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In the summer of 2012 the IT Network at Westcliff High School for Girls Academy (WHSG) (a selective Grammar School with a Sixth Form) underwent a major transformation, but a transformation for the good and the better. The school’s Senior Leadership Team (SLT) had given the go ahead for their IT Support department to switch from costly licensed software to Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) on the student network, and officially declared the school’s document standards as odf, pdf and html. At the time it may not have been a change welcomed by all but with the purse strings tightening, a continually evolving IT curriculum and an ageing network in constant demand (not only from the 1300+ users but from the software providers too) the change was of paramount importance… and was soon embraced by all.
On a cold, snowy winters day… nah I’m just kidding :-P . A couple of years prior to the big Linux switch, on a dull cloudy day in Essex, the school’s network manager Mr M. Moore, had been actively researching alternative Operating Systems (OSs) to the existing Microsoft Windows XP Professional OS installed throughout the school on the students’ workstations. The school was fast approaching a set of cross roads whereby a major OS change was due after 8 or so years with XP. This was not so much a change out of choice, but a change that was a necessity due to Microsoft ending its support for XP midway through the school year of 2014, effectively bringing an end to its use in July 2013. As a result, this was now the perfect opportunity for the school to explore all options available to them. In truth XP wasn’t bad, in fact it worked rather well. It was stable and provided familiarity to its users due to its longevity (but I guess in hindsight that was its downfall). With the prospect of rolling out a new OS there were many aspects to consider:
(There are probably loads more but I can’t remember them all right now! ;-)) The many (initial) requirements would mean that research and testing were of paramount importance! Particularly as there was only one real shot at this. The question at the time was ‘Would it be Microsoft, Mac OS, GNU/Linux or something else?’ Then, with the OS provider chosen, which release, distribution or flavour would it be? With so many choices it was important not only to perfect the client side, but it was of equal importance to find a balance on the server side too. (Aargh if only it was as simple as deciding whether to print something out in full colour or black and white!)
We all (as in the three of us within the IT Support department – Yep that’s right, all three of us! My boss Mr M. Moore (Network Manager), my colleague Mr P. Antonelli and I) had one thing in common, we all wanted an easy life! Any new OS needed to be easy to use and quick to adapt to. Ideally it needed to be aesthetically ‘similar’ to XP if possible (in an attempt to make it less ‘alien’ to users), reliable and offer longevity. Particularly as some students could potentially attend the school for up to seven years, and with the stress of GCSEs/A-Levels, having to adapt to a new computer system every 2/3/4 years would be a hindrance (possibly for staff too).
The OSs supplied by Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) and GNU/Linux were dissected and evaluated in great detail including (but not limited to):
Mac OS was pretty much a no go immediately due to its cost and hardware requirements. At the time the school network was beginning to age and there was no guarantee that funding would be made readily available to replace or upgrade parts of the network and machines. Microsoft initially led us to Windows 7. This was already in use on staff machines due to the requirements of specific software (such as SIMS (Student Information Management System) and SMART Notebook). Unfortunately, having been released in 2009 and its mainstream support ending in January 2015 (midway through the 2014/15 school year which was not ideal), it would only really give us two years (three at a push) of supported use until an OS change would be required (yet) again. Moving forwards our attention was then focused on Windows 8. However, with rumours circling in the ether of the ‘start menu’ being no more, there were great concerns; particularly regarding its usability and configurability as both an administrator and general user. To explore further we trialled (all three – I think) Windows 8 pre-releases during 2011/12. These were dark days. It’s one desktop fits all approach and Metro screen were challenging and frustrating! Without the start menu the desktop PC had become infuriatingly hard to use, resulting in serious doubts as to whether this OS could provide a smooth (seamless) transitional upgrade for our users. Another hurdle was its release date. General availability was not going to be until October 2012, just missing out on the opportunity to roll it out during the school’s six week summer holiday, delaying its release until the summer of 2013. With all this in mind and the prospect of Microsoft releasing a new Windows OS every three years, we were presented with more questions than satisfying answers;
