Linux for the Long Haul

Linux proves its worth more and more as you use it.
The Downside

As the system administrator, a real thorn in my side has been hardware compatibility. I've had little problem installing Linux on a variety of computers, but peripherals such as printers, scanners and Webcams can be a serious pain in the neck. Too many hours have been wasted trying to get unsupported hardware to work. However, the lesson here is to buy only from vendors who support Linux with drivers and/or detailed specifications. As more organizations adopt Linux, vendors either will have to support Linux or lose their business to those who do.

Something I find as irritating as the giant Maine mosquito is the use of proprietary protocols, standards and codecs that exclude Linux users from certain parts of the Internet. The Internet was built on open protocols, and it probably wouldn't exist in any meaningful way today if it had been locked up with proprietary standards owned by individual companies. Yet, there still are Web sites and services using closed protocols. It is highly frustrating when we cannot access on-line content because we don't have a proprietary plugin, such as ActiveX or Adobe Shockwave. For example, our school wants to use an on-line education tool to enhance our curriculum, but the company that offers this tool relies on Shockwave. So we are “locked out” because of this one missing piece.

Finally, a lack of key commercial software is a real issue. Some good people in the Free Software community don't want commercial software on Linux, but I have to be more pragmatic. When there is a fine open-source alternative to a key commercial product (such as with and Microsoft Office), I am happy to use it. Unfortunately, not all proprietary software has a good open-source equivalent. Until there is, the solution isn't eloquent. GHCA has a single Windows machine in our office for the sole purpose of running Intuit's QuickBooks. I suppose we could use Wine, but that brings its own headaches.

Despite these pitfalls, I have no regrets. Let's look at those big questions again. Is Linux ready for the desktop? Yes. Our teachers and students have been using Linux on the desktop successfully for the last five years. What about TCO? Every organization is unique, but Linux has saved us many thousands of dollars, and we're a small school! Have users adjusted? Absolutely. Was it worth the switch? There is no doubt in my mind. That's not to say there haven't been bumps in the road, but to quote Robert Frost, “I took the [road] less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” I look forward to where this road we call Linux will lead us in the future.

Michael Surran is the head of GHCA's Computer Science department. He is responsible for building and maintaining GHCA's Linux network, and he teaches Computer Programming, Computer Technology, Research and Presentation, and the CS electives. Surran promotes open source in education both locally and regionally through newscasts and seminars.



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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?