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Computer Lab Design Considerations

OIT is often asked for advice by departments planning a computing facility. This document outlines the considerations that should be made when planning such a facility.

Influencing Factors

Purpose - The purpose of a computing facility will greatly impact most design aspects including room layout, computer hardware, printing systems, projection/presentation systems, etc. Consider what the primary use of this facility will be:

  • Open computer use - students come and go to use the computers for assignments or projects
  • Instructional computing facility - facility is used for instruction lead by a single person
  • Collaborative work - facility is used by students in a group project setting
  • Laboratory work - computers are used for data collection or in a laboratory setting

Specific application - The greatest influence on the computer hardware itself is the intended application and operating system. These will drive the need for more powerful computers, larger monitors, specific printing needs, and other technical decisions.

Budget - If everyone could afford to build the perfect lab they would, but there are always budget limitations. Find the limits and project priorities (these priorities should be influenced by the above factors) and decide on trade-offs. Is new furniture sacrificed for more powerful computers? Is advanced printing left behind in favor of a projection system?

Staffing/Maintenance - A computing facility requires staffing to install, configure, and maintain hardware and software. The size, complexity, and purpose of a computing facility will determine the staffing needs. The lack of proper staffing and maintenance may limit the availability or usefulness of a facility.

Aspects for consideration

Special note - For all of the following hardware items, one should consider the reliability, serviceability, and warranty of the specific items. This can greatly impact the maintenance costs and headaches down the road. We recommend at least a three-year warranty on all computer hardware if available.

Workstation hardware - This central aspect of the facility is influenced by all of the previously mentioned factors. Consider the needs in the following areas

  • CPU - What level of processing power is required by the applications?
  • Memory - What amount of RAM is required by the applications?
  • Primary storage space - How much storage space is required to install the local applications? Will users be storing documents on the local machines? Do applications require a great deal of swap space?
  • Sub-systems - evaluate your needs for:
    • Networking - generally only a 10/100 Ethernet card is required
    • Audio - Sound card, speakers, headphones, microphones
    • Video - Video card speed and memory
    • Secondary storage - CD, CD-R, DVD, Zip, etc.
    • Input - Keyboard and mouse variations
  • Monitor - Is a large monitor needed for graphics or engineering work?
  • Form factor - Is a small computer required due to furniture or space limitations? Is a small form factor monitor required for students to see the instructor or each other?

Server hardware - Most computing facilities rely on a server for application serving, print serving, or storage. This hardware can vary greatly depending on the specific use of the server.

Networking - Networking is a core component of computing facilities; it allows access to Internet resources, access to email, and the ability to collaborate remotely. Potential networking costs include installation/activation of Ethernet jacks (B-jacks), monthly B-jack fees, hubs/switches for networking within the room (not needed if each computer has a B-jack), and cabling. Networking may represent a good portion of the cost of the facility.

Printing - Most computing facilities require some form of printing to be available. For most applications this simply means the ability to print black and white text documents, but there are a variety of printing needs. Another consideration is the quantity of printing expected in the facility. This greatly influences the specific model of printer within a type of printer. The following are the most popular forms of printing in campus computing facilities:

  • Black and white laser printing
  • Color printing (laser or inkjet)
  • Plotting

Other peripherals - The purpose and specific application of a facility may require additional hardware not in a traditional computing lab. These are some common peripherals used in special applications:

  • Scanning
  • Special storage (CD-R, Jaz, DVD-R, etc.)
  • Special input (tablets, mapping, data acquisition, etc.)

Audio/Video systems (projector, sound, etc.) -  Many computing facilities, especially instructional ones, benefit from the ability to display information for the entire room. This may include the ability to project computer screens, project television/video tapes/DVDs, play audio tapes/CDs, and amplify input from microphones. More advanced systems even allow instructors to project any of the workstation screens to a projector or to other computer screens on the fly.

Upgrade path - Any computer hardware and software will eventually have to be replaced as it becomes obsolete. Computing facilities should have an upgrade plan and budget for both hardware and software. In general, ITS uses a three-year replacement cycle for hardware in computing facilities. Software is replaced more frequently, usually as new, more useful, versions are released. Budgeting for new software is difficult due to the unpredictable nature of software development, but plan on spending about a third of your original software costs each year in upgrades.

Furniture - The purpose of a facility is the strongest influence on the furniture and layout of the facility. An open computer lab may simply be rows of computers on basic tables. An instructional facility may have rows all facing the front of the room for instruction. A collaborative facility may have single computers (or groups of computers) at large tables designed to seat many students. At least one workstation in each facility should be placed on an adjustable height table for accessibility by people using wheelchairs. In an instructional facility, the instructorÕs workstation should also be placed on an adjustable height table.

Accessibility - In addition to placing accessible tables in the lab (see the above section on furtiture), one should also consider the accessibility of the computer applications (using special input/output hardware or software), other systems (printing, A/V equipment, etc.), and the accessibility of the room layout. More detailed information about accessibility is available from the CU Boulder Assistive Technology Lab.

Power - Often the existing power circuit(s) in a room are not sufficient for a computing facility. Examine your power needs and resources, and contact facilities management regarding power system upgrades.