This is an excellent guest post by Scott Rowed on the use of Linux in K-12 schools, including strong evidence that school districts that do not have students using the Linux operating system are placing their students at a disadvantage, as well as a description of one outstanding success story in British Columbia.
Linux in Schools
What computer operating system should students learn at school? Most schools use MS Windows or Mac, but a number have switched or are in the process of switching to Linux. For schools the advantages are lower costs, greater security, no viruses or spyware, easier upgrades and better reliability. Lastly, there are very few licensing hassles or concerns about pirated software.
What about the students? One of the arguments frequently presented in favour of Windows is that students should learn on the systems they will be using after they graduate. But the computer world is changing rapidly, and it is difficult to determine if Windows will still dominate computer desktops to the extent it does today. More importantly, Windows in 2015 will almost certainly look different than Windows 7.
Learning Linux in school can be compared to French Immersion. Just as students in the French program still learn English, students learning Linux will still be exposed to Windows and Mac computers sufficiently to learn what they need. Linux, as well as French, can open up career opportunities that otherwise may not be possible.
The key question is whether Linux is relevant today and in the future. After all, if it’s just a fringe operating system with few real-world applications, then why burden the students with it?
Consider the following breakdown for market share by operating system as of June 2010.
One could easily assume that “A” is Microsoft Windows, “B” is Mac and “C” is Linux. This list, however, does not include family computers purchased at your neighborhood electronics store. Rather it looks at what’s happening among supercomputers – the fastest 500 computers on the planet. Now let’s identify the OS.
What’s even more astonishing is that just twelve years ago, in June 1998, Linux first made the list with a single computer in the top 500.
Typically, these computers are custom built by IBM, HP or Cray. Number one on the list is the Cray Jaguar from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Think your quad-core desktop system is fast? This one has 224,162 cores. And yes, it runs on Linux. As expected, many of the Top 500 computers are used by universities and research organizations, especially in science.
Let’s look at a few examples of Linux in the real world.
The Film Industry – Weta Digital
The film indusry is dominated by Linux. Even Pixar, the company started by Apple’s Steve Jobs, does its production on Linux. But for creating realistic fantasy worlds in 3D, there’s little doubt that Avatar sets the current standard. To achieve this, James Cameron collaborated with a New Zealand company, Weta Digital, which also did the digital work for Lord of the Rings and King Kong.
One of the biggest challenge in Avatar was to make the facial expressions of the Na’vi people photo realistic. Weta solved the problem by creating a facial capture system with helmet-mounted cameras directly in front of the actors’ faces. Using small painted dots on the faces Weta was able to render the human actors’ into their Na’vi counterparts in almost real time, allowing Cameron to check on the finished look as each scene was completed.
(see How Weta Digital Handled Avatar and
I emailed Weta to inquire about their use of Linux and received the following reply from Matt Provost the Systems Lead at Weta:
I think it’s great that you’re bringing Linux to schools. Here at Weta Digital we use Kubuntu Linux for most aspects of our production process, from desktops to servers. At the scale at which we’re operating it’s really the only viable solution.
You can see on the Top 500 Supercomputer list that over 90% of those clusters are running Linux. These are the computers that are analysing data at universities and research labs around the world. We’re a minority, using ours to make movies.
The principal software that we use for 3D modeling and animation is Autodesk’s Maya which we run on Linux. Most of our compositing programs like Shake and Nuke also run on Linux. We run Pixar’s RenderMan software on thousands of Linux servers to generate the final images. Linux is the industry standard for digital special effects. There’s a long history of visual effects tools running on Linux from back in the Silicon Graphics days. Now all of those tools have moved to Linux. Linux provides a great platform for the desktop because it’s so stable and mostly it just stays out of the way and lets people get on with their work.
In addition to those commercial programs, we’re also big users of open source. Open source software is very important for us because it gives us the ability to fix things ourselves. When deadlines are approaching and we find a bug, we can’t always afford to wait for a service pack to fix it. It also helps us when we’re developing new software that has to operate very efficiently to deal with the amount of data that we process. We’re able to examine the entire system right down to the operating system kernel to see where the bottlenecks are and how we can deal with them.
Television Broadcasting – Harris Corporation
The Vancouver 2010 Olympics presented CTV with technical challenges to manage and distribute the huge amounts of HD video that was shot during the torch relay and the Olympic venues. CTV hired Harris Corporation, with their Harris ONE™ integrated broadcast solution for this task. Harris puts a Windows interface on their software, presumably because it’s more familiar to the majority of users, but all that does is hand over the commands to Linux, where the real work gets done. In a car that would be the equivalent of having a Windows gas pedal connected to a Linux engine.
