|published at linmagau in LinMagAu Issue 3 29/04/2003|
3.2 - Linux at Monash University
I've been a student at Monash for about two years now, studying Computer Science, and my experiences with using the Linux OS have greatly increased.
Monash is a university that spans many campuses. They even have branches in Malaysia and South Africa. I guess I was fortunate enough to start out at the Malaysian campus for a semester, where all the machines in the labs were just Windows-based, and there was one Linux based machine called YoYo http://yoyo.monash.edu.my/ for the Computer Science students to use to get work done.
Having already used Linux at home for several years before that as a desktop-OS, the environment of using a telnet client was not too far-fetched for me. In my first semester at Monash, I learnt C Programming as the main course of choice for my course – we were given a choice as to whether we'd like to use GNU GCC (GNU's C Compiler) or if we wanted to use Borland's C++ compiler on Windows. However, we were advised to try out the Linux compiler, as we'd be making use of it in the rest of our course.
So those that chose to use Linux did the right thing. By the time second semester came, I was already on the main Australian campus, Clayton. And this is where I saw the active usage of Linux for students in the computing field.
Computers in the labs dual-booted Windows 2000 and RedHat Linux 7.x. Students were not quite encouraged, but pretty much forced into using gcc for their work if they were doing C programming, and g++ for C++ programming. Other tools that we came into contact with were GNU GDB (GNU Debugger) and even DDD (Data Display Debugger). Most would have found the transition just fine – double-clicking on a .pdf file would have had it open up in xpdf. Surfing the Internet is handled by Netscape or Mozilla. Having a Perl and Python interpreter at your fingertips was also very handy, as certain classes made use of those languages. Editors of choice were either vi, Emacs, or nedit.
But like a good university would do, they didn't just throw you into Linux-land; tutorials were provided, and practical lessons were graded as to how one survived the Linux world. The system for practical demonstration and understanding of how to use Linux is also available for non-Monash students . I highly recommend taking a read and trying out the practical exercises if you were a Linux beginner, as there is much to learn from the course-ware.
In the meantime, I managed to find a bunch of like-minded people in the university that lived and breathe Linux. The School of Computer Science & Software Engineering Student Club (CSSE Student Club – http://club.csse.monash.edu.au/) actually organises Linux Install Days, so that students can bring their desktops and laptops over to the university, and have some experienced Linux user install and configure a distribution of Linux for them. Here, you see that the push for Debian as the distribution of choice, with the next in line being RedHat and then Mandrake.
The CSSE Student Club not only organises Linux Install Days, but they also run tutorials for students that are interested to take their Linux knowledge further – this year, for the first time, they ran a tutorial on GDB and also a tutorial that introduced new users to Linux. This goes to show that whatever Monash is doing in terms of introducing folks to Linux and the open-source movement, must be working quite well for such a taking up among the students themselves to give and organise the talks and events.
Currently, the labs at Monash run RedHat Linux 8.0 and they dual-boot with Windows XP. XFce is the window manager of choice – actually, its the only window manager a student can use since its locked down nowadays (unless you're into a little hacking, to get WindowManager running!). Students now use gcc3.2 as opposed to the older version of gcc that used to be running. Everything is upgraded to that of a stock RedHat installation.
In Australia, YoYo is for fun use! http://yoyo.its.monash.edu.au/ It is not meant to be used for studies like the equivalent in Malaysia – here the remote access is handled by a dual-processor cluster of sorts, running RedHat Linux 8.0. YoYo is run by students, with the main purpose of using something different – since all the labs run RedHat Linux, and most people use RedHat or Debian Linux on their home machines, YoYo currently runs Digital Alpha OSF1; the next generation of YoYo will be running FreeBSD, with active use of the ports collection (so we still get to play with all the great stuff that's available on Linux).
All in all, my experiences at Monash University have been pleasurable. The student club sure brings out the community feeling, that being the closest we have to a LUG within the university. And the teaching staff at the School of Computer Science & Software Engineering most of all use Linux, so getting help is usually not too difficult for students that are willing to learn and explore what Linux has to offer them. By making it near-compulsory to use Linux and the GNU tools for classes, students are given an edge when they leave the university and go on into the corporate world.
There are two sides to the coin – some will argue that its pointless to use something that isn't going to be available widely in a commercial environment at this stage; I say that being a computer scientist is about doing what's most efficient and choosing the correct tool for the job is where the edge lies in. Knowing that an alternative exists to what the folk at Redmond churn out is always a good thing. And with GNU Linux being free, it is a great development environment. As a teaching environment, there are sources to read, and this can help one better understand how "real" programmers write code.
I look forward to more interesting times at Monash, experiencing the new technology that will be unleashed in the teaching environment. And then, I want to look at its source so I can learn and improve. All this, only with GNU Linux.