Austin's picture

One solution to your shockwave problem would be to install Codeweavers crossover office. It works great for things like that. You could do it all in open source using Wine but they take a lot of the tedium away.

I like open source but

Anonymous's picture

I like open source but jeeze, you could understand frost before you try to quote him...

Homeschooling Option

catalina's picture

Hi Michael,

I am a homeschooling parent that was privileged to have a local hospital donate all of their old boxes/terminals to myself. I am currently in the process of setting up an LTSP in two different locations within our city, not only with the goal of allowing the homeschooling community to make use of the educational programs, but also with the intent of having LUG's at each venue to alleviate myself from being the only administrator in charge.

I understand that being in an educational environment would not allow you to have that privilege but I thought I would just post and let you know that there are others out there that have looked at the cost/maintenance/feasibility issues and Linux wins hands down.

I think the problem most non-Linux users have is with the cost of Linux. My first year Economics professor would come into class mumbling, "There is no free lunch, there is no free lunch..." and I truly believe that this is the issue. How can something free be any good? We pay so much per month to have water piped to our house lined with chlorine, yet I would sooner have a swig of water from the local artesian well, which happens to!

Linux is not "capitalistic" in philosophy but collaborative. The society I live in is capitalistic, thus the largest hurdle to overcome. Can capitalistic companies make a go with Linux? Of course. But until the imagination of our society embraces the collaborative approach of Linux the free OS will still be a hard sell!

Dean Anderson

I would love to read more

TechCode's picture

I would love to read more about how are you managing the software and updagrades in your school. Gentoo (you haven't wrote it's Gentoo but "emerge" gave you up) is great for places where there is a lot of same/similar machines that benefit from compile on one (or more using distcc) and run on many. Are you using something like that?