Special Report: Linux & Learning

To hear the Linux proponents tell it, it’s a classic story: the little guy versus the big guy, David versus Goliath. All that is good and free and open versus the evil corporate overlord.

You could even say it’s the story of the founding of America itself . . .

But that might be going too far. Maybe it’s the battle of the network stars—or, rather, one star and one up-and-comer.

In this corner, the champ, Microsoft. Huge, powerful, predominant on the desktop. The maker of Windows—such an essential part of our computer that, for a long time, most of us really couldn’t tell the difference.

In the other corner, Linux. The open-source software symbolized by Tux the Penguin, created by a community of developers and long heralded by this small, vocal minority as the operating system of choice. For years, “techno-geeks”—the kind who would describe Linux as “a completely free reimplementation of the POSIX specification, with SYSV and BSD extensions”—have sung the praises of this community-developed, open-source operating system.

It’s clear that Microsoft isn’t going anywhere. But Linux quietly has been making inroads at some of the nation’s top corporations—Amazon.com and the film company DreamWorks, to name just two.

In schools, you might have stolen a glimpse of some Linux-based file servers in the back office—or, rarely, a desktop workstation that’s flying anything but Windows or Macintosh.

That might all be changing. Linux is finding a core of enthusiastic fans in K-12 education. The operating system and its applications, they say, are stable, flexible, and—best of all—free.

Schools across the country are finding that Linux can help reduce their total cost of ownership (TCO) in a number of ways. Tightening budget constraints mean schools must capitalize on their existing infrastructure. Linux can run on a processor as slow as a 386. Remember those?

In this month’s Special Report, we’ll hear from those who are certain your schools can save money by migrating to a Linux environment. No way, you say? Read on.

What is Linux?

Linux, the brainchild of Finland’s Linus Torvalds, is basically a clone of the UNIX operating system developed by Bell Laboratories in the early 1970s. Instead of being owned by any one company, however, like a proprietary operating system, Linux was developed by a community of programmers who freely share their work.

Torvalds holds the copyright to the kernel that runs Linux. But it’s freely distributed under the GNU General Public License (GPL). Linux and its applications are considered “open source,” which means the code is freely available to programmers who want to develop their own applications. The nonprofit Open Source Initiative (OSI) issues a certification standard that indicates that the source code of a computer program is made available free of charge to the general public. The idea is to encourage developers to create more useful and “bug-free” products for everyone to use.

Bugs in the program code are identified and eliminated by a peer review process. Proponents of open-source software say this process is faster and more efficient, because problems are identified by users who can quickly come up with solutions, rather than through a corporation’s often sluggish research and development channels.

Microsoft and other developers also have been accused of debugging their software—including Windows—by heavily marketing early beta versions to customers and tweaking the program as complaints came in.

The “updated” Windows would appear—debugged, but often requiring bigger machines to run it. This, some say, means customers are being charged on several fronts for the debugging process.

The open-source movement actually began with GNU, a UNIX-compatible software system that grew out of a project led by Richard Stallman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-80s. Developers took the kernel for Linux created by Torvalds in the early 1990s and began adding pieces of GNU—a recursive acronym for “GNU’s Not UNIX”—to it. The resulting operating system, widely known as “Linux,” actually consists of the Linux kernel plus GNU software.

A Linux distribution is a combination of Linux with sets of utilities and applications to form a complete operating system. Distributions are how companies make money from Linux. According to the Linux Online web site, it’s a multi-million dollar business.

Red Hat, SuSE, The SCO Group (formerly known as Caldera), MandrakeSoft, and others all sell boxed versions of Linux. These usually come packaged with applications such as a word processing program, eMail software, and a web browser.

There are also distributions that will give you a firewall, boot your computer from a floppy disk or CD-ROM, or power TV “set-top” boxes.

While there are some differences between distributions, or “flavors,” of Linux, most—if not all—applications developed for Linux will run on all certified versions of the operating system.

Standards for Linux are developed and applied by the Free Standards Group, an independent, nonprofit organization. An LSB Certification means that a Linux distribution or Linux-based application adheres to the community-developed standard. The Red Hat, SuSE, SCO Group, and MandrakeSoft distributions of Linux, for example, are all LSB Certified. (A complete list of LSB Certified products can be found at http://www.opengroup.org/lsb/cert/cert_prodlist.tpl.)

From the geek set to the mainstream

The market share for Linux is growing in all categories, analysts say. It’s particularly strong in the server market, where it’s competing against Microsoft to see who will take over UNIX’s lead.

According to market research firm International Data Corp. (IDC), last year the number of servers sold with Linux as the operating system grew 18 percent, while those sold with Windows grew only 3 percent. UNIX is losing market share, down 7 percent.

IDC predicts that by 2006, Linux and Windows will have whittled away UNIX’s share to 12 percent of servers in operation. It forecasts that one-quarter of servers in operation will be running Linux and just over half will be running Windows.

Major companies like Amazon.com and DreamWorks, the filmmaking company, have embraced Linux. Amazon is expected to post its first profits next year, after a major overhaul of its servers to a Linux-based environment.

DreamWorks is touting Linux’s speed with animation programs and, more importantly, how cheaply its employees can now work from home. Anyone, the thinking goes, can afford a machine running Linux.

In fact, anyone with $200 can have a fully-functioning PC running on Linux. In a move that perhaps is the best indication of how Linux has graduated from the geek set to the mainstream, giant retail discounter Wal-Mart has begun offering its own Linux-based computer.

Instead of Windows, the new Wal-Mart computers come loaded with Lindows, a hybrid Linux operating system from the San Diego-based company of the same name. Lindows says its software supports many, but not all, of Microsoft’s programs—including Office 2000 applications.

The Wal-Mart computers, with hardware from Microtel, start at only $199 for 128 megabytes of RAM and a 10-gigabyte hard drive. (A monitor and speakers are extra.)

Although Linux is rapidly establishing itself as a server platform, it’s a different story on the desktop, where Windows sits on 95 percent of all new computers sold last year, according to IDC. Apple’s Macintosh OS accounted for 2.4 percent, and Linux, just 0.5 percent.

This, too, might change, thanks to initiatives like Wal-Mart’s and that of Sun Microsystems. In September, Sun announced plans to release a new line of low-cost computers powered by Linux and other open-source software beginning next year.

Sun’s new desktops will use Intel processors and the Linux OS rather than Sun’s own chips and its Solaris operating system. Further details weren’t available, but it’s expected that Sun will market these new machines heavily to K-12 schools.

Although it’s unclear how many K-12 schools now use some form of Linux, anecdotal evidence suggests this number is growing. In fact, schools make the perfect market for Linux-based systems, for several reasons: Many schools can’t afford Microsoft’s costly per-seat licensing fees; the operating system and its applications are free and run on old computers; Linux workstations are cheaper and—some say—easier to maintain; and several initiatives recently have been launched to help make Linux even easier for schools.

Taking license

Microsoft might unintentionally have helped schools see the financial liability of using licensed software when it began to demand software audits last year. …

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eSchool News Staff

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