Sydney school tames twofold IT shop

Proprietary desktops work with open source servers

Many enterprises have heterogeneous IT systems but at the Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School (SCEGGS) in Darlinghurst, there is a distinct split between open source and commercial software.

SCEGGS' IT manager Ian Ralph told Computerworld the school has a long history with Linux and open source, dating back to its first Web server in 1995.

"We dragged out an old server and installed Linux which was the beginning of our open source journey, which is one I have enjoyed," Ralph said. "Before long the Web site became a core application platform for the school. We got support from local people and it's not hard to find."

SCEGGS was using SUSE Linux before Novell acquired the company, which Ralph said is good because the school is also using NetWare.

"We're now up to SUSE 10.1 but decided against SLES 10 from Novell because it doesn't have the associated applications where as with SUSE 10.1 you can use YAST," he said. "Our next Netware upgrade will be to Open Enterprise Server which is based on Linux and we are comfortable with that path. It won't be a revolution, just an evolution."

SCEGGS has about 830 students, 100 staff, 500 desktops, 200 laptops, 13 servers, and an IT team of eight.

The school's mail is delivered with the Postfix MTA on Linux and gets distributed to GroupWise.

"We have moved the Linux servers to a clustered file system with OCFS2 which is supported natively in SUSE 10 and the data is stored in an Apple raid array with 1.8TB of storage,' Ralph said.

Also in use are a number of MySQL-based applications for learning management systems. The school is now moving off one open source application, AUC, which it has used since 1999, to Moodle, a modern learning and content management system.

"We are seeing a huge amount of Web-based applications which means by default we are using open source but staff and students are not aware of it," Ralph said. "I have a philosophical belief open source is a good thing - you avoid lock-in, funds go to local contractors, and you can customize it."

Ralph said if there is an open source option or a proprietary option then the risks of going with open source are "not as high as people believe and there could be a better TCO".

Between 1998 and 2004, Ralph estimated open source software cost the school $19 a day compared with Novell's software at $24 a day and Microsoft at $82 a day.

On the desktop it is quite a different story with some 200 applications being delivered to Windows PCs.

"Delivering as many apps as we do to the desktop has locked us into a Windows and I can't ever see us moving to an open source desktop," Ralph said. "There may be options but they would require significant change."

"We don't go for the latest as often there is no compelling reason upgrade. For example we were on Office 97 until 2003. We have experimented with OpenOffice.org but people are reluctant to change and there was a certain amount of pain in the change. Our experiments with open source software that parallels existing software shows people are not eager to embrace it."

Ralph, a 15-year veteran of the school, said because of the difficulty of delivering applications to users he can't see it going to an open source desktop in foreseeable future and "that has some downsides, the cost being one".

"We buy perpetual licenses for Microsoft and we could afford another teacher for a year in what we pay in Microsoft licenses for the desktop," he said. "But I can't see teachers and students progressing at the same high level of productivity with an open source desktop."

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