While Linux may not be catching on like wildfire in K-12 education, the open-source operating system does have a growing support base among educators. In fact, a group of Linux users recently developed a free, easy-to-install, Linux-based terminal server package designed specifically for schools.

K-12 Linux Terminal Server Package (K12LTSP), which is available for educators to download at no cost, comes ready to run with a number of classroom-focused programs and works with low-maintenance, diskless workstations that developers claim are immune to viruses and mischievous student tampering.

The support base for the group that developed K12LTSP originated with a grassroots Linux user group based in Portland, Ore., called PDXLinux.org.

This small group of school-based Linux enthusiasts has since grown into two “Linux for Education” discussion groups, allowing K-12 Linux users to ask and answer each other’s questions and share some of the open-source software and applications.

Two Oregon educators created K12LTSP: Eric Harrison from the Multnomah County Education Service District and Paul Nelson from the Riverdale School District in Marylhurst, Ore.

According to Nelson, who serves as Riverdale High School’s technology director, there are now 240 users on the K12Linux list and 86 users on the K12LTSP list.

“We’ve been showing schools how to use Linux-based servers since 1995. For example, we show schools how to use Linux as a web server and proxy server. We provide step-by-step guides and instruction for new Linux users,” he said.

Nelson explained that the group has had “great success with schools and Linux-based servers.” But members wanted to realize the same reliability and cost savings at the workstation level, too.

“We started working on diskless workstations two years ago and spent the last year testing solutions in our school,” Nelson said. The end result was K12LTSP, released July 4.

The software “offers an easy installation along with a rich package of applications for classroom use,” said Nelson. Because K12LTSP is a terminal server program, it runs applications on the server and not on the workstations.

That means students can use terminal devices to access their applications, instead of fully-powered desktop computers. Because terminals don’t have hard drives and don’t require fast processors, they are relatively inexpensive.

It also means schools can use older hardware and still run programs at the speed of the server. “Installing one K12LTSP server is a great way to extend the life of legacy PCs and donated equipment,” said Nelson.

K12LTSP is based on RedHat’s Linux 7.1 and the StarOffice application suite from Sun Microsystems. It is completely free, and installation software may be downloaded from the K12LTSP.org web site.

K12LTSP offers a point-and-click interface and a complete package of useful classroom applications, including StarOffice, which provides word-processing, spreadsheet, and presentation tools that are compatible with Microsoft Office 2000.

According to the group, once the K12LTSP server package is installed, schools may access it from legacy PC hardware and have the option of purchasing new workstations for under $200.

A typical lab installation of K12LTSP for 20 workstations would cost $6,000: one $2,000 server and 20 terminal machines at $200 each. Compare that to a typical lab installation of Windows 98 for 20 workstations at an estimated $20,000: $800 per workstation plus $200 or more for the software license for each machine.

The K12LTSP release is not the only Linux-based product being made available for schools, Nelson said. Sun Microsystems, in partnership with the New Internet Computer (NIC) Co., and Intel released similar devices at the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in Chicago last month.

According to Nelson, these terminal servers would address a huge need in schools. “Teachers and overworked tech staff just can’t keep traditional PCs up and running,” he said. “Diskless solutions are the answer.”

But there are two advantages to using K12LTSP rather than the Intel or Sun solutions, he said: It’s completely free, and schools have control over the source code.

“Schools can modify and improve our code as with any open-source product,” said Nelson. “As schools learn more about the advantages of diskless workstations and open-source software, they are hard-pressed to justify the expense of traditional PCs running proprietary software.”

More information about how terminal devices work and why K12LTSP supporters think they are a good solution for schools can be found on the K12Linux OpenHouse page at http://www.k12ltsp.org/openhouse.html.

Links:

K12LTSP
http://www.k12ltsp.org

Riverdale School District
http://www.riverdale.k12.or.us

Sun’s StarOffice
http://www.sun.com/staroffice