Not your father's Linux

OK, so your Dad probably didn't have Linux. But Linux sure has come a long ways. Not far enough, but a very long ways.

Considering that Marc Wagner's recent article, Who is killing desktop Linux? generated more talkbacks and controversy than any other Ed Tech blog post before it, I figured that Linux was worth revisiting.  I've blogged about my own less than successful attempts to roll out Linux here at my high school in an effort to save money, avoid licensing hassles, and otherwise circumvent what stinks about the bad boys of Redmond.  I have also been the first to admit that my own lack of expertise in various 'nix distros was certainly part of the problem.  Yet since I consider myself an above average user and a decent systems administrator, I concluded that from a TCO, time=money, training, and stress perspective, Linux was effectively dead in my kind of environment (at least on the desktop, no matter how cool my Computer Club and I thought it was).

So along comes Marc's article and there were remarkably few responders on the Windows side of the fence (i.e., my side of the fence).  Instead, most adamantly (and I felt blindly) defended the merits, joys, and overall usability of Linux.  I still figured I was right and Marc was just another victim of Linux zealotry from a lot of Linux fans who had never tried to run an Ed Tech enterprise.  However, not wanting to be a M$ sheep (I got that one from one of the talkbacks to Marc's article), I decided I better give Linux another go round.  I actually have Kubuntu running on a machine at home, but a PC I play with in my basement is a lot different than a Linux box on a several-hundred-node network.

Obviously a lot can change in the open source community in a matter of months, so I downloaded the latest and greatest "Dapper Drake" version of Ubuntu.  Since the controversy largely centered on usability and mass appeal on the desktop, and since Ubuntu is widely considered to be among the more user friendly distros, I thought this would give Linux every benefit of the doubt.

Consistent with my previous experiences, the first machine on which I tried to load Dapper Drake never made it farther than the Ubuntu splash screen.  This PC was no screamer (533 MHz Celeron, 128MB RAM, 8GB hard drive), but isn't too far from an average computer on my campus.  It's also fairly close to many of the machines that my students have in their bedrooms; a lot of kids inherit an older computer when the family upgrades and this PC was still perfectly functional for basic academic tasks.  I attempted to change out the video card (a common problem I ran into the last time I tried to deploy Linux), removed the sound card (another common sticking point), and added more RAM, all to no avail.  I then attempted to install XP Pro (this computer was donated to us running XP Home - YUCK); within a couple hours, the new OS was installed, patched and upgraded, and sitting in a classroom, minus the hardware changes I tried out to get Ubuntu up and running.

Not to be daunted so easily, I grabbed one of the better computers in my test lab (a dual processor 533MHz PIII Xeon with dual 8GB SCSI hard drives and 512MB RAM, courtesy of a dam designer at the Army Corps of Engineers) and tossed in the CD I had burned earlier.  This computer actually fired up immediately into a Live CD version of Ubuntu (a pretty cool feature that lets bootable install CDs also act as so-called live distros so that you can try out Ubuntu without affecting your existing system).  An install icon was sitting on the desktop, so I double-clicked and went through a fairly painless installation.  The install itself took about 40 minutes and, voila, I had an Ubuntu workstation under my desk.

Let me pause by saying that this installation paradigm is really slick.  Since you boot to a live version of the OS first, you can do quite a bit of testing with an existing piece of hardware to ensure that Ubuntu will work correctly.  The new graphical install from within this live version just spanks the Windows install.  Updating with all the latest patches and adding several bits of software from the Ubuntu library were painless and straightforward.  If only Windows made it this easy to access and install software and patches - we're way beyond Windows Update here.

Ubuntu has vastly improved it's printing support as well.  Last time around, I never did manage to get any of our lasers to print in anything more than a very light grayscale using the built-in CUPS drivers (CUPS is the Common Unix Printing System) and, even with a lot of effort, searching, and poking, I was never satisfied with print quality or speed.  This time, Ubuntu did a nice job of recognizing the networked printers on my LAN and allowing me to connect, although the popups asking for authentication to each printer would have confused (and probably frightened) 98% of my end users (this process happened automatically, by the way, when I entered the printer setup dialog).  The first printout was also solid black, no grayscale.

OK, so far so good, right?  Not exactly.  I tried one more Ubuntu install on an older Dell (400MHz PII, running Windows slowly but reliably) and crapped out again.  That's one computer out of three, all of which represent a cross-section of the computers in my school and those sitting in my students' basements and rooms.  I'm using the one functional workstation for demos in class and my 4 year old loves the Potato Guy game that comes with Ubuntu, but the sweet new installer, slick interface, and large free software library just aren't enough.

Whether Windows is a particularly great product or not, I know that 99 times out of 100 that it's going to work without a hitch, whether the hardware is new or old, fast or slow, generic or proprietary.  Yes, I'll need to manage malware and yes, it will crawl on some of these older machines, but it will work.  I'm quite confident that Ubuntu would work very nicely and consistently on newer machines and Ubuntu really has come a long ways in terms of polish and performance in the last 6 months. However, it really has a long ways to go for me to justify the extra training expenses for my users, the extra time I'll need to learn the basics of enterprise Linux management/deployment, and the hardware hassles inherent in a non-Windows deployment. 

Even when I buy new hardware, a Linux solution would be a hard sell, indeed, given my environment and given the really significant improvements built into Vista.  That isn't to say that I might not recommend Linux to my more savvy students when they're looking for a personal computer before college, but, given my very limited time and resources, the turnkey solution represented by Windows is just too easy (and cheap, long term) to pass up.  I just wish Windows had that great Potato Guy game!