Open Source in Schools
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A large-scale deployment of Open-Source desktops in schools.
Two schools are studied, both using similarly designed systems. The software and hardware deployed is discussed and the management and cost implications arising are analysed. Both illustrate ways in which costs can be reduced whilst retaining compatibility with existing hardware and software investment.
Mike Banahan, February 2006
This is a case study into the large-scale deployment of Open-Source desktops in schools. Two schools are studied, both using similarly designed systems. The software and hardware deployed is discussed and the management and cost implications arising are analysed. Both illustrate ways in which costs can be reduced whilst retaining compatibility with existing hardware and software investment.
1. Technological Focus
2. Type of Study
Moderate Scale Deployment
3. Applicability Within Organisation
4. Thrust of Study
Management and Deployment Issues
Financial TCO/ROI Issues
The two schools studied both faced similar situations with tight budgets and much of their desktop hardware coming to or alrady at end of life. Schools of this kind are obliged to keep large number of desktop systems available to students: the Department for Education and Science (DfES) recommends a ratio of 1 desktop per four pupils. The desktop operating systems in use previous to the Open Source deployment were mostly old variants of Microsoft Windows. To upgrade to modern versions of the operating system would require significant investment in new hardware because of the increased demand the operating system would make. Investment of that scale was difficult in the circumstances.
The schools adopted a comprehensive package of software, mostly Open Source based but with proprietary components. The solution has a large thin-client component which allowed existing hardware to be recycled and its life extended by a number of years. The administrative costs of the solution are estimated (with increasing validation available) to be very much lower than the equivalent proprietary fat-client alternative.
Software licence savings from the use of Open Source software give a significant reduction in system costs. Reliability and availability figures indicate a much better level of service from the systems that was previously experienced.
Compatibility with software packages that will only run on Microsoft Windows has been retained where essential. In other places, Open Source alternatives are used. The Open Source software represents the bulk of the day-to-day use of the system. The systems in use provide numerous features that were not previously implemented in the schools using proprietary software, i.e. an enhanced level of overall functionality compared to the previous situation. Some loss of functionality in certain areas is considered to be more than compensated for by those enhancement. Very substantial costs saving (capital and running costs) have been indentified in both schools.
The systems were introduced with low to moderate overall levels of disruption. In each case the system addresses only the teaching part of the school infrastructure and not the administration component.
5 Case Study
5.1 Organisational Structure
Two schools were involved, each with a slightly different structure.
Orwell High School, where the principal management responsibility lies with Joh
Osborne, Deputy Head, assisted by a teacher with responsibility for ICT and a
Sir Frederic Osborn school, with a situation complicated by lack of staff. The He
Teacher, Sue Lewis, was assisted by two ICT coordinators on the teaching staff
and Tim Lee, a governor of the school with specialist interest in ICT matters. No
technician was available to the school during the decision making process
The organisational structure is considered to be of modest relevance overall.
5.2 Motivating Factors
In both schools there were deep concerns about ongoing costs and sustainability.
Hardware upgrades on the desktop were driven by regular operating system upgrades on
an approximately three to four year basis. Each time a signifcant operating system
upgrade was needed, most of the existing desktop PCs had be replaced. For a crude
estimate of costs, consider 300 desktops replaced every three years at approximately £ 5
each: that leads to some £ 50,000 per year cost in hardware replacement alone.
Replacement costs were not the only factor. Software licensing costs were of concern,
particularly since record keeping tended to be inaccurate and it could not be guaranteed
that every piece of software in use was accompanied by a valid licence. The costs of
administration were seen to be onerous.
Orwell High School found that it was commonplace for several PCs in a classroom to be
out of order for one reason or another and Sir Frederic Osborn had suffered serious
problems exacerbated by the departure of technician support resulting in very low
availability of working equipment. Not only was the cost of technician support proving t
be high, availability of appropriate skills at the salaries that schools can afford was seen
be a serious problem. Addressing high-cost elements like these were critical
5.3 Situation Prior To Adoption
Though different in detail, both schools had broadly similiar initial circumstances. Both
were previously using traditional PC desktops based on Microsoft Windows of various
vintages. The cost of replacing PC hardware to keep up with the increasing demands of
recent software releases was becoming unsustainable, but in each case there was a large
inventory of low to middle specification PCs that could be recycled.