Then there was GNU/Linux and its many distributions (distros). This was a whole new world to me. My boss at the time was a Fedora man. Whenever we worked in the office I would hear the odd negative murmur when he used Windows, but when he used Linux I don’t ever recall a bad word being said. Linux made him happy. I myself, had never really used Linux. I had heard of it and remember my Dad installing a distro at home. Apart from that it was in a way new to me. I had an open mind to the possibilities of Linux with the attitude of ‘Why can’t we use this?’, I was willing, I didn’t want us (the school) to miss out on something if it was potentially gold dust! My main concern was that unless I could quickly adapt to it and understand it then (there was a possibility that) our users may struggle too… but what did we have to lose at this point? To begin with we tried and tested the Fedora and Ubuntu Linux distros as stand alone installations (in the office), with the Gnome and KDE desktop environments. My initial findings were that Gnome was NOT for me. I felt it was too alien. Yes, I know you can customise it to your hearts content but on first impressions I was lost without my traditional start menu. However, the Plasma Desktop, part of the K Desktop Environment (KDE), along with its Kickoff Application Launcher provided a slight glimmer of hope. The launcher appeared to provide similar visual attributes to the Windows XP and 7 start menus making it feel familiar. (Basically, it had an easy to navigate menu positioned in the same location… with a touch of class ;
)). In this case looks really did matter! For years and years (well 8 in fact) students (and myself) had become accustomed to the Windows XP desktop and its ‘tasteful’ start menu located at the bottom left hand corner of the screen (despite it being heavily configured/locked down). So naturally, KDE seemed like the right choice. It could hopefully aid our users switching to a Linux environment (keeping any angst to a minimum). Notwithstanding the desktop environment conundrum, I still felt there was something missing from the two Linux distributions I had explored… Then, I remembered my boss coming into work one morning with a Linux magazine in tow that included a DVD with the latest (at the time) release of openSUSE 12.1 (I think) burnt (or should I say pressed) on to it; unbeknownst to us at the time this DVD would hold the key to unlocking the future at the school. We both had a play with it and (I can only speak for myself) I immediately took to it! It seemed like the one! I really, really liked it! I found it user friendly with KDE’s Plasma (4.7) as the default desktop workspace environment. Its all-in-one system/configuration tool YaST (Yet another Setup Tool) having everything any administrator would ever need or dream of in one place (well nearly everything – you do still have to do the odd configuration the hard way using the terminal ;)). It just seemed far less daunting to use when compared to the other Linux distributions explored. In this case first impressions really did matter! Despite it more or less being love at first sight, we had only just scratched the surface and there was still much more to do! When delving into openSUSE 12.1 further it seemed like a winner. Its minimal hardware requirements were far less demanding than other OSs which would ultimately prolong the lifespan of the workstations (as they would be under less strain), and would temporarily put a hold on any immediate hardware upgrades which could be costly; such as RAM and CPUs (or worse new desktop PCs). Not only that, there would be no (client) licensing fees! However, yet again we appeared to be heading towards another set of crossroads. Whilst there was plenty of time to experiment with 12.1, unfortunately its End-of-Life (EOL) and successor 12.2 would overlap at inconvenient times:
Nevertheless, with openSUSE historically having minimal hardware requirements and KDE as the default desktop environment (without any major ‘culture’ shocks to its aesthetics over the years), there was confidence that a FOSS environment could be rolled out and upgraded smoothly in the future (quashing any fears).
With some workstations beginning to age, it was vitally important to see how well they could perform when running the different Operating Systems considered (compared to the current OS, XP). To find out, Geekbench 2 (a cross-platform processor benchmark program) was used. This executes a series of tasks including processor integer performance, processor floating point performance, memory performance and memory bandwidth performance on a computers CPU (Central Processor Unit) and memory, timing how long it takes to perform each task. The results are then presented as a series of benchmarks for easy comparison. The quicker a task is completed, the higher the final score will be. Geekbench results identified that the machines could perform (approximately) 10% faster when running Linux. For example, the following workstation (considered as one of our mid-range desktop PCs (back in the day)) produced the following results: To this date the machine specified above (which was purchased in April 2009) is still in full use on the student network!… Could be luck, but the switch to Linux may just have helped to prolong its life, with it operating under less strain.
