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Sustaining capacity during hard times

Like many schools, we¬† cut the school’s IT operating budget by 25% this year. To minimize adverse effects on technology use at school, we employed the following strategies.

Adopt open source

We have benefited tremendously from building expert, internal capacity for open source website development and web server software management. In past years, we launched and then grew a sophisticated intranet website at no cash cost to the school. This year, we built our new, public-facing website on Drupal, with existing personnel, for a total cash cost of $6,000.

I believe that every school should work toward mastery in one type of open source software that meets a current need. Our users and constituents demand increasingly sophisticated applications of technology, yet our budget will not keep pace with these expectations. We have taken care not to rush, building up internal capacity to master these tools over time. Were we to rely on external contractors to implement open source solutions, then it could have become at least as expensive as commercial products.

Other schools specialize in different money-saving applications of open source: desktop software, learning management systems, operating system software, office suites, and more.

Cut back on expensive, specialized solutions

Each Smart Board we purchase improves just one classroom. Each laptop computer we purchase is available to everyone. They cost about the same amount of money.

Also about the same price, an entire class may use a set of 10 Flip video cameras to collect footage for a great variety of different productive learning objectives.

Introduce some limits, while extending a helping hand

The cost of network file backup and tape storage has increased for us each year. We are now implementing 10GB primary file server quota while still storing and backing up all of the important school data we can identify. When a teacher or staff member hits the limit on the primary file server, we work with them to identify any duplicate, personal, or unnecessary files and separate changing, newer files from older, unchanging files. We move the older files to a second, archive file server that we copy to tape less frequently. In this manner, we consume far fewer backup tapes than before while still protecting the school from data loss and saving important files for the long-term.

Preserve or expand core network services

This is no time to cut back on servers, server software, and network infrastructure. We have cut end-user technologies before compromising on the core. Server and network functions affect every user every minute that they are connected to the network. Maintaining quality sustains everyone’s experience. We have kept servers on their regular replacement cycle and are just now considering virtualization for lightly used network services. Our next generation of wireless network and network access system will do more than the previous systems, with less management required, at a lower cost than before.

Strategically manage computer lifespan

This one has been tricky. We pinpointed very specific batches of computers to operate for a year longer than planned. We noticed that some users were pretty light on their machines and provided them with used computers instead of new. We stretched our lower school computer lab for an additional year, because they had had their motherboards replaced under warranty just three years ago. Otherwise, we have stuck to our normal replacement cycle, out of respect for the fragility of laptop computers in their fourth and fifth years.

Consider some new technologies

This is no time to broadly adopt new kinds of devices, but some new devices may replace the old, at a lower cost that before. We will consider wall-mounted projectors in locations where we would normally mount from the ceiling. We will pilot netbooks to replace one of our middle school mobile laptop carts, taking great care that we select a model that performs reasonably well compared to our current MacBooks. Otherwise, we find netbooks to be cramped and difficult to use, not a straight replacement for traditional laptop computers.

Break some old habits

Once-essential resources and services may have lost their value over time. We reduced the size of our upper school PC lab in half, redistributed responsibilities for our annual laptop technology fair, and removed Drupal from our intranet website. We continue to streamline purchase options for the upper school laptop program, now recommending the two laptop computer models that match the program, as opposed to offering every model available from each manufacturer.

Continue to plan well

Each year that we devote more attention to winter planning, spring and summer projects go more smoothly. This year, we started earlier than before and formalized biweekly planning meetings, and already we are purchasing and implementing network devices that will allow workstation deployment to start earlier. We have also lined up our best cadre of summer workers yet. This group of current students and recent graduates is key to our ability to touch all machines and improve our deployment strategies each summer.

Build one’s personal learning network

This year, I have formed new collaborative relationships with tech staff at other schools, without ever leaving campus. This has allowed me to gain feedback on my ideas and profit from the good work of others. As it is a slow year for conferences in Portland, I have so far avoided traveling afar for an expensive conference experience.

What, no Google Apps?

I appreciate that Google Apps has helped many schools provide the latest communication and collaboration tools at low cost. We decided to stick with Exchange Server because we had concerns about losing control of the school’s data, the inability to do anything during periods of downtime, and the hidden costs of migration, archiving mail, and supporting users.

Your turn

What are you doing to maintain quality and capacity during lean times? Please comment below.