[This article was contributed by Ladislav Bodnar]
September traditionally means back to school in many parts of the Northern
Hemisphere and this year is no different. What will
however, is the operating system that many Norwegian pupils will find on
their school's computers once they return to the classrooms. That's because
despite the excruciating heat wave that hit much of Europe this summer, the
developers did not take a
break. Skolelinux? Yes, Skolelinux, a project to create a Linux distribution
with the goal of replacing the proprietary operating systems in schools
throughout Norway. The project's two primary objectives are the ability to
run on low-end computer systems as well as a complete support for all
Norwegian languages, including the minority ones.
Knut Yrvin, the Project Leader at Skolelinux kindly agreed to answer a few
questions for LWN.
Knut, thank you very much for your time. Firstly, can you tell us about the
beginnings of Skolelinux? What motivated the initiation of the project?
It all started when Petter [Reinholdtsen, the project's
system architect] and myself, were attending a summer party one day in June
2001. We talked about how sad it was that most local schools had little
besides old computers and a few applications running on Windows, and very
little money for upgrades. We found it frustrating that closed-source
software prevented our pupils interested in technical, under-the-hood things
from learning by example - from source code written by expert programmers.
That's when we decided to stop talking about it and simply do it. We had a
start-up meeting on July 2, 2001, with 13 participants and 12 other
interested parties who could not attend personally.
As the name suggests, Skolelinux is specifically designed for deployment in
schools. How do you go about convincing schools to switch to Skolelinux?
We use the "seeing is believing" strategy. We let
teachers try Skolelinux for themselves and make a decision only once they've
used it. We also get a lot of help from the Unix/Linux User Groups around the
country who are helping with deployment. The whole process is then
self-propagating; we often get references and hear about installations in
places we didn't even know existed!
We have also written a considerable amount of tailor-made documentation for
teachers. We provide a day-to-day Operation Handbook, a Getting Started
guide, a Get-to-know Skolelinux course, and other documents. Everything is
written in Norwegian in a simple, non-technical language.
IBM Norway is helping as well. They started promoting Skolelinux in December
2002 and soon afterwards many more hardware vendors jumped on the bandwagon.
Suddenly there seems to a be a lot of momentum behind the Skolelinux project!
How many schools are using Skolelinux at present?
Officially about 20. But unofficially we have reports of
entire towns, municipalities and counties that are testing Skolelinux in one
or two schools before making an official commitment. We know of an IT
department responsible for all schools in one city which has agreed not to
disclose their plans to deploy Skolelinux just to avoid the inevitable
bureaucracy associated with such a transition. We also know of 8 or 9
communities, which are going to switch to Skolelinux later this year. We have
asked them to do it slowly in the beginning to gain experience (and to let us
sort out the 5 remaining release critical bugs ;-)).
What kind of response have you been getting from schools? Would you say that
there is a lot of enthusiasm for Linux? Have you met with any resistance?
Yes, we have met with opposing ideas. These usually come
from the administration in municipalities and Microsoft professionals who
believe that "Windows is the answer, what's the question again?". We try to
by-pass them and go straight to the schools' principals asking them about
important values, such as the use of the Norwegian languages, IT budgets, and
Internet-based solutions in cases where The Ministry of Education and Science
mandates that schools conduct their examinations on the Internet.
In Spain, there are several provinces the governments of which have mandated
exclusive use of Linux in all levels of schools. Is there a similar situation
in Norway? Do you get any support from the Norwegian government?
The government helped financing the initial project
report which discussed the use of free software in education and funding of
associated activities. There is a will to continue contributing in the future
so that the mostly voluntary work can be transformed into secure jobs for the
The development, translation, deployment, maintenance and support of
Skolelinux costs money. How do you go about raising funds for your work?
Initially, it was the NUUG Foundation
which helped funding the effort.
They have covered the cost of travel to developer meetings from various parts
of Norway and even from other countries. Now there are 4 or 5 of us on their
payroll to ensure the continuity of the development, effective project
leadership and translation work.
Every successful deployment of Skolelinux in a Norwegian school means a lost
sale for Microsoft. Has there been any reaction from Microsoft Norway?
Well, we did receive a letter from Steve Ballmer wishing
us good luck with the Skolelinux project. This was after a meeting with
Microsoft and a round-table conference with some well known IT-personalities
in Norway. The meeting was initiated by Microsoft Norway who invited us to
join a 60-minute discussion to talk about some controversial issues regarding
the way Microsoft conducts some of their business. It was interesting and
Ballmer was up to speed on questions like security, intellectual property
rights, etc. Unfortunately, he had to leave early, just when the discussion
was beginning to heat up. Anyway, we are of the opinion that Microsoft people
are nice, and hopefully they think the same about us. We don't agree on some
crucial principles concerning the ownership of the source code, but we try to
focus on our task, rather than politics. However, we know that Microsoft has
offered some Norwegian schools huge discounts to undermine the advancements
You have chosen Debian GNU/Linux as a base for your distribution. Any
The openness, Debian project's acceptance of our
contributions, apt-get, the conservative and well-tested packages and of
course, the community - these were the main reasons.
From the technical point of view, what exactly is the main focus of your
We currently work on a new Debian installer as well as
an out-of-the-box services and network setup. We have also created a user
administration system with LDAP, Webmin, and netgroups. This is because the
IT coordinators in schools need an easy-to-use, web-based and secure system
for creating and managing user accounts for pupils and teachers. Another
essential area of our work is writing user-friendly documentation in local
Knut, thank you very much for your time and good luck with your project!
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