Aiming to make further inroads into the education market, two leading providers of Linux-based software have announced major discount programs targeted at United States schools. The promotions mark an attempt to shift education customers from proprietary operating systems such as Windows to less expensive, open-source alternatives–an increasingly alluring option for school technology leaders in light of waning budgets.

In November SUSE, a German provider of open-source software, launched the SUSE Linux Education Program, which provides students, educators, school districts, universities, and nonprofit organizations with 40-percent discounts on a variety of SUSE solutions, including the company’s Linux Desktop system as well as its Standard Server and Enterprise Server products.

“The SUSE Linux Education Program provides the education sector with the fastest growing high-end computing technology at an affordable price,” said Holger Dyroff, general manager of the company’s Americas division, in a statement. “We think this will help drive the penetration of Linux even further by exposing the next generation of programmers and computer users to the benefits and versatility of open-source software.”

The discounts are available through SUSE’s United States resellers, CCVSoftware and RICIS Inc.

On Dec. 3, North Carolina-based Linux provider Red Hat Inc. responded to rival SUSE’s announcement with a similar promotion of its own, intended to make its open-source software more appealing to schools. According to the company, students and staff members of qualified institutions now can purchase Red Hat Academic solutions at a “fraction of the cost” of proprietary systems.

For students, Red Hat offers its Enterprise Linux WS Academic Edition, which provides a desktop environment–including the operating system platform as well as personal productivity applications–for a subscription price of $25 a year.

Schools now can purchase Red Hat’s server software for just $50 a year. The Enterprise Linux AS Academic Edition includes applications for network infrastructure, web hosting, and High Performance Computing (HPC) server farms.

If a school or school system is considering a large-scale deployment of Linux, Red Hat recommends its Site Subscription. Priced at $2,500 per year, a basic package includes unlimited service subscriptions to Red Hat Enterprise Linux WS Academic Edition for all systems personally owned or operated by students and staff members. It also includes a Red Hat Network Proxy Server and network management entitlements, enabling institutions to simplify their support of all systems.

“This is a welcome move by Red Hat to enable universities to use premium Red Hat Enterprise Linux at a very low cost,” said Frank Starmer, associate provost for information technology at the Medical University of South Carolina. “We see this as a very rational pricing structure and are eager to deploy the [software].”

What makes Linux different is that unlike most proprietary operating systems on the market today, the source code for Linux is shared freely among users, who are allowed to add to or change it at will. This communal approach, proponents contend, can save schools thousands, if not millions, of dollars in total cost of ownership.

But while the operating system is free to users, skeptics of the open-source movement caution that integrating a Linux-based platform does cost money. Unlike a Microsoft OS, for example, the Linux platform does not come readily equipped with applications for word processing, eMail, and web browsing. Instead, companies such as SUSE and Red Hat sell these and other tools as bundled distributions to schools and businesses. The companies also offer service and support options to customers–all of which add to the solution’s total cost.

Emily Trask, an analyst with Boston-based Eduventures Inc., doesn’t think the discounts alone will be enough to lure most schools away from Windows or Macintosh systems.

“There are some interesting things happening [with Linux] that could offer potential benefits for schools, but we’re not really seeing widespread adoption as of yet,” she said, noting that K-12 institutions exist in a culture where reliability and support are far more important than flexibility.

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