Oct 31 2006

PCs and Macs Unite

Schools link Windows-based PCs and Macintosh computers on one network to reduce costs, simplify tech support and create classroom flexibility.

FOR TEACHER TOM DI FABIO, EDUCATING students with a combination of Microsoft Windows-based PCs and Apple Macintosh computers is no longer a hassle. In the past, the Ramapo Central School District in Rockland County, N. Y., used both types of computers, but that forced his students to memorize separate user names and passwords. Their schoolwork was strewn across two separate networks—one for the PCs and one for the Macs.

Now those issues are a thing of the past. Advances in the Windows and Macintosh operating systems allow the school district’s IT staff to tie both computing platforms into one network, giving students and teachers a single sign-on process to access all their files in one place, regardless of what desktop is used.


The integration effort is a godsend for Di Fabio, a technology educator at Suffern Middle School in Suffern, N. Y., one of seven schools in the Ramapo district. Before, when a PC computer lab was booked by another teacher, his students moved to a Mac lab, but they couldn’t access their PC-based projects. For example, students who created a PowerPoint document on a PC couldn’t access it on the Mac because the files were housed on separate networks. Now, with the single network, they can access all their files.


“It’s simplified my life as far as planning,” Di Fabio says. “If I’m pushed to the Mac room now, it doesn’t matter. Before, we would have had to stop a lesson and revisit it at a later time, and do something else. Now, the kids can continue with their projects, and their frustration is gone.”

When Apple released its Mac OS X v10.3 operating system (also called Panther) in the fall of 2003, it built a plug-in that allows Macs to connect to a Windows server operating system via Microsoft’s Active Directory, an application that houses information on computer users and resources, such as PCs and peripherals, and manages network security. (On April 29, 2005, Apple announced the latest version of its operating system, Mac OS X v10.4 Tiger.)

Macintosh OS X servers can manage both Macs and PCs on a single network, but, in most cases, school districts use Windows-based servers because they are better suited for managing PCs, says Michael Healey, president of TENCorp, a Needham, Mass.-based network integrator that specializes in education and government. Microsoft’s Active Directory offers better management features, allowing IT administrators to manage PCs and integrate their Macs into the directory. It creates the ideal "single sign-on" that all organizations desire, he says.

Reducing Costs

For school districts that have mixed computer environments, the ability to connect PCs and Macs in a single network cuts IT costs because schools can consolidate servers and more easily manage their computers, two important benefits for districts with limited resources, says Matthew S. VanderVen, the director of computer technology for the Ramapo Central School District.

The district is migrating all the data located on 10 Macintosh file servers onto the school district’s eight PC file servers. The elimination of the 10 Mac file servers will save the school district $200,000 every year in hardware licensing, maintenance and support costs, VanderVen says.

Ramapo continues to use one Mac server to allow IT staff to separately manage policies on its Macintosh computers. However, VanderVen plans to install third-party software that will allow his staff to manage Macs with Microsoft’s Systems Management Server, which sends software updates automatically to PCs and allows the IT staff to remotely fix PCs.

Easy Access

While network integration doesn’t let PCs run Mac-only software or Macs run Windows-only software, it does provide the ability to access files for software that runs on both platforms, he adds.

“It solves a lot of headaches,” VanderVen says. “We’ve cut down tech support costs, and fewer servers mean fewer places where things can go wrong.”

One caveat is that school districts may need to invest in new technology before capitalizing on the benefits of running PCs and Macs on the same network, says research analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif.

Due to lower prices for Windows-based PCs, many districts have begun to standardize on Windows and use the Active Directory found on the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 server operating systems. However, many districts still have older Macintosh computers that would require upgrading before they could link to a Windows network, Enderle explains.

In contrast, school districts like Ramapo have made it a point to invest in the latest Macs and Windows-based PCs. Forty percent of the district’s computers are Macs, and 60 percent are PCs. In such a mixed environment, the Active Directory plug-in in the latest Mac operating system is a valuable tool, TENCorp’s Healey says.

Healey, who helped design and build Ramapo’s new network, says one big benefit from connecting PCs and Macs on the same network is that schools can make better use of their computer labs. In many districts, he points out, Mac computer labs are standalone entities that are used for graphics design work or other specific applications, and they are not connected to the PC network.

When both types of computer platforms are on the same network, however, many core services are the same for both—from the availability of Microsoft Office to having students’ files under the same directory. As a result, teachers who otherwise would use PCs can start using the Mac labs.

“You have expensive labs that don’t get used every period because you can’t get access to school resources,” Healey says. “The [integrated network] eliminates standalone labs.”

Choosing the Best Platform

On a broader level, the increase in compatibility allows school districts to move beyond the age-old hardware quandary of Mac versus PC. Teachers can choose a computing platform based on the software that best fits their needs in a particular situation.

“This lets teachers focus on the curriculum and on cross-functionality,” Healey says. This compatibility also broadens the types of applications that schools use, such as Web-based software.

At the Ramapo Central School District, the IT staffers tested the integrated network last year and began installing it in the district’s seven schools and administration buildings this year. The school district already used Mac OS X v10.3 on its Macintosh computers, but it had to replace its Novell directory with Active Directory.

Di Fabio, who was part of Ramapo’s pilot project last year, says that the integration work transformed the way he teaches his class and changed what his students can do. He no longer worries about having to move his students to a Mac computer lab when another teacher is scheduled to use the PC lab. Since all the files now reside on the same network, students building a PowerPoint presentation on a PC can simply continue the project on a Mac.

“This is common sense,” Di Fabio says. “They [computers] should be able to communicate and talk. It’s just the way things should be.”

