UK tech specialist school pioneers open source switch

Thin client, app servers make the grade

a Felixstowe school has taken advantage of the UK government's Specialist Schools Initiative to implement a switch to Open Source software as its chosen capital project. Under the Initiative Orwell High School, which was recently granted Specialist School for Technology status, qualifies for a government capital grant of £100,000 and £129 per pupil per year over four years.

In order to achieve Specialist status a school has to put forward a detailed plan to raise standards in technology, maths and science, pass a submission process and raise at least £50,000 in sponsorship. Having successfully done so Orwell's funding amounts to approximately £500,000 over four years, while the capital project is a complete overhaul of the school's ICT infrastructure and refurbishment of its technology facilities. As a Technology school, you could say it's therefore walking the talk.

The notion of an Open Source switch arose in conversations between deputy head John Osborne and Andy Trevor of Ipswich-based Total Solution Computing. As Trevor had recently been discussing Open Source implementations in schools with Mike Banahan of GBdirect (relation - see below* for Register declaration of interest) and Open Forum Europe, a plan emerged. At the time an upgrade to XP for the school would have meant replacing 50 or so PCs, and Osborne estimated that costs would be around £25,000 plus a licensing spend of approximately £13,000 a year. This was well outside the budget, and open source started to look like a more effective use of resources.

The school needed four main ICT classrooms with approximately 30 workstations in each, distributed printing services and support for a number of smaller clusters of one to five workstations. As staff are now using laptops, it also needed wireless. Using OSS packages such as OpenOffice, MySQL and The Gimp had advantages over using proprietary software because the school didn't need to worry about licensing issues connected with pupils running the software at home. Support for Windows-based legacy software that had no direct OSS equivalent was also needed.

The system installed currently uses SuSE 9.1 at the core with a desktop based on KDE kiosk-ised to reduce admin and complexity. The workstations are thin client, running on two central application servers, and it was possible to use all the existing hardware. Students can log into any application server from any workstation, and get access to all their files, and where legacy apps are needed a server running Microsoft Terminal Server 2003 is used via an RDP client from a Linux desktop.

John Osborne is enthusiastic about the move, which he says was simple and painless. It means the school doesn't face the costs of the Windows upgrade cycle, and doesn't have to worry about licensing for the open source parts of the system. "We shall be moving to a complete Open Source basis as quickly as is practical," he says, "and hope to start working with other schools interested in this type of development to share ideas and best practise". ®

* Mike Banahan and GBdirect are of course old friends and colleagues of The Register, but if we hadn't thought this was interesting we'd have told Mike to go away when he tugged at our sleeve. We think the deployment could be useful model for other schools to learn from, and that it's something the Department for Education & Skills would do well to look at, and maybe publicise.

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