How I Spent my Summer Vacation: Bringing Linux to Nicaragua

by Kevin Brandes


Not exactly the country most people think to look when they want to get a Linux job. This is the reason that I was so confused when I saw the job posting. I was on my way to class, like any other day, when I saw a piece of paper taped to the wall. It wasn't by a bulletin board or anything, just randomly taped to the wall. After reading over it, I realized that I fit the description of who the company was looking for almost perfectly. I had been through a lot of Spanish training, spent a good long while using Linux--I'd even been using SuSE for two years, the distribution with which the company is doing everything at the moment.

I promptly e-mailed the listed address, and after about a week's worth of conversation, it was agreed that I would be a good fit for the job. So, here I am, in Estelí, Nicaragua. Why would Estelí need a Linux geek? Simple. Many people use computers down here. Whether it's in their offices, or when they go to an internet café, there are quite a few computer users.

So, say you're the owner of an internet café in Estelí. When it comes to setting up the computers, you have three real choices:

  • Buy Windows for every machine.

  • Steal Windows for every machine.

  • Use a free alternative.

The first alternative is not attractive. Legal versions of Windows don't cost any less down here than they do in the states. That means you'd end up spending about 10 years worth of wages simply to buy the software for your machines. The second alternative isn't attractive either, as Microsoft inspectors currently are going around to internet cafés in Costa Rica, demanding to see the license stickers. This is bound to happen soon in Nicaragua as well. So, what are you left with? An even bigger thing to consider is this: what if you didn't have to buy powerful machines but instead could use diskless clients to outfit your environment?

The thin client aspect also allows us to offer low cost computing systems to rural schools, which then promotes knowledge and growth in even the poorest communities. This goal cannot be accomplished with Windows, even with Citrix and the like. By using Linux, we don't have to buy any specific hardware. In fact, simply by using donated machines and Linux, we can have a fully functional computer setup.

Clearly, in a country where the minimum wage is around two dollars a day, this last alternative is the winner. So, my job this summer is to help the people down here learn the more complicated parts of Linux, including how to configure thin clients, so they can go spread the good word and help Nicaraguans save money when they're setting up computers for almost anyone.

An interesting thing that I've learned during this operation thus far is most businesses and individuals aren't yet tied into any specific application package. In the US, many people seem to say, "I can't get MS Office for free? I don't want it." Down here, they tend to ask, "How do I word process? How do I print things?" This means they're much more willing to switch to Linux, as long as it allows them to do what they need to do. Most of the computer usage down here consists of word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, all of which Linux does wonderfully.

Another interesting thing about all of this is I've noticed that most of the people in Nicaragua have never heard of Linux--not at all. Most people in the US at least can say Linux sounds familiar. This lack of familiarity with Linux tends to help our cause, it seems, because the people don't already have an opinion in their heads. So I get to describe it, and then they make the decision for themselves. There isn't this uphill battle of, "But I heard that...".

Another battle one usually has to fight with Americans is what I call the "Wait, it doesn't cost anything? It can't be as good then." struggle. Here, people seem to understand that maybe something can works equally as well as the next thing, if not better, even if it's free. Really, the only battle we have to fight in Nicaragua is getting the word out. And that's my job.

Editor's Note: In Part II of this article, Kevin explains how he set up diskless clients to run SuSE 9.0.

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