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Refurbishing office computers for schools and the community

Recycled + XP + Linux gets the job done at Papakowhai Primary School (August 2005)

Michelle using one of the recycled computers at Papakowhai School

Computing at Papakowhai Primary School started with second-hand computers and has stayed that way, to the complete satisfaction of principal Kevin Win.

"In 1992 we decided to computerise the library, and got our first four recycled computers for that," says Kevin. "Parents came in for data-entry working bees, and we networked their machines together with the help of a parent who been trained at Telecom. That person then worked on our system for the next nine years."

The only new computers the school has seen have been teachers' laptops provided under the Ministry of Education programme.

As computers were moved into the classrooms they were networked together with surplus cables and network cards from the Ministry of Defence. In the first few years, computers came from a variety of sources and constant attention was needed to keep them working well together.

"In earlier times, as our computers died, we'd cannibalise them to build up other computers – transferring CD drives, RAM and so on, but we don't do that any more. There aren't enough hours in the day."

The big improvement in reliability started five years ago when the school began buying uniform sets of former business computers from Wellington company Remarkit Solutions, which has since become an accredited CANZ recycler.

About this time, a school board member was researching Linux as an alternative operating system to control Papakowhai's servers and network. "We liked the idea of it – it was supposed to be more robust – but at that time not many people were offering Linux services to schools."

One of Papakowhai School's year 8 classrooms, with the typical mix of students at desks and students on computers

A vendor was eventually found, and the school ran Linux alongside an existing Novell system for two years before switching entirely to Linux. There was a setback when the vendor went out of business but the school now uses Carterton company Access Information Ltd. This company works with Remarkit Solutions to supply and install new computers. It also maintains the computer system, sometimes onsite but mostly remotely via telecommunications. A university student also does three hours of on-site work each week.

Computers at Papakowhai School now range from 500Mhz Pentium IIIs to the latest batch of twelve 900Mhz machines, which cost $6,000 all-up, including delivery, software installation, and connecting to the network.

Almost all the computers are running Windows XP, and this, combined with Linux on the servers, is giving high reliability. Says Kevin: "We started using XP three years ago, and during the first year our computers ran without a single hitch. That was a revelation to one new staff member who had joined us from an Apple school."

Remote control with Linux and VNC

Papakowhai School is in Wellington but its computers are mostly looked after across the Tararua Ranges in Carterton, by network and Linux specialist Access Information Ltd. A program called VNC, in conjunction with the school's Jetstream Internet connection, lets Access Information technicians work directly on the school's computers. They keep the school's network running sweetly, guard against network intrusions, and troubleshoot and update the school's Windows XP applications. Access Information supplied Papakowhai's network servers and runs them with the CentOS version of the Linux operating system.

Papakowhai is one of 20 Linux-based school systems that are remotely controlled by Access Information. They range upwards from 50-student country schools. In most cases the company has also installed the computers, using a mixture of new gear and recycled computers from Remarkit Solutions.

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