Enterprise OS: How hard can it be?

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Can we give every school child in the UK a Linux notebook and still save money?

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The simple answer is 'yes' we could do it now and we will save the taxpayer millions of pounds.

In previous posts I have documented the exponential rise in school ICT costs over the past 20 years. The articles focussed on costing ICT fully. This meant summing the costs of software purchase, software licensing, hardware replacement cycle, support costs and for the first time, electricity costs. The latter now make up 20% of the total ICT spend of a secondary school's £100,000-£200,000 annual total.

Missing from the earlier work, for which I apologise, were peripherals such as printers and photocopiers.

My motivation for revisiting the topic came from finding out that laser printer and photocopiers use identical technologies and typically draw 1.5 kw when active and 200 watts on standby. As I happen to be working with a secondary school at the moment I was able to investigate further.

The school's electricity cost accruing from printing and photocopying was under £1000 per year at current prices: I confess to a being a little disappointed I had imagined it was more and it did not amount to more than an extra few PCs.

The shock came, though, when the total number of sheets of A4 that passed through plain paper faxes, photocopiers and laser printers were calculated. It came to 4,450,000 per year. Or, in this school, 8,000 copies per child and one copy every 2 secs per year with a total cost of just below £100,000! The entire T5 airport terminal project only produced 8,000,000 copies per year and they ran 24/7.

The question was instantly begged 'is this normal for schools?'. It turns out it is.

Chosen at random, a City Academy and a few 'bog standard comps' (not my choice of phrase) produce similar numbers of prints as does my test school and have similar bills. To be fair, my school had 700 students and the others more like 1400, so they are more 'economical'.

Simple sums produce scale-up figures for the UK schools, these are: 20 billion prints at 500 million pounds per annum.

Let's take a step back. The last 20 years has seen the massive development of ICT in schools from a standing start to a ratio of one computer for every four students. The same period saw the first photocopier in schools and the first laser printer ( I remember carrying our one in ).

It would seem that the paperless office does not extend to the paperless school. In fact it appears quite the opposite. As ICT costs have grown so have paper related costs. Neither yet show any signs of abating.

It does not have to be like this.

Back at the office, (where I work as an ICT consultant) I cannot, hand-on-heart, claim that it is 'paperless'. But truly it is an event when the printer has to be run and usually associated with some cursing. Also, being an Open Source company, we get all of our software as downloads so not much is copied to disc either.

Obviously, everyone has a computer (laptops have replaced desktops by choice) and interestingly a notebook and pencil/pen at the ready. We have a library of well thumbed reference books too. Like us UK secondary schools all have networks and Internet access, but obviously they do not have a computer each.

Solution: give everyone one of the new open source netbooks and fully wirelessly connect the campus. Stop handing out work sheets, printing homeworks and e-mails etc etc, look at a flat screen screen instead.

To give every child in the country a new Linux notebook, would cost less than the annual printout bill. Within a school the old PC's and all but the web server would wither and die from lack of use (except for specialised applications) thus saving further millions. No more digital divide, no need for paper and no need for text books (they would all be on the server).

Thinking 'is this how it has to be?' is what really defines Open Source thinking. The new low cost, low energy computers came out of possibilities created by Open Source software development. Open Source software itself appeared as if from thin air as a result of thinking 'is this how it has to be, lets change it'

Schools are very conservative, they like to keep on doing what they have always done, and no one likes to think they got it wrong, but does anyone feel in a position to defend school ICT as it is, on a benefit-cost quotient?

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