For many years (even prior to my arrival) we had tried to push cross-platform Free and Open Source Software applications (for Mac OS, Windows and Linux platforms) wherever possible. To enable our users (both students and staff) to use the same applications at home as they did in class, eliminating the need to pay unnecessary costs for specific software licenses and hardware. Making education affordable and compatible for all. If users needed an art package GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) could be used, a Desktop Publisher application Scribus could do the trick, a multimedia player VLC was available, if an office suite was required LibreOffice was there… and much more. Setting the scene for a possible future Linux switch at the school. However, there was one thing that could potentially be a problem and stand in the way of a switch to Linux… users loved Microsoft Office (2003)! It was used by (nearly) everyone, everyday, for everything (possibly for tea making too). The question was, why? And could any alternative software packages be used instead as the flagship office suite? Then, to add to the conundrum, there were a couple of Windows applications we had to ensure would work (Techsoft2D and Crocodile Clips) due to their use in the curriculum (unless suitable replacements could be found). So the investigation continued…
My boss tried and tested everything when it came to Linux, both client and server side. Once he was happy I then started producing openSUSE (12.1) Linux images under his guidance. (My main role in the IT Support department was ‘imaging’ (now its that and much more ;-)). I would be responsible for periodically producing both staff and student images for the slightly different variants of Intel Desktop PCs in the school, making sure they were up to date with the latest software (OS/application) updates, service packs, drivers and bug patches etc.). To begin with there were a lot of trial images. But slowly, slowly, one room was set up with dual boot images consisting of the Windows XP and openSUSE 12.1 Operating Systems. Once my boss was happy with the client (and server) side, we arranged for a group of students to test it out one lunchtime. (It’s important to mention that at this stage we did not make it public knowledge of a potential OS change concerning the student network as we did not want this to affect their first impressions – people in general don’t like change, so we kept all possibilities hush hush). Initial feedback was positive [Particularly when they found out they could customise their own desktop environment. Eventually we would have more and more trial runs at lunchtimes with more and more students with ever improving images. Feedback still remained positive… until… one day, word broke out that this set-up could potentially be rolled out instead of their beloved Windows along with the removal of their number one office suite, Microsoft Office 2003! This could have potentially brought an end to the Linux process. At the time I don’t think any of us had really realised the impact that Microsoft Office had had on some of the students, particularly those approaching their final years in their GCSE and A-Level studies. The main issue was that students had a lot of coursework in Word and for various reasons (the way their documents were formatted and the document standards used) their work would not always be viewed as expected in alternative office applications; and with the stress of coursework deadlines and exams on the horizon students did not have the time, patience or confidence to redo documents whilst having to learn a new application. As a result, to ensure we were to have an easy life, we endeavoured to find a solution where Microsoft Office 2003 was available to Year 11’s and Year 13’s (and only them) to enable them to complete their courses with ease. So, with a bit more head scratching and testing, CodeWeavers CrossOver provided the answer and came to our rescue. It wasn’t free, it wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. It crucially enabled us to install and run Microsoft Office 2003 directly on our openSUSE Linux workstations. We also managed to get our older and required Windows applications to run too, with a little help from Wine (Wine Is Not an Emulator) [:-D*].
As time passed I became more and more confident with openSUSE and as a result began to tinker with the look and feel of it, making it appear more personal to the school. This involved altering openSUSEs default:
(Essentially I was just changing anything and everything coloured green to blue ;
P) As well as experimenting with themes, I began to add system-wide menu items to specific (in-house/external) online resources and applications, such as Email, VLE and Reset Desktop to name a few. This would ensure that users had quick and easy access to the necessary tools and services required for their studies in class, with them being readily available via the Kickoff Application Launcher ;).
I can’t really give you too much of an insight as to what took place on this side of things as I had very little involvement (if any). What I do know is the servers need a lot of ‘oomph’ and the faster the read/write speeds of the HDD the better! (The network also needs a lot of bandwidth too ;-).) Many OSs were trialled, tested and evaluated, resulting in SUSE Linux Enterprise eventually being decided upon. Its choice was aided by the following:
The only downside was that it required a small licensing fee :-(.
