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Debian Edu/Skolelinux: A distribution for education

March 28, 2012

This article was contributed by Bruce Byfield

Debian Edu is one of the quiet success stories of free software. If you are North American, you might have barely heard of it. Depending on what country you are in, you might know it better as Skolelinux. Or perhaps you have heard of Extremadura, an autonomous region of Spain that has deployed tens of thousands installations of LinEx, which is a Skolelinux partner. Under all these names, Debian Edu has worked for almost eleven years building a totally free-licensed distribution that balances the demands of complex hardware configurations with the educational needs of children.

Debian Edu began with two projects founded in 2001: Debian Edu, founded by Raphaël Hertzog in France, and Skolelinux, founded by a group of Norwegian developers. The projects merged in 2006, and today Debian Edu is technically used for the project name and Skolelinux for the distribution, although in practice the names are used interchangeably according to personal preference and previous regional branding.

[Skolelinux desktop]

The goals of Debian Edu are unchanged from when the two initial projects began. According to Petter Reinholdtsen, one of Skolelinux's founders, they are to educate school children while using free software that supports each student's native languages. Debian was chosen as the base distribution because it was known to have a package to create installation CDs — a rare feature, back then. Similarly, thin clients were supported first because Ragnar Wisløf, another Skolelinux founder, was familiar with the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP), which seemed a good match for the older hardware often found at schools.

"Later," Reinholdtsen said, "we added support for network booted workstations with all software running locally but without a local disk, providing a powerful desktop without any local maintenance."

Today the project is funded regularly by its legal entity, SLX Debian Labs Foundation, which is also the majority owner of Skolelinux Drift AS, a company that provides commercial support for schools and municipalities. In the past, the project has also received funding from other sources, including the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Ministry of Reform and Administration.

Currently, Debian Edu has an active group of about ten developers, and an unknown number of translators and other contributors. A member association, Fri Programvare i Skolen organizes developer meetings and promotes the project. The project also works with Edubuntu, particularly on the LTSP project, and has some contact with similar projects in Brazil and other parts of the world, although "not as much as I would wish," Reinholdtsen added.

As with most free software projects, accurate installation numbers are impossible to find. However, Reinholdtsen calculated that a minimum of 120 schools use Skolelinux in Norway alone. Other large communities of users are in France and Germany, and some are known to exist in Japan and Taiwan as well.

Installation and documentation

Skolelinux uses the standard Debian installer, lightly rebranded and with a few additions. Contrary to the still-surviving myth, this installer is no longer much of a challenge to use, although it still offers more choices than the installation programs of most major distributions. In fact, according to Reinholdtsen, Debian Edu helped to fund Joey Hess's extensive rewriting of the Debian installer a few years ago.

All the same, Skolelinux is unusual enough that users should read the first few sections of the distribution's manual before beginning to install. Mercifully, documentation is one of the project's priorities, and the information provided is clear, precise, and mostly complete.

The Architecture section in particular could be used as a primer for a general understanding of thin clients and network-boot workstations. However, the section might benefit from more practical information about basic hardware setup. Common hardware alternatives, such as workstations that boot from an external drive, could also be discussed in more detail, although that could easily become an endless task.

Administrators might also want to familiarize themselves beforehand with what Debian calls flavors — the installation sets for different circumstances. A main server is required for administration and installing on other machines, but a complete setup might consist of any number of secondary servers, workstations, thin clients, as well, perhaps, as roaming workstations (ones that are sometimes off the network). The installer also allows standalone installations for those who want to try Skolelinux without a network, perhaps on a student's notebook.

Each of these flavors differs in both the hardware requirements and the software installed. For example, thin client servers may require two Ethernet cards (one to connect to the main server and another to connect to the thin clients), while the firewall and administrative tools, unsurprisingly, are only installed on the server. Hard drive memory requirements are especially different, with a minimum of 15GB required for a workstation, and 30GB for the server. Similarly, the main server requires roughly 2GB of RAM for every 30 client machines. Since Skolelinux is often used to extend the useful years of older hardware, it is important to check that these varied requirements are met.

Once you start to install, the procedure is straightforward. However, pay attention to the final messages about hardware and software that is still unconfigured, such as Kerberos. These messages are probably unnecessary for most people likely to be installing Skolelinux, but they are useful reminders of what remains to be done before a fully functioning network exists.

Administration, user features, and software

As with installation, Skolelinux's administration features and software are best approached first from the manual and HOWTOs, or, for advanced topics, from the Debian Edu wiki.

Many of the administrative functions, such as installing general packages or permitting automatic security upgrades will be familiar to many general users of Linux. However, the documentation also includes such features as suggestions about other tools to use, a script for creating directories simultaneously in each user's home directory, and brief descriptions of lesser-known alternate software sources such as Debian's stable-updates and backports repositories. Like the installation instructions, this material provides an overview that even non-Skolelinux users might find helpful.

For administrators, the new features of the recent 6.0.4+r0 release includes a new web-based LDAP administration tool. Other new features for printers are designed to save power and reduce waste, such as a default flush of print queues every night and having client machines automatically turn off at night and on again in the morning. In addition, stopped printer queues are restarted in an hour by default in case the printer was turned off accidentally.

For users, Skolelinux defaults to KDE, but GNOME, LXDE, and Sugar are also available as desktop environments. Installations include a much larger selection of software than standard Debian installations do, including KDE applications such as Amarok, Marble, and K3B, and other standard applications such as Inkscape, Scribus, and (not LibreOffice, since Debian stable has not yet switched).

Other installed software is heavily oriented toward education and creativity. The ever-popular Compris is included in the Favorites menu, while the Education menu includes everything from software for learning the alphabet and fractions to software for learning geometry and graph analysis. A drum machine and Rosegarden are included for musicians, as well as a chess game and at least two typing tutors.

Some might complain about the version numbers on Skolelinux's software, since they are based on Debian stable, and some are far from the latest available. However, Skolelinux has chosen stability over the cutting edge, as system administrators would generally prefer.

In addition, as Reinholdtsen points out, the emphasis on stability minimizes the chances of a disruption of service during the school year. Although the emphasis may mean that drivers are unavailable for some newer hardware, he suggested that "we have found a reasonably good balance between stability and offering the latest software."

My one quibble with the selection of user software is that it covers the complete range of pre-university educational software. This choice is perhaps suitable for schools that cover a wide range of students. Yet inevitably it means that much of the software will be irrelevant for any specific class. Perhaps a solution might be the ability to install educational software by age or ability. But, in general, Skolelinux offers an impressive showcase of educational software.

Helping a veteran

Officially, Skolelinux is a Debian Pure Blend — a distribution that is a subset of general Debian and remains compatible with it. However, unless you are doing a standalone installation, setting up Skolelinux is not a trivial task. Given the number of flavors that it supports and the fact that multiple-machine setups are the norm, Skolelinux might more realistically be described as several distributions in one — including some with conflicting needs and priorities. The quality of the documentation mitigates this complexity to a large degree, but the instructions still contain assumptions about users' knowledge that may be unwarranted.

Still, what is noticeable about Skolelinux is not that there are gaps in the documentation, but that there are so few. In fact, another educational aspect of Skolelinux is that it could serve as a distribution for training sysadmins about networks and thin clients.

More than anything else, this reduction of complexity to clarity is what makes Skolelinux a pioneer and continuing innovator in free software and education but still relevant today. The project is currently fundraising, so one way to help this veteran project would be to make a donation to help ensure that its annual meeting of core developers can take place this year.

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