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Securing your software future

Deal or no deal? Whatever ends up happening with the Microsoft Schools Agreement, now’s the time to take control of your software, writes Greg Adams.

“Before the Microsoft Schools Agreement, my ICT expansion policies were determined by the cost of licensing the software on the computers in my charge and not the cost of the equipment,” explained David Kinane, ICT Director at Meadowbank Primary. “Hardly anyone who’s been part of the MS deal will have paid any attention to the licensing cost of the software.”

For several years now most schools have enjoyed access to basic software packages for free thanks to deals the Ministry of Education has struck with the makers. There are four agreements currently operating for Microsoft, Novell (SUSE Linux Enterprise), Apple (iWork ’09), and Antivirus programs (several).

It’s been a great arrangement for many schools. They come up with the hardware, the Ministry picks up the tab for the software. However, therein lies a potential problem. The Microsoft deal is up for renewal and, as it’s by far the biggest, any changes will have the widest ramifications. Negotiations are reportedly in progress (and, incidentally, have nothing to do the Government’s failed talks with Microsoft over licences for public sector agencies).

“The Ministry of Education is close to finalising contracts with suppliers of operating and application software and support services for schools. We hope to announce the results in July. As details are still subject to negotiation, we are unable to provide more details until that time,” said Colin McGregor, Group Manager Schooling Implementation, at the time of going to press.

So, for now, your guess is as good as ours. But what would you do should your school become liable for even a part of your MS licensing costs?

Looking at alternatives

If the same deal is renewed – a big IF but it may happen – all well and good for now. If it isn’t (or you’re simply looking around), what are your options?

Of course, you could choose to stick with Microsoft and simply pay for what you use. Alternatively, there are a number of open source operating systems (OS) and Office-like applications you could try (see Soft Options on page 18 for ideas). On the opposite page, we talk to Warrington school, which has made the switch to the open source OS Ubuntu. For the last year, Meadowbank School has been exploring making the move to a Linux-based client server network.

“There are many variants of the Linux OS model to choose from,” said David Kinane, “but for me the Novell SUSE one has the advantage because there is always someone on the end of a telephone to call if you really get stuck.”

You may have heard the term ‘cloud computing’, the process of using programs and tools that live on the Internet rather than on your computer – usually accessing them via your browser. Examples here you could explore include eyeOS (www.eyeos.com) and G.ho.st (http://g.ho.st/).

On the applications side – here we’re talking things like word processing, spreadsheets, browsing, email, etc. – there are Open Office (www.openoffice.org, for Windows and Linux) and Neo Office (www.neooffice.org, for Mac). Moodle is a free and popular Learning Management System (LMS). You may also want to consider ‘online’ solutions like Google Docs and Gmail, and Adobe’s Buzzword. Be aware, however, that relying on online tools has to be balanced with such considerations as Internet speed and connection reliability.

Challenges to overcome

The hurdles to making any change must not be underestimated. You are likely to have legacy software, an LMS or an SMS like MUSAC, and you’ll need to make sure these can integrate with whatever solution you choose. If not, there are ways around this. Wine (www.winehq.org) is a program that will run Windows applications on other operating systems. However, whether it can handle specific legacy software will need to be evaluated on a program by program basis.

There’s also your legacy investment to consider. Over the years, you may have purchased many curriculum software packages that are not designed for Linux platforms. In other words, to make the shift from a Windows platform to a Linux one may require considerable IT tech support investment, not to mention the issue of staff re-training.

For and against

There are pros and cons for both Open Source and propriety software solutions. Let’s not forget that Microsoft products are widely used, have a large amount of available training material and industry backing. They will probably become less dominant over time but, for now, they still pay an important place in most schools. On the other hand, you could argue that exposing students (and staff) to different ways of doing things is a good way to promote versatility and give them the skills to cope with any system the future may throw at them.

Returning to the issue of finances, there’s no doubt that open source solutions come with considerable ‘price on the box’ savings – they’re often free! But, as we’ve said before, there’s a total cost that includes installation and training to support and maintenance. Savings are not guaranteed.

The current Microsoft deal ends on 31 December 2009. Hopefully, we’ll know something soon, as even a six-month window doesn’t give long to come up with a viable solution. As we wait on what the future may bring, what’s clear is that schools not only need a plan but also have very real options – and now would seem as good a time as any to explore them.

Greg Adams is editor of INTERFACE Magazine.

Comments

Rebecca   Posted: 19/08/2009 8:15 PM

A really useful heads-up for us schools with threadbare budgets to worry about – thank you.
Dave Lane   Posted: 21/07/2009 9:40 AM
Yes, very good write-up, Greg. I’m one of the principles of a free/open source software (FOSS) firm, Egressive, based in Christchurch. It’s important for schools to realise that, though FOSS-related ads don’t appear in every form of mass and IT media, there are FOSS support businesses throughout the NZ. You can find support for OpenOffice, the Gimp (replaces Photoshop), Inkscape (Illustrator), Scribus (Publisher), Firefox (IE), Thunderbird (Outlook), etc., in most of NZ’s major centres. Increasingly commercial providers are offering FOSS support. Legions of passionate open source advocates volunteer support through local “Linux User Groups”. One local college found that, following a shift to open source in their computing courses, motivated students happily provided support to other teachers and admin staff – any reason not make such services part of the curriculum. By teaching FOSS, you can ensure that it will be better supported with each year, as students enter the workforce.

Leigh Blackall   Posted: 15/07/2009 9:40 AM

Nice write up Greg. One of the most balanced I’ve read to date.

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Categories: Article, Issue 17