Five Timesaving Tips for Computer Lab Managers

Five Timesaving Tips for Computer Lab Managers

Reduce maintenance hassles on public machines

By: Brian Satterfield

June 8, 2007

Operating a computer lab can be a balancing act. Your patrons may benefit enormously from having free or low-cost access to computers, but keeping those machines running can demand a lot of time and energy. Tasks such as configuring new equipment, restoring system settings, and ensuring that users are exercising safe Web-surfing habits can eat up much of a given workweek. This can be particularly inconvenient for short-staffed organizations that lack a full-time IT professional.

Thankfully, there are a few steps you can take to streamline the process of maintaining and servicing your public computers without sacrificing system performance or an excessive amount of your staff's time. The following tips explain a handful of ways you can help keep your lab running smoothly, even when time is at a premium. Note that while the tips below may require a fairly significant amount of implementation time upfront, this initial investment can save your staff many hours of work down the road.

1. Implement disk-protection measures.

Depending on your program goals for the public access computers, you may want to allow your users to download and install software they might need, change the screen resolution for a better view, or create new files, you also want to minimize the time your staff spends removing software, restoring system settings, or cleaning up spyware that users have accidentally downloaded.

One solution that can help you achieve a happy medium is to use disk-protection software, applications that allow administrators to quickly restore a computer to its original configuration. Disk-protection programs essentially take a snapshot of a system in its clean state, without placing any restrictions on what users can and cannot do. Once the administrator reboots the computer, all of the computer's settings will return to the default configuration, overriding any changes a user has purposefully (or inadvertently) made.

Examples of commercial disk-protection programs include products such as Faronics Deep Freeze (about $20 per license for nonprofits and libraries); Centurion DriveShield Plus (contact company for library and educational pricing structures); and Fortres Clean Slate (contact company for pricing information).

Alternatively, labs already running Microsoft XP computers can take advantage of Windows SteadyState, a free tool from Microsoft to help maintain and protect shared computers. In addition to disk protection, it offers other patron-management features, which you can learn more about on Microsoft's Web site. If you need other features like antivirus protection and system-diagnostic tools, you might investigate Norton Systemworks 10 (available to qualifying nonprofits from TechSoup Stock at the rate of $75 for 10 licenses).

Finally, if you can't find a disk-protection solution that fits your needs or budgets, you might want to experiment with Windows' built-in User Accounts tool, which allows you to restrict users from changing system settings or installing applications.

2. Reduce setup times with cloning software.

Whether your organization is setting up its first computer lab or simply replacing your old machines with newer models, installing operating systems, software, and hardware drivers on dozens of machines can consume days of your time. However, you may be able to save yourself a substantial amount of system-setup time through a process known as cloning.

Cloning involves using a piece of specialized software to copy one system's configuration and settings so they can quickly be installed on other machines. In the case of a complete system crash, cloning may also be a faster way to get a computer back up and running than performing multiple troubleshooting techniques. It's important to note that, when cloning a system, you should take care to ensure that the original configuration is to your liking, since all other computers you clone will be exact reproductions of the original.

For a more detailed look at cloning and cloning software, read TechSoup's article Cloning: A Fast, Easy Way to Set Up Multiple Computers.

3. Automate maintenance tasks when possible.

Although disk-protection software can save you maintenance time by allowing you to undo any changes users have made to the computer, these types of programs may be too expensive or too complex for labs with very few resources. If you decide that disk-protection software is not a feasible option for your lab, you may want to set up a regular maintenance schedule and explore ways to automate maintenance tasks.

For instance, Windows 98 and later operating systems include a Scheduled Tasks feature that lets you automate certain functions or applications to run at a specific daily time or when the administrator boots up the computer. So, you might choose to run Windows' Disk Cleanup utility every night at 2 a.m. when your computers are not in use, or you may schedule Windows to automatically search for updates each time the computer is started.

To access the Scheduled Tasks feature, click Start > Control Panel > Scheduled Tasks; double-click Add Scheduled Task, then click Next. (The items that appear in the list include all of the programs on the operating system, including tools to protect and back up your system.) A wizard will walk you through the process of choosing a utility from the list and scheduling it to run.

Labs without disk-protection software might also want to consider scheduling other programs on their computers to run at regular intervals. For instance, many anti-spyware applications let you automate scans at system startup, a good way to make sure your machines are clean at the beginning of each day. Many disk-defragmentation utilities also let you schedule clean-ups at periodic intervals. To determine whether an application supports scheduling, consult its bundled help files or the manufacturer's Web site.

Note that, regardless of whether you've installed disk-protection software or plan to manually maintain the computers, you should not neglect to equip your machines with antivirus software. If you need some advice on where to find antivirus software, visit TechSoup's Virus-Prevention Toolkit.

4. Employ some form of content filtering.

If minors frequently use your computer lab, allowing them unrestricted access to the Internet means that there's a good chance they could encounter pornography, profanity, or other content that their parents might object to. Even if your patrons are mainly adults, you may still find it useful to restrict access to certain types of online content, as this may help reduce your liability.

One way to prevent the flow of objectionable material over your computers without having to spend time manually policing users is to install a content filter, a piece of hardware or software that restricts access to certain types of material and Web sites. Generally, content filters block sites according to category (such as pornography, extreme violence, and hate speech), though many can also restrict specific sites or pages containing administrator-specified keywords.

Note, however, that content filters have their share of both pros and cons, as well as a fair number of advocates and critics. For a more in-depth look at content-filtering technology in general, read TechSoup's articles Understanding Content Filtering: An FAQ for Nonprofits and Content-Filtering Tools: An FAQ for Nonprofits.

5. Use remote-access software to speed tech-support requests.

If your lab is part of an organization or library system that has branches spread out across a geographical area, you may not always receive quick resolutions to your tech-support requests, since IT staffers might have to travel in order to service your computers in person.

To overcome this potential obstacle, consider a remote-access application, a program that allows a computer in one location to connect to a computer in another location, no matter how far apart the machines physically are. Remote-access software allows an IT staffer to connect to one of your labs' machines — either via your organization's own network or the Internet — and take control of the computer in order to perform tasks such as scanning for viruses, installing software updates, and troubleshooting.

For more detailed information on how remote-access software works and what features to look for in a program, read TechSoup's article Hands-On Tech Support from Afar, which compares five applications that work across multiple platforms.

With the right combination of software and the knowledge of a few key best practices, you can keep your public computers running smoothly without excessively draining your time. Best of all, a computer lab that stays in good working order will also help to keep its constituents happy, an ideal situation for everyone involved.


About the Author:

Brian Satterfield is Staff Writer at TechSoup.



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