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Linux Case Study : Orwell High School

Orwell High School, in Felixstowe on the East Coast of England, is a school with some 1,000 students ranging in age from 11 to 18. The school has just received Specialist School for Technology status through a Government initiative.

Funding is never easy for schools in the UK public sector and John Osborne, the Deputy Head of the School responsible for for the Specialist School initiative, found himself faced with a difficult situation in early 2004. Funding for hardware was very limited and he couldn't contemplate upgrading to Windows XP since he would have to replace some fifty or so PCs with higher-end models just to run the software. A capital cost in the region of £25,000 was well outside the budget and when he took into account a software licensing spend in the region of £13,000 per year, John became convinced that he had to find a better way of using the school's resources.

When John contacted Andy Trevor of Ipswich-based IT providers Total Solution Computing Limited to discuss his cabling and server requirements, an idea arose. Andy had recently been working closely with Mike Banahan of GBdirect and Open Forum Europe, discussing Open Source implementations in education. Orwell High School was precisely the kind of establishment that would be able to benefit from the range and kind of ICT provision that Andy and Mike had been planning.

Total Solution were able to propose a one-stop solution to Orwell's requirements, switching to Open Source for the software systems while simultaneously upgrading the networking infrastructure.

The school required four principal ICT classrooms with approximately 30 workstations in each one, distributed printing services and support for a number of smaller clusters of one to five workstations. All staff at the school now have laptops, and the school wanted to link these to the network wirelessly.

The school had specific software requirements for the teaching environment, nearly all of which are met and exceeded by standard Open Source software packages such as OpenOffice.org, MySQL and The Gimp. These have a huge advantage over their proprietary counterparts because the students can also run them at home on their PCs without needing to worry about software licensing.

Some proprietary teaching packages have no direct equivalent in the Open Source world at the moment and some of the teaching packs in use were based on Microsoft software so support for this legacy software was also important.

Total Solution, assisted by GBdirect, proposed a low-cost solution that fully met the objectives of Orwell High School at a fraction of the cost of the Windows-based proprietary equivalent. The solution has Linux at its core (currently SuSE Linux 9.1) with a desktop based on KDE kiosk-ised to reduce administrative complexity and cost.

A crucial component of the Linux-based solution was a switch to thin-client workstations accessing software running on two central application servers. This allowed all of the existing PC hardware to be re-used without any upgrades. When the PCs boot they no longer use local hard drives, but download copies of the Linux Terminal Server software from a central server instead. Running that software, they become clients for the application servers. Instead of spending significant amounts of money on upgrading the hardware, this has prolonged the life of the workstations by several years at least (and as a consequence also reduces the load on the local landfill site). Since the workstations no longer need hard drives, their power consumption and their noise output is noticeably reduced. As discussed later, the thin-client model also slashes administration effort.

Students can log-in to any application server from any workstation when they sign-on, usually picking the most lightly loaded one. All their files are available from any server; if one server needs to be taken down for maintenance the full load of all 120 simultaneous users can still be supported with ease. Examples of the classroom layout and login screen are shown below, demonstrating that the network-boot thin-client is an ordinary PC (click the image for a larger version)

terminal room
login screen

The Linux-based desktop uses a range of standard applications, amongst them OpenOffice.org which provides word processing, a presentation package and a spreadsheet; all of them are able to to save and import files in their native XML format whilst retaining compatibility with Microsoft formats. Quanta is used as the HTML editor, the KDE education package provides an assortment of educational software components, Scribus is the desktop publishing package and The Gimp is an excellent image manipulation tool with a wide range of capabilities.