The Financial Industry – London Stock Exchange
There’s a saying, “Windows is the safe choice. No IT manager ever got fired for choosing it.” Trouble is, it just isn’t true! Heads rolled at the London Stock Exchange for the expensive adoption and failure of their Windows-based trading system. Last year they finally gave up and adopted Linux. (See London Stock Exchange to abandon failed Windows platform and London Stock Exchange gets the facts and dumps Windows for Linux)
The Internet – Google
Google runs on Linux. Everything from their massive servers down to their Android operating system for phones and other mobile devices is based on Linux. Even their upcoming Chrome OS will Linux based.
After their Chinese operation was hacked, Google is phasing out all internal use of Windows computers. Any employees wishing to use Windows on their desktop computer must get senior level security approval, otherwise they must switch to Linux or Mac. (see Google ditches Windows on security concerns)
Governments – French Police
France’s Gendarmerie Nationale, the national police force, is in the process of switching its 90,000 workstations to Ubuntu Linux. As of March 2009 they had saved over €50 million in licencing fees and reduced their IT budget by 70%. (See French police: we saved millions of euros by adopting Ubuntu)
“Moving from Microsoft XP to Vista would not have brought us many advantages and Microsoft said it would require training of users,” said Lt. Col. Guimard. “Moving from XP to Ubuntu, however, proved very easy. The two biggest differences are the icons and the games. Games are not our priority.
Also the Canadian government is now looking into using open-source software. Will our students be in a position to take advantage of that? (See Canadian government eyes open source, asks for feedback)
Other companies, organizations, schools and government agencies
The few examples listed above are just the tip of the iceberg for Linux use. Other organizations include Wikipedia, One Laptop Per Child, Amazon, Virgin America, IBM, Tommy Hilfiger, Travelocity, CERN (Large Hadron Collider) and numerous school systems around the world. (See 50 Places Linux is Running That You Might Not Expect)
The more powerful the computers, the more critical the operations, and the greater the security concerns, the more systems use Linux. It is simply more powerful, more stable, more secure and faster than competing operating systems. For students in school today looking to build careers in forward-looking organizations, a knowledge of Linux would be strong asset, whether or not they are in the IT department.
One trend is clear. Linux is increasing in relevance on the world stage and this will lead to increased demand for people familiar with Linux. This may also be reflected in higher salaries. But don’t take my word for it. According to a report sponsored by Microsoft:
Skilled Linux administrators can command 10% to 20% salary premiums compared to Macintosh, Windows and UNIX managers.
Now, it should be noted that this report is addressed to corporate management, attempting to argue that when it comes to TCO (total cost of ownership), Windows holds its own when compared to Linux. So far I’ve found no examples where Microsoft has used this figure while attempting to convince computer science students to focus on Windows instead of Linux.
The Trickle Down Effect
It’s worth repeating and emphasizing just how quickly this transformation has occurred at the high end of the computer market. And at the low end, Linux is in a strong position in gadgets and appliances running Android and Meego. (See The Year of the Linux…
The so-called “trickle-down” effect may not have worked in economics, but it seems to have a much better chance of success in technology.
Many schools in foreign countries and even at home in Canada have already switched to Linux. This is very troubling to Microsoft as they recognize that if students learn on Linux in school, they are likely to stay with Linux after graduation. In response, Microsoft has been almost giving away Windows and Microsoft Office to school systems planning to migrate to Linux.
Schools – Kamloops School District, British Columbia
What are the logistics of switching to Linux in schools? What are the advantages and drawbacks? The costs? The potential pitfalls?
Many of the large-scale adoptions of Linux in education have been overseas – Russia, the Philippines, Spain, Macedonia, Germany, Georgia, Switzerland, Italy and India to name some. Fortunately there is a good case study close to home, in British Columbia.
In 2006, the Kamloops School District started its journey into Linux at the Barriere Secondary School when the principal, Dean Coder, switched the entire school over to Linux. After the success of that pilot project the school district had difficulty keeping up with the demand from schools to help them switch. In September 2009, the transition was largely complete throughout the school district.
The people at Kamloops are very helpful to other districts and as of 2009 there were three other BC districts in transition – Chilliwack, Campbell River and Saanich.
An analysis of the Barriere model show substantial savings to the school in hardware, software licensing, maintenance and electricity. Of particular note is the savings of $30,000 per year on maintenance, for the small Barriere school alone. There are no viruses and the system is so reliable that it just doesn’t need much support. One surprising saving was in electricity. They brought in BC Hydro to analyze the electricity costs of the computers and found that the Barriere school was saving almost $5000 per year on electricity by using Linux diskless clients.
Linux is no longer a fringe operating system, but has widespread adoption at the high end of the market with organizations and companies at the leading edge of science and technology. Students who learn Linux may find a substantial advantage in job opportunities compared to those trained in Windows only.
Schools can benefit by lower costs. In these days of tight education budgets, money saved on computers can be put toward special programs, teachers and assistants, or reduced school fees.