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Microsoft matters less every 6 months

Maybe not for the average corporation yet, or even the average home user, but every time Canonical releases a new version of Ubuntu (and with it comes Edubuntu), Microsoft becomes a little less the default vendor of choice for educational computing.I'm still 2 years from a major tech refresh, including server hardware and software.

Maybe not for the average corporation yet, or even the average home user, but every time Canonical releases a new version of Ubuntu (and with it comes Edubuntu), Microsoft becomes a little less the default vendor of choice for educational computing.

I'm still 2 years from a major tech refresh, including server hardware and software. I have to say I wish I was a little closer, having just installed Edubuntu 7.10 on my test server at home. Not only did the install go even easier than it did when I installed version 7.04 6 months ago, but the performance once installed is significantly improved. Just as Adrian Kingsley-Hughes reported for Ubuntu,

One of the aspects of Gutsy that feels much improved over previous versions is speed. Everything feels faster and snappier, from loading up the OS to clicking on menus.

For Edubuntu, a derivative of Ubuntu incorporating packages of educational software, and, more importantly, a brilliant implementation of the Linux Terminal Server Project, this translates into faster boot times for thin clients as well as standalone workstations. For those of you who haven't used Edubuntu before, at installation you have the opportunity to install either a workstation (basically Ubuntu with educational packages and a kid-friendly theme) or a server, which supports connection of thin clients. In it's simplest form, the latter requires two network interfaces, one connected to the Internet (via a router or drop from a larger network) and one connected to a switch with thin clients attached.

As with 7.04, this setup really is incredibly simple. Edubuntu detects both interfaces and allows manual or automatic networking setup. The automatic setup is remarkably intelligent; one caveat: if the automatic DHCP/DNS the installer performs fails, then switch the two network connections coming into the server. Most likely, the so-called gateway interface was simply connected to the thin clients instead of the outside network. The text-based installer (sorry, no live CD/graphical install for Edubuntu, although you don't really miss it) guides you through the rest and various setup options for Edubuntu are well-documented here. Note that while the instructions linked here are for version 6.06, the actual installation hasn't changed much. The look, feel, and performance of the installed system are significantly improved.

I installed Ubuntu on two other older PCs for comparison (Dell workstations with 256MB RAM and Pentium 3 Xeons) without any trouble and had my kids using all of their Flash and Java-based applications in less than an hour and a half (from the time I started the install). My youngest was logged into the Edubuntu server (also an aging old donation with 2GB RAM and a single Pentium 3 Xeon running at 700MHz) via his old desktop (set to boot from the network) while I opened and closed applications, switched users, and monitored his connection via a cool control panel on the server itself. While this is obviously a low-utilization, seat of the pants test, this is also a really old server by modern standards and slower than the server on which I tested Edubuntu 7.04 (a Pentium 4 with Hyperthreading, running at 3GHz with 2GB of RAM). Performance was definitely improved, even with the slower server hardware, particularly in terms of network boot times and responsiveness on the thin clients.

Which leads me back to my headline. Edubuntu (and the various incarnations of Ubuntu) are very good right now. Microsoft may bring us "Patch Tuesday," but Canonical brings us a significantly upgraded operating system every 6 months. Many other major Linux developers follow a similar schedule. If the improvements between versions are immediately noticeable, imagine what a couple more generations will bring us. What will Edubuntu 8.10 look like and how much better will it be? For that matter, how will SUSE Linux and their Kiwi implementation of LTSP look (along with the promise of fully-functional library and student information system software out of the box in the coming months)? RedHat/Fedora aren't exactly far behind either, to say nothing of the countless options represented by other distributions.

I'm itching for a tech refresh already, just so that I can logically roll out one of these distributions somewhere other than my own lab. Of course, it will probably take me the next two years to convince my users that we can do without Windows anyway. For now, I'll content myself with building a group of champion users who can see first hand the value of software like Edubuntu, and who can be as impressed as I am at its incredibly speedy progress.