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Free Software for Eritrea: how to grow and teach more with less, Part 2]

(Marco’s note, oct. 2010: the first part of this article is here. All the notes and comments in the introduction to that first part also apply to this one)

When any Linux is not enough: thin clients and RULE

There are several approaches to FOSS, all with potential positive impact on African businesses, institutions and schools. With new computer, you can do something like the Egyptian Affordable PC Project in 2002: new computers, priced a few hundred US dollars, assembled locally and bundled with locally developed software. Users can pay for them in monthly charges on their telephone bill.

When this is not an option, it still is possible to keep existing, recycled PCs doing useful tasks. FOSS is normally presented as essential for this solution: no license costs and less resource hungry than proprietary products. It often turns out, however, that only the first part is true. Many modern Gnu/Linux distributions are quite heavy, and choosing an older one because lighter is useless and dangerous. No modern desktop functionality, null online support because nobody runs it any more, plenty of security holes…. Using them would be to just move to a different type of digital divide.

The most common practical solution, although applicable only in certain cases, is a “thin client” architecture. This means using very limited computers, possibly without hard disk, as terminals to run every program, remotely, on a common server. This is the path chosen by the Semhar Junior and Secondary School in Massawa, Eritrea. Its computer laboratory will for the most part run Skolelinux, a Gnu/Linux distribution initially developed and deployed in hundreds of Norwegian schools. Skolelinux was also the operating system installed in twenty tons worth of refurbished computers shipped in October 2004 from Norway to Eritrea by the Norwegian organization Fair, which cooperates with the Eritrean Ministry of Education for ICT distribution and training in Eritrean schools. The computers will be used in ten secondary schools and colleges. In South Africa, the Shuttleworth Foundation already offers similar services through its Tuxlabs program.

Sometimes, local networking is not an option. A single student or shop may have no other computers acting as a server, or there could simply be no hardware powerful enough to be used in that role. In such cases, a project like RULE (Run Up to date Linux Everywhere) may be a much better solution. RULE is a method to install and run on stand alone, very limited machines, the most recent versions of the Fedora Core Gnu/Linux distribution. The primary focus are not servers, but the desktops of isolated student, schools, small businesses and non-profit organizations. RULE could be also used for hospitals and lab workstations.
RULE provides a computer with full networking capabilities, apt to run locally the most useful desktop applications. Using selected modern packages, possibly tweaked for maximum performance, RULE users must not give up real functionality like IMAP email, gnupg digital signatures or advanced font management for non alphabetic languages. Even if they have theoretically obsolete hardware. With RULE, a basic server install of Red Hat 9 required a 386 with 16 MB of RAM and about 250 Mbyte of disk space. Fedora Core needs more hardware, but still much less than the official requirements. RULE has recently released beta versions of both installers and graphic servers for Fedora Core 3.

The basic RULE software is a foundation on which to build localized platform. Other groups are welcome to build their customization process. The Austrian NGO VUM [8] VUM, for example, has already built on RULE a desktop for Congo schools speaking French and Lingala. This system, called vum:BOX is currently used in 5 schools with approximately 800 students each. RULE has also been included in a six years Linux based school plan submitted to the local Education Ministry. RULE also coordinates a network, already active in several African countries, for distribution of Free Software where broadband is not available. The RULE network volunteers are local individuals or businesses who, on demand, burn CD-ROMs with RULE and other Free Software, and ship it by traditional mail to whoever requests them. The only cost of the service is that of blank CDs and postal fares.

Which solution is better?

RULE and thin clients are complementary concepts, which can benefit from each other: end users must simply evaluate their actual needs and resources to find the best fit. RULE is for when you don’t have a more powerful server. A RULE PC could also be used as thin client, reducing the load on the server. It could even be a lighter, that is faster, server for a local network of thin clients. On the other hand, a thin client solution is perfect when maintenance must be minimized, diskless clients are available, there is the money for the server and users should be connected to a local network anyway. Similar set ups are certainly far easier to administer than ten (forcefully different) RULE machines.

RULE = Run Up to Date Linux Everywhere
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