Linux in Government: Linux Lab at the University of South Florida Opens Eyes

by Tom Adelstein

"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." --Albert Einstein

Check the curriculum at the University of South Florida, and you find a campus offering mainly Microsoft technology courses. As with the vast majority of the nation's universities and schools of higher education, you can learn how to use the Excel spreadsheet program, but you cannot find much about Linux kernel internals. Although many schools claim to have embraced open source, don't you believe it.

One of the issues I consider when visiting a university campus is the loss of technology leadership. As a nation, the US had failed to continue the tradition of sparking innovation on the campus. Microsoft has succeeded in capturing the core curriculum of universities and has trained people to become dependent on Redmond's technology. We have become a nation of technologists who drag-and-drop icons rather than technologists who can create an interface between a heart-monitoring device and a monitoring system in a hospital network.

In 2003, I attended an open-source desktop conference at Boston University, invited as a speaker on Linux in Government. Although the conference seemed to be well attended, I learned from the organizer that we would not have another conference at Boston University's Corporate Training Center (BUTrain), because Microsoft--through various incentives--influenced the university to discontinue anything open source. I wrote about this occurrence on several mailing lists. One of my posts elicited this response:

I am the executive director of the group running the Desktop Linux Conference at Boston University.

I too have heard that Boston University took the "Gold Partnership" with Microsoft. I don't know the contract terms, and highly doubt that it says _on paper_ that they won't invite us again, even if that is understood between the parties.

This time, Boston U. put money _into_ the conference. We're going to have a conference to promote Free Software on the Desktop. _We_ set the program and invited the speakers, B.U. and Microsoft had nothing to do with that. Microsoft asked to have a speaker in the program, and I refused.

To create a boycott or bad publicity before the conference would just be playing into Microsoft's hands.

After the conference, I will issue an open letter to BU asking if the allegation that we won't be invited back due to a Microsoft partnership is true.


Bruce Perens

Only the organizers at Boston University, the organizers of the conference and a few others know if the allegations have merit. I did notice, however, that a Linux Desktop Conference at Boston University was not held in 2004.

A New Opening for Linux

When I learned that the College of Business Administration at the University of South Florida was sponsoring a course called ISM 4220, Business Data Communications Hands-On Networking Lab, it peaked my interest. In preparation for the course, Dr. Manish Agrawal, the professor writing the curriculum and teaching the class, asked our community forum where he could find Linux packages he needed. Rather than point to links and offer directions on how to compile source code for the Linux distribution Dr. Agrawal wanted to use, Dave Southern, who builds RPMs for our community Web site, went into immediate action and built the actual application packages. I soon learned from Dave that Dr. Agrawa had finished the course curriculum, and I received a copy. Upon opening the file, I discovered one of the finest Linux courses I have ever seen offered at any University. You can find a copy of it here.

For any one wanting to teach this course, you can find Dr. Agrawal's contact information at his home page. For others, such as corporate and government training leads, this material provides outstanding information about Linux, servers and the Internet.

What We Learned

I had several opportunities to speak with Dr. Agrawal. Many of them resulted in me attempting to outline the course on our Web site. Eventually, he provided us with a PDF file of the syllabus and arranged for students to give their impressions of the course. This opportunity allowed students to explain what they got from the course. I presented a questionnaire to the students and arranged for follow-up interviews. Below are excerpts from their responses.

Three students provided answers--Melanie Macko, Hal Ledman and Vijayalakshmi Kadri. One of the common points I have heard from students in the past also applies to these students: the cost of higher education gets higher every day, and they would like more for their money. They would like to learn Linux as well as active directories.

Excerpts from the Interviews

Linux Journal: What interested you in taking the class?

Melanie Macko, Management Information Systems Major: The class is required by the College of Business, MIS degree. However, I chose to stay with this particular session because of the hands-on lab covering Apache, DNS and E-mail.

LJ: Were you surprised with the things you had to cover?

MM: I was surprised in the sense that this professor would take the time to give us the opportunity to work with something that is not required under the curriculum but very appropriate for the course.

LJ: Was this your first experience with remote administration and the command-line interface? Did you find it useful and how so?

MM: It was not my first experience with remote administration, but it was with command line. I had used remote administration at my internship. I did find command line useful, because it showed me there is a way to access things through methods besides GUI. GUIs don't always work.

