Things look different in the computer science lab at Yorktown High this year. Almost everyone familiar with our lab from last year has commented on how nice it looks now. The stand alone computers that sat at each workstation have been replace by small, quiet, "book PCs". The lab works better, too, because this year we set up an LTSP server (http://www.ltsp.org and http://www.k12ltsp.org).
The Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) software allows us to boot diskless thin clients from a single server. Instead of twenty separate machines to maintain, we now have one. This makes installation and configuration much easier to deal with, and we can be sure that each workstation in the lab has the same software configuration.
We are so enthusiastic about this technology that our Linux users group (http://yhslug.tux.org) did a presentation/demonstration of the lab to several members of our school system's information technology community. It is fair to say they were impressed, and the thought had to cross their minds that this same technology could be used in other labs in our system.
Our experience suggests that LTSP is indeed a wonderful potential solution to setting up high powered, easy to maintain school computer labs on a budget. There are still some things that have to happen, however, before LTSP is ready to move into the mainstream.
We have experimented with two distributions of the LTSP software. First we installed the K12LTSP distribution. This distribution comes on modified versions of the latest RedHat and is very close to being a "turnkey" installation. You simply boot off CDs made from the iso images provided at k12ltsp.org and run the modified RedHat installer. In about a half hour you have a fully functioning LTSP server.
While the installation was excellent, we did have several problems with the software that installs with the distro. The two biggest problems were with the Ximian GNOME desktop and the StarOffice office suite.
While Ximian GNOME is a beautiful and feature rich desktop environment (and my personal choice on all my own machines), our experience indicates it is not yet robust enough to be used in a classroom setting. The configuration tools provided permit the creation of invalid configurations that crash the window and file managers. The only way we found to fix the broken configurations was to remove all of the configuration files and start over. High school students are an adventurous lot, and enough of them figured out how to break their desktops to create unacceptable levels of disruption in the work of the classroom.
StarImpress caused a different problem. Four or five students could use it without difficulty, but when the whole class would try to use it at once it would either fail to work (too many files open on the system) or result in unacceptable performance.
To address these problems, volunteer Robert Melton came in to fine tuned our system. He replaced GNOME with IceWM, and StarImpress with kpresenter. We have also setup our server with a fresh install of RedHat 7.2. We then applied the RPMs from the LTSP 3.0 distribution. Things have been working much better since. Robert's IceWM configuration looks great and students haven't broken it yet.
I would summarize our experience thus far by saying that LTSP is a promising option for school computer labs that needs two things before it is fully ready for "prime time":
Despite these challenges, LTSP and desktop Linux are moving into the mainstream. I've been a Linux user since 1994. In that time I've seen it change from a hobbyist's toy to become the undisputed challenger to Microsoft's hegemony in the server space. The time is not too far off when it will offer the same challenge on the desktop.
yorktown high school