What is the cheapest way to create a 30-user computer training lab that supports Windows or Linux applications?

Joe Videtto May 5, 2012
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Hi all,

I work in an elementary school with minimal budget for new computers, but they are lucky enough to have a lab with about 30 old Dell Optiplex GX 270’s (circa 2005).

Assuming the school gets some funds at some point, what’s the cheapest way to create a 30-user Computer Training Lab that supports Windows Applications ? …or even Linux only apps ? (I won’t even bother asking about Apple Apps – I’m sure whatever the answer is for windows, it is double to quadruple for Apple : )

On second thought, even though Ubuntu is highly regarded and touted, I should probably omit Linux Apps as a viable option, because the DOE IT support group does not support it, and I’ve run into boot and driver problems on a comparable older machine for a friend, which I simply could not resolve on my own.

Thanks in advance,

  1. Patrick Dickey
    September 1, 2012 at 11:38 am

    Bruce has brought up some important points to consider. After answering all of his questions, and planning out how the lab will be set up, you'll need to do the actual installations (or upgrades in the case of Windows). As far as getting the operating system on the 30 machines, you could use a variety of tools. One that I've used in the past, and recommend is clonezilla (http://clonezilla.org). Basically how it works is this:

    1. You set up a clonezilla server, and connect the 30 computers to it via a network.
    2. You set up one computer exactly how you want them, and image it to the server.
    3. You go to the other 29 computers and install that image from the server.

    Some things to note: If you're doing this in Windows, you'll need to run sysprep before imaging the computer. Otherwise, you'll run into activation issues.

    Also, if you're installing Windows, you can get all of the Installation ID's and send them to Microsoft via email. They'll check them and send back the Activation Codes to you. I used to have the email address, but can't find it (it's archived in an Outlook pst file somewhere unfortunately). What you can do is use the Activation via Phone method, and tell them that you have 30 computers to activate. Then ask them about activating them via email. They should offer you the email address, so you don't have to sit on the phone through 30 activations.

    Also, depending on what apps you need, you might not want to eliminate the Linux/Linux only apps. Ubuntu (and Linux in general) has come a long ways in the past few years. I've got it running on computers ranging from a home-built machine from 2003 to a Dell 4500 computer (from about 2005) to a Toshiba Laptop that I bought in 2007, and finally on a brand new computer (home-built).

    In theory, if your computers all have the same (or similar) hardware inside, you shouldn't run into too many issues (if any at all). If you're able to boot the first computer, then you *should* be able to boot the rest. (Note the **'s because occasionally some hardware issues will arise, that make it impossible to boot.)

  2. Pinner
    May 8, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    I'm actually working on a similar project myself. I have been looking into LTSP and DRBL as possible solutions. Those are both Linux based and allow you to boot directly from a server. Edubuntu actually gives you the option to set up LTSP at the installation (I'm not sure if you've ever installed Edubuntu, but I'm convinced a five year old could do it). Setting up the 30 machines would involve simply telling them to boot from the network. Of course, with 30 machines you might consider two servers. Then just network them together with a switch and some cables.
    The main benefit of DRBL is that by default it puts most of the workload on your client machines (which can also be done with LTSP but takes some tweaking).

    Why set it up this way, you ask?
    1. It's easy.
    2. It's quick. - No need to install 30 operating systems.
    3. Less maintenance. - Essentially you'd be doing maintenance on one or two computers instead of 30 (you'll appreciate that if you've ever had to install new software on all those machines).
    4. It's cheap. - After the initial server purchase, you'll spend almost no money. All of the software is free of cost. And in the future upgrading your server hardware should be sufficient.
    5. Lots of great software - especially for the classroom.
    6. Free upgrades - for life! So you don't get stuck with an OS that came out in 2001.

    Do a search for LTSP and DRBL. You should find lots of information on forums that would be helpful.

  3. Bruce Epper
    May 5, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    In order to provide an adequate answer for this, there are a boatload of questions that need to be answered first.

    1. Is this lab going to be connected to a larger network in the school? What kind of systems are already present on this network? What are the current controls for network access and will this lab be incorporated into it with the same policies or will it be subject to its own rules for use? Are you prepared to insert an internal firewall between the existing network and the lab if required?
    2. Is internet access going to be provided? What security polices are in place for internet access? Is it currently firewalled (it better be!)? Are proxies going to be used and what are the policies guiding their usage?
    3. Do these Dells already carry their own copy of Windows? Even if they do, it is probably Windows XP that is running on them which will lose support in 2014. They are relatively low-powered systems, so upgrading them to Win7 while possible will probably not produce the best results.
    4. If enough funds are made available to get a few fairly capable servers, would it be out of the question to set the servers up as a cluster of virtual servers and turn the Dells into dumb terminals for the students? This could give you the capability to provide Windows 7 availablity on the Dells with better performance than they can provide with a native installation. This type of solution would also work with heavier Linux distros that may exhibit problems on the native boxes.
    5. What kind of apps are you planning to use in the lab? Will the availability of these title restrict the operating environment?

    If you give me a bit more time, I can probably come up with even more questions for you and once you answer these, I will definitely have more.

    • Joe Videtto
      May 11, 2012 at 10:34 am

      Well, thanks for the relevant information to think about.

      I would love your advice, and will get the answers to the first 5 questions - but can you give me any more questions I will need answered before I schedule time with our IT group ? Thanks.