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ServerAtSchool philosophy

Designing and developing a network server for a primary school, or indeed any server, requires making decisive choices at an early stage. These choices reflect the viewpoints of the designers and ultimately their views on mankind and nature. In the text below we try to define some of our rock-bottom assumptions on which ServerAtSchool was built.

Keep It Simple

Sometimes computer systems suffer from creeping featurism. That is: new features are being added all the time but for no good reason. This often implies that complex software is used or developed, not because it is necessary to solve a problem but simply because it can be developed. In our opinion that is turning the world upside down. Software should be developed to provide answers to real questions. When complex software is looking for problems to solve, there is something terribly wrong.

In the same vein, the design of the software should follow from the intended function, without bells and whistles. In a way you can say that ServerAtSchool builds on the famous saying

form ever follows function
This dictum was coined by the American architect Louis Sullivan in his article "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered" published in 1896 in Lippincott's Magazine.

As a consequence, the web interface of say 'Janitor' (the software tool for, among other things, managing user accounts in ServerAtSchool) is not frivolous. Rather, it is strictly functional. There are no fancy colours or exotic fonts and JavaScript is not used. For the user, possibly the school's ICT coordinator, this yields a feeling of being in control of the software rather than being controlled by the software.

As an added benefit, it is easier to maintain this kind of strictly functional software than it is to maintain software with all sorts of frills.

A School Is Not A Company

We have noticed many times that suppliers, both of hardware and of software, seem to think that a school is just another company.

It is true that the computers have their roots in the business world. It is also true that computers are a valuable tool in that field. However, the differences between schools and companies are significant.

  • In a school all workers (i.e. pupils) are relocated within the organisation every year.
  • In a school, a significant part of the workers is replaced every schoolyear to the effect of a completely new population after only eight years.
  • Every year all workers get new applications they have to master in order to do their work for that year.
  • Every year the management (teachers) get new workers.
  • Various groups within the school have very different software requirements: most of the 4-year olds are not able to read whereas the 12-year olds need a multitude of software applications for the various subjects (mathematics, grammar, spelling, geography, etc.).
  • The employees (pupils) are admitted because of their lack of computer skills. The same mistakes will be made over and over again, by different generations, e.g. every pupil has to find out the hard way why 'saving your work' is important. A school has duty to guide a pupil to learn whereas an employee eventually will be fired if too many documents are lost.
  • In a school, in contradiction to a company, a computer is not only a tool, but it can also be a subject of research and experiments. Trial and error (Celestin Freinet's 't?tonnement experimental') implies that it should not be a disaster if an OS or an application on a workstation gets damaged. With SABRINE restoring an image is a piece cake.
  • In a school a spreadsheet is not as ubiquitous as in a business; the workers first need to learn about the concept of calculating (with pencil and paper) before they can profit from advanced features a spreadsheet might offer.
These observations have had an impact on the design of ServerAtSchool. Just to mention a few features that were added to deal with these differences.
  • ServerAtSchool has an hourly backup of user documents. Even though the pupils have to learn the hard way to save their work, there should be a safety net to limit the level of frustration caused by losing hours of work. That is why there is a My Backups right next to My Documents, for every pupil.
  • Every pupil has a personal storage space My Documents traveling along during her whole school career. Even though a pupil is relocated eight times, the older documents stay with the pupil.
  • Schools can have a mutuality at a level unknown in business. The concept of storing backups remotely on another schools' server is built on this notion.

Sharing knowledge

The primary task of a school, perhaps its sole raison d'etre, is to share knowledge and to pass on knowledge to the next generation. Here is another important difference with a business. In a business, keeping information a secret can lead to a competitive advantage. This is especially significant in the area of software development: you develop software and keep the source secret and subsequently you sell this secret to your customers while forbidding them to share this secret with others.

This contradicts the mission of a school where explaining the secrets of life to the customers is the core business.

This means that the only way a school can be involved in software development is by publishing the source code of the software too. Therefore ServerAtSchool is Open Source Software (OSS), published under the GNU General Public License (GPL).

Get it right the first time

When something is worth doing, it is worth doing it right. Development of ServerAtSchool took a lot of time. The advantage is that it should not be necessary to apply fix after fix because some exotic combination of circumstances was overlooked. A lot of thought has been given to defining the exact set of features in ServerAtSchool. Some features were considered but eventually left out.

Workstations

ServerAtSchool uses Windows 98 SE and Windows XP workstations. We are not that keen on 'the latest and the greatest'. We rather wait and see and have a conservative policy regarding innovations. We prefer going for 'the best' [1].

We have a number of reasons for this policy:

  • Windows is an inherenly insecure operating system [2]. Making Windows more secure, or leave this task to others, does not seem a good strategy. Security issues are the order of the day. Doing something about it is what we Dutchman call: "Mopping with an open tap". This Dutch proverb illustrates the kind of Sisyphus labour involved in making Windows more secure. It's better to accept Windows insecurity as a fact and take measures on another level (see SABRINE).
  • Windows 98 is, apart from it's basic insecurity, a well suitable Operating System for everything that needs to be done with computers in a primary school. A Windows 98 license can be bought for about 6 Euro. That's a big saving on, for example, 50 workstations. When also using Firefox instead of Internet Exploer and Thunderbird as a replacement for Outlook, Windows XP is basically not needed in a primary school, however, nowadays many school just use it.
  • Windows' insecurity can be diminished by restoring an image with SABRINE (Semi Automatic Backup and Restore In a Network Environment); if necessary every night. In that way every morning you have a clean OS on your workstations. SABRINE is a part of ServerAtSchool available for STRICT members (Schools Together Rich with ICT, see http://strict.nu, the English section).
  • Windows XP seems ready and finished. The manufacturer is busy with something completely new and different. So, sofware license prices will go down. Support for Windows 98 has stopped, so ServerAtSchool supports XP for STRICT members. Again, we are lagging behind a couple of years. And that's exactly what we wnat.
    Not the 'latest and the greatest'
    but 'the best and the safest'.

[1]
"What's new?" is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question "What is best?," a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.
Robert Pirsig; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; An Inquiry into Values; William Morrow Publishing Co; New York; 1979.
Online at: http://www.virtualschool.edu/mon/Quality/PirsigZen/

[2]
What is 'insecure'? Insecure for whom? A user? A manufacturer? It could be that users and manufacturers of operating systems have differing ideas on the nature of 'security'. The manufactureers security is not necessary the one of the user. And 'incsure' for the user might be, for the manufacturer, a blessing. Or he can just ignore it. Try reporting a bug in Windows and see what happens.
As long as an operating system is closed source, it can best be regarded as inherently insecure.

Concluding remarks

This page is, by its very nature, 'work in progress'. We periodically have to check our rock-bottom assumptions against reality.
©2006-2017 ServerAtSchool.NET - last updated: 25-08-2007 - using Site@School - 8922 views