Calif. school district aims 5,000 desktops at Linux


A school district technology director is making wholesale changes in her employer's IT system by migrating most of 5,000 Windows desktops to a new setup based primarily on Linux-powered desktop PCs and thin clients. The change aims to reduce annual costs, offer many more applications, and use less energy.

Windsor, Calif. School District IT administrator Heather Carver is migrating most of the district's 70 servers and most of its 5,000 desktop machines from a mostly-Windows environment that is quickly becoming obsolete to a new mixed environment that includes PCs running SUSE Linux, Wyse Linux thin-client terminals, and a smattering of Mac and Windows machines.

When all the phasing-in is completed sometime next year, the district will be operating about 2,000 SUSE Linux desktops, 50 SUSE Linux servers, 2,700 Linux thin clients, and a few hundred Mac and Windows machines for special purposes, Carver said.

Additionally, she expects to save thousands of dollars each year in hardware and software costs by doing it.

"One key to all this is that we're using Citrix (as the bridge) to run Windows apps on thin-client terminals -- which the adults are most used to -- on the new SUSE Linux 10.1 servers," Carver told "The kids, well, they adjust to new operating systems and applications very quickly, so a changeover to Linux is no big deal."

Citrix Presentation Server enables Windows applications, hosted on remote servers, to "run" on networked thin clients (or PCs) that need not themselves be Windows machines. Using Citrix, the thin clients act as remote consoles -- the applications run on the servers, while screen contents, keyboard entry, and mouse movements traverse the network between the servers and the thin clients. In this manner, Citrix can be used to run such standard-issue Windows-based education applications as KidPix, Reading Counts, and Type to Learn from the Linux servers with no problems, Carver explains.

"It's the adults that tend to stay with what they're familiar with," added Carver. "This way, they can run their Windows apps as usual on the Linux OS, and everybody is happy."

Following Easter break in a few weeks, about half of the 3,500 students and 250 teachers will be working on Linux-based thin clients running, and most of the district's servers will be running Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Server.

At this point, Carver said, she isn't sure exactly how many actual Linux desktops will be cohabiting along with Linux thin clients and Macs. "We'll end up with 2,500 to 3,000 thin clients, and will keep some Macs in the audio-visual departments," Carver said.

The rest of the 5,000 --between 2,000 and 2,500 -- will be Linux-driven desktops with a small number of Windows machines mixed in, she said.

One major advantage to all this consolidation is that teachers and students alike will now have the advantage of a lot more applications to choose from -- Linux or Windows -- because both will run "seamlessly" on SUSE 10.1," Carver said.

A number of the servers have already been migrated to Linux, and Carver says she's already noticing a downward change in the district's electric bill.

"Thanks to the new thin-client Linux system, we've been able to shut off 36 machines -- and we've set it up so teachers can log into their school desktops from home to grade papers and do other work," Carver said. This has encouraged teachers to work from home more often, whereas in the past they would have had to come back onto campus and work from their offices, she said.

"I think we saved about $300 on last month's power bill already," Carver said. "I've been monitoring it."

When Carver arrived last August, she saw an IT system that would have needed upgrades in hardware and software that would have totaled about $100,000. No way the district could afford that, she said.

"I was looking at spending $100 per year for 30 Microsoft Office installations, and we just weren't going to go for that," Carver said., with its similarity to Office and free cost, has been well accepted, she added.

Even so, Carver still looked for ways to to keep some Windows machines -- mostly for the teachers' and administrators' sakes.

Carver said it cost the district about $2,500 per school to migrate to Linux, compared with the estimated $100,000 it would have cost to upgrade their Windows infrastructure.

"The uptime benefit has been tremendous," Carver added. "We wanted people using the same apps anyway -- a system can't handle five email clients, etc. We've standardized on the key applications, and people aren't having the issues (security, installation, maintenance, etc.) they used to have with Windows, so that been's a real advantage."

So far, the migration from Windows to Linux has progressed smoothly, Carver told Next, she hopes to start branching out with her migration setup to other school districts.

"I've been talking to Cloverdale (a neighboring town and district). It makes sense for us to share resources and help each other," Carver concluded.­­