Ubuntu infrastructure provides superior architecture and cost savings for school IT projectby SchoolForge updated September 20, 2011

How things got started...

The school expanded from K-8 to K-12 in a new building and had an opportunity to design an IT system from scratch including the cabling. Unfortunately IT was not designed into the plan of the school from the beginning. Fortunately, I was available to do the planning over the summer. A round figure of $100000 was in the budget for IT, not including cabling. The problem was how to maximize usage of IT in the new school within this budget (which was extremely low, less than 1% of capital cost of the project).

Why Free Software?

By using GNU/Linux we could save on licensing and have the flexibility to use thin client/server technology to maximize the benefit per $. Only in the server room did we pour in money. Every other part of the system was lowest cost meeting the specifications. This architecture minimizes capital cost, reduces software and hardware maintenance, reduces power consumption and eliminates lock- in and expensive upgrades for most of the system.

The plan...

We used UBUNTU on four terminal servers and two file/LAMP/ DHCP/router/LDAP servers. The biggest problem we had was time. It took until July 18 to obtain approval for the IT project and it was not until August 24 that the first equipment arrived. We built the six servers from parts (AMD64 X2 3800 choked with RAM and SATA2 drives) and installed 96 thin clients in ten days, making the system usable on the first day of school. We had planned to have all of August for building but there were many bureaucratic delays like customs clearances, negotiation over manner of payment and too many breakdowns in communications. The result of this haste was that a lot of configuration on the server had to be repeated manually as the system kept evolving. For example, we started with three independent terminal servers and soon had users with different passwords on different servers! We had to install LDAP and centralize authorization on a production system which was a nightmare. Not much sleep was had during this period.

When most of these glitches were overcome, the system began experiencing instability. The central server needed a reboot several times with nothing in the logs. Finally, moving a large file showed there were memory or disc problems and the system was taken down on a weekend. Memtest86 showed two of the four memory modules in the central server were defective. One was half dead, and the other had a random, rare, single bit error. Since that was fixed, the system has run very smoothly. 13 custom built machines had six MX4000 video cards/USB keyboards+mice for high density locations and are in the process of being installed. After trying several recipes from the web, the scripts from Groovix.com were tried to obtain reliable Multi-seat X. These will populate the computer lab, library, industrial arts area and a few classrooms needing more than two or three clients. These machines will permit a user to login to the terminal servers by XDMCP. For my courses, I found it useful to set up internal e-mail amongst the terminal servers. This was very useful but the configuration did not work with LDAP and there has not been time to fix that. The web server was idling even doing / home via NFS, so we were able to put many web applications to work on it: Moodle course management system, PHPBB, PHPMyAdmin, Coppermine Photo Gallery and a local copy of Wikipedia (sanitized). The thin clients were made to handle local USB storage devices, cameras and scanners using LTSP 4.2. We did have jerky performance at first from a misconfiguration of NFS. We were mounting /home with SYNC instead of ASYNC, so users' apps were waiting for disc writes on the server! This caused many hesitations as Linux is fond of caching stuff in RAM and waiting until it is ready to commit. Another problem compounding that problem was timeout behaviour from the forcedeth driver on our gigabit/s LAN. We had to fiddle with driver options to make things smooth. Now we can move 100 megabytes/s all day long without pause. Apart from the timing we had some hardware problems. The ASUS A8N-E motherboards had a surprise erratum on a loose page in the manuals: when four drives were used, it could only boot from the third drive. Needless to say, this complicated installation and confused installation scripts no end... One difficult problem was how to have computer accounts for everyone on day 1. I used apg to generate an easily remembered "password" for the userid as well as the password. These were printed and handed out to teachers who issued accounts when students had their computer use permission slips in. It took 15 minutes to generate 700 accounts this way and I did it a few hours before the school opened. If bodies need to be matched to accounts, teachers collect that data and it can be stored centrally in good time.


This system is a living thing and will continue to evolve but it has handled the load very well. When we were having NFS problems and network problems, we would occasionally have 3 to 4 tasks waiting. Now we are rarely above 1.0. One problem I expected to have and did not was customer resistance. The numbers were undeniable. We could get twice the exposure to IT in this small budget by using GNU/Linux and the users had a fait accompli. There were only a few Windows machines in the whole building. Being forced to use the system, they tried it and liked it. Only three staff cling to Windows. No one asked for a Windows machine to be taken out of storage for them. The students barely seemed to notice that we were not using Windows. My students were exposed to many more applications than could have been afforded. We did MySQL from commandline, MySQL-query- browser and phpMyAdmin. What could be more fun? My students loved the Moodle course management system. It made it easy to get ahead, catch up, exchange private communication and anticipate a good grade. I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of going to Ubuntu until the problems with hardware were fixed and the system became very stable. With the change to new software, having so many servers, using gigabit/s, and making changes daily, it was hard to diagnose every hiccough. I sleep much better these days. This school has gone from 6 students per computer with limited functionality to 3 students per computer and everything seems possible.

The Future...

After distributing the multi-seat machines we plan to use the scanners/cameras and databases to begin constructed a yearbook and newsletter. In the past this was done by outside agencies and word-processing. We have colour printers/cameras and scanners as well as GIMP, Scribus and OpenOffice now. There is still some doubt whether Emilda will be used in the library even though I have it installed. A consultant has recommended a commercial package. The library committee meets next week...

Created: Nov, 2006
Chemawawin School

Grade Range:K-12
Submitted by:
Robert Pogson