Linux at western NY high school

Building a Linux lab and its great potential in education

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It was 1995, and I had received an email from my brother James asking if I’d ever heard of Linux. I had, but barely. A high school student at my alma mater had built a web server with Linux. Eventually, out of curiosity, I purchased a copy of Red Hat 6.0 (which pre-dates Red Hat Enterprise Linux or RHEL) and got it running with GNOME on a Hewlett-Packard Vectra 75, which had a Cyrix processor upgrade installed. RHEL 6.0 had a Mozilla browser, OpenOffice 1.0, and some other software I’d never heard of.

At that time, I was the technology director at Franklinville Central School in western New York State. I worked there for 26 years and retired in August 2013. I shared it with my IT staff, and we built a machine that we toyed around with that could read Yahoo Mail using the browser, but we couldn’t use it with Lotus Notes which was our workplace official email system. Then, in early 2001, after talking to a content filtering vendor about my displeasure with content filters in general, the vendor said, "Why don’t you build your own?" So, I said, "With what?" And, he answered, "Linux!”

It was an epiphany. I knew little of Linux and nothing about building a content filter, but that was about to change rapidly.

Getting started with Linux

I had a Dell Optiplex GX1 with Pentium II-300, and I bought a bigger hard disk and purchased Suse Linux 7 for all of this. I learned about Squid and Squidguard in the process and found out about Mandrake Linux, which I liked better for many reasons. I learned about the Red Hat Package Manager. I built the first non-proprietary content filter in western New York public school history using Mandrake and eventually Fedora Core 1 on this older Dell using a Squid and Dansguardian. The content filter fulfilled our requirements for CIPA compliance with E-rate. I encountered some resistance with other up-line technicians, but eventually I demonstrated the legality and the practicality of such a solution.

Building a Linux lab

In the process of building the content filter, I learned about Samba and built our first network attached storage device which gave our teachers a place to backup files. Eventually, we built a Samba server running Fedora Core 1 and 2. I read about other schools that were using Linux and found out about the K12 Linux Terminal Server Project (K12LTSP). Using online forums, Google search, and a number of books, I taught myself Linux and Linux system administration. Linux and open source became a labor of love, and I often advocated on behalf of open source at regional technology coordinator gatherings.

Finding and pulling out computers stashed away in closets around our school, I put together a working demonstration of the K12 Linux Terminal Server with an old Pentium II-300 and only 192 megabytes of RAM. I bought some special boot ROMs and equipped another couple of older computers as thin clients for my server. My work impressed one of our principals so much that he suggested we try this solution in one of our computer labs at the school. It was so successful that eventually we equipped two computer labs and a number of computers in classrooms and libraries that used the K12LTSP solution. In the process we we needed a more robust server and we purchased a Dell PowerEdge with an advanced RAID controller that would not work with K12LTSP packages on Fedora Core 4.

Around this time, I learned about K12LTSP on Centos. We used the Centos 4 LTSP server as our network DHCP server and it integrated with Microsoft’s Active Directory without a problem. It ran in that capacity for over three years until we eventually virtualized our servers on VMWare ESX.

The great potential of Linux

Learning Linux empowered me to explore and create in a way I never dreamed possible. Open source was initially very challenging as some parts needed configuration that I was unfamiliar with. However, I learned much of what I needed by using search engines and reading forums at Red Hat, Fedora, and other Linux user groups on the internet.

Eventually I wrote a series of grants that were funded by our New York State Legislature that enabled me to attend Red Hat System Administration training in March of 2003. A year later another grant allowed me to attend the Linux Boot Camp hosted by Training Camp and taught by Ross Brunson. Brunson’s teaching method included building a system from the “ground up” with Red Hat 7.0 starting with the command line and moving eventually to graphical user interface.

With my experience and training, I served as a resource for other school districts across our region. I saw the tremendous potential for teaching students Linux, which I did at every opportunity because unlike other operating systems students could learn the basics and go on to build their own file servers, web servers, and more. I was able to use packages like VirtualBox to virtualize other Linux systems, like Ubuntu and Debian.

Besides becoming intimately familiar with the operating system, my students and I became familiar with other open source projects like Audacity, OpenOffice.org, Apache, Wordpress, Drupal, and Moodle—to name but a few!

Learning Linux invited me to be more open about learning other systems like Cisco, where at one time I became a CCNA to teach the Cisco Curriculum at a local community college. I saw the connection between what I had learned from Linux to these other systems including Apple’s Macintosh because of it’s Unix/Command line base. The open source community in general appealed to my desire to serve people and small businesses, and I continue to do that today as a consultant for my own information technology business.

The basics which led me to more advanced studies continue to animate my life and career as I teach young people and adults about Linux with such platforms as the Raspberry Pi computer at our local library and elsewhere. Linux and open source software have also encouraged me to explore social entrepreneurship which is very much influenced by what I have learned and witnessed in the open source community.

Currently, I’m exploring OpenStack and learning Python and continue to hone my open source development skills. There are really no limits for anyone who uses Linux and open source software. We are only limited by our imagination.

About the author

Don Watkins - Educator, education technology specialist,  entrepreneur, open source advocate. M.A. in Educational Psychology, MSED in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator, CCNA, virtualization using Virtual Box. Follow me at @Don_Watkins .