Linux in Italian Schools, Part 5: Slackware in Sardinia
The Professional Institute for Agriculture and Environment, Sante Cettolini, is spread over six little cities in the southwestern corner of the wonderful island of Sardinia. The six cities are Santadi, Villamassargia, Villacidro, Senorbì, Muravera and Maracalagonis. Until this past spring, the entire institute ran only proprietary software for Windows. There was no real interest in free software or in computer security, for that matter. This was not a deliberate attitude, though, but a lack of interest in computers as educational instruments, similar to what we discussed in Part 4 of this series.
Last year, however, things started to take a different turn at the School Seat, which is located in Villacidro. The resident Linux champion there is teacher and didactic director Giancarlo Dessì (email@example.com). Besides teaching, Giancarlo maintains the school's Web sites and holds the root password of the school's network, but he's not an IT professional. He's always been a supporter of open formats, though, sending out only RTF instead of .doc attachments and recently signing the petition to add OpenDocument support to Microsoft Office. Giancarlo had done some Visual Basic programming and ASP-based Web development when he came into contact with Linux and the GNU project in 2002.
At the time, Giancarlo says, Red Hat wasn't simple enough to make him leave Windows, but he started to know and appreciate the Free Software world and philosophy. Real love for it, though, came in spring 2004, when Red Hat decided to focus on corporate customers, and Giancarlo tested Slackware 9.1. In Slackware he found "in spite of what people say, a clean, simple and easier to use distribution, if one wants to know how things work under the hood and set them up manually". Since then, Giancarlo has given a lecture at the local Linux Day 2004. He also has written several articles and tutorials for Software libero nella didattica and the Italian edition of Linux Magazine.
The School Seat of Villacidro counts 50 students divided among five classes. The school acquired its first computers in the mid-90s, about 15 Pentium I systems with either 16 or 64MB of RAM. None of the computers was networked. By the end of 2002, the school was wired and connected to the Internet in the only way possible for a building located in the open countryside: a bidirectional satellite link from Tiscalisat. The link worked only if managed by a Windows box, but the lack of security offered by the chosen Wingate proxy gave Giancarlo more than his share of headaches. Eventually he got so sick of the problems that he disabled the Wake on LAN functionality in the server BIOS.
At the beginning of 2005, Giancarlo resolved to sit down and not leave his keyboard until he had learned enough Wingate to secure the school network. After some struggling, he figured out what had to be done. By then, however, the system had become so messed up that a re-installation from scratch on the same machine was necessary. And that was the moment when he discovered that the regularly purchased registration key was no longer valid. Not knowing how to recover from this, he panicked for a little while and then went on-line. There he found Squid for Windows. A couple of hours later, the school had a proxy without open security holes. Today, attempts to access improper Web sites are filtered through a list of keywords loaded by a directive in squid.conf. So far this effort has been sufficient, because students have been informed that all school traffic is monitored and that violations are not tolerated. The plan, however, is to make filtering easier to manage by installing DansGuardian.
Before installing Slackware, the only free software regularly used in Villacidro ran on Windows. The school ran Firefox and, on machines with at least 64MB of RAM, OpenOffice.org. In May of this year, the situation changed completely, thanks to two separate events.
In order to have access to European Community funds, Italian schools must design and manage their infrastructures according to the procedures described in National Operative Programs ("Programma Operativo Nazionale" or PON). When deciding how to spend that money in Villacidro, Giancarlo suggested the school buy more computers instead of Windows 2003 and Microsoft Office licenses. At that point, the school also decided to give up almost all of the Windows XP licenses it originally planned to buy. Eventually, the school purchased seven desktop and two laptop computers--all P4 machines with 512MB of RAM--and an additional powerful server. These purchases finally made feasible the switch to KDE on Slackware; more on this later. OpenOffice 2.0, Firefox 1.3 and The GIMP 2.2 have become the most used applications. If all goes well, the chemistry classes soon will use Kalzium to study the periodic table and, later on, packages such as Yoml to visualize molecular models.
Also in May, Tiscali sold its Tiscalisat services to the Irish provider Digiweb. For Giancarlo this sale meant the arrival of vanilla TCP/IP software stacks and the replacement of the extant USB modem with an Ethernet one. Digiweb said Giancarlo now could connect with Mac or Linux, but the company didn't provide any support for these OSes.