Whilst between them those meet by far the greatest part of the needs of the students, there is inevitably also a need for access to software that will only run in a Microsoft environment. To provide access to those legacy applications, a server running Microsoft Terminal Server 2003 is used, with the students using a RDP client from the Linux desktop. The students' files are accessible in both environments. An example of a desktop accessing Visual Basic is shown below. Naturally Windows and Linux screens can be (and are) run simultaneously side-by-side on any of the workstations. The image shows a web browser window running under Linux overlaid with a terminal server session to Windows.

visual basic

Every student has a personal quota for file space and printer usage. Their personal FTP space is accessible both inside and outside the school and is used to share their files between home and school. There is additional shared FTP space administered by staff, used for setting assignments and sharing background documents. Email is provided to students and staff through Squirrelmail which gives a web interface very similar to Hotmail or Yahoo mail, this too is visible from home as well as from school. The shared-calendar features of Squirrelmail are also proving popular.

Web and email content filtering and cacheing is provided by an Equinet proxy server and firewall which front-ends the application and terminal server devices. A Quantum Snap storage server with tape backup is shared between both application servers, rendering the choice of application server transparent to the students.

The main servers are IBM blades in a modest configuration consisting of two application servers, one server used for FTP, Web and email, a further server for DHCP and LTSP boot services and a legacy Windows 2003 Terminal Server system which will be retired when the move to Open Source packages has been completed. None of the servers shows any sign of strain even when the full student and staff load is imposed. Despite the school's plans to develop a Managed Learning environment over the next year and increase the number of PCs on the network, they will not be considering upgrading their server capacity for some time to come. In addition the space saving layout has provided a significant improvement to the server room.

visual basic

Overall, the project has been a resounding success. John Osborne said:
"I can't believe how easy it has been to move to Linux. The systems were installed and working within a week and it has been a revelation how simple and painless the process has been. I have saved thousands of pounds per year and got a brand-new ICT infrastructure at the same time".
He added:
"Without switching to Linux, I would have been forced to cut back on our ICT hardware and software provision. There simply wasn't the budget to upgrade to the latest versions of the software nor to keep replacing suites of PCs on a three or four year cycle. Now I have no licensing costs to worry about for the Open Source parts of the solution. We shall be moving to a complete Open Source basis as quickly as is practical and hope to start working with other schools interested in this type of development to share ideas and best practise".

The students have taken to the new system without any difficulty whatsoever. They much prefer it to the Windows systems they had been using before, commenting particularly on the reliability of the system and one observing that he was astonised to discover, having accidentally switched off his workstation before logging out, that KDE's session-restore facility returned him back to where he had been previously when he logged in again.

The administration overhead of the previous Windows-based classrooms had kept the school's ICT technician working twelve hours a day. The new system has greatly reduced this workload. John Osborne said:
"The significant amount of additional work that will arise as a result of our new status would have made his job impossible had we remained with our Windows based network, and we would have been looking to increase our technician staffing to cope. This would have been another significant ongoing cost which we now feel we can avoid. This funding can now be better spent on developing materials for the staff and students to use rather than on keeping the network running."

He believes a single technician could now administer something between three and five separate schools if they all used systems like those in place at Orwell High School.

For further information, please contact Andy Trevor of Total Solution on 01473 384864, or Mike Banahan of GBdirect on 0870 200 7273 (+44 113 314 5740). John Osborne can initially be contacted by email at john.osborne@orwellhs.suffolk.sch.uk. The school website will also be used to keep interested parties up to date with developments.

Specialist Schools Initiative

The Government Specialist Schools Initiative requires the school to produce a detailed plan to raise standards in Technology, Maths and Science. To help achieve this many schools make extensive use of ICT. The school had to pass a rigorous submission process, and raise at least £50,000 in sponsorship. It has pledged to work with the community and local schools again to help raise standards of education in these specialist areas. In return the Government supply £100,000 to add to the sponsorship money raised. This is put towards a capital project, which in this case will be to completely overhaul the ICT infrastructure of the school and refurbish the Technology facilities. In addition, each year for at least four years the school receives £129 per pupil per year. This will amount to approximately £500,000 over the four year period. Further details of the scheme can be seen on The Standards website at: http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/specialistschools/