Linux for the Long Haul

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

Five years ago, I made one of the greatest life-changing decisions in my career—I switched my organization to the GNU/Linux operating system and supporting applications. It's not uncommon to read about businesses, schools and other organizations making this switch; however, what happens afterward? How do users adjust, and what about this total cost of ownership (TCO) we always hear of? Is Linux really ready for the desktop? Was it worth it to make the switch?

Figure 1. Our third-grade students have no trouble using Linux as part of their lessons.

Figure 2. Even our boss, headmaster Mark Jago, uses Linux for his daily work.

Figure 3. Stellarium is an example of the quality programs available in open source.

Figure 4. When I couldn't find an open-source program that met our needs, I wrote my own.

In 2002, Greater Houlton Christian Academy (GHCH) adopted Linux; you can read the details as to why and how in the February 2003 issue of Linux Journal. It's not an exaggeration when I describe this as a life-changing decision, not just for me, but for the school as well. I used to be a die-hard, Microsoft fanboy; now I use open-source software almost exclusively. Our school, which once had a mish-mash of dilapidated, old, donated computers that barely worked, now is recognized as being a leader in our region because of our computer technology—all of this from that fateful decision back in 2002.

Five years after the article was published, I find myself reflective, pondering where we've been and wondering what the future holds. Did I make the right decision? Would I do it again? There's much to consider in order to answer all these questions. Because that decision initially was based on financial need, let's first look at TCO.

Redmond Weighs In

Sometime after we adopted Linux, Redmond released a study claiming that the TCO for Linux actually was higher than for Microsoft Windows—even though Linux can be obtained for free. Microsoft has been pushing this idea ever since with its “Get the Facts” campaign. Had such a study existed in 2002, I might have wavered on making the switch. After all, price was the driving factor for us to use Linux in the first place. In some ways, that initial decision was a desperate decision. Since then, I've had time to consider TCO. So, was Redmond right?

The initial switch saved us money, because it allowed us to put what funding we had directly into hardware while avoiding the Microsoft tax (pre-installed Windows on computers). In fact, we could not have upgraded our computers if we had to purchase proprietary software as well. That's not to say there aren't some hidden costs in having the IT staff install software on bare-bones hardware, but for us, the savings far outweighed any extra labor costs. What is more important, however, is how using Linux and open-source applications continues to save us money today.

But, before discussing this continued savings, I need to stress that software evolves. Applications improve, bugs and security holes are patched (hopefully), and new technologies emerge. With proprietary software, it can be years between major releases, and upgrading to that new release costs money. With open source, applications are improved all the time. After making the initial switch to Linux, one needs to consider how to keep up with the latest patches, upgrades and releases.

Being a tweaker who loves to squeeze every bit of efficiency from my computers, I was attracted to a distribution called Gentoo. Not only did it allow me to optimize Linux and thousands of applications for our computers, but also I found the package management system far superior to other distributions I had played with. It also forced me to learn the under-the-hood details about the Linux kernel, the GNU programs and many other OS management techniques that have helped me as a Linux administrator.

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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: http://linuxlock.blogspot.com/2008/12/linux-stop-holding-our-kids-back.html 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 be...free!

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?

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