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Server build for small student lab

Last response: in Networking
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October 17, 2012 5:16:43 PM

I volunteer at a literacy center that has about 10 computers that need to be networked. Computers need access to the internet and some office software (open office?) Starting from scratch and with very little money. Looking for some suggestions. I'm a capable builder and have worked with computers since the TRS80. Need hardware and software recommendations....thanks.
October 17, 2012 6:56:54 PM



Another old TRS 80 user? Incredible - I think it was 1986 I bought mine!

Simply to store data for use by the other computers, any decently spec'd PC will do the job and to save money, many Linux OS are free. It's a myth that servers have to be superfast and cost a fortune. Aim for a processor around the 3Ghz mark and a single core will do. If you're running Windows XP, go for 3Gb of RAM but for Linux, 2Gb will do.

Storage space is paramount, of course, but 1Tb drives are quite cheap these days. A Linux OS will come complete with all the software you need and what isn't installed will be available from one Repository or another.

If you don't already have the 10 computers at the Centre and your students aren't schooled in the ways of Windows, use Linux for those as well.

Good luck.

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October 17, 2012 9:13:03 PM

Thanks for the very quick reply. So basic single-core with 3gb and 1tb drive. What hardware do I need to connect the 10 lab computers to the server? Does the server need any video once linux is installed and running?

Saga Lout said:


Another old TRS 80 user? Incredible - I think it was 1986 I bought mine!

Simply to store data for use by the other computers, any decently spec'd PC will do the job and to save money, many Linux OS are free. It's a myth that servers have to be superfast and cost a fortune. Aim for a processor around the 3Ghz mark and a single core will do. If you're running Windows XP, go for 3Gb of RAM but for Linux, 2Gb will do.

Storage space is paramount, of course, but 1Tb drives are quite cheap these days. A Linux OS will come complete with all the software you need and what isn't installed will be available from one Repository or another.

If you don't already have the 10 computers at the Centre and your students aren't schooled in the ways of Windows, use Linux for those as well.

Good luck.


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October 17, 2012 9:21:42 PM

I guess I'm a little confused on what exactly you are needing. If you already have the 10 workstations, are you only looking for a server for integrating with those workstations? What do you want to do with the server, group storage, domain controller, application server? If you already have the workstations what operating system are they running? What kind of usage are you intending for these computers - basic internet access and an occasional typed document?

If you don't have the individual workstations, then what kind of end user experience are you planning to offer. In other words, do you have to go with a Windows desktop, or do you need to offer something like Linux to keep the costs down?

There are a couple ways to approach this, but it's hard to tell exactly what you want the server or the end computers to do, so it's hard to make a recommendation for the specific situation, but here's a couple options:

Option 1: Virtualized desktop environment. Set up a server running Windows Server and configure it for terminal services. You can then set up your individual workstations to just remote desktop to the server to get their actual working environment. This makes configuration easier as you only have to install your necessary software on the terminal server. Additionally, your workstation computers don't have to be anything fancy. You can use very cheap or even older repurposed computers to handle the remote desktop session. The performance isn't going to be spectacular, and depending again upon the performance and purpose you are planning for these computers it may not be ideal, but it's one way of accomplishing this type of computer lab pretty cheap and easy starting from scratch.

Option 2: Windows Multipoint Server 2011. This version of Windows Server allows you to connect multiple monitors/keyboards or remote desktop or special thin client to a single server and operate multiple remote sessions with ease. It has advantages and disadvantages to doing a terminal server, and you'd need to talk with a professional directly in regards to the specifics of how you want to run the lab environment, the expected usage and performance, and the available budget.

I guess the big question for me is are you looking to get just the server because you already have the workstations, or are you needing to get everything including workstations still.
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October 17, 2012 10:13:16 PM

Thanks for the reply. Your Option 1 means the computers we have may be ok since my hope was to set up a server to run the software and just have the lab computers access it. They are slower machines running XP but then they have been trying to run MS Office and/or the internet. This lab is for very basic students who do not have a high school diploma and/or their English skills are very low. They will probably use only letter writing software and the internet so I was thinking that the server could run Linux and Open Office to keep costs down. The center runs strictly on donations and grants. No software would need to be on the lab computers. What speed and memory should they have for this kind of usage? And then what kind of server do we build? And what do I need to hook them all together. Networking is new to me. Computers are not.

thanks again




choucove said:
I guess I'm a little confused on what exactly you are needing. If you already have the 10 workstations, are you only looking for a server for integrating with those workstations? What do you want to do with the server, group storage, domain controller, application server? If you already have the workstations what operating system are they running? What kind of usage are you intending for these computers - basic internet access and an occasional typed document?

If you don't have the individual workstations, then what kind of end user experience are you planning to offer. In other words, do you have to go with a Windows desktop, or do you need to offer something like Linux to keep the costs down?

There are a couple ways to approach this, but it's hard to tell exactly what you want the server or the end computers to do, so it's hard to make a recommendation for the specific situation, but here's a couple options:

Option 1: Virtualized desktop environment. Set up a server running Windows Server and configure it for terminal services. You can then set up your individual workstations to just remote desktop to the server to get their actual working environment. This makes configuration easier as you only have to install your necessary software on the terminal server. Additionally, your workstation computers don't have to be anything fancy. You can use very cheap or even older repurposed computers to handle the remote desktop session. The performance isn't going to be spectacular, and depending again upon the performance and purpose you are planning for these computers it may not be ideal, but it's one way of accomplishing this type of computer lab pretty cheap and easy starting from scratch.

