Will Vista kill Linux for Ed Tech?

Will Vista kill Linux for Ed Tech?

Summary: If Vista is actually as good as it seems, then should we care about Linux on the desktop anymore?

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So my latest post on another reason to steer clear of Vista for a while actually generated a fair amount of consternation.  While this was perceived as Microsoft bashing and Vista "fear mongering" (in fairness to George Ou, he was referring to the entire DNS issue and not just my post), it was actually intended as a caution from the trenches of underfunded Ed Tech.  As I've already noted, I'm slowly becoming an actual supporter of Microsoft and, while I hardly view Redmond through rosy glasses, I have to give Microsoft credit for the ease with which its products allow one to build enterprise information systems.

I've sold my Mac, I've converted my test Linux lab at the high school to XP, I'm pushing to standardize my district to a Microsoft platform, and I'm about to buy a new laptop on which I'm just a little too excited to install 64-bit Windows.  So a routine Windows basher I am no longer.

That's not to say, though, that I don't still like Linux in its many flavors.  I really do, and the laptop I'm so eagerly awaiting will have it's very own little partition for dual-booting Kubuntu (again, 64-bit - My inner geek is getting chills).

However, I'm afraid that my inner CIO just can't get as worked up anymore about Linux as it used to.

Indiana claims to be saving about 1 million dollars by rolling out Linux at 25 high schools (see Million Dollar Linux), but we have yet to see any information on end user experiences, long-term support and training issues, and, most importantly, total cost of ownership.  I even gave Linux a shot, attempting to save Windows licensing costs on a bunch of donated computers, but ran into enough hurdles that $70/machine (roughly what we're paying per seat for XP pro) seemed a small price to pay for easy network integration and minimal training for students and teachers (see Back to Windows?).

To me, this seems to be the real sticking point for Linux on the desktop: while that inner geek of mine loves to play with a really powerful operating system, switching desktop environments and testing out the latest open source goodies, I'm a teacher and Ed Tech administrator first and foremost.  My job is to ensure that computer technology is an easy, powerful tool for my students and fellow teachers.  My job is also to save money and time wherever possible.  As it stands right now, Windows-certified techs are a lot cheaper and more plentiful than Linux gurus.  Of course in K-12 Ed Tech, I'm satisfied with uncertified users who just have a clue about the operating system they're looking at, let alone certified technicians.

Thus, schools with tiny budgets have machines that don't really run a user-friendly version of Linux very well and they certainly don't have the cash to train users.  Districts with big budgets might be able to successfully roll out Linux (or OS X, or Vista, or any other operating system, for that matter), but these districts also have a real obligation to look at TCO.

So in steps Windows Vista.  By most accounts, Microsoft has actually created a fairly secure, stable operating system that looks and feels like, well, Windows (albeit a little prettier with the right graphics card).  As the price for a Vista upgrade license starts to approach what we're paying now for XP, it becomes very hard to argue against sticking with a Windows environment.  We know that the TCO will be relatively low, enterprise management will be even easier than it is in XP, and Redmond is finally getting security together.  More importantly, for our end users, a familiar interface on the desktop saves time and headaches (and money in the long-run).

So where does this leave Linux?  I'm not sure.  I haven't given up on it.  We'll hopefully be recycling a whole lot of old iMacs soon.  They all still run and I hate to just surplus them, but I can't see any utility in running OS 9 for anything.  There are a few Linux distros out there designed to keep these candy-colored little guys running and useful.  Maybe a cybercafe in the lunchroom or an extra net lab.  Linux also has countless applications in the server room where it can make a Jim Dandy router, firewall, backup appliance, web server, etc.  I just can't see it on the desktop, when most of us have stable builds of XP running just fine and when the last few entries (and their associated Talkbacks) in this column have firmly established that Vista is on its way, in all its glory.

Topics: Linux, Hardware, Microsoft, Open Source, Operating Systems, Windows

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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189 comments
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  • Nail on the Head

    This is the single most important reason why I personally don't recommend Linux (on the Desktop at least) in the Small Bussiness / Non for Profit/ Education Market.

    <<My job is also to save money and time wherever possible. As it stands right now, Windows-certified techs are a lot cheaper and more plentiful than Linux gurus.<<
    JoseTorr
    • However...

      You forgot that you need less in the way of bodies to support Linux systems than you do Windows. This is true of any of the *nixes. So... I would offer the opinion that your opinion is not well supported.
      zkiwi
      • I don't agree with that.

        I work on a team of about 25 people and collectively we provide complete support for 3000 Windows workstations! It takes no more people to take care of a Windows workstation than it does a Linux workstation.

        That said, the UNIX/Linux administrator needs to understand a great deal more about operating systems in general than the average Windows administrator. And, Windows-experienced people are a great deal more plentiful than experienced UNIX/Linux people.
        M Wagner
        • Don't say that...

          Mr. Ou will be after you. :)
          ju1ce
        • Same here

          We have six people and maintain 1100 workstations and 40 servers, plus a VOIP system, and the network.

          95% of our time is spent doing things that have nothing to do with the managability of the operating systems, such as replacing bad hardware, and answering mundane tech support questions ("What was my username again?").
          toadlife
        • So...

          You appear to have an admin/user ratio that is not untypical.

          I do take issue with your assertion that it takes no more people to support Windows than Linux. You mention a single workstation as support.

          I would also ask why you would want an administrator who wasn't fully competent (as in has a deep understanding of the system)?
          zkiwi
          • Have you even tried to find a decent Windows admin?