The effort of keeping PCs working was proving difficult to manage with considerable
numbers of PCs awaiting attention to make them serviceable again. Meeting the
on-to-four DfES guidelines on PC-to-pupil ratios was considered to be unrealistic.
At one of the schools there had been particular difficulties in retaining good levels of
technician skill and that exacerbated the continuing problem of software and hardware
5.4 Pre-adoption Evaluation Of Solution
Prior to adopting the system, both schools trialled a demonstration system for a limited
Orwell High School was the guinea pig for much of the development work on the system,
adopting it before it was packaged as a commercial product, and consequently could be
seen as taking a greater risk. In practice there is known to be several schools in the UK
using systems that have similar characteristics to the one in question, so the technical risks
were viewed as modest.
Sir Frederic Osborn School was able to see the system in use at Orwell after a year and
almost a further full term had elapsed, permitting a high level of confidence to be
established. The school had been looking for a solution similar to the one adopted but was
about to rule out a self-built implementation when they discovering that commercial
support had become available subsequent to work done at Orwell.
5.5 Software And Systems Implemented
The system implemented contains numerous components. The most significant element is
the thin-client Linux-based part, but these are augmented by others. In brief the system
A predominantly thin-client desktop which recyles old PCs (optionally permitting
the use of dedicated thin-client devices). The thin-client PCs have their old hard
drive, CD and other components removed, reducing their power consumption. All
the application software runs on servers which are centrally managed at a ratio of
some thirty to forty thin clients per server. The thin clients are based on the Linux
Terminal Server Project (LTSP). The Linux-based desktops are ’kiosk-ised’ to
make it impossible for users to alter settings that would require technician
intervention to restore.
Email for both schools is provided using entirely Open Source components, giving
an mailbox for every pupil and staff member, including full web-access to email
both inside and externally so pupils working from home can access their email via
the internet if desired. The email system provides free-of-charge spam, virus and
content filtering and mailing list facilities
Office suite, including word processor, presentation package, drawing too
database (Star Office)
Desktop publishing and web publishing (Scribus, Nvu)
Graphics editors (Gimp, Inkscape)
Web browsing and various email clients (Firefox, Thunderbird et al)
KDE educational bundle
A Virtual Learning Environment (Moodle)
Optional remote access from home via Nomachine NX technology for
those with internet access
Access to Microsoft applications via Windows Terminal Services
Classroom management application (proprietary)
Systems monitoring and management software (Nagios and Cacti)
Internet access, filtering and cacheing using a mix of proprietary and Open Sourc
Commercial support from the install of the system (Cutter Project Ltd)
Thin-client systems have some known limitations when applied to heavy multimedia
content and these are no exception. Streaming media such as delivered as part of online
web pages is well supported and specialist multimedia is better addressed by the use of
specialist suites of equipment which falls outside what is offered by the system under
A full description of the features and components of the system at this point would be
lengthy and disproportionate. Interested readers are directed to the references section of
5.6 Management Approach To Deployment
The schools differed in their approach, so each will be treated separately
5.6.1 Orwell High School
The system was installed during the summer break of 2004. Few staff knew about the
installation and for most it was a surprise when they returned. Pupils knew nothing abou
it until they first encountered it. It is acknowledged that the surprise ’big bang’ approach
is less than satisfactory, but apart from some grumbling from members of staff who had
adapt lesson plans to suit different software and a small amount of initial discomfort fro
older pupils who knew Windows well, the system is reported to have settled in with littl
5.6.2 Sir Frederic Osborn
Due to difficulties with the previous Windows systems, staff and pupils were keen to
obtain access to the new system. News of its installation was well-known in the school,
contrast to Orwell. Limited staff training was undertaken (MORE TO FOLLOW).
5.7 Cost Analysis
Determining an annual figure for costs is difficult and few schools conduct exhaustive
analysis of the combination of likely running costs in terms of the important variables,
amongst which are:
Hardware replacement costs. At broad rule-of thumb the schools have indicated
that £ 150 per desktop per annum is a reasonable estimate. It is believed that the
thin-client move will at least halve that so, conservatively it is estimated that a
school with 350 desktops may be saving £ 26,250 per annum.
