Trail-blazing schools get massive savings

Jack Kenny

Microsoft is a world leader in computing and is usually first port of call... but it's not the only option and, for some, it is expensive. Jack Kenny views an alternative - Open Source. Extra materials are available on the TES Online website.

Oocker school in Sandwell is attempting to smash the price barriers for school computers. It has introduced a managed service of refurbished computers loaded with Open Source software (based on the Linux operating system) that promises staggering savings.

Government advice on managed services for schools, produced by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) puts the average cost of managed service PCs with typical Microsoft software at around pound;1,000 per computer, per annum. The projected cost per PC at Ocker School, provided by Linux specialists Red Hat, is a mere pound;300 (or pound;500 with new network computers).

Ocker is not alone. Fen Systems is putting in a 50-station network of refurbished computers with two servers into Woodlands Junior School in Kent. The school has no staff with Linux expertise and the decision to use Linux was taken on purely economic grounds. Fen will manage the system. The cost? pound;50 per server each month.

To most people the Linux operating system is something of a mystery, the province of computer experts. "Free" to use and reputedly more stable than Windows, Linux has been confined to the background of computing, but the perception of rising licensing costs of the market leading products is making it far more attractive to education.

The economics of the Open Source world are startling when compared with traditional ICT pricing. Curiously, there have been no in-depth studies of the total cost of Linux, although Becta has plans to include it in new research. One of the key proponents for Linux in education, Red Hat's Malcolm Herbert (and, until last year, Becta's chief technical officer) is impressed by the economics of Linux and wrote a report for the DFEE on Linux that was never published. You can read it on Becta's information sheet on Linux is available on its site.

Stephen Lucey, director of the National Grid for Learning (NGFL) infrastructure at Becta considers that schools should understand clearly what they require from their software and hardware. "Schools can then assess potential Microsoft, Apple or Open Source solutions against these requirements to see which offer the best value for money. In assessing the best value, schools should consider not only the purchase cost, but the total cost of ownership. Particularly important is the cost and availability of technical support as well as the cost of developing and maintaining staff and pupil expertise."

Anyone worried about whether there is a range of software that can be used with Linux should pay a visit to the Fen Systems website, and then even the prejudiced will see that it is possible to put together a comprehensive portfolio of applications.

Worried about the cost of hardware? Need a new network? Think about using old machines as thin clients. All you will need is a standard PC with keyboard, mouse and monitor; the applications are on the network server. It is perfectly possible to get a network for around pound;1,000, currently the cost of a new server. Competitive support can be obtained from Redhat, Fen Systems or SuSE.

"The techies are leading the fight from below," says Alan Harris, network manager of the 1,000-pupil Bryngwyn School in Llanelli. "Take it slowly," he advises. The school has been down the traditional route and now Harris wants to give the teachers and pupils a choice between Windows and Linux on the desktop. The art department is already convinced that GIMP (a program like Photoshop) is acceptable and they will have their own Linux server to create a digital art gallery. Harris is even going to run an Open Source computer club in the new term.

SuSE's Roger Whittaker has been amazed at the response he has had from teachers. "Teachers and school managers were interested in the idea of Linux as a desktop operating system but were also amazed to find that they could create a file server for Windows machines on the network." He is convinced that with Linux there are technical advantages as well as increased security and stability.

There is a strong ethical strand to these developments. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) - a non-profit USgroup that promotes shared software - has ambitious plans for Linux, and wants to make it more accessible.

The most prominent "commercial" application software for Linux is StarOffice 5.0. This is a fully-integrated and Microsoft Office-compatible suite of applications. It is free and provides Web-enabled word processing, spreadsheet, presentation graphics, email, news, charting and graphics applications.

Existing Microsoft Office files and data can be used to create spreadsheets, presentations and word-processing documents and save all data in Microsoft formats or as Web files. Sun, behind this development, believes the model where users pay high prices for software and then update it every six months, is over.

In the wider world the march continues. The government's Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency has adopted Linux at a saving of pound;40,000. A recent report from Bloor Research referred to the "guerrilla implementation" of IT - companies are running on Linux without being aware of it as it has been installed by new graduates. In the same report Linux is compared more than favourably in many areas with Windows NT.

Although they don't shout about it, many suppliers of ICT services to schools, like the market leader RM, are already adopting Linux for specific, behind-the-scenes purposes. That trend looks set to grow. Riverdale School Sun's StarOfficewww.sun.comstaroffice Open Source for Software Foundationwww.fsf.orgRed Hat www.redhat.comSuSE Linuxwww.suse.comOpen Source Information


* Exploring low-cost ICT hardware and software

* No forced obsolescence

* New market-leading operating systems usually require more powerful hardware - Linux doesn't

* Licensing is sometimes changed to force upgrades

* Licence issues can be expensive and difficult

* Thin clients need less support

* Virus issues are not as worrying

* Students can't play games on the Linux stations

* Diskless workstations are not attractive to thieves

* Linux could give sustainable ICT provision in schools ifwhen national funding starts to diminish

* Open Source software reduces licensing costs to nil

* Linux provides a robust platform upon which to develop online managed services.


* No major manufacturer offers a managed service for open source.

* Apparent lack of available national curriculum applications.

* Lack of trained Linux professionals

* Lack of government investment

* Lack of government interest to support Linux

* Increases the number of platforms

* Governors may argue it is not industry standard

* Teachers will resist

* Development is hit and miss

* Increases software development costs for educational software houses

* No nationally validated pilots

* Schools need the best, not make do and mend.


Jack Kenny has written two case studies about Sandwell's education amp; microtechnology unit, and the Linux project in Portland, Oregon, in support of this feature. These can be accessed at

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