Saving a Buck and Bucking a Trend

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

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.

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