Licensing costs are particularly difficult to estimate since from one year to the next
the pricing regime can vary substantially. In a published case study, John Osborne
(Orwell High School) estimated annual licensing costs of £ 25,000 (the reader is
advised that these figures may not be directly applicable in other cases). The move
to a mostly Linux and mostly free software environment does not eliminate all
licensing costs since some proprietary software remains in use. A guesstimate
figure of £ 20,000 per annum will be used
Technician salaries are a large part of of the overall costs. John Osborne
documented (source: presentation given at BETT 2006) the time taken in
maintenance of his system during a two month period and determined that it was
incurring 45 minutes per week to support, whereas in his view a system based on
Windows fat clients would require two full time technicians. At a fully-costed rate
of £ 35,000 p.a. and presuming that 1.5 technician salaries have actually been
saved, a figure of £ 52,500 derives.
Uncosted benefits. The system in both schools provides facilities that had
previously not been available, such as self-administered mailing lists,
comprehensive sytem health and performance management (which perhaps reflects
in lowered administration costs), classroom management tool, virtual learning
environment and a notable improvement in reliability and availablity. Commercial
equivalents of the software packages used are known to be expensive, in many
cases possibly priced beyond the reach of the schools. No figure is therefore
attached to these benefits at present.
Accurate cost analysis would require detailed study and would take more time than is
available for this case study. It seems clear that there is substantial evidence of potential
savings and a rigorous analysis would be highly desirable. A figure of £ 98,750 per annum
per school is persuasively arguable in the light of the figures shown above.
An internal cost appraisal undertaken by Sir Frederic Osborn school showed a predicted
cost saving in the first year of some £ 120,000 compared to the alternative, which would
have been large-scale replacement of almost the full desktop hardware and software
5.8 Subjective Evaluation
5.8.1 System Users
Users note a dramatic increase in reliablity and availability of the desktop systems. The
software packages are more than is needed for mainstream use and provide good
compatibility with their proprietary alternatives. Training/classroom materials have
needed to be adapted to the new software but this sometimes also happens when
upgrading from different releases of the proprietary software packages. More training
during the switchover period would be beneficial but in general the system performs well,
meets the needs of the organisation and is not a problem to use. Overall it is considered to
be an improvement on what went before it.
5.8.2 System Administrators
In both schools there have been organisational issues which precluded interviews with
systems administration staff.
5.8.3 Project Managers
Considered not applicable to this study
5.8.4 Strategic Management
The management of both schools see the system as a long-term solution to some
intractable problems of demand that cannot be realistically be met within existing budge
constraints. At Orwell High School the system has been running for well over a year and
has met and exceeded expectations: there is no doubt there that the decision was the righ
one to take. At Sir Frederic Osborn the system is relatively new and so less can be said
about it with confidence: there, it has at the very least, solved a very serious problem of
delivering reliable computing to the desktop.
Both schools saw the availability of external commercial support as very important.
Whilst other schools have employed a D.I.Y. approach to building similar systems, the
risk of losing the technical skills to support the system if a key person leaves is high in
those cases. An externally designed and supported system is seen as a more desirable
The two schools at the core of this study both now have reliable, functioning classroom
r elivery of ICT. That might be taken as a ’given’ but the difficulty and cost of delivering
eliable service was previously a problem in both establishments.
Both schools say that they now have a sustainable model which can be managed within
their existing budgetary framework and one which provides a platform upon which they
Switching from a proprietary Microsoft Windows platform to one which is predominant
Open Source inevitably implies change. More attention paid to training administrative a
teaching staff could make the switch somewhat easier but overall it is felt that the new
system provides a better experience, the improvements outweighing any disadvantages.
No appendices are included in this case study.
These references are not necessarily supporting the contents of the study, some are
included for further reading.
BECTA Evaluation of Open Source in Schools
Cutter Project Ltd , suppliers of system evaluated in this study
Schoolforge , community-run website about Open Source in UK education