Sunday, August 28, 2005

Linux for College Students

It is pretty interesting how many CMU students want to try out linux but don't know how. And these are not just male CS students -- a diverse range of people is interested in what else is out there. Firefox has huge exposure at CMU and on other college campuses. People know about Linux but don't know how to take the plunge. I think it is important that we try to incubate new Linux users at universities like CMU. These are our future engineers, scientists, and programmers.

So, I think the best way to start thinking about this is "what do students do with their computers?" With a corporate desktop (like NLD) this part of the game is pretty easy. Employees have well defined tasks. College students are a much more interesting crowd. I don't think we will be able to replicate 100% the programs that students are used to. But let's take a look at what is important:

  • Being able to play every video and music format on Earth.
  • P2P sharing (i2hub!)
  • Using Flash
  • Fully functional java environment (eclipse+tools+your choice of gcj or sun java)
  • Being able to read every pdf thrown at them (that means acroread -- I love evince but there are some documents it does not want to read).
  • 0-hassle integration with their campus network (at CMU, afs should be mounted)
  • Allow easy installation of university licensed software (mathematica!)
  • iPods must work with no hassle.
  • All wireless cards must work (I had to go through some hoops to get my Dell laptop's wireless to work. Not cool).

The most important part is taking a stock distro and making it do the tasks I listed above extremely easily. We can't expect people to go through 100 hoops just to play a DVD. There are some obvious legal issues here. But given that we college students have found ways to host terrabytes of copyrighted music and video, I don't see why it should be such a challenge for us to host a small amount of software that may have whatever issues.

Once this step is done, we would need to consider how to get Linux out to users. I think this has two aspects. First we need to have "Linux Heros" who can help people out. facebook would be a great place to start this. The second aspect is making it easy to actually install Linux. On a campus network, bandwidth is virtually free (at least within the univ. and other internet2 campuses). Therefore, the media should come from the campus network. I think a pxeboot system would be very powerful: with the help of a person familiar with how to use the BIOS, Linux can be installed with no physical media. Also, "kickstart" disks could be distributed that would boot to the pxe system for people with network cards that don't support pxe or who don't know how to use the bios.

I guess the way to start making this work would be to get a list of rpms that can be installed to make my above task list work. If packages don't exist, we need to create them. Where possible, we should prefer open source, patent-free stuff, but where that does not exist/does not have the functionality students need/etc, other solutions are needed.

Late breaking ideas

  • What if we make a Windows program that modifies the MBR so that on the next boot, it will go to the pxe server. This allows people to use pxe without touching the bios and without needing any physical media
  • Presentations / Demos of Linux
  • Form a community. Do some non-geeky stuff. Ice cream social for Linux. Could be integrated with presentations (hook them with ice cream, get them to watch the demo of linux)
  • Give "Linux Heros" free t-shirts. If we have enough heros, it won't be hard to find a person wearing their tshirt on any given day. These people can answer questions.

Later Breaking:

  • See GRUB docs for ideas about booting from the network. So we give the user a grub config file with the pxe server specified
  • Install grub on windows without touching the MBR. If I understand this correctly, it would mean a dual stage boot: first it goes into the NTLDR menu then the grub menu. But, it sounds a bit less risky.

Laterer Breaking


Amaury Jacquot said...

using flash... ain't gonna happen on amd64 unless either macromedia^Wadobe figures a way to build a 64 bit enabled plugin, or gplflash advances to a state of "useable"

Ben Maurer said...

Yeah, amd64 support may not be able to be done as well. People aren't even using 64 bit windows for now, so it's ok.

gnrfan said...

Hi there Ben,

Well here in Peru -and I guess everywhere- we have more or less the exact same problem with CS/programming students at Universities and technical institutes.

I believe all what you mention is important (e.g. distribution to make things very easy) but maybe not strictly vital or crucial to at least multiplying the number of Linux users by say, 5 or 10 at least.

Looks like easy and short, task-oriented tutorials on very specific topics is a good start. People is smart enough to figure out how to do things if they get a set of steps they actually get interested in trying.. STFW won't work for many of these types.

I'm thinking of making a series of OppenOffice presentations people can then share as PDF or published HTML.

Titles could be something like:

1.- Linux: where to start looking at?
2.- Choosing and getting the right flavor of Linux for you
3.- Finding your way around GNOME
4.- Finding your way around KDE
5.- Making Ubuntu Linux work with your iPod
6.- Making Ubuntu Linux burn CD & DVDs
7.- P2P under Linux..

Also scheduling free lectures on each of this topics so interested persons can show up and listen for a while is a good idea too. It works for us but we need more and more of this.

Ben Maurer said...

Actually, CS students are not the only people asking me. Alot of other people are interested. I think it is harder for non-cs students as they have less exposure to the shell systems.

I think tutorials are a good idea. However, if the steps needed to make linux a usable distro for college students are >= 20, people are going to lose patience. We need to couple good documentation with easy to configure software and an easy download method.

I think free lectures is another great idea. One thing we could do with this is hand out physical media for live cds. The live cds could have the kickstart code to install from the pxe server. This way, we allow people to go easily from "see linux" to "try linux" to "use linux" without forcing commitment.

Adam said...

We've just done this.

Ben Maurer said...

The clemson is fantastic. Now I want that with opensuse :-). Have you guys looked in to how you can do the media-less install even for non-ibm laptops? How many students have you gotten to use Linux? Any tips on doing PR? I'd love to talk with you guys.

Swaroop C H said...

If you're able to solve this problem, you can potentially switch over every non-Windows programmer in the world! :-)

- Swaroop

Swaroop C H said...

P.S. By non-Windows programmers, I mean non-programmers as well.

Luke said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Luke said...

What your proposing is quite noble and definately needed but each program that you listed that needs support on a college students' Linux box differs from university to university. I'm a CS student at Purdue University and Purdue requires a completely different set of apps. Having integrated java, mp3, dvd support would be a huge step expecially because most Purdue students use LimeWire to download media (which is java based).

Wireless is a problem in itself. Just as different universities require different sets of apps for their students (matlab and autocad), Purdue has a completely different way of setting up wireless internet. Last year they used VPN and WEP to auth students into the network. Being in the Purdue Linux Users Group, we set up a small GUI app that would easily configure and connect Linux users to the network. Of coursed as soon as we finished it they unveiled their new WPA setup which has a whole different set of weird quarks that make it almost completely unusable by Linux users.

What clemson did is a good start (having those basic edu software packages bundled in), but having the programs installed is only half the battle. Having them configured propperly and even knowing how to get them configured with absolutely no inside info from the university is basically reverse engineering. I'm not saying its impossible, expecially with building on what Clemsons already done, but it will take more resources (man hours) than most LUGs have.

More networking needs to be done between LUGs at universities. Forums or a mailing list would be great.

B_ware said...

Hi ben,

In my opinion it is possible to flash the bios under the operaating system. So the boot order can be changed. Pxe first and later on harddisk, floppy or whatever you like. Other options are not known by me.

Swajak said...

Georgia Tech has a lug ( ) but they aren't exactly influencing much in the ways of campus OS choice.