Instead of using Microsoft NT, Unix, or Novell, the technology team from Haywood County School District in North Carolina saved thousands of dollars by installing RedHat Linux on its servers.

The Linux operating system was written by Linus Torvalds while he was a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Instead of making it proprietary and trying to sell it, he gave Linux away, so anyone who wanted to develop it further could do so.

“The main reason we are using Linux for our server environment is because it costs less,” said Monty Fuchs, the district’s systems technology coordinator. “It’s virtually free.”

Although Linux is free to download, some companies offer technical support and other perks for the software for a small fee. For instance, one copy of RedHat Linux costs $29.95, which Fuchs said is a lot less than the thousand-dollar price tag attached to similar platforms.

“I can put it on as many servers as I want, and I can put as many users on as I want,” Fuchs said. “Just the cost comparison alone should turn heads.”

The Haywood County technology department is saving the district almost $45,000 just by using RedHat Linux 6.2 and 6.0 on the district’s 34 servers.

Not only is Linux affordable, it is a secure, solid platform that doesn’t require a lot of maintenance. Normally, other operating systems require you to reboot the server to purge deleted files or defrag the system.

“On a Linux system, you don’t have to reboot to do that kind of maintenance,” Fuchs said. “When you’re short-handed as much as we are, having a system that requires less maintenance is always best.”

Although Linux has the hefty responsibility of delivering educational and library software throughout the district, it’s virtually imperceptible to the 7,600 students and staff at the district’s 15 rural schools.

“We’re not making [teachers] do any more work,” Fuchs said. They won’t even notice it.

Linux is also responsible for operating the district’s wide area network and intranet. Haywood County officials also plan to use it to provide internet access and create a web presence.

“The fact that we are saving so much money on software lets these things happen faster,” Fuchs said.

Michael Williams, the district’s network technician, spent a lot of time figuring out how to make Linux work the same as Novell, Haywood County’s previous platform.

“Some of it was trial and error in laying out the server and finding out what works best,” Williams said. He also experienced some security issues and had to download patches.

“Linux is pretty intense. The learning curve on it is vertical,” Williams said. “It’s because it has so many choices. There’s so much you can do with it.”

Williams, who has a Unix background, wanted to remain current in his field. Since Linux is now supported by several large technology companies—including Dell, IBM, and Gateway—exploring Linux as possibility for the district was a way for him to do that.

“The thing with Linux is the flexibility,” he said.

Because it comes pre-loaded with the protocols of other systems—including Unix, Microsoft NT, and Novell protocols—Linux can run as if it were Microsoft NT or Unix, Williams said.

“Linux is like a Swiss army knife,” he said. “You just have to choose what set of tools you are going to use for each computer.”

Williams praised Linux because it’s virtually crash-proof, it runs faster, and has better code since it utilizes Unix, arguably the most powerful operating system in the world.

Another benefit he mentioned is that it is an open-source operating system, so anyone can have input into it. Most companies don’t let consumers make adjustments to their software, but nobody owns Linux.

The disadvantages are that it’s still new, and more applications need to be written, he said. Also, some hardware compatibility issues exist, such as printers that won’t work, but that’s beginning to change.

Currently, Haywood County’s technology team is concentrating on using Linux on the district’s servers, although the computers in one of the labs will have a dual boot for both Linux and Windows.

Williams said he thinks more school districts will see the benefits of Linux and switch to that platform, since it gives users more control for a whole lot less money.

“In the long run, the whole open-source movement will put teachers and administrators in the driver’s seat instead of using canned software,” Williams said.