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When Upgrading Computer Labs for Fall, There’s No ‘Downtime’

Clockwise from foreground, Susan B. Deuel, technical support manager%3B and Christine E. Atkins and Lolita R. Mohney, technical support analysts, put the final pre-semester touches on a lab at Pennsylvania College of Technology's Business and Technology Resource Center.For many, summer is a time for relaxation and rejuvenation. Not so in Pennsylvania College of Technology’s computer laboratories, where Information Technology Services continues its commitment to providing the most up-to-date resources to an increasingly tech-savvy campus population.

Even before most students and faculty left for the summer, ITS busily was preparing the campus computer labs for the start of the Fall 2004 semester an intensive process made even more so by the small window in which it had to be completed.

“The first thing we do is identify the labs that will be upgraded,” said Ronald Z. Miller, director of desktop computing, adding that Penn College’s 1,200 academic computers are on a three-year and three-tier upgrade schedule. (By comparison, faculty/staff computers are on a five-year replacement plan.)

Two hundred computers, for instance, are purchased each year for “Tier I” instructional areas.

“Those are our most technical labs,” explained James E. Cunningham, the College’s chief technology officer. “The labs that require high horsepower for CAD (computer-aided design), engineering, electronics, Business and Computer Technologies instruction.”

Another 200 3-year-old computers are moved to “Tier 2” labs, those with less-strenuous requirements; 200 6-year-old models have their hard drives wiped clean and are sent to auction or donated to nonprofit agencies.

“After ID’ing the labs on our schedule, we get together with the area lab managers and determine what’s needed memory, hard-drive space, etc. and work with Gateway to configure ‘this year’s model,’ ” Miller said. “We build the configuration based on faculty needs and recommendations. If an instructor plans to use a DVD or requires students to burn data to a CD, we need to provide that lab with DVD players and CD writers. If they need a 750-mb zip drive, then we need to install that, too.”

Cunningham said ITS conducts periodic technology reviews, discussing the unique educational requirements for each lab.

“Are they working with Netscape? Adobe Acrobat? What type of operating system has been designated by faculty?” he said, detailing a list of specifications that must be considered. “These things change, literally the way textbooks change from year to year.”

Once the upgrade has been determined, and the hardware and software needs are gauged, the logistics are worked out by Constance M. Vitolins and Susan B. Deuel, managers of the academic-computing wing of technical support; and Gallahad E. Mallery, lab coordinator for business and computer technologies.

“Then a great, big truck shows up,” and hundreds of Gateway’s trademark “cow boxes” are unloaded at the General Services warehouse, Cunningham said. The computers are transported to Main Campus, where a “small army” begins a well-coordinated and choreographed battle plan to unpack, install and test them in the various locations.

The process is streamlined using a utility called Symantec Ghost, Miller said. “Ghosting” allows the same setup to be simultaneously duplicated on a roomful of computers using a “master image.” In past years, each computer had to be individually upgraded via floppy disks a considerably time-consuming enterprise when up to a dozen areas are upgraded each summer.

Still, orchestration and organization are key elements because the computers cannot even be ordered before the July 1 start of the new budget year. That means that, once they are delivered, it’s only a relative matter of days before the new semester begins.

“Summertime is a test of our patience, diligence and timing,” Cunningham said. “We need to have all the prep work done, so, the minute the new computers arrive, we can be ready for the start of classes.”

With more than 6,000 students barely two weeks away from the Fall 2004 semester and Penn College’s labs equipped with one computer for every five of them “test” is no understatement. But it is one that ITS passes every year, one lab at a time.

For more information about Penn College, call toll-free 1-800-367-9222, send e-mail or visit on the Web.

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