Open source not quite the panacea, say three schools

To open source or not open source, that is the question for elementary and secondary schools.

Before welcoming students back in September, three cash strapped schools tried their luck cutting costs by purchasing software that included source code with no license fees. But, with limited budgets, the three found open source technology was not the answer, according to Microsoft Corp.

Dufferin Peel Catholic District School Board, outside of Toronto, Pembina Trails School Division and Louis Riel School Division, both of Winnipeg, Man., recently tested open source technology and said they found it too complex and costly to support.

Pembina Trails School Division, was initially attracted to open source by low cost server software and the elimination of client licenses, according to Don Reece, the school’s IT director.

“We had been using Linux-based proxies and had some people that understood programming Linux quite well,” Reece said. “We liked the idea of being able to customize a solution that was best for us. It is certainly scaleable.”

Pembina Trails’ IT department had previously run a mix of Linux, Macintosh and Microsoft Windows NT systems, and had investigated Novell’s Linux. Pembina said after pricing out Linux training and hardware costs, as well as the learning curve for users, his school concluded a Microsoft option would prove to be a better deal.

“We were moving to a 1 GB fibre backbone between all the buildings,” Reece said. “(Microsoft) enabled us to look at some fatter solutions. But when we decided to go with Active Directory it was because we were used to the structure.”

Although Windows is fatter, its programmers are ubiquitous, he said.

“The biggest problem we had (with open source) was moving from contracted Linux programming – everybody’s flavour of Linux was different,” Reece said. “Our guy had to rebuild whatever had been outsourced, and when we tried to distribute training to other staff we found a lack of standardization.”

Now when Pembina Trails builds a server, they go by the book, perfectly standardized, with nobody doing their own thing, which would have been a more difficult process with Linux, according to Reece.

Pembina also ran a one-year pilot with Sun Microsystems’ Star Office in one of its schools. But for a variety of reasons, including support costs, Pembina said they chose to go with a Windows-based system.

“The price of the server software is quite a bit less than what it would commercially cost because of education discounts,” Reece said. “So, when we looked at the cost of support, the consistency of the structure that Windows offered is the reason for our decision.”

A Microsoft Canada Total Cost of Ownership analysis, based on Gartner methodology, found that Pembina Trails would save more than $2 million per year in operating costs by moving to a unified Microsoft software platform with Active Directory.

Pembina Trails School Division consists of 33 schools with a student population of over 14,000.

Related links:

Canadian companies are open source wary

British public bodies say no to open source

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