Once the client images and server requirements were finalised my boss then took on the task of promoting the idea of Linux being used throughout the school to the Senior Leadership Team. To find out more read, ‘A Year of the Linux Desktop’. An interview with my boss about the Linux switch. (Available at https://dot.kde.org/2013/07/04/year-linux-desktop).
Fast-forward 4½ (ish) years and Linux is still being used on the school’s (student) network having been introduced to it back in the summer of 2012, albeit with a few updates (of course ;
)). As of right now, as I type, we are using openSUSE 13.2 (x64) which is currently installed on over 310 Intel Desktop PCs with a view to upgrading to LEAP 42.2 in the near future (with the inclusion of KDE’s Plasma 5.8 LTS) [Amazingly some of our original machines (purchased in July 2008) are still going strong! LibreOffice is our flagship Office Suite (with Microsoft Office being no more – after phasing it out) and Google Chrome is our number one web browser. We also provide key core on site web based applications such as NextCloud (enabling students to sync/share work using multiple devices), Moodle our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) (used for educational resources/homework) and IceWarp our E-mail system (with added bells and whistles). Switching to Linux has enabled the school to branch away from costly software and demanding/draining hardware requirements. The money saved at school has crucially enabled parts of the ageing network to be upgraded, with parts now operating at 10Gbps and recently both ICT 1 and 2 computer suites have been refurbished. As well as this, our older machines have also received hardware upgrades, with RAM being increased wherever possible. Behind the scenes (back-end stuff) a lot of things have changed too. Every year group now has its own file server. These are powered by openSUSE LEAP 42.2, with SUSE Linux Enterprise being phased out over time as confidence grew. The use of Linux to power our servers has gradually spread further, including the (student) print server, backup servers and servers providing online facilities. The benefits of the switch also spill out of the school grounds. By providing a Linux environment with cross-platform FOSS applications (for Linux, Windows and MAC OS) and, declaring the schools official document standards as odf, pdf and html, students can now use the same software packages at home as they do in class to complete their studies. Eliminating any compatibility issues and unnecessary costs regarding hardware and licensing fees. To promote and encourage the use of FOSS applications outside of school and to provide a further insight regarding FOSS within the school, links and further information (for students and their parents) are made readily available on the school’s website www.whsg.info (which is powered by Linux too btw [;)*]). The Linux environment has crucially encouraged students to take ownership of the machines available to them. They are now provided with a desktop that does not need to be ‘locked down’. Instead they now have permission to experiment and customise their Personal Computers (PCs) to their heart’s content. The most damage they can do is ‘break’ their own user environment (NOT the machine) which can always be ‘reset’ on the relevant student file server by deleting the various ‘.config’ files/folders (associated with the user in question). The only downside to this setup is that you see some quite garish customisations – bright pink coloured themes and hideous fonts ; @ … although this is nothing that the Reset Desktop button can’t handle. (One of the many system-wide tools available, which when clicked deletes the users .config and .kde folders, resetting the users customisations to the default themes) ;). One of the beauties of this setup is that it has really aided the computing studies students, particularly at GCSE level. In select ICT suites the root credentials have been changed and given to select students for them to complete their necessary coursework tasks that require root privileges (Yes! – I know, I hear the gasps! BUT… what’s the worst that can happen? They can’t mess the network up, only the machine they’re working on (in a particular room), and if they do, it can be re-imaged in minutes). The benefits of this environment are that virtual machines and/or remote access to specific servers are not required to enable students to complete their tasks.
