Friday, March 21, 2008

More Good News (Ubuntu Community Support is Still Great) and Bad News (Using Flash on LTSP Will Evidently Cost Me More Money)

Well I've already got a response to my question about flash player being so slow. This is due to the amazing support from the Ubuntu (and Edubuntu specifically) community that I've continually received. What follows is a transcript of the first response I received to my listserv post. Of course I'll be sure to post here tomorrow about the steps I took and the results they gave. Cheers! (and thanks for the help Robert!) -joe

> I'm having the same problem as Uwe with flash being slow. In this flash game
> (I use it to help my kinders practice using the mouse) I can literally see
> the frames refreshing and it is utterly unusable. I got my gigabit uplink
> switch today and connected it but there was no change from the old 10/100
> switch I was using before. The new switch should just work out of the box
> right? The LED indicates it has a gigabit connection. Since this made no
> difference I also did a clean install of Hardy Beta hoping to see some
> change. Alas.
>Here is a link to the system monitor display after I hooked up the switch
> but before the Hardy install. I would say this image is typical of what I've
> seen with 5 thin clients running the aforementioned flash game whether in
> Gutsy or Hardy with Gigabit or not (although the RAM and CPU is running a
> bit high since I had just opened firefox on a couple machines before I took
> the screenshot).
> The server is a Dell GX270 P4 running at 3 GHz. It seems like the whole
> server slows down when flash is playing, but I haven't confirmed this. With

You have multiple reasons for the poor performance.
1) You have a weak server. It is not even dual cpu. Old netburst architecture.
2) You don't have much ram. 1GB is only enough for about 7 clients.
3) make sure you are running without ssh overhead for X. ( enable direct X )
4) even if you get a fast server and do all the tweaking I'm afraid
that site is still going to be slow

LTSP is not good at streaming video AND sound to thin clients. Network
latency, remote X, high cpu usage for many clients just doesn't work
well. It can get better than what you currently have but it will never
be like running the browser locally (on the client). If you have
powerful enough clients (min P3 800 + 256MB) check this out.

> Hardy the game is even slow on the server, although this was not the case
> with Gutsy (BTW Hardy seems realllllllly slow to log in on the server. Like
> Gutsy on my laptop. Not good.) I've tried different thin clients with no
> changes. I've also tried Cat 5 and 6 cables to the clients with no change. I
> haven't tried Gnash in a while so I could give that a shot, but that still
> doesn't solve the real problem.

BTW Gnash just release 0.8.2.

> Is the network activity supposed to peak and valley like that? It does this
> even if I'm doing something other than flash, like a google docs or

All your X display traffic is flowing through your network.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Headphones in the Lab, a new gigabit switch, and Ubuntu flash player still sucks

I have good news and bad news. Let's start with the good news first since the bad news is pretty bad.

For a while now I've had a box full of headsets for the kids to use but I haven't ever put them out because I just didn't want them getting all tangled up and broken. I've been meaning to get a bunch of adhesive hooks to hold the headsets on the side of the computer monitors and even put in a purchase order with the controller earlier this week, but yesterday I found myself at Office Depot and just went for it.

So with the help of a couple of students I've now got the lab all hooked up with headsets and the difference is unbelievable! It's eerily quiet in the lab now that all the kids are tuned into their own work instead of whatever all their friends around them are doing. I can not believe I took so long to put this thing together, but I try to think about the fact that I've got it together now instead of all the months I went through without it.

In any case I definitely have a new number one piece of advice for any noobie tech teacher: GET HEADSETS! For EVERY kid! It doesn't MATTER that it looks like you're running an illegal child labor call center!

Now for the bad news. Just like the worst kind of bad news it arrived on the heels of seemingly great news, this being the arrival of my gigabit switch and the beta release of Ubuntu's latest release Hardy Heron. Little did I know what a disappointment these supposedly beneficial arrivals would be. Allow me to explain.

For a long time now our students have been unable to use the adobe flash player on our thin clients. For whatever reason the performance is absolutely abysmal. Worse than abysmal actually, it is literally unusable. Until this afternoon I believed this was due to the fact that the thin clients were connecting to the server through a 10/100 switch instead of a switch with a gigabit uplink which I had read in many places would be far more preferable.

Thus when I connected my new switch with the gigabit uplink I expected to see a marked change in performance on flash player apps. Alas, you can guess what I saw instead. Taking a look at the system monitor revealed the following disturbing image.

