Linux Makes the Grade

from Technology & Learning

An open source solution that's time has come.

In 2001, Indiana officials at the Department of Education were taking stock. The schools had an excellent network infrastructure and had installed significant numbers of computers for 1 million public school enrollees. Yet students were spending less than an hour a week on the computer. Why?

Shuttling students to and from computer labs and managing their time there restricted computer use so much that, analysis showed, certain students had access cut to less than 35 minutes a week. It was then that state officials knew each student needed a computer, and Indiana's one-to-one initiative was launched. But how were they to pay for such a huge project that would have cost $100 million a year in software licensing alone?

Open source.
The often-misunderstood technology (thought of as "just free Web 2.0 stuff" by the uniformed) has been the answer in Indiana—and a growing number of school systems across the country—to shrinking school technology budgets and soaring software costs.

Today, more than 100,000 Indiana school kids (in all, 300,000 high schoolers are slated to receive one) have their own $298 computer and monitor with numerous free software applications, and, in turn, schools across the state have secure, reliable, sophisticated server systems thanks to Linux-based open source technology.

In other words, instead of using computers set to run either Microsoft or Apple operating systems, Indiana school children were given desktops running a Linux-based OS (in this case, distribution packages offered by Red Hat, Novell, and Ubuntu) and with preinstalled free open source software (commonly referred to as FOSS), much of it mimicking popular but expensive programming such as the comprehensive office suites offered by major companies.

Did Indiana children mind? "Who cares?" one student quipped to Michael Huffman, special assistant for technology, as he surveyed the one-to-one program's success across the state.

"Is Linux the answer? Obviously we think so," says Huffman, who estimates software costs total only $5 per machine annually. "It's the only model we've come up with that is affordable, repeatable, and sustainable.

"If you look at a lot of other states that have had laptop initiatives, I think there is a real breakdown. And there are a lot of them that aren't continuing. There are schools that have gone out and bought a lot of laptops, but there is no plan for four years down the road. That's why we went with open source," Huffman says.

Indeed, Indiana and other large school systems like San Diego and Atlanta have joined the until-now quiet, albeit multibillion-dollar, revolution in computing. So successful and popular has Linux become that Wired magazine recently dubbed it "the new black." And software development based on open source technology, now representing 10 percent of all development, is expected to soar to 20 percent by 2010, according to industry analysis by Saugatuck Technology, making it a roughly $5.8 billion market in the next three years.

Its popularity is due, in part, to:

  • Recent announcements that PC makers like Dell and HP will offer Linux-based desktops at dramatically reduced costs, complementing computers already on the market, such as Intel's Classmate PC and eee by ASUS.
  • The reliability of the Linux OS server and, in particular, the hugely popular desktop platforms by Ubuntu, Novell, and Red Hat.
  • Technology that allows Linux computers to run Microsoft applications, thus removing any need of a Microsoft OS.
  • The slew of new software, free or cheap, such as Moodle and OpenOffice, based on open source code.
  • Programs that run directly on the Web without need of installation on individual computers, making the OS less of a factor.
  • Cutting-edge technology, called "virtualization," that allows servers to run Microsoft, Apple, and Linux applications simultaneously.

Meanwhile, high-profile U.S. companies have raised the status of Linux by basing their entire operations on open source technology with amazing success. These include Amazon (which hosts more than 42 terabytes of data), eBay, and Motorola. Google, for one, has found Linux to be so successful (using open source, the search engine company processes 91 million searches a day and is the fourth-largest database in the world) that on Oct. 31 it rolled out an Everexmade gPC, on sale at Wal-Mart for $200, being touted by the company as a collaboration between the PC maker, the open source community, and Google that will "bring Linux to the masses."

No surprise then that nation's cash-strapped K–12 school systems are also looking for high-tech bargains. According to the Greaves Group's American Digital Schools 2006 report: "Beyond Linux and the well-known Indiana open source initiative, a number of other states and districts are considering open source.…Widespread open source usage will grow eightfold from 2006 to 2011."

