Linux in schools

My most popular post is the Linux and Active Directory post. Today I’ll give an update to the project and what advantages and disadvantages Linux has. The project was to set up a trail run of Linux at the school I work at, in the hopes that by the discontinuation of Windows XP, we could move fully to Linux. Currently there are around 30 Netbooks, 4 desktops, and a mostly Linux servers with one Windows application server.

Advantages

In a short survey I found most people believed Linux to be faster. People also generally thought Linux was saving money. On two Pentium 4 desktops, memory was upgraded to 1GB and Ubuntu was installed. The difference was night and day in terms of performance. These computers would have had to been replaced otherwise. Surprisingly to me, users reported the Ubuntu machine to be much more stable! I’m probably a bit jaded after one too many x server crashes while switching monitors. I suspect I have more problems because I have higher demands, most work users don’t care about PPA’s and proprietary video card drivers. While not directly related, I’ve been installing Ubuntu on a considerable number of student’s laptops as they bring them in broken. I feel exposing them to an alternative to the consumer culture of buying the new version/computer every year is valuable. Most student’s don’t know there are other options than buying or pirating the latest software and replacing their hardware every two years. Ubuntu really shines on simple home applications, where the user just needs hassle free internet access. Being able to clone machines fairly easily is nice too. There only needs to be one image for the entire school. I don’t have the data to prove it yet, but I suspect the long term costs of supporting Linux will be minimal. The machines, once setup right, should be able to just sit and run. Only a few things, like Google Chrome and LibreOffice, really need updated. Chrome has a wonderful repo that it comes with that seems to work on any version.

Disadvantages

The time to get the image ready is immense! It’s about 20 times harder to get a Linux image ready than Windows. Printer support sucks. Auto detect never works ever for me. Some commercial laser printers just don’t work. Others require fiddling with the right ppd file. Even when you know what to do, the interface is terrible and involves waiting for it to time out over and over while searching for a driver you know it won’t find. Another problem is there just isn’t anything like folder redirection in Linux. You either have to put everything on nfs or samba. Or use a Dropbox like solution, which there aren’t even any decent open source implementations of. Our teachers need to take home work and have this be seamless. Can’t be done in Linux. Another issue is switching monitors. X will crash. Even one in 20 times is enough to not deploy, since that means lost work. Getting Active Directory support is a pain as previously discussed. The initial joining a domain isn’t hard, it’s all the little bugs and limitations. It also adds an extra minute to startup time.

Any Linux migration will probably involve LibreOffice. LO has problems. Power point import and export is terrible. Also it’s very buggy. It’s nice to have the latest version of LO, since it’s one the most used programs. But each update breaks the default configuration! I have to manually set the default file format each time, which is absurdly difficult.

sudo sed -i ‘s/<prop oor:name=”ooSetupFactoryDefaultFilter”><value>writer8<\/value>/<prop oor:name=”ooSetupFactoryDefaultFilter”><value>MS Word 97<\/value>/g’ /usr/lib/libreoffice/basis3.3/share/registry/writer.xcd

Calc is generally bad. Why does pressing ctrl-down go to row 1048576 instead of the last row with data? Why does EVERYTHING increment. If I type “ID 200” and drag it down, the next becomes “ID 201”, etc.  Auto filtering likes to remove itself when you switch sheets. It has some features though on Microsoft. I honestly don’t see how Excel gets away without having regular expressions. Also MS Office just can’t handle open document files. Students like to have lots of random file formats they somehow make. LibreOffice opens them all, while MS Office can’t even open MS works files! I’ve been a long time OpenOffice user. Recently I’ve been playing with MS Office just to see what others are using. Now I hate all office software. Don’t even get me started on that horrid ribbon.

Is it time to switch?

I have a lot of bad things to say about Linux. But trust me, if I reviewed Windows or OSX, well it would be like watching a Angry Video Game Nerd episode. I have little patience with bad technology. Linux is bad. It sucks. It really really sucks. But so does everything else. Building an operating system and surrounding environment is just hard. No one has it worked out yet. Linux is working out great in student netbooks and administrative staff desktops. I have no plans to deploy it on teacher laptops. No folder redirection and terrible monitor support are the blockers here. I’m really hoping by the end of life for XP, Linux will be better.

One huge factor in allowing me to play with switching users to Linux is web applications. I’m not a sys admin. My real job is a developer and I’ve been replacing costly, unfriendly applications with open source ones, including my own. For users who just need web access, Linux rocks! It’s faster, it’s stable, it’s better. It will reduce support costs and let you get away with not upgrading computers. Lose Outlook, Office, and your legacy Active X web apps, and the switch to Linux is easy. Next post I’ll update my progress on my school information system and future plans for educational administrative software. Stay tuned, I promise it will be more optimistic.

 

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