By all appearances, the migration from Microsoft Windows to Novell SUSE Linux on the server and the desktop at the Windsor Unified School District in Northern California has been almost as pain-free as any IT professional could hope for.
By this summer, all 5,000 students and 250 teachers will be working off of a Linux-based thin client running OpenOffice.org, and the majority of the district's servers will be running Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Server.
Heather Carver, brought on as the director of technology and information services at Windsor in August 2006, said her hiring was a result of the district's desire to vet alternatives to a Windows upgrade for its network of seven schools.
When Carver arrived, Windsor had an aging Microsoft Windows environment running on 70 Hewlett-Packard and Dell servers spread across seven schools. Upgrades would have meant purchasing more powerful hardware and additional licensing costs totaling $100,000 – far too expensive for their limited IT budget, she said.
That said, Carver still investigated ways to remain on Windows, but an upgrade proved impossible. "We looked at keeping the physical environment, and how we could accomplish that. But in that scenario, if we could afford the software upgrades, then we could not afford the new hardware required to run it and vice versa," she said.
With Windows ruled out, Carver decided to standardize on SUSE Linux Enterprise Server with thin-client desktops running SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop. Novell won out because of what Carver perceived as better support for the thin client desktops she planned to use in the classrooms and faculty areas.
Using Wyse terminals, the district also planned to offer students and staff thin-client desktops running OpenOffice.org. Ericom software – a Citrix alternative -- enabled the terminals to run the district's existing and irreplaceable Microsoft Windows educational applications, including Type to Learn, Reading Counts and Kid Pix.
The migration officially began in January at the Brooks school building, one of seven schools in the district that would serve as the testing environment for the project. ZENworks, Novell's systems management product, was also installed to serve as a central management and monitoring hub for the other six sites when they go online this summer.
Windsor did go over a few speed bumps in the migration to Linux involving managing user identities and authentication. For Carver, the ID issues were not debilitating enough to deter her from making the switch from Windows to SUSE, but the issue was still noticeable.
Specifically, custom scripts had to be developed to perform tasks such as granting faculty access privileges to student grade information, for example. These tasks had to be completed locally on a server-by-server basis. "We had to add all the system's users one-by-one," Carver said. "That's a pain when you have 500 users."
This problem was especially apparent on the thin clients she had set up in classrooms and teacher workstations. "At our Brooks facility, the OS wasn't that easy to manipulate for our thin clients," Carver said. "I love the OS, but it is not built for the thin client."
Carver said Novell promised more identity support during the summer in the form of a software update.
Ultimately, though, the migration from Windows to Linux progressed quite smoothly.
"Each site has a server room with 10 servers," Carver said, for a total of 70 servers running applications like file and print, plus Novell's ZENworks and GroupWise for collaboration.
In particular, implementing ZENworks as a help desk for teachers and staff has resulted in a 90% reduction in the amount of time it takes IT staff to resolve problems. "We basically had no help desk before, but in the new system, each user has a distinct name and log-in credentials. Most places have that already, I know," she said.
The new setup also allows for better remote management. "[With Windows] we had spent half our time driving around; we had to touch every machine," Carver said. In a school system like Windsor, all that driving was costing an already strapped IT department too many resources.
Carver said it cost the district about $2,500 per school to migrate to Linux, compared with the estimated $100,000 it would have cost to upgrade their Windows infrastructure. In addition, buying more Microsoft Office licenses would have cost the district $100 per license, she said, whereas OpenOffice was free.
Linux as a learning tool
Ultimately, moving to Linux has enabled the Windsor School District to build out technology capabilities that wouldn't have been possible with Windows.
"[The students] are able to do more because Linux cost less," Carver said. "Our new computer lab [at Brooks] was set to cost $35,000 and ended up costing us $16,000 with Linux [on thin clients]."
And the kids love it too. "The kids think Linux is cool because it's new, but what they're really doing is stepping into the 21st century," Carver said.
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