Advice / Guidlines on handling floater laptops?
August 25, 2008 10:45 AM   Subscribe

Any tips on "floater" (e.g. check out generic laptop #6 for the day) laptop policies and procedures?

Several people who need to do occasional fieldwork/travel were given "desktop replacement" laptops, with the idea that it would be easier to pop the laptop off a docking station and go.

But reports are that they're just not performing as well, or as administrated as easily, as a PC tower for day-to-day operation. TCO turns out to be too high, especially since they're only needed for fieldwork 4 or 5 weeks a year total - meaning people are stuck using an unneccesarily weak machine for the other 45 weeks a year.
Consensus is that they'd rather go back to towers than get better desktop replacment laptops.

So the idea is to get these folks new towers, but to keep these laptops as generic floaters to be checked out when needed. They're older Thinkpads, and with some polishing, would be fine for fieldwork purposes.

If you've done this, or something like it, any tips would be appreciated.
Storing them so they're updated and ready to grab and go? (because of the software used, it's necessary to run updates almost weekly - any way to make it less of a chore?)
Security? (TrueCrypt the hard drives?, preventing out-of-sight-out-of-mind problems?)
Logins? (6 laptops, shared by 12 users, and we don't use roaming profiles. Just a generic login for each one?)
posted by bartleby to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
We have about 15 laptops for check out. We use helpdesk as a central point of contact and submit a ticket while their checked out with: Whom, Asset number, expected date of return...etc.

Laptops are configured to auto login as administrator. If data needs to be created or stored we give them an encrypted jump drive. Wireless is setup for internal and public wireless access. We have Rollback RX software so when the laptop is return we roll it back to its original configuration (only takes 20 seconds). This system works great and mixes security with functionality.
posted by bleucube at 12:22 PM on August 25, 2008

Caveat: I haven't done anything specifically like this. That said:

It sounds like your first step is to come up with some way of genericizing the laptops. To me, that would be an automated (unattended) fresh install of Windows and whatever applications you need, run whenever a laptop is checked in. That ensures that nobody gets a laptop with a bunch of junk installed on it, that the previous user's kids were playing on, etc. You might prefer a Ghost image or any other way of getting a clean slate. I would probably use some kind of low-tech sticker that goes on to laptops when checked in and comes off when they're re-imaged, something like that.

Secondly, you need to get your software up to date. You can't usefully do that as the laptops are checked in, since they may not be checked out again before a new update is required. That menas you either have to do it just before they're checked out or whenever an update is released. I would take the second option, so you don't have laptops floating around the office with old software on them. If you're using unattended installs or system imaging, this is as easy as updating your image/unattended config for the new software, then firing off fresh installs on all the laptops before you go home. Otherwise, I would set up a local admin user that runs a script off a network drive or USB key on login; you can drop an AutoIt script in the appropriate location and just log in to each laptop to run the upgrade in an automated way.

For security, TrueCrypt sounds like a fine option, along with your preferred anti-virus and whatnot. I would make some commonsense security changes like replacing IE with Firefox or Opera.

The other thing that comes to mind for laptops is battery life. If you pop out all the batteries and rotate through them as laptops are checked out, that should wear them all down evenly. I believe you're supposed to store them at around 50% charge for the longest life. You'll want to give some thought to the battery use policy on this, though - do you want to wear them evenly, sacrifice some to keep others at a longer life, etc.? The users will hate it if they check out a 2-hour battery one week and a 5-minute battery the next, so make sure they have a way of knowing what they're checking out.
posted by pocams at 12:26 PM on August 25, 2008

But reports are that they're just not performing as well, or as administrated as easily, as a PC tower for day-to-day operation.

Why? A docked laptop isnt any different than a regular PC. Did you give them docking stations? Did you buy them laptops with enough ram and enough processing power? We use a bunch of HPs at work that are just as fast as the desktops. dual core 2.2ghz, 2 gigs of ram, etc. There's a performance hit because of the slow drive, but most data is stored on the LAN anyway. I really wonder if you could fix this, especially if you already bought them.

With loaners we just reimage them every month or so. We use a simple outlook calendar to keep track of them. For your uses i'd make a master image, update that monthly, then reimage the rest after the update. For the weekly updates, make them responsible for it before it leaves the office.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:26 PM on August 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can't speak much to your specific situation but you might want to look into Windows SteadyState to prevent you from having to deal with the inevitable "I needed WeatherBug to do my job, and it seems to be running slower since the last update to the Poker software." SteadyState will allow you provide a temporary state where they can install to their heart's content and set it up with their preferences, but when it comes back to your office it's a one-click and you're back to where you were 2 weeks ago. Best of all it's free.

Updates are a tricky thing. You could of course update one and the image the whole slew of them using Ghost, but that's not likely to save you a ton of time if it's only 6 laptops total. If we're talking Windows Updates and the like, SteadyState will allow those to get pushed while maintaining the temporary state of the user-changed settings/apps/etc.
posted by genial at 12:31 PM on August 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

For security, I like installing a VPN client so they can just log into the VPN, then connect to their desktop at work with Remote Desktop Connection. This keeps all the files and programs on their desktop PC and just lets them remote in and use that.

I'd also recommend having a hand full of AirCards that run on Cellular networks. It is sometimes easier to give a user one of these and show them how to use it than give them the ins and outs of using WiFi (and possible security risks that are associated with it).
posted by ijoyner at 1:12 PM on August 25, 2008

Why? A docked laptop isnt any different than a regular PC.

I know that's the ideal. But in practice they're at least 50% more difficult to support on a day-by-day basis. Minimum two hardware configurations, for starters. Also, in my experience, manufacturers slipstream updates to hardware and software a lot more frequently and subtly than with desktops. Even same-model same-model-number laptops can be significantly different beasts. Ghosting them is possible, but you're always tweaking them. Some days you're lucky and they do work as seamlessly out of the office as in. But don't kid yourself.
posted by dhartung at 2:45 PM on August 25, 2008

Response by poster: @damn dirty ape, dhartung:
That "true desktop replacement" ideal was the original plan, and it mostly worked.
The current desktop replacement laptops are several years old (pre dual core) and that team is due to get new computers; when asked, they preferred to go back to towers. Fine by me.
Laptops are, and I suspect will always be, a little more finicky and specialized, so they're a little harder to work with than a stock tower, especially with several different models to handle (don't have to remove a keyboard to replace RAM!), and some of the things that are coming up for that team (3 or 4 monitors each, for instance) are just so much more easily handled with towers.

Thanks to all for the tips - I figured imaging and re-imaging or rolling back would be the way to go. Keep 'em coming, please!
posted by bartleby at 4:06 PM on August 25, 2008

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