If only I knew how to interpret it and diagnose the problem :(

It occurred to me that the issue might be with Gutsy and not the switch after all so I even tried installing the new Beta release of Hardy on the server after I had finished downloading it and still noticed no change. Just more of the same I'm sad to say.

The really disturbing part of all of this is the effect that these types of flaws have on my students. I started using Edubuntu in the first place both because it seemed like a good way to use the existing equipment we had, but also because I hated the idea of helping raise another generation of American citizens unable to wean themselves from the crippling teats of Microsoft and Apple. I imagined students who would be surprised and unfamiliar when they saw a Windows computer, who would appreciate the fact that their school used money to buy more computer equipment for them to play with instead of licenses for software just to make them work.

Tragically the precise opposite of this has happened simply because Ubuntu LTSP just CAN NOT play flash files. Subsequently the kids hate Linux, moan about how slow it is and marvel in small groups while flash files load frame by frame by frame. They LONG for Windows 2000. WINDOWS 2000!!!! How can this be?

For the past few months I've played the apologist, telling myself the kids mostly just played games in flash anyways and would be better off without them. That's not the point though. The point is that Ubuntu can't do something as well as an EIGHT YEAR OLD Microsoft OS can. This speaks volumes about the state of Ubuntu and I really don't know where to go from here.

I'm not giving up yet, but I'm through making excuses too. If Ubuntu can't figure it out, maybe another OS can. It might be time to personally look into SUSE or RHEL to see exactly how Ubuntu measures up. I'll keep you posted. -joe

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Eee PC 9" and the Hopes of Linux in Teacherland

Well I haven't got a lot of time to expound on this story, but I was so excited to see that the rumors have proven true that I had to talk about it at least a little. At long last, we have photographic proof of a new, soon to be released Eee PC by Asus with a dazzling large 9" screen. Super Sweet.

I've been tracking the development of the Eee for well over a year now, from back in the days when the original 7" screen model was no more of a reality than the 9" one is now. It may have taken a long time for the first mini machine to make its debut (and unfortunately it failed to do so at the $200 price point that had been initially rumored) but when it did it certainly made some waves.

It has been my ambition to secure one of these little guys for all of my teachers for quite some time now. I might have pursued the matter a little more if the rumors about the existence of this 9" version hadn't been circulated almost immediately after the 7" versions release. The fact is, as most people have noted, that a 7" screen is simply inadequate for almost any kind of serious computing. This isn't a huge deal since the machine comes with a VGA out on the side and can obviously support full size keyboards and mice through their USB ports. It's more the fact that I sincerely doubt that anyone of my colleague teachers would reliably take such measures. I think it being infinitely more likely that they would just squint away at the tiny 7" screen all day and then all I would hear would be complaints about how it was too small. The Linux factor is something to be addressed as well.

Getting the students to use Linux is unbelieeeeeeeeeeeevably easier than getting the teachers to use it. Don't get me wrong, there are some teachers who have little to no trouble, but most ask the typical questions, "where is the My Computer?".

It's actually easier to convert students on two counts. The first of these is the classic "digital native" argument that they are younger yet more familiar with technology and, while I see this, the bigger factor I notice is simply that they are less set in their ways. It seems to me, for example, that adults are much more likely to try to bend a program to their will than a child is. An adult will try to organize tables in MS Word rather than use Excel simply because they are familiar with Word. A child will be more likely to search for or ask about a more appropriate program and then learn how to use it (in my experience).

The second count may be limited to schools and the school environment, but it deals with the fact that students are expected to be flexible and dynamic and adaptable; so suddenly ridding them of all Windows machines and replacing them with Linux is spun as a wonderful teachable moment instead of an untenable burden. Sadly, this is not the case when repeated with the faculty. In fact, I could probably keep an entire blog on the subject of things we expect out of our students that we neither expect out of nor ask of ourselves (line up to go anywhere? no talking in the halls?).

In any case, I have high hopes for this new 9" Eee as the harbinger of Linux to the faculty. It is just big enough, just small enough, just cheap enough (actually, this is just a guess at this point) and just cool enough to actually persuade some of the teachers to switch over....perhaps. Stay tuned for further adventures of Linux in Teacherland. Cheers! -joe
btw: photos from engadget.