One reason open source has been readily adopted by school IT departments is in an effort to improve the nation's 4:1 student-to-computer rate.

"With a 25 percent penetration of computers in the classroom, and home-based access linked strongly to household income, many children are simply blocked from the kinds of rich learning opportunities that modern computers can facilitate," says ed tech guru David Thornburg. "Computers today should be expectations, not options. They should be as commonplace as pencils, pads of paper, or books."

The way we teach the nation's 54 million K–12 students has evolved too, necessitating improved technology in the classroom. Nowadays, Web 2.0 applications such as videoconferencing, classroom management, podcasting, and wikis are common teaching tools that run off the Web, requiring elaborate networking infrastructure support and additional computers.

Linux to the Rescue

In the past, Linux was largely relegated to the back office as an operating system, out of sight of most teachers and students. But recent friendlier developments, including a graphical user interface, have made it increasingly viable for schools.

Now it's come out of the closet as districts seek even more innovative ROI solutions.

According to a Compass Intelligence report, spending on IT personnel is anticipated to drop 5 percent a year, to $2.4 billion by 2010. And federal funding of the last protected block grant for technology, Enhancing Education Through Technology, has been steadily chipped away at since 2005.

Today, old computers that would have been tossed out are being "repurposed" and set up either as desktops with a Linux OS (which tends to boot up faster with mature hardware than rival Microsoft) or transformed into "thin clients" (meaning, they are run off software housed on a school system server).

Network servers are being "virtualized" with technology—rapidly being deployed in the education industry—that allows singleapplication servers to simultaneously run UNIX, Microsoft, and Apple.

Cheaper technology, coupled with FOSS adoption, has freed up money in many districts' tech budgets, allowing them to reinvest in IT training or broader professional development, or to bring even more computers or Internet-connected devices into the classroom.

No question, the recent proliferation of cheap PCs has done a lot to bring Linux to the attention of the mainstream, both in and out of school.

Put on the international radar by Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child initiative for developing nations, inexpensive devices from Lenovo, Dell, and HP join Intel and ASUS in presenting a range of offerings to schools.

But certain folks in education fields are raising a key issue: Are these computers, which don't easily run the Microsoft OS or applications built to run on Microsoft, actually preparing our students for the workplace in their future?

In fact, Nigeria was most likely wondering the same thing when it decided to overwrite the operating systems of 17,000 Intel Classmate PCs with the Windows XP it had just purchased.

Many see the reason why software giant Microsoft won this battle.

ZdNet's ed tech reporter Christopher Dawson wrote of his interview with Frenchbased open source company Mandriva CEO François Bancilhon: He "reminded me that there are currently 8,000 languages spoken on Earth. If, as predicted, by the end of the century, 6,000 of these will disappear, there will still be 2,000 languages spoken worldwide; Windows is currently available in about 50 languages."

Still open source folks remain convinced that it will be difficult to stem the tide of Linux and other open source solutions. Increasingly savvy and tech-expert students, a mandate for sustainability, and district bottom line considerations requiring innovation in the area of ROI, Linux is increasingly attractive.

And who knows? With Google, Amazon, and other key players setting the stage, perhaps open source is the future for business, as well.

A look at the evolution of Linux

The chubby, happy penguin, known as "Tux" to most in the Linux world, has served as the open source community's mascot since 1996 and was created to celebrate Finnish software engineer Linus Torvalds's love of the arctic bird.

Torvalds, of course, is the original author of Linux, and Tux is largely believed to be named after his revolutionary code. Though people assume Tux stands for tuxedo—what you tend to think of when you look at a penguin—the name, in fact, is most likely short for (T)orvalds's (U)NI(X).

In 1991, Torvalds wrote his code—a modification of UNIX, an operating system that's been around since the 1970s—posted it on a computer programming bulletin board, and asked people to contribute to his ideas. "I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like GNU)," he wrote.

One has to wonder if he envisioned his casual invitation would lead to such a transformed world. Today, what started out as a computer posting has grown into a feature-rich and varied community. An estimated 6 to 8 million people are using Linux in some form, which is most remarkable in that it's not controlled by one company alone, and free distribution of code is encouraged. In fact, only 2 percent of Torvalds's original programming remains intact.