Option 2: Windows Multipoint Server 2011. This version of Windows Server allows you to connect multiple monitors/keyboards or remote desktop or special thin client to a single server and operate multiple remote sessions with ease. It has advantages and disadvantages to doing a terminal server, and you'd need to talk with a professional directly in regards to the specifics of how you want to run the lab environment, the expected usage and performance, and the available budget.

I guess the big question for me is are you looking to get just the server because you already have the workstations, or are you needing to get everything including workstations still.

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October 17, 2012 11:06:34 PM

The minimum that you are going to need to get all the computers networked together is going to be a switch (doesn't need to be anything fancy, but if you're doing a lot of remote desktop stuff I'd still recommend a gigabit unmanaged switch) and a router. Your router can be a simple home wireless router to get out to the internet, you shouldn't need a whole lot here for a basic lab. Connect all the computers to the switch, and connect the switch to the router to get out through the internet.

The server is going to be a little more complex. This all depends upon what you have to work with for a budget. Yes, you can do a Linux box on a standard desktop computer, but it's going to introduce a whole new level of complexity due to having to learn to run a linux OS. Limited options for software and hardware support and flexibility is the biggest concern here.

Going with a Windows solution is going to have its own complexities, though, that come along with setting up terminal services. The down side is cost, as you will have to purchase licensing for Windows Server, but you gain hardware and software support and compatibilities you would not have otherwise in Linux.

Hardware-wise for the server, you can try using a standard desktop system, but it's not going to give you a great amount of performance flexibility for running several concurrent remote users. I'd recommend at least a dual-core processor with 4 GB of RAM minimum. You're bottleneck will be your hard drive and network throughput. For hard drive storage you're going to need to get high speed hard drive, SSDs, or some sort of RAID array of hard drives to give you the throughput to handle multiple users.

One thing I should ask is if this center is a non-profit organization. If so, you can try and register with techsoup.org which is a wonderful program for non-profit organizations to receive donated software and hardware from a wide list of companies including Microsoft for a very low cost. It takes a little bit of work getting registered, but if you can get signed up their donations can be a wonderful way for you to get the software and hardware that you need at an unbeatable price.
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October 17, 2012 11:32:55 PM

Thank you so much for the referral to techsoup. It is a non-profit. Can you suggest a website showing how to physically connect the lab computers to the switch, router, and server? Should I check youtube?

Thanks again.


choucove said:
The minimum that you are going to need to get all the computers networked together is going to be a switch (doesn't need to be anything fancy, but if you're doing a lot of remote desktop stuff I'd still recommend a gigabit unmanaged switch) and a router. Your router can be a simple home wireless router to get out to the internet, you shouldn't need a whole lot here for a basic lab. Connect all the computers to the switch, and connect the switch to the router to get out through the internet.

The server is going to be a little more complex. This all depends upon what you have to work with for a budget. Yes, you can do a Linux box on a standard desktop computer, but it's going to introduce a whole new level of complexity due to having to learn to run a linux OS. Limited options for software and hardware support and flexibility is the biggest concern here.

Going with a Windows solution is going to have its own complexities, though, that come along with setting up terminal services. The down side is cost, as you will have to purchase licensing for Windows Server, but you gain hardware and software support and compatibilities you would not have otherwise in Linux.

Hardware-wise for the server, you can try using a standard desktop system, but it's not going to give you a great amount of performance flexibility for running several concurrent remote users. I'd recommend at least a dual-core processor with 4 GB of RAM minimum. You're bottleneck will be your hard drive and network throughput. For hard drive storage you're going to need to get high speed hard drive, SSDs, or some sort of RAID array of hard drives to give you the throughput to handle multiple users.

One thing I should ask is if this center is a non-profit organization. If so, you can try and register with techsoup.org which is a wonderful program for non-profit organizations to receive donated software and hardware from a wide list of companies including Microsoft for a very low cost. It takes a little bit of work getting registered, but if you can get signed up their donations can be a wonderful way for you to get the software and hardware that you need at an unbeatable price.

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October 18, 2012 4:20:46 AM



If you have a permanent room in teh building where you can cable from the switch to the various PCs without leaving trailing wires to trip over, it's a simple as plugging them into the switch, leaving the Uplink port for the MODEM or router connection for the Internet. However, if tripping over loose cables is an issue, inexpensive wireless dongles might be the answer, with a wireless router handling the switch operation.

Advising on the network setup will depend on which software route you go down on the server. Either way, it will be a lot easier to do than to write the instructoins - they always look complicated than they really ought to.


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October 19, 2012 4:18:27 PM

This may seem like a stupid question, but does the library you're working with have any books on networking fundamentals?

If not, then yes, googletube is the cheapest option.

Next step up would be digging up an older edition of a CompTIA Network+ book. Any one made in 2006 or so will do - the fourth edition of the meyers book (meyers book is a fairly easy read) is on amazon for $9 used right now.
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