Setting up a computer lab can quickly become very expensive. Computers, monitors, keyboards, cables, switches, etc. need to be purchased in order to have a reliable computer lab that is often used later on. Especially small schools and clubs, which only have small budgets, are barely or poorly equipped in this respect. Statistically, even in developing countries and less prosperous parts of the world (it’s the bigger part!), there are often several hundred students sharing a single computer — if at all. That is why I would like to share an idea today how to set up a complete computer lab for relatively little money.
Computer lab requirements
If you would like others to use the computer lab, the technical hurdles must be very small. On the other hand, the system itself must be easy to manage without having to spend several hours per week.
In my opinion, these are the (minimum) requirements:
- easy to use
- quickly establish a target state
- short start times
- reliable infrastructure
- no viruses etc.
In order to reach the maximum target of 1500$, we have to “save” the hardware. For most of the things that students do in a computer room today, they usually only need a browser and possibly an office suite. You don’t need the latest powerful hardware. A Raspberry Pi or used computers are quite sufficient.
- a server: this can be a 3–7 years old computer with a larger disk (approx. 15–20GB per computer) — approx. 100–150$.
- Router (if not already installed): 20–50$ approx.
- Switch used (Gigabit): approx. 50$
- Raspberry Pi 3 (Starterkit) or used computer: 50$
- Screen (usually already available), otherwise approx. 30–50$
- Socket strips, network cable: approx. 100$
- Keyboard+Mouse: 15–20$
If we don’t want to spend more than 1500$, our budget is enough for 12 Raspberry Pis. If e. g. screens are already present / donated, we can of course buy more computers.
Especially for the Raspberry Pi there are different projects, which make the administration of the computers very easy and also very low maintenance. The PiNet project has been around for some time and was developed especially for schools. It offers central user and storage management, i.e. the kids can log on to any computer and access their data from there.
Recently, the Raspberry Pi Foundation released a similar project: PiServer. It also focuses on schools, but not only. Here too, users and storage can be managed centrally. The Raspberry Pis also start over the network and do not require an SD card.
Alternatively, you can also set up a Raspberry Pi the way you want and then distribute this image to the other computers. A central Samba server is used to store the work results.
Pros and Cons
As with every project, there are advantages and disadvantages. Above we had written down our minimum requirements. In addition, there are certainly still others, especially when it comes to selecting the software. Learning software usually requires Windows. Maybe you want to use another (computer-intensive) software for which the Raspberry Pis are too weak.
Advantages are definitely:
- very inexpensive
- space-saving and quiet
Disadvantages could be:
- Windows learning software does not run (because PiNet and PiServer are running on Linux)
- unfamiliar system for most colleagues. Man is a creature of habit — unfortunately, many people reject what they don’t know. Conviction work is certainly required here and it is good to offer an introduction or further training in the new system in order to take fear of contact.
- Raspberry Pi may not be powerful enough for compute-intensive applications
- Network interface of the Rapsberry Pi is not very fast (hopefully this will change in a future version)
A solution with Raspberry Pis could be a way for primary schools, libraries or other (small) associations that want to offer computer workstations. A reliable and low-maintenance system can be set up for relatively little money. If more money is available, you can use linuxmuster.net with more powerful (but used) computers. With this solution you have even more possibilities and can manage many computers (Ubuntu / Windows) with relatively little effort.
Do you use a Raspberry Pi at school or in the club? What were your experiences with this?