Computerworld

Ubuntu breathes new life into school's abandoned hardware

Repurposed PCs use Kubuntu to run school's Web based student library system

When 3Ghz dual core computers running 2GB of RAM weren't being used for many heavily CPU-intensive applications in a Victorian secondary school library, the school's IT department initially joked about replacing them with older and previously abandoned hardware. Then it saw the serious side.

When the KDE-centric Ubuntu derivation, Kubuntu, was installed on the old gear -- a mixture of Acer Veriton 3600s and 2.1Ghz V5100s -- the school found it performed just as efficiently as on the newer hardware. So the IT department installed six Kubuntu desktops in kiosk mode on the old gear for its Web-based student library system, and sent the newer hardware back into classrooms where they could be used by students to their full potential.

Implementing a kiosk mode Kubuntu setup allowed Westall Secondary School, located in eastern Melbourne, to save money, exact greater control over security measures, and extend the life of older and discarded hardware without sacrificing performance, said Westall's network administrator Daniel Stefyn.

But according to Stefyn, the "huge amount of flexibility" offered by the Linux operating system was the primary motive behind its adoption.

Using Kubuntu, we can easily extend the life of older hardware with little performance drop

The library system at the college uses a Web-based service that students can access from six Linux desktops located throughout the library.

Initially, the school trialed Ubuntu with the GNOME desktop, but found that Kubuntu, with KDE's kiosk tool, allowed for greater control in locking down workstations.

"The KDE Kiosk admin tool is currently used as there didn't appear to be enough flexibility with the GNOME setup to allow for a decent lockdown," Stefyn said.

"Using Kubuntu, we can easily extend the life of older hardware with little performance drop. It was easy to secure the workstations and train a student technician to maintain the hardware."

Library staff only need to turn on the computers which automatically log onto a restricted Ubuntu session. By default, a library search screen launches in Firefox with a kiosk lock down extension.

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"Students can walk up to each terminal, conduct an Internet search and go on to collect their printout, reserve a book, or access the college Intranet. Other sites are locked out by the proxy setting, and the workstations power off nightly using a cron [timed] poweroff command," he said.

Stefyn said he was "pleasantly surprised" to discover that the Kubuntu desktops ran some applications faster with Linux than when they ran on Windows. An additional benefit of Windows' departure from student library terminals saw the students cease "hacking the setup to install and play games or trash the operating system".

We have taken the Xubuntu statement to heart - 'No hardware left behind'

"[Our] older computers will never be able to run Vista. There are some licensing issues [with computers that] have been extensively modified or upgraded and we understand that there are no long-term support plans for Windows XP. In a sense we have taken the, albeit tongue in cheek, Xubuntu statement to heart - 'No hardware left behind'," Stefyn said.

Based on the success of the initial deployment, another six Kubuntu kiosks are slated for implementation in the school's international student lounge.

In explaining why the school went for Kubuntu, Stefyn said the students responded well to CDs put out by the Ubuntu project. Many had tried Ubuntu at home, which led to a decision to provide a familiar working environment at the school as well.

"During our last hardware cleanout, we challenged the students to create the best Linux install and customization, and the winners would get to keep the hardware once it was decommissioned.

"Some students have very limited access to computers outside the classroom and schools are always looking for innovative approaches to this problem. An added benefit is the hardware being put to a new use instead of being dumped in landfill" Stefyn said.

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Roland Gesthuizen, ICT Manager and Information Technology teacher at Westall, said the school contacted the support of Peter Lieverdink at Creative Contingencies, as well as the Linux Users of Victoria group for implementation advice.

"Peter has done some work with the school in setting up a dual boot setup with authentication to the main network via LDAP. The kids were rapt with Compiz Fusion and this scored magic brownie points, because even the magical Vista couldn't compete with the graphics. This was a great step into having them explore the other functionalities of Linux," Gesthuizen said.

Even the magical Vista couldn't compete with the graphics

Gesthuizen said Westall is supporting the open source spirit by providing information about the school's work and image to other schools, and is looking at moving its entire library systems from a proprietary to an open source solution.

"Our current solution is Bibliotech, and we have had some issues implementing what we thought was basic functionality, for example an extra search field for a Web form, due to the use of closed source dll's and lack of code transparency. Other schools have purchased systems such as Athena, which have been discontinued and have had no updates for many years."

Gesthuizen said that if the source code had been available for either of these library systems, then the school could have made appropriate changes or requested the help of a programmer to do so in a suitable timeframe. As that is not possible, the school is giving its proprietary library system the flick.

"We are currently looking at switching library systems from a proprietary solution which has been lacking in features and updates. The new system we are evaluating is the open source Koha project. Once we work out how to add our required features, we aim to return this code to the project and form a community of local schools." he said.