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It's time to go Back to School
IT specialist Kirk Rheinlander and others are volunteering their time to install a computer network in the Fort Collins, Colorado, K-12 charter school where his boys are enrolled. For him, open source was the logical choice.
"We chose Linux because acquisition and maintenance costs for Windows were too high," Rheinlander said.
Rheinlander's project is part of an increasing migration among schools toward Linux. This exodus is heralded by associations such as the Linux for Schools project, which provides technical help to install and manage the system, and Simple End User Linux, which hosts a discussion forum on the matter.
Although no one is keeping track of how many schools have adopted open source, the numerous postings and sheer quantity of development projects attest for its allure.
The first reason for Linux's low cost is the lack of an operating license. Everybody can copy the system, modify it and download free software from the Internet.
According to Rheinlander, Linux is easier than Windows NT to keep in shape. The school has no dedicated system maintenance, but Linux can be administrated remotely. Volunteers from Hewlett Packard, Colorado State University and the Northern Colorado Linux Users Group will do the work –- saving the school a lot of money.
"Windows is good, and Microsoft has a very aggressive pricing policy towards schools," Rheinlander said. "But license management and system administration are very difficult to handle."
In addition, Linux runs on 486s and Pentium 75s -- fairly ancient machines by today's standards -- which are incapable of running the latest Windows environments. This is pretty handy, since most schools rely on donations of old computers.
"We've just received a truckload of 43 machines from a nearby school in southern Wyoming," Rheinlander said. "They’re too slow to run Windows, so they gave them to us. We’re even taking donations from other schools."
There are two basic approaches to Linux. The first is to operate servers using open-source software. "Using a basic recipe we provided Web, e-mail, printing and file services for both Mac and Windows machines," said Paul Nelson, member of the Linux for Schools project and technology coordinator at Portland's Riverdale School District, which has been run on open source since 1996.
This approach benefits most users reluctant to abandon software and operating systems they are already familiar with. In addition, most multimedia educational software is still designed for Windows and Mac environments.
Rheinlander points out that using Linux in combination with Windows can save money on software licenses. "We use Win4Lin, a program that provides Windows-like terminal functions," he said. Win4Lin runs a copy of Windows as a process under Linux, and multiple users can run Windows programs on a single server from remote clients.
"You must install Windows 95 or 98 on the server," Rheinlander said. "The clients are running all the same copy."
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