What is the best software to manage software installs on student laptops stored in laptop carts?

Joseph V February 2, 2014
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Hi All,

Wondering if anyone can recommend software that can be used to manage installs and updates on about 100 laptops. The laptop model is the Lenovo 131 running Windows Enterprise, and they are typically stored in secure cabinets in each classroom. We’d like to be able to install, uninstall and upgrade software products such as browsers, Dragon’s Naturally Speaking, education apps, etc.

One friend that works in a corporation recommended Altiris (not sure which product). I would imagine Microsoft must make a product for this. I’d like to pick the easiest to use and most reliable product, and am not sure how to deal with the fact that after each use, teachers typically have the students close up the computer and put it back in the laptop cart for security purposes. Ideally, the software installs/deinstalls/upgrades would take place during this time, but I don’t think that’s possible once the computer laptop is closed. Or is it possible ?

Thanks in advance,
Joe V .

  1. Oron J
    February 2, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    Hi Joe, long time no hear!
    You're quite right - Microsoft do have solutions for this. The first is "group policies" in Active Directory, which allows you to control practically any aspect of as many PCs are you like. Obviously, you need to be using Active Directory (a way of controlling a "forest" of PCs and user accounts, assigning them to groups etc and applying settings to them, all from a server). The second solution is SMS (Microsoft's Systems Management Server, not the mobile phone Short Messaging Service!), which is an older product that has gone through various iterations.

    They will do the job, but neither of these systems could be described in any way as user friendly. That is why competitors, such as AltIris, exist. I've not used AltIris myself, but have heard good things about it. There are many other products too. Google "systems management" and "endpoint management" and you will find them. This is a big subject, and my experience is limited, but I can say this - look at the features, but consider the price early on, as many of those products are very expensive, and as you are in a school, you will be able to rule out many products purely on price!

    In terms of when to update, it depends on the product. Active Directory works all the time, so whenever you log on, for example, it will check that all the policies are applied, and that will include changes to the software (yes, this can be a pain). Products that "push" changes, can be set to run at given times, and a good time would be at night.You may be able to wake up the Lenovos via the network, or if not, perhaps to set them (via BIOS?) to start up at night, run the updates, and shut down. This will keep disruption to minimum and ensure that the systems are all consistent with each other (last thing you want is for the laptops in a class to be at different stages of upgrading during a class).

    Good luck!

    • Bruce E
      February 5, 2014 at 11:36 pm

      No matter what solution you find for this, having the laptops shut down/sleeping/hibernating at night with their lids closes elinimates the possibility of updating them at that time. You will need to set it up to happen the first time it connects to the network each day/week/month or whatever cycle you intend to work with.

      Some of these solutions, such as Active Directory's Group Policies may not do exactly what you expect either. For example, if these laptops are being used by individuals that require certain software to be there and other programs should not, you may find that when a laptop is not used by the same person (or individual in the groups as they are being managed) will constantly have software installed and uninsalled on it.

      The last time I used Microsoft's SMS was around 2002. At that time, it was used primarily to keep our Engineering computers up to date and inventory controlled. Since all of them were in the same group and required only 2 sets of applications, it wasn't a big deal. There was also one computer that ran some specialized software. All of the update management for these computers relied on the current software inventory on the machine. If it already existed on the machine and it required an update, it would be pushed out at night (the engineering systems were powered on 24/7 so backups could be performed on them as well). If a change was required for new software to be installed on one of these computers, it would also occur during the update cycle.

      I would imagine that in the last decade, all of these have improved and other solutions with greater control and flexibility have entered the scene.

    • Oron J
      February 8, 2014 at 11:14 am

      Bruce is absolutely right. I didn't think of the machines being closed. As for Active Directory, there are many complications in using Group Policies, not just the ones Bruce mentioned, which is why I said it wasn't user friendly. I should have been more specific.