by Angus Kidman

NZ school ditches Microsoft and goes totally open source

Jan 24, 2010
GovernmentGovernment ITInnovation

A New Zealand high school running entirely on open source software has slashed its server requirements by a factor of almost 50, despite a government deal mandating the use of Microsoft software in all schools.

Albany Senior High School in the northern suburbs of Auckland has been running an entirely open source infrastructure since it opened in 2009. The 230-pupil school was set up to follow open learning principles, offering large “learning commons” areas where multiple classes interact rather than conventional classrooms and setting aside one day each week for pupils to work on self-driven research projects.

Albany SHS’ unorthodox approach is also reflected in its IT infrastructure. Deputy principal Mark Osborne was determined to use open source software throughout the school, even though planning for that process began less than two months before the school opened.

Ditching Microsoft is highly unusual within the NZ education sector, as a long-standing contract with the national government means the software giant is paid for technology for the school even though none has been used. Microsoft’s dominance also means that most planning documents for education presume an Microsoft infrastructure.

“The education space is Microsoft-focused and heavily subsidised by government,” said Patrick Brennan, lead engineer from Open Systems Specialists, which led the IT project at the school, during a presentation at in Wellington. “Every reference plan is based on Microsoft technology.”

The tight time frame — two weeks for evaluation, one week for design and two weeks for implementation — didn’t create too much disruption, Brennan said. “Although everything wasn’t as polished as it could have been, when the school opened all of the core functionality was there. And it’s been running for a year with no significant intervention. It hasn’t really been touched in any fundamental way since then.”

The implementation uses Ubuntu on the desktop and Mandriva for four key servers (one firewall, one storage and two KVM hypervisors). Mandriva was selected because of the ease of using Mandriva Directory Server to manage the school’s LDAP directory, but Brennan said either desktop or server OS could easily be replaced.

The network is not restricted solely to Linux desktops. “We wanted students to be able to bring devices in, whatever they were, and connect them to the network and expect them to work and use it as a learning tool,” Brennan said. Hardware ranging from PSPs to Macs has been connected, with a “hostile network” approach used to ensure security. NFSv4 is used to connect users into the system, allowing them to remotely mount into their home directory on the server via Kerberos.

Applications used within the school include OpenOffice, Google Docs, Moodle for managing education content, and Mahara for student portfolios. The Koha software used by the school library was also customised to integrate more closely with the LDAP security system and to allow book recommendations. While Koha was paid to make those changes, the resulting code will be freely available to all New Zealand schools — an approach Brennan contrasted with Windows software, where modifications are typically charged separately for each school.

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Despite only using Windows on a virtualised session for student management software, which is only available on that platform, the school doesn’t get any credit for the reduced spending. “The brilliance of Microsoft’s business model is they get the same amount of money regardless of who uses it,” Osborne said. However, the school has saved significantly in other areas, such as not needing specialised routers to handle connections to the Watchdog system used to filter school internet connections.

In 2010, Albany SHS will move into new purpose-built premises, which include a dedicated server room. Brennan noted that the architects designed the space based on standard New Zealand school requirements, including four racks each capable of holding 48 servers for its main systems. The main infrastructure only requires four servers, suggesting an almost 50-fold saving on hardware requirements.

Despite the dominance of Windows, teachers and students were largely receptive to using the software, Brennan said. The main area of objection was over the use of particular packages. “There’s a perception that students should train with real-world products,” Brennan said, but that was outweighed by the advantages of being able to give every student access to any software they needed, rather than having to restrict use because of limited licences, especially in specialist areas such as music.

“I would love for every school in the country to be free and open,” Osborne said. “There’s a lot of barriers to that, but there are definitely existing schools that are beginning the process of moving to having an open setup. We’ve shown that it’s possible. “