Wireless Linux Terminal Services

There has been plenty of techno-news last week. The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas made it clear that low-power consumption computing is the only game in newly-green, post-Bush, eco-friendly USA.

Interestingly Microsoft has announced that it will take on UK graduates who cannot otherwise get a job; so no change there then. But, soaring above these events, is the real news that there is now a rather nifty system for PXE-booting netbooks wirelessly. The significance of the last point will become clearer as you read on.

It must be said that schools have a few IT problems at the present:

  • their IT systems are too expensive, consume far too much electricity and serve too few students.
  • their ICT curriculum is archaic and out of step with what their students do with IT.

    Regarding the first point, I have already pointed out in previous articles how schools can use money saved by moving to free software to kick-start migration to low energy computing and how that in turn generates the cash saving to finish the job, so I won't mention it. This post however is about the second point.

    UK School ICT

    Let's create a collective super-noun to describe school ICT: 'MS-Word-Publisher-Excel-PowerPoint-Monitored-Outlook Mail-Filtered-Web-VLE-Lock down' will do.

    In the same vein we can describe student ICT: 'Face-Book-IM-Flikr-YouTube-MP3-WebMail-Games-Video-Freedom' seems about right.

    I have had enough conversations with pedagogical 'liberal hip and happening' types and 'traditional flog'em' bods to be unsurprised that the two irreconcilable camps now exist in hitherto uber-modern ICT. As a result trust me, any appetite for more discussion is very limited.

    By way of illustration, I will just pause long enough to say that esoterica such a MS Excel's VLOOKUP function is firmly in the 'traditionalist' camp. React to this according to your disposition.

    No, it is not the generation-chasm in education (school ICT is firmly in the early 2000's just as school chemistry is firmly in the early 1900's) that interests me. It is, as usual the emergence of new technology and tackling the problem of how to make good use of it in schools.

    The Personal Computer Problem

    Overwhelmingly young people are becoming owners of low-cost portable computers, be they the new Netbooks or smaller laptops that meet their needs. Typically they make good use of free software, are eco-friendly and would be ideal for use in class except that they:

    • are all different
    • don't have the school's required applications installed
    • are full of software that does not appeal to teachers
    • are often in a poor states of repair
    • require security hardening and better viral hygiene (much like their owners really)

    So, just like the mobile phone* and the MP3 player, the new opportunities for teaching are likely to be missed by schools because of a culture mismatch. But a solution is at hand!

    The Wireless Linux Terminal Server

    Schools like terminal servers. How else can you explain the popularity of Microsoft's RDP server to provide file-sharing and controlled Internet access to it's laptop owning students?

    • The problem is that MS RDP is:
    • quite expensive
    • creates complex licence issues
    • pretty slow
    • requires a hi-spec laptop to run the RDP client

    The ideal solution for a school would be good old netboot or PXE boot. The client computer does not need to have school applications installed nor even have a functioning OS. It fetches all it needs from the server.

    We make extensive use of the free Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) in our educational offerings but it has, or rather had a drawback. You needed a wired Ethernet outlet to access the server. Classrooms, libraries etc., by and large don't have these, so the thin client concept is limited.

    No more! A few weeks ago I was expounding my 'if only' wish list (beloved of Sales and Marketing and loathed by engineers who actually have to do the work) and mentioned this flaw in LTSP services.
    'No problem' quoth Mark Cave-Ayland (Dave) 'I'll sort that for you..compile this write that blah' ..and he did.
    So now we have a Dell 9" Mini netbook happily PXE booting over wireless to a LTSP server. Eureka! If only I was that clever.

    This is pretty cool. Now students can own and abuse their own hardware as they see fit. Schools can provide IT services from a simple to maintain LTSP server with a few wireless access points dotted around as they see fit.

    Ne'er do the two worlds have to collide. Education can continue to provide stuff the students don't want and students can continue to do stuff adults don't like but at least they'll be using the same hardware.



Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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