Want to setup a Webserver as part of your distance learning environment? Is it too late for me to try and talk you out of it? Just kidding. Implementing a Webserver as part of your school's distance learning abilities can be a daunting task, but it is achievable. Be prepared, though. Even if your IT department takes care of getting the server setup, creating the pages and keeping them updated can require a large amount of time.
Since the time factor is going to be a long-term issue, it needs serious attention from the beginning. Many schools and educators concoct grandiose plans for offering all manner of services and content via their Webserver. Big mistake. Start small and roll in new features over time. While it may be harder to sell the idea to administrators in the short run, it will lower the possibilities of failure if your goals are less ambitious and more attainable.
You might consider starting off with pages, updated weekly, containing the assignments covered in each class. This in itself will incur many problems that you should be prepared for, the biggest of which is just getting the weekly assignments from each teacher in your department, let alone the entire school. Without a proper plan and everyone dedicated to getting the curriculum online, after a few months the percentage of teachers that submit their weekly assignments will likely drop significantly.
The time factor can also be diminished if your school offers a Web creation class. The students can get creative with the site and pages while taking the burden of getting them posted off of your shoulders. It makes for one more student project to be managed, but it might also ease your workload.
Another hurdle is the hardware to host the pages on. With so many schools practically hunting for loose change on the grounds to meet their budgets, it's common practice to look for hardware donations to meet your needs. While donated computers are easy on the budget, getting them operational also takes time and costs money.
One possible headache relates to donations of older used computers with older operating systems (OSs) installed. These OSs may not be compatible with current OSs. If you're lucky, you may inherit an operating system that's only one version back from current offerings. This gap will only widen though. Older operating systems come with their own problems, especially if we're talking versions of Microsoft Windows. The biggest problem to consider is the operating system's vulnerability to hacking. Even the latest version of Windows is not immune. While UNIX-based operating systems have security holes of their own, they are often attacked less often owing to Windows being more prevalent.
Just because you have Intel/AMD-based computers doesn't mean Windows is your only option for an OS. UNIX can be overwhelming to those who've never used a command line interface before, but UNIX can provide stability that older versions of Windows cannot. Linux and FreeBSD are good alternatives to run on Intel- and AMD-based hardware. Regardless of the OS, any hacker who wants to break in, probably can and will given enough time.
If security is a real concern, you might consider making the server available only from the internal school network instead of from the Internet. This will detract from the server's purpose, but will maintain a higher degree of security.
To get a donation working with later operating systems, additional memory may be required. If the computer is older it may take some searching to find compatible memory. Additionally, donated hardware often comes without a hard drive or with a non-operating hard drive. This can pose a problem for older computers not designed to work with current drive capacities. Finding older RAM is one thing, finding older working hard drives is something different entirely. Trying to get new hard drives working may take a little finessing (a.k.a., trial and error) with the boot ROMs. If you're not a lucky person by nature, you'll probably also need to partition the drive so the computer can deal with the drive's overall capacity. Be prepared though, some older computers are better off being recycled. Have I mentioned older systems are more prone to failure? You may spend hours or days getting a machine up and running only to have total system failure a few months later.
There's a dark side to newer hardware donations, too, as seen in a tale a teacher related to me recently. A faculty member donated a server to the school. The server met a definite need, and several teachers came to rely on it. In time, however, the faculty member retired and took the server with them. This left the school without an important piece of gear. Any hardware donated by faculty should also come with the pink slip signed over to the school.
One last piece to consider is the actual software serving the pages. In this arena you basically have two choices. Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) or Apache. If your school/administration is amenable to open source software, Apache is a good choice and will run on a variety of hardware and operating systems, including Windows, Linux, FreeBSD, and Mac OS X. If your Intel/AMD hardware won't support a version of Windows that includes IIS, an older version of FreeBSD with Apache is an option.
No matter how many Webservers I've setup over the years, or for what purpose they were designed to be used, each one presented its own set of problems/hurdles to get over. Keep a calm head and don't try and create something that's just not obtainable. Start small and build upon a solid foundation. Good luck and happy serving.
Darrin Woods has 15 years experience in carrier and enterprise class systems and network engineering specializing in video transmission, he worked in and taught 3D graphics and animation, and teaches distance learning at the Digital Media Academy. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read other articles from the November Issue