computer lab HOW-TO
Scenario - a bunch of the latest computer hardware lying in a lab.
Status - under-utilized, mis-utilized.
As a student of the department, it is disappointing to see the colossal wastage of resources (IT resources, not anything else). Resources that could be better deployed, better used. All that is required is thinking out of the box. The opinions I voice here are developed by close on to three years of using computers and reading related literature. This knowledge has been honed by listening in on various mailing lists, specifically those related to Linux (FOSS, Open Source - call it what you may) for nearly eighteen months. Considering the timespans, the opinions may be unwarranted, but I guess, I wanted to speak out.
Before laying out any plan, it is imperative to state this - ensure a LAN with good uptime. There is no excuse for not maintaing a LAN. I don't know the costs involved, but even so, when you are ready to shell out nearly 30 grand per machine; how much more is it going to take to lay out cables and necessary switches and hubs for a good LAN? DONOT skip this step.
It is a misconception that powerhouse hardware is required for good computer lab. Hardware with average specs, wisely deployed, can provide a solid foundation for your computer lab. That is not to say that you can do away with DVD readers, CD writers and USB ports. The point is where you install these devices. Assuming you have a good LAN, get a powerhouse machine (yes, just this once). Your DVD reader, CD writer and USB port goes into this machine. If you have resources, do provide a printer and a resonably good scanner. I call these devices the fab five. Make sure the hardware on this baby is rock solid because its going to be the nerve center of your computer lab, hence forth called the server. Ensure that all other machines on the network can connect to the server. This way, whoever needs the fab five connects to the server. This also solves your access control problem. Place the server under restricted physical access and voila! You see exactly who's using (and whats going in and out of) the fab five.
This is where the plan splits and I give you two options. You can use Windows or you can use Linux. Windows first.
Nothing much here except the choice of software deployed. A little research and an honest heart-to-heart with the geekier students will help you pick out the cheapest (even zero-cost) arsenal of applications that don't compromise on performance and security. Take your students into confidence - its for them. Remember, the flashiest and most expensive product is not the only one available in its segment. Yes, do block students and non-admin users from installing software and/or fiddling with the configurations on their own initiative. But also keep a door open for those who are suggesting a good configuration setting or software.
Ofcourse, this is too much of a drain for one person. I recommend a plenipotentiary core of students overseen by a (willing and non-partisan) mentor from the teaching staff and helped by a (willing and non-partisan) member from the non-teaching staff. The non-partisan part comes in when it becomes necessary to ensure that the core members don't OD on their powers.
Linux? Ah ha!
First and foremost, you will have to take into account a dramatic change in mindset. Unix/Linux/BSD/Mac OS users just think and do things differently on their machines. And its for the better. That said, except for Mac OS, academia has been a fertile ground for the remaining three operating systems. For an engineering college, there is no better choice.
Applications and tools are available. You just have to be conditioned and trained. Lets see - how many of your students can write a script in Matlab? Roughly the same number can do it just as easily in Octave. The difference is, Octave is economically free and lighter on the machine. As for toolboxes, they are being made available; slowly but surely. Maybe your college could contribute some code (Hey, thats a chance for immortalizing your college's name - as a contributor for a toolbox in Octave!). The same goes for the entire arsenal of software ever used in an engineering institution. There is a learning curve involved, but then, its there in Windows too. The advantage is your students can have the exact version - no demo, no pirated/cracked copy - of the software to take home. Oh yes, quite a few of these tools are ported to Windows, so you can carry over this advantage there too.
Linux has another use, which as far as I know, isn't possible in Windows. Diskless PCs. Think of it. Instead of 10 PCs, you have 10 terminals where the student can log in and do his stuff, but the entire show is run on that single powerhouse machine. Aren't you glad you bought it? The ultimate model of access control. Both hardware and software.
As usual, the aforementioned core will be necessary here too. Along with the mentor and the lab assistant.
All said and done, it is often true that a thief entrusted with guarding a temple does a better job of protecting it than the head priest.