Linux: Free, legal, and safe from viruses
Alan Zisman (c)
2008 first published in CUE
In February, computers- both school district servers and
some workstations and notebooks- in the Vancouver School System (SD#39)
were infected with a worm. While the District's IT department has not
named the infection, the symptoms closely resembled the win32.downadup
worm, also known as conficker. Probably not coincidentally,
downadup/conficker- spread both online and via USB memory keys-
infected an estimated 10-12 million other computers world-wide at about
the same time.
Upon learning of the infection, which was
preventing some users from logging on to VSB network servers, the IT
department requested that computers throughout the school system- in
school and school board offices, classrooms, libraries, and computer
labs- be shut off until IT staff could check each system to ensure that
it was infection-free and make sure that it was running up-to-date
anti-virus software to ensure that it remain infection-free.
about 10,000 computers to check and a relatively small IT staff, it
took a while to get to every computer- some schools were without the
use of their computers for about three weeks. Some school computers
were unable to run the licensed anti-virus software – which runs on
Windows 2000/XP/Vista, but not, for instance, Windows 98; with the
anti-virus software running, even compatible systems run noticeably
What I haven't mentioned up to now: the infection- and
the resulting shut-down order- only affected systems running one or
another version of Microsoft Windows. Macs and systems running some
version of Linux were not vulnerable to the infection and could
continue running without problem. Unlike many other BC school
districts, however, Vancouver has only a small minority of systems
running anything other than Windows.
My elementary school
computer lab has been running Windows XP. As a teacher based in a
computer lab, my job would be drastically affected if I couldn't let
students use computers or go online for an extended period of time.
it was time for an experiment- it would have cost a lot of money to
convert my lab from Windows to Macs. But there was another option- a
free one. Linux is a free, non-Windows operating system that runs on
the same sort of hardware as Windows. Typically, it comes with a set of
(also free) applications- web browser, word processor, and on and on-
letting users get right to work.
I've been watching Linux for a
long time now- at first, Linux was difficult to install, lacked support
for lots of popular hardware, and required lots of specialized
knowledge to customize or configure. That's much less the case now. In
fact, in many ways, Linux may be easier to install and use- and may
even support a wider range of hardware- than the latest versions of
New comers to Linux can be easily overwhelmed or
confused though- while there are a relatively few versions of Windows,
Linux comes in literally hundreds of packages, known as distributions.
While each has its adherents, I limited myself to Ubuntu, which is
currently the most popular Linux distribution for use on desktop and
Ubuntu can be obtained as a free download from www.ubuntu.com
doing that gets you a 700 MB '.iso' image file; burning that to a blank
CD gives you a disc that can be used to install Ubuntu. (Hint: check
your burning software's help for 'image file'- you don't want to simply
burn the .iso file onto the CD; instead, you want to use the image file
as if it was a virtual CD, copying its contents onto the CD).
Canonical, the company that maintains Ubuntu (and makes its money
selling technical support) will send you one or more copies of it, on
CD... but that will take a while. Whether you download a copy or get an
'official' one from Canonical, you can install it onto as many
computers as you like and make copies of the CD and give them away to
students or colleagues.
A new version of Ubuntu is released
twice a year; as I write, the latest version is 8.10, meaning it was
released in 2008-October. A new version is expected 9.04: April 2009.
Ubuntu install CD is what Linux-users refer to as a Live CD. That makes
it especially useful- you can boot to it, running Ubuntu without having
to install anything onto your computer. Especially nice if your school
district's IT department doesn't like you installing anything onto your
This install CD is very handy- you can verify that
Ubuntu recognizes and works with your computer's hardware and to verify
that you can work with Ubuntu, all without having to commit yourself.
with the VSB's “shut down Windows systems” order, that's what I did:
copied a bunch of Ubuntu CDs and used them to boot my computer lab's
IBM NetVista Pentium 4 systems to Ubuntu.
On my lab systems,
they booted and ran just fine, recognizing the display adapter, network
card, sound card, and so forth. Running that way, I had Internet
access- with no danger of infection- with the Firefox web browser
installed. I also installed- the free OpenOffice.org office suite, with
Microsoft Office-compatible word processor, spreadsheet, and
presentation software. Students were even able to access their network
shares on my school's server.
