I just finished reading Chris Dawson's most recent piece (Linux definitely has a place in education) and I couldn't agree more, until he said ...
"If the choice is arbitrary, then would you rather pay hundreds of dollars (or many thousands or millions at the enterprise level) or would you rather use something free? What if the free products have arguable advantages outside of cost, as well?"
The fact is that, in a production environment, Linux is NOT a free solution. There are costs associated with every solution and the relative cost of any solution is dependent upon many factors. In the end, no solution will serve all needs, nor will any solution, by itself, prove to be dramatically more cost-effective than another. Nevertheless, a variety of solutions, when implemented in combination, can often prove to be more cost-effective than a single-solution approach.
Whether working in an educational setting or a corporate one, many of the underlying issues are the same. The main difference is the user-base being served -- often comprised of a much broader population (students, faculty, and administrators) with a wider variety of needs, and often a much more varied level of expertise, and personal goals.
In a recent survey (see Is Linux right for your school?), I asked readers what operating system their school was using. Not surprisingly, 42% of those responding indicated they were using Windows exclusively. Another 28% said Linux was their school's operating system.
The most interesting response though is that 24% of the respondents were using a combination of operating system solutions. In my mind, this is the response that should have predominated, not Windows, and not Linux.
As IT professionals working in an educational setting, we need to look at a variety of solutions and we need to remember that Linux and open-source are not synonymous. Many, if not most, open source solutions are available for Windows and Macintosh platforms as well as for Linux. In fact, open source solutions existed for UNIX before Linus Torvalds wrote his first line of code.
The quote from Chris Dawson's piece presents two false assumptions:
- That education IT pays substantially more for one operating system solution than it does for another. This couldn't be further from the truth. Educational and corporate discounts bring the price of commercial Windows and Macintosh licenses in line with desktop Linux licenses. This pricing parity extends itself to server licenses as well.
- That, in a production environment Linux is free. Education IT is no different than any other production IT environment. In such a setting, the ability to get reliable vendor support is a mission-critical need. Once again, vendor support contracts are in parity.
The other variable, which Chris fails to mention is local expertise. Chris has spent the last several weeks experimenting with two commercial Linux products in order to provide us with insight regarding these two very capable products. What we forget is that Chris came to education IT after several years in enterprise IT. His depth of experience exceeds that of many working in education IT today and many school systems have little access to personnel with professional IT experience. Oh, and if you have followed his writing over the last couple of years, you know that Chris is not a single-solution kind of guy. Under his leadership, his school has implemented a robust mixed-solution environment utilizing Windows, Macintosh, and thin-client Linux and his school district has established life-cycle funding to insure that money will be available to replace aging hardware and software as his district's needs change.
Even at the university level, experienced IT personnel are outnumbered by bright young people with very little professional IT experience. In a production IT environment, lack of real-world IT experience can be a recipe for disaster. The University IT department must make significant investments in training to keep its staff up-to-date on the latest trends in IT.
Unfortunately, K-12 invests very little on training its IT staff -- instead relying on self-taught personnel (and students) -- often with very little experience.
Whether you work in the enterprise or in education IT, there is plenty of room for mixed-platform solutions built upon a needs-based analysis of all available options. There is no room whatsoever for decisions based upon bias or unfounded assumptions about solutions which which have not been thoroughly examined.
Education IT personnel need to think like CIOs -- seeking cost-effective solutions to well-defined needs built upon three-to-five-year life-cycles. Inexperienced education IT personnel tend to think like consumers trying to make today's best buy "work" without regard to future needs instead of considering the long-term TCO of what appears at first glance to be the cheaper solution. Which are you?