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LabNet connects campus digitally

Michael Rayment, a computer system manager with the Department of Computer Science.

By Kelly Foss

When a student sits down at one of the nearly 1,000 computers overseen by Memorial University’s LabNet, little thought is likely spared for the behind-the-scenes work that allows that student a seamless experience, no matter where on campus they are logging on.

“There are computer labs all across campus,” said Michael Rayment, computer system manager with the Department of Computer Science. “LabNet is responsible for 32 of them and has a presence in virtually every building on campus, except for a few administrative buildings. It provides a consistent interface for students.

“What that means is, you can use a computer in the library and have the exact same experience that you had on a computer in the Education Building. It’s as if you wer­e sitting at the same computer.”

LabNet is an automated lab management system. It operates a suite of software tools that manage everything from setting up new accounts, to deciding which printer on campus to use and how to pay for a print job. These software tools were developed by the Department of Computer Science and the department is responsible for maintaining the tools and software for the 70 servers that host LabNet.

The first lab was set up in 1995; a second followed in 1999. Because the system was developed specifically for the university, it allows for linkages to the Memorial University student smart card. The card has an electronic “purse” on it, much like that of a gift card, and can be refilled. Revenues from students’ printing charges total approximately $75,000 a year.

Mr. Rayment says there is actually no information stored on any of the 1,000 computers in the LabNet system. Instead, they each run a Windows or Linux image that is stored on a server. Each time a student logs onto a computer, they get a refreshed version of that image.

“Typically, this process takes less than a minute to perform,” he said. “By the time the next user sits down to use the workstation, the image on the disc has been restored to its original pristine state. As a side effect, all operating system viruses are eradicated automatically with no human intervention or anti-virus software.”

LabNet is not exclusive to computer labs on campus. Students with laptops are also accommodated. They can download a script that connects them to the LabNet system which gives them the same access to files saved on their individual home directory and to any LabNet printer on campus.

Mr. Rayment is interested in seeing LabNet spread to other areas of campus, including the offices of faculty and staff. He’d also like to see classrooms linked by LabNet.

“I’d like to see it extend to all teaching labs and electronic labs on campus,” he said. “Then professors could go to any classroom and give the same presentation without worrying if it’s going to work on that computer. I think when that starts to happen the convenience factor will be a greater incentive for faculty to use LabNet.”

Now that LabNet has withstood years of testing and tweaking, Mr. Rayment feels it is stable enough to be made available as an open source program for any school that might like to use it.

“There’s certainly a possibility for commercializing LabNet,” he said. “However, we feel this is public knowledge. A university couldn’t operate without a common base of knowledge and we think of this software in that way.”
He is currently operating an off-campus test site at St. Bonaventure’s College to see how easily the program can run remotely.

“If this pilot project works, it may become something the Department of Education could be interested in,” said Mr. Rayment. “We’ve set the lab up in such a way that we can manage it from here. If we can do that successfully, then you can technically run a whole school district from a central location and not have to step foot through the school doors.”