Open season

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Tired of being dependent on Microsoft for so much of your ICT infrastructure? George Cole may have just the thing bring the smile back to your face.

The Suffolk coastal resort of Felixstowe is famous for its massive container port, but, one day, it may also be known for being at the forefront of a movement that transformed ICT in schools. Orwell High School is an 11-18 comprehensive with around 850 students. It has achieved specialist school status and it was this change that led to a radical decision - to move its core ICT from Microsoft's Windows to an open source platform.

Open source software is so-called because the programming language used to create it is freely available for end-users to modify and adapt. The best known examples of open source software are the Linux operating system and applications like StarOffice and OpenOffice. The profile of open source was lifted as a result of a report by technology agency Becta, published earlier this year, which highlighted potential cost savings for schools moving to open source.

John Osborne, deputy head at Orwell, explains: "We had a Windows network that was on its last legs and the bulk of machines were using Windows 98. We bought a new batch of around 25 Windows XP machines and then found we then had huge security problems in trying to merge the different security methods of both systems.

"We had a pot of money thanks to our specialist school status and we decided to use some of that to upgrade our school network with [high-speed] fibre optic cabling and new servers. Then we looked at upgrading our desktops and this is where it got really scary, because in order to upgrade to XP, we were going to have to get rid of half of our current machines, because they were too old to run it. It would have meant that we didn't move forward, but simply stayed where we were. I wanted to grow the network."

The company that installed the fibre optic cabling was Cutter, a new IT company, which installs and manages open source platforms and systems for education. It was set up by Andy Trevor and Mike Banahan.

"We asked Andy to set up a trial system consisting of a server and a couple of workstations. When he did, it soon became clear that that was the way to go," recalls John.

Trevor says they decided to offer schools open source solutions because: "I was absolutely disgusted by the amount of money being thrown away on ICT in education. It's spiralling into decay. Schools don't have the money to sustain the requirements that are being laid down by Becta and the Department for Education and Skills - the pupil-to-computer ratio, virtual learning environments, collaborative learning environments - the list goes on."

Andy Trevor says he is not anti-Microsoft, but asserts: "You're basically using business software that has been adapted for education, it's then pumped into the systems and schools become dependent on it. But should we be teaching our kids how to use one particular type of word processor?" After consulting with the school's head of ICT, Osborne opted for a "big bang" approach, with the school switching over in the summer holidays of 2004. The system Orwell adopted is known as a thin client. Because the desktop computers have relatively small amounts of memory and storage, most of the work is done by servers which are connected to the thin clients via a high-speed data link.

This means that old computers can still be used - there's no need to junk them or upgrade them every few years. The school uses OpenOffice rather than Microsoft Office for word processing and other office productivity tasks. Students can carry out the most common ICT tasks on their thin client machines, such as word processing, creating presentations or accessing the internet. Children have their own personal log-ins, email accounts and online storage space.

Orwell was given a batch of four-year-old computers from Credit Suisse, which were added to the network. This brought the number of Orwell's desktop computers up to 220, enabling the school to reach the target of one computer to four students (there are around 850 students). All of the staff have their own laptops, supplied with OpenOffice.

And there have been other benefits, says John: "My annual ICT budget was Pounds 30,000 a year and half of that was spent on software licensing. Now, my software budget is pound;400 a year. It means we can think about expanding the network even further. Our ICT rooms, which were barely used because of the limited number of computers, are now so over-subscribed that we are opening another for business studies because they use them so much. We can now think about buying the extras - the digital cameras, multimedia projectors, interactive whiteboards and so on."

Osborne says there are two big myths surrounding the open source debate. "The first is that you can no longer run Windows software - not true. We run all our legacy software. I think there were a couple of programs we couldn't run and they weren't important. The second is that Microsoft will tell you that their software only costs pound;35 per desktop. But that doesn't take into account the additional cost of purchasing anti-virus software and security to stop kids messing around with it. And you have to carry out a lot of maintenance on a Windows network. I have one network technician, but a school with 200-plus Windows PCs probably needs two or three." Andy Trevor adds: "It's the long-term maintenance costs, two, three, four years down the road where you really feel the benefits of opting for open source."

Other schools and local education authorities are interested in using open source, says John and he feels that as the message spreads, more will opt for them. "I think there's a realisation that schools have to get off the upgrade treadmill and that issues such as sustainability and total cost of ownership are being pushed to the front. Schools can't afford to simply be upgrading their computers every three years and buying new and expensive equipment. Schools want to move on from having to run fast to stand still."

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