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
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)
frivolous. Rather, it is strictly functional. There are no fancy
user, possibly the school's ICT coordinator, this yields a feeling of
being in control of the software rather than being controlled by the
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
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.
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.
- 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,
- The employees (pupils) are admitted because of their lack of
computer skills. The same mistakes will be made over and over again,
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
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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' .
We have a number of reasons for this policy:
- Windows is an inherenly insecure operating system . 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
- 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'.
"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
Robert Pirsig; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; An Inquiry into
Values; William Morrow Publishing Co; New York; 1979.
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
This page is, by its very nature, 'work in progress'.
We periodically have to check our rock-bottom
assumptions against reality.