The region of Italy known as Trentino-Alto Adige or South Tyrol has an
interesting history. It became part of Italy as a spoil of World
War 1, and many of its residents have never been entirely comfortable with
Italian control. It is a breathtakingly beautiful region, where German is
heard more than Italian. The unique nature of this area has resulted in it
being given a great deal of autonomy; Trentino-Alto Adige often does things
its own way.
Bolzano, a provincial capital in Trentino-Alto Adige, has just broken some
new ground with this announcement that the area's Italian schools
have switched to Linux. Your editor was able to discuss the project
with three of its principals: Antonio J. Russo, Paolo Zilotti, and
Christopher Gabriel. They deserve thanks for helping to fill in the
details, and for putting up with your editor's Italian.
This project goes by the name "FUSS",
for "Free Upgrade South Tyrol's Schools." Over the course of two months,
the entire computing infrastructure for the region's Italian-language
schools was converted over to a customized version of the Debian
distribution. This effort involved installing Linux on 2640 computers over
the course of 23 days; an installation
party photo gallery has been posted for those who are interested. The
project has also developed a live CD which will be handed out to students
when school opens (September 12) so that they may all run the same
software at home. The students of these schools will be able to do all of
their schoolwork using free software.
And freedom is an important issue in this project; the introduction
page starts out this way:
The decision to use free software in the schools is indeed, beyond
the economic and technical reasons, an ethical and political
choice. It is the choice of remaking oneself, both in the use
and teaching of computing, with the values of freedom and sharing,
and not just in the use of software which is efficient, stable, and
secure, which runs on older machines, and which is not subject to
(The linked page, like most in this article, is in Italian; translations by
To achieve its goals, the FUSS project decided early on that only free
software could be used. All of the usual reasons apply for this choice:
ethics, the ability to give the software to students, ability to modify the
software, etc. Given this constraint, it is not surprising that FUSS
decided to base its effort on Debian.
The 100% free nature of the distribution, combined with its quality, vast
array of packages, and adaptability are given as the reasons for this
choice. The project
developed its own version of Debian, which it calls "FUSS Soledad
GNU/Linux," or just "Soledad."
Soledad is based upon the Sarge release, but the FUSS developers have made
a number of changes. The installer and default configuration have been
adapted to the schools' needs, and a special GNOME-based desktop has been
put together. The mix of packages has carefully selected for the target
audience, with a strong bias toward educational software. The package
list for the desktop
configuration is available; there is also a version of Soledad for
server deployments. ISO images of Soledad are available from the FUSS download page.
Many of us who have dealt with the public school systems in their countries
have often wondered why there is not more free software in use. But
anybody who has tried to convince a school system to change knows what kind
of inertia exists there. So how did the FUSS project supporters get the
approval for a change of this magnitude?
There are a few factors at play here. The Italian schools in Bolzano are
(unlike those in much of Italy) organized around a central purchasing
structure for information technology. Even better, the relationship
between the schools and the central IT folks is good.
This structure made it easier to
convert the entire school system at once. The initial supporters of FUSS
came from within the school administration, and thus had the advantage of
pushing for change from the inside. Even so, the FUSS supporters had to
work for years, and had
to "assemble a fair amount of paper" before getting the project approved.
Mr. Russo adds:
I don't think that there is a formula for bringing this sort of
project to conclusion; the only thing I can say is that, in
Bolzano, people active in the spread of free software have worked
hard for many years, organizing events, conferences, installation
parties, but, most of all, meeting people and explaining to them
the benefits of free software and how their work could be improved
and made more pleasant with the use of cooperatively-developed
The FUSS developers add that the autonomous nature of Bolzano helped, since
decisions are made locally. But the importance of laying the groundwork is
clear: spend enough time educating people about the benefits of free
software, and they will eventually come around and support it.
2460 Linux installations may seem like a lot, but it is only a beginning.
This deployment only covers Bolzano's Italian-language schools; the region
also runs a great many German-language schools, and a rather smaller number
based on Ladin.
The FUSS developers have made offers of help to their German-speaking
counterparts, but, so far, have received little response. School systems
in various other regions of Italy are said to be interested, however, and
are watching to see how it all turns out.
The acid test will start on September 12, when 16,000 students return to
school. It is hard to imagine that there would be no startup glitches on a
project of this magnitude. How quickly they are ironed out, and how
quickly students and teachers become comfortable with the new systems will
have a big influence on whether other parts of Italy will make the jump to
free software. The odds are in the project's favor: school systems have
few needs which cannot be met nicely by currently-available free software.
The hard part of this project is done; congratulations are due to the many
people who have worked for years to make FUSS a reality.
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