Wylie Wong is a Phoenix-based technology reporter and the co-author of Giants: Where Have You Gone? about the San Francisco Giants players of the past.

Matthew VanderVen is a director of computer technology at Ramapo Central School District in Rockland County, N. Y.

Making Connections

Matthew VanderVen, director of computer technology at Ramapo Central School District in Rockland County, N. Y., has some advice for those who want to integrate Microsoft Windows-based PCs and Apple Macintosh computers in one network.

To begin, you must use the Windows 2000 or Windows 2003 server operating system. A Windows server component called Active Directory serves as the central repository of information about computer users and devices. In addition, you must use, as a minimum requirement, the Mac operating system X v10.3, also known as Panther. VanderVen recommends getting the latest versions of both Mac and Windows server operating systems. (On April 29, 2005, Apple announced the latest version of its operating system, Mac OS X v10.4 Tiger.)

To get started, VanderVen says IT professionals must go into Active Directory and activate a feature that allows Macintosh computers to connect. Then Mac users can log on to Active Directory with their user name and password, get authenticated and access their files on the server.

Afterward, there’s a 21-step process to configure each Mac computer. Some basic steps include making sure all the latest operating system patches are applied and giving the computer a name using a standard naming convention, VanderVen says.

Next, IT staffers go into the Mac’s utilities and directory services folders to connect the computer to Active Directory. They type in the network’s domain name and the computer’s name. This process allows the Mac to link to the Active Directory and have students’ user names and passwords verified and authenticated, so they can access network resources.

The next step is to configure the Mac to use the Kerberos standard for authentication, VanderVen says. After that, IT technicians must perform an additional step to use Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, a standard protocol for accessing information within directories. This allows for central administration of all Mac desktops on the network.

After completing this set-up process on one Mac, IT technicians can “clone” or make copies of the computer settings and replicate it on other Macs. This process takes about 15 minutes per computer, he says.

Mike Healey, president of Needham, Mass.-based network integrator TENCorp, which helped Ramapo design and build its integrated network, cautions that IT staffers need expertise in both the Mac OS and Windows to do the project themselves.

“IT technicians need to realistically assess their core Windows 2000 and Mac OS X skills,” Healey says. “If they don’t have expertise in both, they should bring in an outsider to facilitate this.”

Two Platforms, One Network

The benefits of running both Microsoft Windows-based PCs and Apple Macintosh computers on one network include the following:

• Some PC and Mac compatibility issues are eliminated.

• Computer labs have more functionality, and teachers have more flexibility in deciding which lab to use.

• Reduces total cost of ownership.

• Students learn both Windows and Mac environments, which are important skills for their college careers and future professions.

• Computers are simpler to manage. IT technicians don't need to devote extensive time supporting multiple server environments, directories and hardware.

• Students must memorize only one user name and password to access all their files, regardless of platform.

Sources: Ramapo Central School District, TENCorp

Students Get the Best of Mac and PC Worlds

By Matthew S. VanderVen

To effectively prepare students for the world of professional work or collegiate studies, it’s necessary to equip them with fundamental skills. Understanding computer technology is a requisite skill in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, when many students enter the workplace or higher education, they have to re-educate themselves on computer technology. Why? At too many school districts, students and educators must make a choice: They can learn how to work in a Macintosh environment or in a Windows PC environment, with minimal cross-platform opportunities.

With experience in only one technology platform, these students sometimes struggle at work or in college to play catch-up on one of these platforms. Our children shouldn’t have to specialize in a particular technology while they’re in high school. Instead, high schools should develop students who are well-rounded in core subject areas, including the computing environment.

At Ramapo Central School District in Rockland County, N. Y., we have created a learning environment that encourages students to embrace technology from an agnostic standpoint. As part of the curriculum, students work with desktops and notebooks on both Windows and Macintosh platforms.

This gives our students seamless integration. If they want to take a movie production course using applications native to the Mac in one semester and then create PowerPoint presentations on a PC for an applied technology class the following semester, they can use their existing work from the first class to extend their new project assignments.

In my opinion, this mirrors what happens in the corporate world. It’s rare to find an entire company using just one computer platform. Instead, they choose the best computing environment and productivity suites for specific job functions.

We believe that giving our students experience in both environments will best prepare them as they enter professional work or college.

Despite the benefits of providing students with experience on both Windows PCs and Macs, resource-strapped and budget-conscious schools across the nation are struggling to bridge the gap between these two platforms. Some districts manage two separate networks—one Mac and one PC—but maintaining two separate server environments is costly and time-consuming.

At Ramapo, we decided to reduce the cost of maintaining two separate networks. Key elements of our plan included Microsoft’s Active Directory and Apple’s Mac OS X v10.3 operating system.

We are able to authenticate all devices against Active Directory and provide network policies to the Mac environment using a Lightweight Directory Access Protocol connection to a centralized workgroup manager server. Mac users can now access the network using the Windows domain, which lets users authenticate themselves and gain access to their home folders and program data with the same user name and password on both Macs and Windows PCs.

We provide native access to applications created in either environment on our network, which makes it easier to share creative work and emphasize a well-rounded, agnostic approach to technology usage. Teachers and students in one class may access applications created in another class regardless of the operating environment.

Technology was once a hindrance to sharing projects as teachers and students struggled with two separate network platforms. When we first integrated the platforms, there was some skepticism: Teachers were apprehensive that files created on one platform could not be brought over to the other one.

That’s no longer the case.

We’re giving teachers and students the best of both worlds, and we’re also saving taxpayer money and district staff resources.

Matthew S. VanderVen is the director of computer technology at the Ramapo Central School District in Rockland County, N.Y. He recently joined educational technology after working in a corporate environment for 10 years.