Low-cost computer option touted for Maine schools

BETHEL – School and library technology representatives from across the state gathered at Gould Academy last week to learn about a computer software system that can save taxpayer dollars.

Gould Director of Technology Derek Dresser hosted the seminar as a proponent of Linux – an open source operating system that is free to its users, including schools, businesses and individuals.

Dresser built a Linux terminal server and demonstrated its attributes to a group of 34, including Bill Portela, technology education specialist for the Maine Department of Education. Linux-based software, including word processing and spreadsheet software similar to other more popular programs but free to the user, were available for the Gould visitors to try out during the daylong event.

“Schools have been hit hard by budget cuts, software licensing fees, hardware life cycles and overall network management,” says Dresser, “but the Linux system is more manageable at a reduced cost.”

Dresser replaced Gould’s Novell system with a Linux network two years ago at no cost for the operating system and no license fees.

Gould’s system includes 70 diskless terminals (no floppy or compact disk drives), which are a combination of “thin clients” and refurbished central processing units (CPUs) that operate directly from the network.

Setup for the diskless terminals is based on an open source project called the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP – http://www.ltsp.org/).

Thin clients replace traditional CPUs at the terminal and are virtually maintenance-free as they have no fans or other components that can break down; consequently, thin clients are silent as well as small and fast.

Thin clients may be purchased commercially for about $329 and accompany a monitor, keyboard and mouse.

For those with access to a supply of outdated CPUs, however, a doubly satisfying option is available.

“A 1995 486 processor with 16 megabytes of RAM makes a perfectly fine diskless terminal,” notes Dresser, who displayed an example of such a 486 for the group.

With Linux, schools can continue to use outdated hardware and accept donated equipment to create more work stations rather than spending additional funds.

As a bonus, when diskless terminals are utilized, actual maintenance is required of only one computer – the server, in Gould’s case, a dual Pentium III processor.

Although many in the group were investigating new options, others have already found success with Linux. David Trask, technology coordinator and computer teacher for Vassalboro Community School, explained that his school is in its third year of using Linux servers. Following a test phase last year, a system of 30 terminals was brought online in the fall.

“The kids love it,” says Trask, “and it only costs $20 per machine.”

Prior to using the Linux system, it cost approximately $1,000 to buy a computer and license the associated software.

Trask will be hosting a Linux demonstration next week in Vassalboro, and – with 40 participants signed up – it’s already full.

Dresser receives visitors at Gould from schools and businesses around the state weekly. Wednesday’s group included an individual from as far away as Mars Hill, which is located in Aroostook County.

Those closer to home have also been exploring the system.

Peter Kuzyk, SAD 44 technology coordinator, set up a lab similar to Gould’s at Telstar Middle School in Bethel last year.

“The old machines worked much faster with the Linux system,” said Kuzyk, “but space became a factor and the lab was disbanded.”

In an effort to save the district money, Kuzyk has been purchasing refurbished Dell computers that hold three-year warranties, and continues to use Linux servers for Web operations.

Due to continued budget constraints, however, Kuzyk would like to see an eventual move to the total Linux system.

As for system security, according to Dresser, Linux systems are considered very secure. Linux isn’t “owned” by any one company, but a worldwide team of corporate-supported and volunteer developers continue to improve the software.

System vulnerabilities are usually addressed within a day’s time. Another benefit to the Linux system is that it can be managed from anywhere.

“I’ve been able to manage Gould’s system from any place I’ve been,” notes Dresser, “even while I was in France.”

For more information about Linux, contact Dresser at 207-824-7700 or [email protected]

Linux Distributors and Users Groups may be located via the Linux Web site at http://www.linux.com.

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