Unbeknown to a lot of users many things have changed since the initial roll-out of openSUSE Linux. Images have been refined and perfected many times over! Initially we were using openSUSE 12.1 (32-bit) for testing and for a few weeks into the first school term (of 2012) until we got our hands on openSUSE 12.2 (32-bit) (which we rolled out asap and stuck with a bit longer ;-P). Now we are on the verge of rolling out openSUSE Leap 42.2 (64-bit). We actively try to keep the student system up to date by rolling out 2 or 3 images per school year so that we (the school) do not get left behind. A major benefit to rolling out Linux images is the time involved. Using Clonezilla (a FOSS disk imaging/cloning program), an ICT Suite (consisting of 32 workstations) can typically be updated (re-imaged) in just under two hours. At a push the whole school can be imaged in a week (although this is tiring – trust me)! Once a machine is imaged there is very little that needs to be done in the aftermath:
Job done! :-) In general when a new image is required for the student network, they are produced based on storage drive type and capacity. All our machines are Intel based (with slightly varying motherboards) and during the installation of openSUSE, drivers (including ones that the machine does not necessarily require) are automatically installed (making them readily available if/when the Kernel calls for them); unlike the Windows images produced, where drivers must be specifically selected for installation. Images currently produced are based on:
In theory we could completely bypass the need for a 250GB image and use the 160GB one instead. However, we don’t want to limit ourselves. The more space available the more variable and temporary files it can store, enabling more users to log in to and use a machine (with a Graphical User Interface (GUI)). (If/When a machine’s HDD/SSD runs out of space, the X Window System won’t start (preventing the GUI from running). Resulting in users then having to log in to a machine the hard way using the Command Line Interface (CLI) [until more space has been made available. So the larger the storage capacity (for an image) the better [:-)*].)
Once a student machine is imaged it is very rare for it to be updated using the command ‘zypper dup’. A long, long time ago we started to update a number of ICT Suites using this command, by the time we wandered downstairs to upgrade more machines the LibreOffice repository had received an upgrade :-[, resulting in us having to restart the process (ho hum). So now, machines are only upgraded with images (containing all the necessary updates) and only on selected dates. Ultimately saving time and providing better continuity/stability.
Moving forwards, our attention is now focused to LEAP. The latest new and improved Linux openSUSE distribution. Which, if you look ‘under the bonnet’, will see that it is considerably different to any of its predecessors. openSUSE’s LEAP is a new type of distro, a hybrid distro. It is crucially developed from both community developments (to include the latest versions of software), and source code from SUSE Linux Enterprise (SLE) which is developed by SUSE engineers; resulting in an ‘Enterprise Grade’ OS (due to its enterprise grade reliability). This makes it the perfect choice for environments that rely heavily on stability and resilience… like ours. Not that we have ever had any issues with openSUSE’s prior releases. The LEAP series should be with us for quite some time to come. Major releases (42, 43 for example) are to echo the release cycle of SLE every 36-48 months. With minor releases (such as 42.‘something’) based on SLE Service Packs (SPs) approximately every 12 months, with a life cycle of up to 18 months of security and maintenance updates. Providing Long-Term-Support (LTS) to its users. However, due to LEAP’s vast differences concerning its construction, the decision was made to let 13.2 run its due course on the student workstations (particularly as this has been/is working so well). Giving us some much needed time to learn and test the new openSUSE distro to determine if/how a smooth, transitional upgrade could take effect for all parties involved (such as the students, teachers and us). Instead of just rolling out 42.1 straight away and hoping for the best ;-):
As expected, and like the many other Linux distributions available, LEAP 42.2s hardware requirements are minimal. With an almost identical specification to that of 13.2s, with the one exception being a requirement of a slightly newer CPU… which is not a problem for our machines ;-):
One of 42.2s (many) enhancements is the inclusion of the 4.4 LTS Linux Kernel. Providing improved performance and features optimising a computer’s performance. Including (but not limited to):
As a result, to determine the true effects of 42.2 and its new kernel, compared to the current distro (13.2) installed throughout the student network, Geekbench 4 tests were executed on select workstation specifications. (The latest Cross-Platform Benchmark tool. Incorporating single and multi-core tests, providing a much more in-depth set of scores for analysis.) For example,
[_ High-end client workstation scores: Mid-range client workstation scores: Low-end client workstation scores: _]
Results identify that the new distro (42.2) and kernel can improve the performance of our machines, with Geekbench squeezing out every ounce of power a machine has to offer; albeit, results may not be ground breaking, every little helps. (With improvements made to all our various machine specification types, from our high-end/newest all the way down to our low-end/oldest.)
