Thursday, August 19, 2010

Notes from the field

Working in computer labs you build up a repertoire of little tips and tricks, but I have never really taken the time to write them down and share them. So I am going to make an attempt here. I am going to try and come back and edit this page over time, and things will be a little random (as they pop out of my head), but here goes:

If you work with diverse Windows hardware keep local, uncompressed copies of the DriverPacks

The Windows hardware I have to maintain is a lab full of computers that are all unique hardware configurations. Every one has a different combination of hardware than the others (by design). For those of you who have to deal with Windows imaging you are probably already cringing, but this is what I have to deal with. I eventually stumbled on the DriverPacks web site, and while they are designed to be used in conjunction with SysPrep (which I can't use for other reasons), they are just folders of nicely collected Windows drivers compressed with 7zip. If you download all of them and collect them into a single tree of folders then when you have one-stop shopping for the random driver that you can't find. On Vista and 7 you can even just point the driver installer at the root folder and it will do the job of digging through for you. For XP you are going to have to do it more manually. (tip: driverpacks usually name the driver folders by the initials of the manufacturer, and Goggling the first part of the hardware types in the properties for the unknown device usually gets you the vendor)

I have gone one step further in my lab. I have a script on my local server that scrapes the DriverPacks web site and looks to see when they post new versions. It will then delete my old copy, download the new one, decompress it, and move the folder into place in the server share point. Occasionally I copy the network drivers onto a USB stick, and use that to get new installs onto the network. For the rest of the drivers I point the hardware search wizard at the appropriate point on my server share point, and it does the rest for me. Thus far this has worked wonders and I have to search for relatively few things on my own.

Tie down your cables with zip-ties and nail them into place, with power and networking similarly nailed into place

While it may at first seem a little obsessive-compulsive (CDO) to wrap up all of your cables in zip-ties and then to nail them into place, once things get moving in a lab the clear organization keeps things from becoming total chaos. I inherited a lab in such a state and whenever there was a problem with the wiring (and there was a new one every other day), and wasted enough time trying to solve things one-wire-at-a-time that I finally decided to declare the lab closed for a day, ripped everything out, and redid the whole thing. Since then I have not wasted any more time with bad connections, and the computers all have nice slots with all of the cables ready-to-go when they arrive. And since there are clear spots for the computers, when other people move things around it still stays pretty neat.

I went out and got a bunch of carpet tacks (HomeDepot) and inch-wide elastic bands (hobby store). I pre-drilled two groups of holes a couple of inches apart (mine are on the wider side as I need KVM cables) on the underside of the tables where I wanted a computer to go, and then cut a length of elastic band a little shorter than that distance so it had to stretch a little to fit over, and used the tacks to hammer them in creating a harness for my cables. Then I put in the screws to hold up the power (one surge protecter per station), and networking equipment. Each of those went up so that the screws fit into the holes on the back of the equipment, and then a single nail put at the appropriate end so that it could not slide back off.

Then I used small zip-ties to bind the network, power, and KVM cables for most of their length (zip-ties every 8-14 inches, leaving 8-10 inches on the computer end, and more at the other end), then slip the bundle through the elastic loop and plug things in. Then bind up the extra cable into bundles with bigger zip-ties. Do this the right way once and you can stop dealing with cables for a long time.

Buy three or four toenail clippers and use them to clip zip-ties
For about a doller a piece you can get the large toenail clippers form places like Target. They have both the standard clipper style and the scissor style and I recommend buying both. The clipper style (especially the big toenail ones) are great for taking off the used end of the zip-tie without leaving sharp edges, and the scissor type are good at removing zip-ties from cables in tight spaces. I keep a few in each lab I run ready whenever I need them. Plus you get some funny moments when people try to figure out why there are toenail clippers sitting in the lab, or even funnier moments when you catch people using them for their original purpose.
CDO is like OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), but with the letters in their proper alphabetic order. *grin*

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