LJ: What did you find most interesting about the lab?

MM: The thing I found most interesting about the lab was the use of Linux. I never had an experience with Linux before, and I think this lab was a great introduction. I definitely have more confidence with regards to doing more with computers, and I do feel more prepared. Interviewers have asked me if I had any experience with operating systems other than the Windows platform, and unfortunately I had not. Now I am able to say yes.

LJ: Should courses like this, which familiarize you with Linux and the CLI, be core requirements for Information Systems curricula?

MM: Absolutely! Microsoft is not the only thing out there. Students need to be aware and have experience dealing with Linux and CLI, because they eventually will come into contact with both Linux and CLI down the road. This lab has made me understand computers better. I think what could have been better is not only dealing with the server via remote administration, but hands on as well. I think we probably [should have] had a little tutorial with Vi and the CLI as well.

LJ: What interested you in taking the class?

Hal Ledman, MIS Student working at AT&T: Mainly because it's a requirement for my major in MIS. However, after seeing what we would be covering, I became more excited about the class, because I [had] just started supporting networks for my job at AT&T, and this class gave me a foundation to understand my job better.

LJ: What did you find most interesting about the lab? (Please explain)

HL: I found the most interesting part of the lab was setting up the virtual hosts and how one IP address can be used for completely different Web sites.

LJ: Did this experience give you confidence for doing more with computers? Do you feel more prepared? How so?

HL: Yes, this experience has given [me] more confidence with doing more with computers. I wouldn't say I feel more prepared, but I have a better understanding of computers, networks and how the Internet works. I gained a better understanding of how data communications works through the OSI model.

LJ: Should courses such as this, which familiarize you with Linux and the CLI, be core requirements for Information Systems curricula?

HL: I think courses such as this should familiarize you with Linux, because in my job experience UNIX and Linux [knowledge] is a core component for data communications. I also feel Linux and CLI should be core requirements for information systems.

LJ: Do you think the lab has helped you understand computers better? What additions to the lab could have made it a better experience for you?

HL: Yes, the lab definitely has helped me understand computers better. I think the lab could have been a better experience for me if I had to research more through a book or the Internet in order to get my DNS server and virtual hosts working, instead of [being offered] step-by-step instructions on how to do it--perhaps even [being] tested on some of the key features. That way, I would have a much better understanding of [how] these things work and how to set them up, and that information would stay with me longer.

LJ: What did you find most interesting about the lab?

Vijayalakshmi Kadri, Management Information Systems Major: [Being] interactive with the Linux system and setting up our own domain name service; also, adding some HTML files to the server was very interesting to me.

LJ: Did this experience give you confidence for doing more with computers? Do you feel more prepared?

VK: Yes, I feel more strong and very confident in setting up the server.

LJ: Do you think the lab has helped you understand computers better? What additions to the lab could have made it a better experience for you?

VK: Yes, it helped me understand computers better. However, showing me how to configure the firewall may have been [useful], as well as the equal involvement of each group member in doing lab exercises.

Are We Making Progress in Higher Education?

At the moment, Linux cannot build a hall at a university nor offer scholarships, marketing funds or Gold Partnerships for profitable training divisions in our nation's colleges. When administrators of our schools of higher education make decisions about technology, they have to take money into account. Money means Microsoft.

During the Cold War, the Department of Defense created grants for universities to build applications for the Internet or to provide technical applications for the military and its ancillary agencies. Then came the end of the Cold War. When the defense premium disappeared, money for UNIX supercomputers, specialized applications, Web browsers and defense applications dried up.

Few schools teach Linux, and fewer still can convince their faculties and administrators to switch to lower cost desktops, browsers and productivity suites, such as Linux, Mozilla Firefox and A lack of knowledge about the virtues of open-source software pervades the university space. Fortunately, people such as Dr. Agrawal have found some latitude in offering courses that prepare students for life beyond the classroom.

Only time will tell if the Open Source community is making progress in our nation's schools of higher education. I'll keep an eye open for those changes. Hopefully, you will too.

Tom Adelstein lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Yvonne, and works as a Linux and open-source software consultant locally and nationally. He's the co-author of the book Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop, published by O'Reilly and Associates. Tom has written numerous articles on Linux technical and marketing issues as a guest editor for a variety of publications. His latest venture has him working as the webmaster of

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