How Linux Works

What Torvalds originally wrote was a kernel, or the precise language within an operating system that controls the computer and tells it what programming to run. From this kernel, entire computer platforms (file and print systems, back-up, application servers, security, databases, etc.) have been written and are constantly being updated. New code (called "patches") is issued every day by hundreds, if not thousands, of programmers through online Linux communities, making Linux extremely reliable and far less vulnerable to hackers.


Before the commercial distribution of Linux you'd have to be something of a UNIX whiz to set up an operating system. Nowadays, access and distribution is made easy through products from more than 300 "distro" companies, such as Red Hat's Fedora, Novell's SUSE, and Ubuntu, which offer free (unsupported) and for-a-subscription-fee (supported) services, managing all updates to your local area network, servers, or desktop.

Indeed, the feature-rich desktop versions, loaded with applications, are largely credited with making Linux what it is today because they are virtually indistinguishable from their costly big-name commercial counterparts—and also boot faster.


But nothing's drawn more attention to Linux than the proliferation of free open source software (FOSS), much of which is available over the Internet or by disk and can be shared.

Most of the free software mimics popular commercial titles (see "OPEN vs. CLOSED"), and for those who are invested in and want to continue to run Microsoft or Apple applications there is software now available that allows you to run a range of commercial applications simultaneously (see

"Opportunities for student creativity increase in the world of FOSS since there is no financial barrier to installing powerful special software on the off-chance that some students might use it," says David Thornburg, of the Thornburg Center. "My own software mix on my Linux laptop would cost (at educational discounts) more than $500 to replace with commercial titles. Again, the cost savings per machine is significant. Add to this the fact that many of these titles are cross-platform, and can be given to students to take home, and the benefits of FOSS grow even larger."

Open Source Online

No question, the Web 2.0 explosion is fueled by open source, which offers "free" or "open" solutions, allowing users to participate in Webbased communities, and hosted services such as social networking sites—RSS feeds, podcasting, and wikis. Linux enthusiasts point to the Internet and, in particular, social networking sites as the place where the next open source revolution will occur.

One popular site in the education arena is Moodle, an open source course management system that competes with Blackboard (which is partially owned by Microsoft), designed to help educators cre ate curriculum and coursework.

"If we can do with textbooks and curriculum what open source did for software development, imagine the education and curriculum we can produce?" muses Paul Nelson, who pioneered Linux use in the classroom through his K12LTSP (the K-12 Linux Terminal Server Project), a group based in Oregon. "That's what the future is."

Indeed, the future is already upon us. Sun Microsystems' spin-off education site Curriki has been pioneering just such a combination of curriculum plus wiki, a direction that's proving a new source of discomfort in publishing circles.


MIT's pioneering and visionary Nicholas Negroponte, with his One Laptop Per Child initiat i ve (selling a $100 drawstring-powered Linux-OS computer replete with cameras) has opened the world not just to inexpensive hardware but to the accessible Linux software as well.

And PCs are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hardware made with Linux-based engineering or which runs with open source software. For a rundown on different hardware available using open source, see Make's extensive gift guide featuring open source ideas at

With the proliferation of open source software and affordable hardware, it's no surprise Linux is now a $41 billion a year industry, to which Torvalds still holds the trademark. All of this success, however, seems not to have fazed its 38-year-old inventor, who maintains a low profile working at the Linux Foundation near Portland, Oregon.

Said Torvalds in his quest to develop the mascot Tux: "I don't want a macho penguin." Indeed, here's a man who walks the talk.


Case Study: Linux Solution in California
Getting It Off the Ground

District: Saugus Union School District

Snapshot: About 11,000 K–6 students; 59 percent white, non-Hispanic; 10.6 percent eligible for free or reduced- rate lunch program

Innovation: Migrating the entire district to open source

In 2004, Saugus Union School District took on one of its most high-profile projects: adopting open source. Though you might assume cost savings was the primary motivation, it was the desire for a flexible system that actually motivated Jim Klein, director of information services and technology at the Santa Clarita—based school district, to switch all 52 systems from Novell NetWare to an open source platform provided by Red Hat.

