Lab Automation Software Gives System Administrators a Break

B righam Young University (BYU) is located in Provo, Utah, and, like many schools across the nation, its several computer labs are spread across campus as educational aids and resources for students. The labs are used for a variety of classes and for students' personal use as well. With more than 27,000 students attending BYU, lab time is always in high demand. And to make sure lab time is seamless and trouble-free for students and teachers, system administrators have to deal with some rather complicated, time-intensive tasks. "My responsibility is to keep seven labs, with approximately 140 PCs, up and running on a daily basis," says Mark Walker, a systems manager at BYU. "Labs need to be specifically set up for certain classes. For an operating systems class, one professor may use NT and another will use Windows 95, so each computer in the lab must be configured by hand with that setup. For a networking class, one professor might use Linux, while another wants Windows 95 or Windows NT. Each time a setup is needed, we manually reinstall the operating system, the applications, the compilers and whatever else is necessary for their class."

Time/PC Management Problems

"The computers were controlling me and my time," Walker relates. "To install an operating system in one lab on 28 machines would take us two or three days. To reconfigure all of our computers with new software on a regular basis was just not imaginable."

Walker and his two assistants tried to solve the problem by writing up applications and utilities that would help streamline some of the tasks. "Time was wasted checking the local hard drives and writing out critical files that needed to be on the drive. Anyone logging onto the machine would have to wait four or five minutes for it to boot up and copy files down," says Walker. "We also tried to run everything off the server and not worry about the local hard drive, but with more than 100 students caching and compiling, it put a heavy burden on the network. Also, students are always deleting system files off the hard drive or filling the hard drive with their own personal assignments or with data they download off the Internet. We were constantly running to the various labs to put out little fires caused by corrupted hard drives."

It was then that KeyLabs (East Provo, Utah) approached BYU officials and presented them with LabExpert, a fully integrated suite of lab automation software. "We immediately saw the benefits of the technology," comments Walker.

Software Solution

LabExpert enables an individual administrator, from a single location, to manage, configure and install software onto hundreds of machines in minutes. The suite of tools consists of five components: The Control Console, ImageBlaster Pro, BootWorks, the KeyLabs Agent and the Registry Manager. The only requirements are a networked lab connected to a server and a Windows 95 or NT PC running the Control Console, connected to the network.

All five components of LabExpert combine to offer an end-to-end automation solution. The Control Console is a 32-bit Windows-based interface to all lab resources and to all lab control tools. From the console, one person is able to reboot any or all of the machines in the lab, control each computer's processor during the next boot sequence and execute batch files, applications or tools.

ImageBlaster Pro creates an identical image of a target disk configured with software to be installed on other workstations. The BootWorks component controls the boot sequence for each machine on the network. The KeyLabs Agent is a memory resident program that receives Control Console cues via the network and automatically executes those commands. Finally, the Registry Manager is a tool that automates the process for customizing Windows registry files.

"When we reinstall an operating system using LabExpert in any of our labs, it only takes about 20 minutes. If students corrupt or fill the hard drive, all we have to do is use ImageBlaster Pro to create and send out an image and anything that may have been deleted will be replaced and whatever the students left on the hard drive will be erased," says Walker. "The ability to do remote boots, the capability to broadcast an image simultaneously, and the ability to schedule the machines to perform at a specific time are the most important features to us. Once we started using LabExpert, lab downtime [has been] virtually non-existent, leaving us with more time for other projects."

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This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.