Saving a Buck and Bucking a Trend

by Drew Bird

Faced with thousands of dollars in unused Netware licenses, a school district makes the jump to Linux.

It's hardly news that over the past five to seven years many organizations have chosen to leave NetWare behind and migrate to an alternative operating system. For most, the choice is simple, ditch NetWare and install a Windows server platform. Others, however, are seeking an alternative path, one that not only gives them all the functionality of a modern NOS, but at a fraction of the price. One such organization is School District 58 in BC, Canada, which has elected to move away from NetWare and replace all of its NetWare servers with Linux.

In comparison to other school districts, SD58 is relatively small, with a total of 16 sites, 12 of which are schools. The other sites are administrative offices and distance learning centers that provide educational facilities to remote communities.

In terms of IT requirements, the needs of the school district are relatively simple: file and print serving at each location along with Internet access. In addition, the school district's main office requires Web hosting and email server facilities.

Until recently, the school district relied on a district wide educational license from Novell which allowed the use of all Novell's products. With the exception of a limited ZenWorks implementation, however, they were only using the basic NetWare licenses. In essence, the school district was paying for software it was not using. When it came time to either consider a move to NetWare 6 or look at alternatives, the question was asked 'is there a better way?'

With shrinking budgets making school districts look hard for ways to trim expenditure, savings like those that can be gained by using Linux can make a big difference in IT expenditure as Norm Walker, District Technology Co-coordinator, explains.

"In these tough times, you simply can't afford to play casual with cash. If there is a way of moving forward while at the same time saving money, it must at least be considered. Linux offers a way to provide all of the network services we need at a fraction of the costs associated with a district-wide educational license."

As Project Manager for the project, Norm has been instrumental in almost every aspect of the migration, the exception being the selection of the Linux distribution which was left to Brad Harder, School District 58's senior Linux tech. His choice was to go with Debian, which as many Linux system administrators will know ships without the GUI installation software supplied with most other Linux distributions, and doesn't have the same complement of graphical configuration tools with which other distributions ship.

GUI installer or not, the hardware requirements for Linux are incredibly low, a factor that will yield future savings over and above those associated with software licensing.Server hardware upgrades performed last year to improve the NetWare performance have created systems that are now more than adequate for supporting Linux. According to Brad Harder, current utilization reports show that the systems are capable of supporting much larger workloads than those being experienced at present.

When combined with the savings of server and other software licenses, Norm Walker estimates they will save well in excess of $10,000 each year - a significant amount which can be channeled into other areas of the IT budget such as training.

Of course any migration, whatever the OS, has factors that must be considered. With a relatively basic set of needs the school district didn't expect too many issues, though there was a concern that support for applications, which had previously been run on NetWare, might cause a problem. In the end it turned out to be a non-issue, as Norm Walker explained

"At one point it looked like we would need to keep a NetWare server at each of the schools to run one specific application, but just recently a Linux version of the application was released which has enabled us to completely remove NetWare from the equation on certain sites. We still have one other application which requires NetWare, but we are working with the software manufacturer in the development of a Linux version for that too."

While Norm has been orchestrating the migration to Linux, the troops on the ground have been the ones getting their hands dirty. Lisa Babcock, Senior Computer Technician is one of those responsible for seeing that Norm's vision for the school district becomes a reality. Although aware of the significant cost savings associated with a move to Linux, Lisa's concerns and issues are on a more fundamental level.

"As a seasoned NetWare system administrator, the biggest leap was getting used to the command line interface favored by the school district. Working from the command line takes a little getting used to, but I can see that over time it will be a quick and effective way to work. That said, it can make the learning process frustrating as you have to be so exact. One simple typo and you end up doing something very different than what you intended."

Surprisingly, the biggest bump in the road to Linux nirvana has been finding suitable training and support sources. Some of the school district staff have opted to self-learn, while others have chosen Internet based distance learning. Neither of these were a problem, but for the administrators such as Lisa that prefer classroom based or one-on one-training, resources are a little harder to find.

In a larger city, this would likely be less of an issue, but in the town of Merritt, situated 170 miles inland from Vancouver, where School District 58 is based, any training center, let alone one that offers Linux training, cannot be found. This has caused Lisa to adopt a more creative approach to learning. "Most of my knowledge has been gained through reading books and just trying things out. That and email support from other techs in the district with more Linux experience."

From a technical perspective, Lisa thinks that the migration to Linux has been smooth, even if the learning curve created by the use of an entirely new OS was steep to begin with. One issue she can foresee, however, is that the first-line support personnel may struggle to come to terms with the command line interface preferred by the school district. Whereas before the first-line techs used NetWare Administrator, a slick administration utility by anyone's measure, administering and troubleshooting from the command line is another matter entirely.

In the short term Lisa believes that this will lead to more issues making their way to second line support, where before they were cured with a simple point and click. Over time, she expects these problems to less apparent, but in the near future she is bracing herself for an increase in these types of calls.

In terms of reliability and stability, as far as everyone involved at School District 58 is concerned, Linux has already proved its worth as an OS on which you can count. The first system that was installed has been hosting the school district Website and providing proxy, email, file and print, and thin client services for the last six months without even so much as a hiccup. What's even more impressive is that the system is an Intel Celeron 266 with 64MB of RAM.

Try doing that with NetWare 6, or Windows 2000 for that matter.

This article was originally published on Thursday Apr 11th 2002