Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

It's no longer a matter of whose OS is better. It's a matter of finally having several viable choices as we look to expand and improve educational computing.

A little over a month ago, I declared that there was never a better time to switch to Ubuntu. I still stand by that statement and if I were stuck on a desert island with only one operating system at my disposal, I'd pick Ubuntu 10.04.  The real point of my article was not to fan the age-old my-OS-is-better-than-your-OS flame wars, but rather to point out that, if you're thinking upgrades this summer, Ubuntu better be on your short list.

Ubuntu is hardly the only excellent choice for academic computing, but given the large community of users and developers; mature server, desktop, and netbook products; massive repositories of free software (much of which has educational value); and great performance on a variety of new and old hardware, it certainly can't be ignored any longer as a fringe OS.  Management of Linux systems, particularly Ubuntu, no longer requires a degree in computer science either, and in many settings, there are real cost savings to be had by avoiding software licensing costs.

Of course, Microsoft will tell you that the ROI on their stack of server, cloud, and desktop products is such that you will actually save money versus open source.  While that isn't as true as it used to be (most mature Linux distributions are quite easy to use and administer and cloud applications look and feel the same, regardless of the underlying OS), there are many settings where the near ubiquity of support staff knowledgeable in Microsoft products, combined with powerful administration and productivity tools, will result in at least cost parity with open source solutions.

Even if cost savings from FOSS deployments are clearcut, there may be cultural issues that make those cost savings far less important. No matter how much I like Ubuntu or how much I can save by upgrading to Ubuntu 10.04 instead of Windows 7, if it's going to be grieved as a change in working conditions, you can bet I'll recommend a Windows 7 upgrade. If a move campus-wide to open source software will mean that fewer students will choose my university, guess who's going to fork over license fees?

Licensing costs aside, Server 2008, SharePoint 2010, Office 2010, Live@Edu, and Office Web Apps all talk nicely to each other and represent really competitive, easy-to-use products.  It gets harder every day for me to hold a grudge against Microsoft when schools of any size can leverage a variety of platforms that are generally familiar, well-supported, and powerful.

Next: Let's not forget about Apple »

I'm not suggesting that Microsoft has the educational space all tied up.  Rather, for the first time they not only have serious competition, but are seriously competitive. While Ubuntu in particular, and open source in general, are keeping Microsoft on its toes, more serious competition is actually coming from Apple. Apple, as well, has one heck of an ecosystem that can be applied in education relatively cost-effectively. There is no faster way to deploy a media lab than by rolling out iMacs and MacBooks and Mac Minis aren't priced that far beyond their non-Apple brethren.

Better yet, iPods, iPhones, and iPads can all be used to provide 1:1 access to the Internet and instructional resources without investing in full-blown laptops. Even Apple's XServe server products are competitive on price and highly competitive on features, particularly in environments where IT staff is limited and a graphical approach to everything from serving content to authentication can pay dividends.

And then there's thin computing. Thin computing is barely adequate to describe the wide range of choices available in the server-centric world that encompasses everything from vanilla thin clients running RDP sessions on Windows Terminal servers to full-blown desktop virtualization. Regardless of its exact incarnation, schools are increasingly looking at the simplified management, low cost of entry, and energy savings associated with cheap access devices hitting a converged server of some sort.

NComputing, for example, just keeps cranking out new products that are easy to use, deploy, and scale. Wyse is hot on its heels with it's so-called zero clients, and Microsoft's Multipoint Server provides yet another compelling classroom platform. Choices of application virtualization vs. desktop virtualization abound, some of which are open source, while others are proprietary but extremely mature.

Next: No sacred cows »

Phew...So the real problem here is not so much figuring out which OS and/or ecosystem is better. Rather, it's determining the best solution for your organization. Although this has always been the case (you know the drill: Identify a problem, evaluate and test solutions, implement, test, communicate, re-evaluate), there has never been a time when so many really great solutions were available to educational markets.

This is why God created consultants (shameless plug for a business model that I hope will support my family). It's also why all of the old operating system holy wars and biases need to be set aside. Had trouble with performance on thin clients before? It's time to look again. Hated managing Mac clients in the past? Time to look at Snow Leopard. Don't want kids using iPods in class? Why not, if you've provided them with compelling content? Hate Windows? Try a relatively modern PC running Windows 7 and Office 2010 with Live@Edu and SharePoint on the backend and see if you still hate it. Just plain out of money but still need to eliminate malware-infested XP desktops? Ubuntu 10.04 and Google Apps make a powerful combination. For that matter, you can access Live@Edu and Office Web Apps from a Linux box.

Despite an economy that is just beginning to recover and if your job still exists, it's a great time to be in Ed Tech. Suddenly, there are innovative, cost-effective ways to get students collaborating and interacting. Whether you are looking at 1:1 solutions, simply need to get kids online in a lab, or are developing a college campus for the 21st century, we are way beyond buying a bunch of Dells and giving people logins. We're designing systems that enhance and support learning and student achievement and we're doing it for a fraction of the cost of less capable systems even 3 years ago.