No installation required. Pretty
neat. (The fine print: you'll need at least 384 MB of RAM in order to
boot to Ubuntu's Live CD. With less than that, but at least 256 MB of
RAM, you can boot to the CD to install it, but not run it 'Live').
there were some things missing. While Ubuntu could find and work with
my lab's networked printer without problem, in order to actually use it
meant taking a moment or two to configure it. And booting to the CD
meant that when I shut down over night, I would have to do it (on each
of 32 work stations) again the next day.
Same thing with browser
bookmarks ('favorites' to Internet Explorer users). Same thing with any
additional software I might want to install- there's a whole world of
free and useful Linux applications out there, but less useful if you
have to reinstall it every day because you're booting to a Live CD.
a week of working with the Live CD, I decided that it was time to
recognize that this was going to be a long-term relationship, time to
install it for real.
Nicely, Ubuntu (and most other Linux
distributions) recognize that even if we want to install Linux, most of
us will also have to run Windows too- at least some of the time. So the
installer makes it possible to install Ubuntu onto a system that has
Windows installed without losing the Windows installation. At boot
time, you'll get to choose whether to boot into Windows or Ubuntu.
fact, Ubuntu now offers two different ways of installing itself
alongside Windows. The traditional way involves booting to the CD, and
running the installer. It offers to create new hard drive partitions
after shrinking the existing Windows partition to free up space. It
then installs Ubuntu onto the new partition and creates a boot menu
letting you choose one or the other.
This generally works well,
but is a pretty permanent commitment. If you decide Ubuntu isn't really
for you, you can get the space back- but it's a bit of work.
recent Ubuntu versions, though, there's another way. Boot to Windows
and insert the Ubuntu CD; a dialogue box pops up offering to install
Ubuntu. Fill in a few fields- user name and password, language, etc,
and away you go. This time, though, there's no messing with your hard
drive's partitions. Ubuntu is installed within the existing Windows
partition, and Ubuntu is listed as an application in the Windows
Add/Remove Programs control panel. You can use this to remove Ubuntu if
you decide it's not for you. That's what I recommend.
Ubuntu's installed, there's still some fussing- but that's true for any
computer system I've tried, Windows, Mac, or Linux. You may want to
change the desktop wallpaper or colour scheme. Set up your printer.
Customize the browser bookmarks. (Nicely, if you have Firefox running
on a Windows or Mac, you can export the bookmarks from that system onto
a USB memory key and import them into Firefox on another computer-
Windows, Mac, or Linux). Add Flash to your browser. That sort of thing.
the exact steps for doing these sorts of things are different in Ubuntu
than you may be used to with Windows or a Mac, the nice thing is that
they're discoverable. Click on menus; right-click for properties.
You'll figure them out. Really. If you want, check: http://tinyurl.com/afd8ht
for a presentation I gave about installing and configuring Ubuntu in my
school's computer lab. If you need more help, Google is your friend;
Ubuntu has a very active online user community and almost any question
you might ask has already been answered.
Two big differences
between Ubuntu and either Windows or the Mac: on those two
traditional operating systems, while some software comes with the
operating system, you have to look around to find additional
applications. Maybe you're used to downloading additional software from
Canonical maintains a series of 'repositories' of
Ubuntu-friendly software; instead of downloading something from the
Internet (and hoping its not spyware-infested), in most cases you can
find whatever you need by using Ubuntu's handy Add/Remove Programs menu
item. (Unlike the similarly-named Windows control panel, this one is
actually useful for adding software). There's even lots of educational
And unlike software for Windows or the Mac, it's free and legal. No
more 30-day trial versions.
post-virus crisis, my computer lab systems can either boot to Windows-
and run slowly under the added burden of the antivirus software or boot
to Ubuntu and run full-speed while still allowing students to get their
work done, go online, save, and print.
Ubuntu Linux: Free, legal, safe from viruses, easy to use- and it will
(probably) run on your school's PCs. What's not to like?