Some things, like fine wine and cheese, only get better with age. The computers in my district are not among those things.
The passage of time, along with the help of viruses and user abuse, had turned our once state-of-the-art computer lab in the Kearney, Mo., School District into a room filled with machines that were little more than glorified paperweights.
The lab consisted of 32 machines that were all Pentium IIs or older, and none of them were able to run anything more than Windows 98 and Office 97. In addition, loading programs took around five minutes–that is, if the computer would run at all. The situation was simply unacceptable.
The alternative, however, was equally unacceptable: replacing 32 workstations and purchasing license agreements for all of them after just a few short years of use. The probability of getting approval for that was highly unlikely. It also seemed wrong.
So I went in search of a solution. I had to–there was just no way my IT staff and I could continue to nurse these crippled workstations along. It was consuming an enormous amount of our time and resources and was causing no small amount of frustration on the part of staff and students alike.
The solution I found was Lumen Software’s Linux Terminal Server Solution, EzThin. Lumen Software claimed it could take the workstations I had and turn them once again into state-of-the-art machines that would be more stable than ever before–and because the solution is Linux-based, they would be free from licensing costs.
I was understandably skeptical. After all, we were completely abandoning Windows–an operating system that was familiar to everyone. What I found, however, was that Lumen Software had gone to great lengths to make sure the transition would be as smooth as possible. The computers were set up to boot directly to the central server, and users were able to access their virtual desktop, which resembled the Windows interface they were accustomed to in appearance and functionality. This meant there wouldn’t be a long and painful learning process with my IT staff having to answer a flood of questions–users would be able to start using the system immediately.
In addition, the Linux system is much more stable, and the solution has been practically impenetrable to viruses. When a virus did happen to infiltrate the system, the nature of the system made it impossible for the virus to spread to other users; it would only infect that particular user and would have no impact on the workstation. Also, because the workstation essentially became an access portal to the server, our programs no longer were limited by the slowness of the workstation processor. Thanks to the power of our EzThin server, all of our programs run fast and smooth.
Another benefit is that all of our users can access their files and programs from anywhere they have internet access; even dial-up. This goes a long way toward providing all of our students with equal access to technology from their homes, the library, their friends’ house–anywhere. Also, I was initially concerned that the license-free office suite that Lumen Software provided would be insufficient and would cause compatibility issues with our Microsoft Office files, but I was pleased to find that it was highly functional and compatible with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Internet Explorer, Outlook, Photoshop, and other programs.
We have had the system in place for a year, and by far the most amazing thing about this system is that, as promised, it has been maintenance-free. I wouldn’t have believed this was possible, but after a year of never having to fix something in a lab that used to be my home-away-from-home, I am convinced that “maintenance-free” is a reality. I haven’t had any damage from virus attacks, haven’t had to reinstall or repair any programs, and haven’t had to fix desktop configurations that were corrupted by users. We even lost four hard drives in different workstations, and there was no effect whatsoever to the workstations’ ability to perform.
What’s great about this system is that any updates or patches do not have to be installed on each individual workstation. Lumen Software automatically installs them for us on the server remotely, and the users can take advantage of the improvements immediately. My staff doesn’t have to do a thing.
In the EzThin server, I found a solution that made everyone happy: Our users are having a better experience, our administration likes the bottom line, and my staff likes the maintenance-free aspect of the system. We’ve saved our district so much in time and resources that we’ve decided to move the entire student infrastructure district-wide over to the EzThin solution by the 2004-2005 school year. We’re also going to implement a district-wide adoption of Lumen Software’s other products, which deliver the same server-centric, maintenance-free environment.
In discovering this solution and implementing it district-wide next year, I might soon discover something equally rare in an IT department: getting home on time.
Keith Waller is the Information Technology Director for the Kearney School District in Kearney, Mo., located just north of Kansas City. He oversees the staff that maintains all the technology for the entire district.
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Kearney School District