Sharjah school dumps high-cost software for open-source applications

Scholars International Academy goes with open source and thin clients to save parent's money and improve student skills

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By  Imthishan Giado Published  June 1, 2008

Education provider Scholars International Academy (SIA) has opted for open-source software and thin client systems, in a bid to save parents the cost of proprietary software.

Sharjah-based SIA chose a number of freely available open-source programs - including OpenOffice and the Solaris 10 operating system - to run on top of its new thin clients and servers from Sun Microsystems, which it finished installing last year.

John Nash, network manager and head of ICT for SIA, said: "This academic year, rather than using proprietary software, what we've done is be slightly different and use things like the GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) instead of Photoshop, Scribus for desktop publishing and InkScape, which is a full, scalable vector graphics program."

He has made very clear that going with open source software was not solely to cut costs for the school but an attempt to lower the barrier of entry to IT for the students.

"We have parents who cover a broad spectrum of the payscale and we felt that it was unfair to subject them to having to buy Office 2007 for example, so that their child could keep up with the work. That's roughly $400. But a few months later when we start doing Photoshop, the children come home asking for Photoshop -again, that's another $400. Before the parents know where they are, they're more than $800 out of pocket just to keep their child in the ICT field," he explained.

Nash dismissed concerns about differences in usability between open-source and proprietary software, saying that these programs actually offer a broader experience for users.

"I'm giving them options and teaching them skillsets that are transferable between the two programs, rather than just teaching them: ‘This is Microsoft Office, this is how we use it'. The other reason we've chosen this software is because they are community-based and it means that as we start to roll out into our secondary phase, the children will be well-versed in using those programs and they will hopefully be able to become part of the community in a variety of ways," said Nash.

SIA has installed sixteen thin clients in its student labs, with an option to increase to 70 clients in the future. The implementation includes two Sun servers running Solaris 10 and serving virtual instances of Windows XP to the thin clients via VMware.

Nash said that he was first introduced to the idea of thin clients and open source software at GITEX last year: "I looked at the traditional style network with a normal Windows boxes, but I wasn't particularly comfortable with that. The board didn't need much convincing - it matched in so well with our ideals and aims of being environmentally friendly that they saw the benefit and doubled the initial budget to make sure that we could secure the Sun servers."

Nash adds that ecological concerns played a role in the selection process: "The SIA has a very strong environmental theme running through the whole school so I wanted to reflect that in the ICT infrastructure that we were going to use. The thin clients, for example, only take 4W of power as opposed to a desktop system which takes 16W of power."

3558 days ago

this is such a very good news...after spending 7 years in the UAE this is the first time i've read something about open source software...tried to post some comments in the gulfnews about windows7 comparing linux and the opensource a week ago...and guess what? nothing came out from the gulfnews website...:-) is there something bad with these words? LINUX and FOSS? hmmmpp..!! btw...check out Krita and gimpshop..

3710 days ago
Ron Saldanha - Happy Linux based Ubuntu user

Linux all the way!

3710 days ago

I am not sure when "Tech Guy" used these products, as he says he "recently" had them but "carted off the last bit of them a few years back". We use the latest ones of these in our office environment and they work like regular PCs - just without the bulk and noise of a PC an without the power waste from PCs. Sure, people were sceptical when the thin clients were introduced, but they worked from day 1 without problems. And data exchange is simply through memory sticks (yes, they work like on a PC too). One just has to configure the system properly, which is what Tech Guy obviously missed out on. The main reason for his users to reject the thin clients was probably that in such a controlled environment they could not "customise" (=screw up) the set up and not load all their games, mp3s and movies on. And especially in student environments that traditionally require frequent re-installation efforts the virtual environments will dramatically reduce the administration overheads. A move from Office 2003 to Open/StarOffice requires a bit of a learning curve. While both products do what they need to do, the differences in user interface, menu options etc. does take a while to get used to. But it is only a fraction of the effort required to migrate to Office 2007's entirely new interface! And there is no license cost to it while M$ will gladly rip you off for this. Especially in education environments any effort to lower cost has to be lauded - at least as long as these savings are being passed on to the parents in form of lower schooling fees (that are too high in this country anyway). This is certainly the way to go and one has to congratulate Mr. Nash for his decision.

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