            It's hell...at least in my neck of the woods. I've sat in on and participated in the interviews for several hires where I work. We pay very well, and clearly outline what is required for the job, yet the quality of candidates is allways very low. We end up hiring the person who seems "the most trainable". It's either that, or hire nobody.
            toadlife
          • I agree

            Windows admins generally suck, and I agree, picking the most trainable people is the way to go.
            zkiwi
          • He told you already

            The ones with the deep understanding are more expensive. It's a question of budgeting, plus they involve themselves more with the innards of the system, because they have to. Windows admins. do not have to in order to get something working.
            Mark Miller
          • Which would explain why sometimes they take forever

            to get somethings working... ]:)
            Linux User 147560
        • We also support abou 3000 for our district...

          We also support about 3000 for our district (3 high schools, plus feeder schools), unfortunately we only have about 8 people. 3 site technicians and 5 district.

          Having come from a previous background of supporting 1500 or so Macintosh computers, I can tell you that Windows is just absolutely horrid to support.

          As I mentioned in another post, the thing I dread most about Windows PCs is imaging/ghosting. We happen to use Altiris at this district, at the college I worked at before they used Norton for the IT department.

          Having to maintain a driver database and configuration notes/scripts for all the different computers we have is a nightmare. Building a master image is a nightmare. Testing the drivers and making sure they don't mess up with any of the other software we use, especially stuff for transcripts and student information.

          We have about 15 different master images for the various labs, plus a driver database that gets included when we push out the images (otherwise, if we were to build a custom image for each comptuer configuation with its own drivers, we'd have about 30 images.)

          With OS X you just find whatever's the newest computer, install OS X and the Apps you want, and you're done. You don't have to worry about drivers. You have one image that works accross [i]all[/i] the computers. Laptops, desktops, towers, compacts, whatever. From Indigo iMacs to the latest G5s. A single image works on all of them. Well, now they have 2 images. 1 for the PPC and 1 for the Intel, however, they can both be pushed out from the same server.

          You also don't need to create special install packages or scripts when you want to send out software via Remote Desktop, unlike Altiris.

          On a side note, I'm curious how much you spend a year on CALs. Something you left out (and often gets left out of any proposal) in your article.
          olePigeon
          • Then you never really did set up a Windows's administrative system

            "the thing I dread most about Windows PCs is imaging/ghosting" That statement alone says what you're doing wrong. ghosting hard drives certainly is a painfully tedius way to go and totally unnecessary if you do the network properly. We have our networked computers set so they automatically update directly from the server. some user messes things up on a computer, reboot it. want new software installed on the whole lot. put it on the server and the next reboot of the individual PC's and they all see the updates and install them. This way, small differences in hardware are automatically handled because each install takes that into account. in ghosting, you MUST have everything quite close if you exptec a ghost to work as an install on multiple computers.
            You were doing it the hard way. Here, we fired people who insisted on that and for the cost of their salary, we have saved enough money to upgrade lots of computers, purchase proper windows servers and do things we could not even dream of back in the "ghosting disks" days.
            mombo
    • So how are those yearly CALs coming along?

      $50,000+ every year, I would imagine. That's just the licensing
      and not including Windows or Office licenses.

      Sounds like you're doing a bang-up job saving money there.
      olePigeon
  • And that last paragraph says it all ...

    ... . Linux is great in the machine room -- as a UNIX alternative.

    In truth, it is not Windows zealots who keep Linux off the desktop. It's the Linux vendors who are unwilling to make the investment in the commodity Linux desktop to make it as easy for the consumer to use and to take care of as a Windows desktop.
    M Wagner
    • Well...

      I would say it's far more likely to be inertia and conservatism. This is particularly so in education where with limited budgets and enshrined curriculum it is very very hard to move from "the way we've always done it." Training or retraining of support staff is even more conservative.

      The students, quite frankly generally care less what they are sitting in front of, as long as it can work with their files. The only main problems there are photoshop, cad programs and visual basic. And those aren't usually the main consideration when getting new computers.
      zkiwi
    • I agree completely, and would add, perhaps Linux is just built wrong

      Why no ABI so you can use older drivers?
      Then there is the awkwards rc.d service model, over-reliance on scripting, piping, the antiquated hard to understand file system naming model.
      And then there are the amazingly powerful applications you can get on Windows.
      stevey_d
      • Moving ABI

        [i]"Why no ABI so you can use older drivers?"[/i]

        This is a philsophical/political decision. The linux devs intentionally make the driver interface a moving target to discourage binary only drivers.
        toadlife
      • French vs. Chinese

        [i]Then there is the awkwards rc.d service model,[/i]

        ... which admins can actually work on, and which manages to let them update critical services on the fly. The admins I know who use both complain of the lack of /etc/init.d on MS systems.

        [i]over-reliance on scripting, piping,[/i]

        Which is such a handicap that Microsoft has spent hundreds of millions coming up with their own version.

        [i]the antiquated hard to understand file system naming model.[/i]

        I have to admit that [b]/home[/b] is much harder to understand than [b]E:\\[/b] for some. However, note that under the hood Microsoft has been trying to migrate to that same unified file system.

        [i]And then there are the amazingly powerful applications you can get on Windows.[/i]

        Power, familiarity, or something like that. Precious few MS-only functions as such (although branding is another matter.) On the other hand, try finding a serious 3D signal integrity-aware physical compiler for anything but the Unices.
        Yagotta B. Kidding
        • lol

          <<On the other hand, try finding a serious 3D signal integrity-aware physical compiler for anything but the Unices.>>

          This truely is a main stream request from end users :)
          LinuxHippie
          • Reality Check

            And then there are the amazingly powerful applications you can get on Windows.

            [i]Power, familiarity, or something like that. Precious few MS-only functions as such (although branding is another matter.) On the other hand, try finding a serious 3D signal integrity-aware physical compiler for anything but the Unices[/i]

            Yup this is a real mainstream business application...:)
            David@...