Whilst there are significant changes ‘under the bonnet’, there are some enhancements to its workspace environment too. With the inclusion of:
All of which contribute to a much more resilient, reliable, stable and fresher looking KDE; particularly with the inclusion of the (default) theme ‘Breeze’. Users are also given a choice as to how the default system menu can be presented. With the ‘alternative widgets’ feature offering the following. (Example screenshots below include a custom system menu, ‘WHSG Resources’ and custom menu items (for all users)):
[_ Application Menu (default) (A launcher based on cascading pop-up menus) Application Launcher (A launcher with a horizontal navigation system) Application Dashboard (A full screen application launcher) _]
The future’s bright, the future’s blue. Here are some sneak previews of the customised alterations taking effect with openSUSE’s LEAP 42.2 themes:
[_ (Grub 2 boot menu) (Plymouth) (Login Screen (SDDM)) (Splash Screen) (Standard user: Default wallpaper and menu) (Standard user: Dolphin and LibreOffice with Breeze theme) (Power/Session options) (root user) _]
Despite the cosmetic enhancements, everything else remains the same (from a users perspective that is). With all the previously required applications, tools and services still being available for use… it’s just a bit more fresh looking and up to date ;-).
Here is a rough outline/breakdown regarding the processes to create the new Leap 42.2 images at the school:
Once the installation/setup processes are complete, a ‘clone’ of the machine’s software can then be uploaded to the image server, making it available for distribution.
The server which stores the images is a simple NFS (Network File System) File Server (powered by Linux openSUSE)… nothing fancy ;-).
The above points 1 – 10 still apply, with the following steps after:
Essentially the installation and setup of GNU/Linux on the student network (to both client and server sides) has justified itself. It provides a stable, resilient and reliable platform for all our users (from novice to expert), for minuscule costs, if any, without compromising the IT infrastructure which is required for numerous curriculum activities; crucial in a sector where money at times can be scarce. Geekbench testing shows, in the graph below, that the Linux openSUSE distributions not only outperform Microsoft Windows OSs, but each successive release outperforms its predecessors. Optimizing a machine’s performance enabling it to operate faster without needing costly hardware upgrades (or worse replacing). (*Geekbench 2 (32-bit) was used in order to provide ‘fairer’ results for comparison – due to later releases not being directly comparable) , Memory: DDR 2GB 800MHz)
The argument is no longer ‘why are we not providing a Microsoft Windows environment with licensed software?’ Instead, it is now ‘why should we have to pay to provide a computer system/network for our users? When we can provide one just as good (if not better) for £0, using Free and open source software.’ The continued use of a Linux environment has been aided by the explosion of new technologies and software applications available to users within the IT industry. There is no longer only one suitable option, there are many options, it’s just down to you to explore, trial, test and evaluate the alternatives available in order to support and justify your decision ;-). …For now at least, the only way really is Open Source. The big Linux switch, brought to you through the eyes of J. T. Lidbury (March 2017)
‘A Year of the Linux Desktop’: https://dot.kde.org/2013/07/04/year-linux-desktop Clonezilla: http://clonezilla.org FOSS: https://freeopensourcesoftware.org Geekbench: http://geekbench.com GNU/Gimp: https://www.gimp.org KDE: https://www.kde.org Libre Office: https://www.libreoffice.org Linux openSUSE: https://www.opensuse.org Linux openSUSE 42.2 (LEAP): https://en.opensuse.org/Portal:42.2 MOODLE: https://moodle.org Nextcloud: https://nextcloud.com Open Source Initiative:
https://opensource.org Plasma: https://www.kde.org/plasma-desktop Scribus: https://www.scribus.net SUSE Linux Enterprise: https://www.suse.com VLC: http://www.videolan.org WHSG: http://www.whsg.info
With the purse strings tightening, a continually evolving IT curriculum and an ageing network in constant demand a secondary school in Essex took on the bold decision to switch their student (IT) network from costly licensed software to Free and Open Source Software, and declared the school’s document standards as odf, pdf and html. The process involved many days and months of trialling, testing and evaluating various different OS's and applications to find the best solution for all types of users. Take a read to discover how the school executed the change and has maintained the switch, with an insight to the research, tests and analysis that have been executed throughout the journey.