Browsing through the archives here at OLPC News and over on the official "Community-news" mailing-list I noticed that there's one topic that hasn't really been discussed all that much: the OLPC school servers.
Reading through Walter Bender's weekly updates to the mailing list there are only few recent mentions of the school server. In early March he wrote that "software architecture of the school servers is starting to come together". Then 4 weeks later he mentions that "the school server development continues" and "applications and content for the Library are starting to be installed". Development went on throughout April and apparently there's one trial setup being used at the OLPC offices in Cambridge but as of May 5 "work on the School Server hardware design continued".
With regards to the OLPC Wiki there are several entries dealing with school servers but there's relatively little in terms of (f)actual information. I assume this is also the reason why Walter Bender called the Wiki entries "really more of an introduction".
Now, why would I go on to talk about the school servers, wasn't mesh-networking implemented in order to get rid of a centralized network infrastructure that required servers and routers? Well, unfortunately things aren't that easy.
While the mesh-networking in the X0s does an outstanding job of connecting different machines to each other, streaming audio between system A and system C by using system B as a proxy (see "4. FISL8.0" in this mailing list update) and a million other things the whole OLPC technical infrastructure still heavily relies on (school) servers.
The OLPC Wiki puts it this way:While the laptop is rightfully at the center of OLPC, a valuable peripheral is the school server. OLPC will be building and distributing school servers along with the laptops, to extend the storage and computation provided by each laptop, as well as providing a local library and a mesh portal to the Internet.
In recent weeks I have realized that the school servers are probably much more important than I had previously thought. It's not only about providing internet access to the mesh-network like I had always assumed. The OLPC Journal will heavily rely on the school servers for backups and for extending the limited flash-storage on the X0s. Moodle, an offline Wikipedia and similar solutions will probably also need to use school servers. They could expand on thier distributed storage system, content in tiers, where each X0 machine provides a small selection of Wikipedia articles inside the mesh-network. However, even that would need a central repository to coordinate with.
The best idea of what the final school servers could be like is to look at the entry of the XSX prototype school server and the Trial 1 server software. In terms of the hardware the current prototypes use off-the-shelf components. At the heart of the XSX setups are fanless Mini-ITX motherboards by VIA Technologies, more specifically the EPIA CN10000E and EPIA EN12000E which are both built around the VIA C7 CPU and VIA CN700 chipset. These setups come with 1GB of DDR2 memory and apparently 300GB+ 3.5" S-ATA hard-drives are recommended to be used. Access to the internet will be provided via a 10/100MBit NIC while 3 Marvell USB Wifi nodes will connect the school server to the mesh-network.
Looking through that information I was a bit surprised that OLPC is apparently working on a custom solution with its own "industrial and mechanical design". Especially since VIA Technologies already offers a hardware platform that seems to perfectly fit OLPC's requirements.
The so-called VIA PHD (Power, Heat, Dust) systems are part of VIA's PC-1 initiative. Fortunately the OLPC Wiki states that "Individual countries will be free (even encouraged) to design and manufacture their own school servers running derivatives of the OLPC school server software."
So instead of spending precious time and resources on a completely new hardware solution I'm thinking that going with an existing setup would probably be the better (and potentially even cheaper) option for countries committed to the OLPC program. When it comes to the software side of things the information available at the moment is still somewhat blurry and fuzzy.
While there's some talk about the capabilities the school servers should have it's still not quite clear what software exactly they'll be running on. (Windows Server 2003 anyone?) One very interesting and important question that's closely tied to the software is who will be managing be school servers. As the OLPC Wiki puts it: "How are services on the School server installed, configured, managed, and updated ?"
In the end I have to say that I'm a bit surprised that the school servers have received so little attention up to now. Somehow the topic never seems to have appeared on anyone's radar - and that of course includes myself. After digging into this issue over the past few days I noticed that I started out with only a few questions, found some answers but a large number of new question-marks have started popping up all over the place.