In four weeks, Klein and his team adopted a system that includes virtual network computing, allowing the IT staff to provide technical support remotely for any Windows, Macintosh, or Linux workstation from any location in the district.

If Klein learned anything from the project, it's to dive in. "The best way to learn and/or refine your skills with Linux is to force yourself to use the solution," he says.

And he has a bit of practical advice: "Pick up your Widows machine (or Mac, if you are so inclined) that is on your desk and move it across the room. Make sure that you do not put a chair in front of it, and that you get up and leave your desk to use it."

Fast Forward

Today, Klein says, Saugus boasts a computer network with faster computers. Even the oldest computers are more reliable. And the IT staff is better able to support teacher, staff, and students.

"Our technology was more flexible and capable than ever before," says Klein, who has since become an open source advocate, speaking at conferences around the country. "We were able to turn on a dime when a new opportunity or idea came along."

And, he continues, "We were able to smile when the latest security vulnerability surfaced, knowing that it wouldn't affect our systems."

Problems Solved

In the first year alone, Saugus officials estimate that the district was able to save $65,000 in licensing fees by using open source desktop software—namely, OpenOffice, which includes a variety of easy-to-install applications, including software to run spreadsheets, presentations, and word processing.

Up Next

The district's next focus is on open source Web applications. Presently the district uses online forums for teachers and students, streaming video so students can share video production training. And its latest innovation: a Web-based social networking site, which allows teachers and staff to securely communicate with each other and with the community.

—Melissa Houston

District: Vassalboro Community School

Snapshot: 550 K–8 students; 100 percent white, non-Hispanic; 39 percent students eligible for free or reduced price lunch program

Innovation: Introduced Linux-based thin clients throughout the school, as well as installing an entire thinclient computer lab

Case Study: Linux Solution in Maine
Getting It Off the Ground

Vassalboro Community School, located in Central Maine along the banks of the Kennebec River, had used Linux in the server closet for several years, when David Trask, the school's technology director, decided to conduct an experiment.

"At first I introduced it to the kids, and then set up a small experimental lab," he says. "Later that year I set up a kiosk out in the hallway with some dummy accounts and lots of printed screenshots showing people what they could do with Linux."

Even Trask was surprised by the reaction: "All day long kids and teachers alike stopped by and ‘played' with the computer. About two weeks later I put out an e-mail asking for any teachers who would like additional computers in their rooms. I only got a few, but I got the ones I was aiming for."

With interest piqued, Trask was able to transform the school's outmoded computer network by introducing thin-client–style computers from recycled Pentium 2 and Pentium 1 workstations. Once teachers saw how much the kids were writing and publishing in the classroom, they wanted their own mini-labs, which the school created with the help of K12LTSP.

"The effect was just as I predicted: the domino effect," Trask says.

Problems Solved

Vassalboro no longer has to pay for software licensing, and that alone saves the school $50,000 a year, most of which is reinvested into the school technology program on new servers. Today, there are three different operating systems—Linux, Apple, and Microsoft—running in the backroom, allowing teachers to use a host of different applications.

And then there are the intangibles. "Our kids learn how to use a computer…no matter what the OS or application. I use the analogy of driver's ed. quite often," Trask says. "It goes like this: When you took driver's ed., did you learn how to drive a Ford? How about a Chevy? A Toyota? Most people can't remember…why? Because ya' learned how to drive a car…regardless of make, model, or size. Why should computers be any different?"

Up Next

Vassalboro installed Canonical's Edubuntu, an open source OS designed specifically for education. And one of the school's next goals will be to install Edubuntu's thin-client manager, which will allow the IT staff to control much of the school desktop network remotely.

Trask also says he plans to savor his freedom.

"Eventually, over time, you'll end up like me," he says. "I love my job now…I have my life back…I'm not fighting Windows fires all the time anymore."



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