Given this information about the new Digiweb conditions, Giancarlo had, to use his own words, "the insane idea to test the new modem and connection with a Knoppix Live CD". Knoppix indeed did connect to the Internet all by itself, so then it was only a matter of finding and copying the correct configuration parameters into the proper Slackware files.
Emboldened by this success, Giancarlo turned the whole network upside down. The Windows 2000 server was "promoted" to library database manager. Proxy and firewall duties were assigned to Slackware and Squid. The next services to be implemented with free software will be authentication, centralized directories, Samba and LAMP databases.
Being the only teacher with sufficient IT competence and, above all, the only one willing to spend time to put it into practice allow Giancarlo to drive the school's IT policies. The school board trusts him and is pleased with his results--the system is always up and running, and all of the computers in Villacidro can be used regularly by teachers and students. For these reasons, plus the fact that the school's Web site is one of the most compliant with Italian laws on accessibility, the school is mentioned in the School Technological Observatory of the Italian Government.
Some colleagues at the institute's other Seats admit to having a bit of envy regarding the spare time Giancarlo enjoys by not struggling anymore with worms, viruses, crawling networks and unenforceable security policies. Meanwhile, some teachers in Villacidro recognize they still don't feel real enthusiasm for the new platform, but they also admit it has nothing to do with Linux versus Windows. Some had a similar lack of enthusiasm when switching from Microsoft Word to OO.o Writer. Others said that they simply don't find themselves competent enough with GNU/Linux to make the switch and, above all, stick to it should any problems arise.
The students, though, immediately liked the new platform, as they did at the other schools profiled in this series (see Resources). Admittedly, most of them care much less about software freedom and lack of viruses than about the new computers' larger monitors and all the eye candy of the new interfaces. Even so, what matters to Giancarlo is that by clicking every possible menu entry, students are being exposed to a bunch of applications they've never seen before. Hopefully, this will lead to questions about how to install GNU/Linux at home.
Talking with Giancarlo was interesting because his experience with Slackware exposed the same free software myth that led me and others to start the RULE project and to my experiments with Mini-KDE. Namely, desktop free software is not as light on using resources as we'd like to believe. For Giancarlo, his school was dependent on proprietary software until this past May in part because most of the computers had been too old and limited to run an advanced GNU/Linux graphical interface.
Linux, Giancarlo says, is not the optimal solution to keep older desktops running. This makes sense for servers, he says, but if GNU/Linux is to be adopted by ordinary users, then we can't believe they'll spend their time writing commands at the prompt. He adds:
Let's not fool ourselves, if we want Linux to be successful in such contexts, we need to present GNOME or KDE desktops that make clear how superior they are to Windows XP: multiple desktops, cool wallpapers, panels showing off all kinds of nifty applets and utilities.... Whether we like it or not, a default Mandrake installation is really resource-hungry and decidedly worse than any Windows [version] from this point of view. To get decent performance out of 32 or 48MB of RAM, Windows 98 is okay.
Of course, he continues, a properly trimmed and configured Slackware installation would be a decent graphical desktop, but he highly doubts that any beginner would want to use it for more than a few minutes. He doesn't even want to do it himself:
Of course, when I sit in front of 256 or 512MB of RAM and a 1GHz CPU, I feel mutilated without the beauty, speed and functionality of a modern GNU/Linux desktop. But when I still have to use our old 500MHz Pentiums with 64MB of RAM, I prefer to boot Windows 98, not Linux.
The GNU/Linux journey of Sante Cettolini has only started, but Giancarlo is confident that more positive developments will be forthcoming. This year he plans to devote some of his teaching hours to offering a Linux-based IT class for beginners. He's sure that such a class will offer students much better basic computing information than would a similar class offered on Windows machines. He also believes that within a few months, some students will be ready to type their first commands at the prompt. Giancarlo envisions this project as involving three classes over the next two or three years. The first practical goals are to bring a group of students to the 2006 Linux Day and to create a task force of young people who will advocate Linux among their friends. In the meantime, Giancarlo plans to write some more FOSS-related tutorials to publish on the school Web site. He is eager to hear from other Linux enthusiast teachers.
Marco Fioretti is a hardware systems engineer interested in free software both as an EDA platform and, as the current leader of the RULE Project, as an efficient desktop. Marco lives with his family in Rome, Italy.