[Author Prev][Author Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Author Index][Thread Index]

Re: [school-discuss] linux distributions for low resource computers


I am following this thread with keen interest, because I am a volunteer level one sys admin for a public middle school in San Francisco, California.  We are running an edubuntu lab with 23 thin clients with some moderate level of success, but we are actually giving up on thin clients and sub-512 MB RAM boxes, sadly. 

Our problem is that we are seeing that we are experiencing negative branding with Linux when we use machines below 512 MB of RAM.  Even though 80% of the kids in this school qualify for free school lunches (meaning that their families are _really_ poor), these kids have been exposed to computers that will play computer games and will run video and audio, and they expect computers to at least play YouTube successfully.  Furthermore, the teachers have told us that they would like to be able to play YouTube across the network, which is something that we have not yet been able to achieve with this set up. 

Our server is newly purchased through the California Microsoft Anti-trust settlement.  Yes, Microsoft paid for 4 high end machines for us!!  See this link for the details:


The server is a dual-core machine with 2 GB of RAM.  It's running Feisty Edubuntu, simply because it was configured almost one year ago, and of course Gutsy was not out then.  We have never been able to get video or audio running over this network.  Now admittedly, part of the problem might be that I am a simple end user who has just adopted this school and I decided that I would do whatever I could to organize our local LUG to get this network running.  Unfortunately, we have never had a Linux geek with deep knowledge to donate a weekend to getting sound and audio running across the network.  As a result, the kids and teachers use the Linux lab for doing research on Wikipedia etc., but there is the general feeling that the Linux lab is too feeble to be a "real" lab. 

Contrast this with a mobile Mac lab that was donated to the school with 15 notebook computers.  Those computers are "real" computers in the eyes of the teachers and kids.  The kids compose music on Garage Band, and are able to play music and watch video.  Not so with our Linux lab, sadly.

So we are in the process of attempting to move from a thin-client lab to a hybrid lab, in which some form of lightweight distro such as Xubuntu running on local machines.  The server will only serve up accounts and files; the actual apps will run locally on the clients.  We are hoping that this will permit us to run OpenOffice.org (OOo) and YouTube across the network so that we can compete on a feature basis with the Mac lab.

The one thing that we have in our favor is that the Mac lab has only 15 notebooks, and so it is not possible for each kid to have their own boxes.  At least the Linux lab permits the teachers to bring the kids in as a whole class and have each individual student do research on their own terminal.  Also, we have two media-ready boxes that Microsoft kindly was forced to pay for as a result of the anti-trust settlement linked above, and so if the kids need to see video, they can do so there.

We have also been giving our computers to kids to take home, as it is our goal to see that every kid can have a computer at home regardless of family income.  Some of our machines have had P4s with 256 MB of RAM, and those machines have been sort of fairly well received.  But even those machines are viewed as not being able to do video and we are also having problems with the fact that the kids' exposure to the Mac notebooks has raised their expectations of what a "real" computer can do.  The machines with less than 1 ghz chips have generally been the subject of complaints that the machines are "slow".

Now perhaps we need to do some work on managing these kids' expectations better.  But it seems to sadly be the case that machines that are not capable of running video and editing music etc are viewed by even these really poor kids as "muffin stumps".  By "muffin stumps" I am referring to the famous Seinfeld episode in which the characters decide that they are going to try to help NYC's homeless by collecting the muffin stumps from coffee shops.  Most people eat only the tops of muffins, leaving the "stumps" behind.  The Seinfeld gang tried to collect those muffin stumps and give them to the homeless, but the homeless rejected them.  We are experiencing similar issues with most of our sub P4 machines.  Sad but true.  And telling the kids that the machines are "good enough" is viewed with some skepticism, especially contrast with those Mac notebooks.  Of course, they all understand that no one is giving out Mac notebooks to the kids, and so there is some limited measure of gratitude.  But it is still the case that Linux is sadly being seen as "The Poor Man's Machine", whereas the Macs are seen as "real computers". 

We are trying to change our "marketing" of donating the sub-P4s by telling the families that these sub-P4 boxes are temporary "email" machines that are designed only for basic letter writing and Wikipedia-type research, and that those machines are just there to hold them over until we can get "real" computers to them later.

All of this breaks my heart, and I am very much interested in hearing success stories with machines that have only 256 MB of RAM and sub-1 ghz chips. 

see you

Christian Einfeldt,
Producer, The Digital Tipping Point