How to bend 50 laptops to my will?
August 10, 2007 6:21 AM   Subscribe

Help me exert dread control of 50 laptops!

Well, not really dread control, but control nonetheless.

In my new library, we have 50 laptops that we check out to students so they can wander through stacks and study areas and work via wireless where they like. As the school year progresses and finals/papers season hits, demand for the laptops increase to the point where there's a long queue for them at the circulation desk.

If the past, we tried to enforce a use time limit of two (now stretched to three for the fall) hours through fines. The problem is, students who could afford the fines would just ignore it and keep on typing away. We tried barring students who hoarded laptops from checking them out again for a week, but since many of them only used the laptop in an all day manner once every other week or so, this did little. Attempts to increase the ban period to more than a week were met by wailing and gnashing of teeth and were a non-starter. Plus the circulation system (Innovative) is pretty unforgiving when it comes to late items. It its eyes "five minutes late" and "five hours late" as yielding the same penalty.

Over the summer, use is pretty light, so we let the laptops out all day, no problem. But come the Fall, I'm going to want to limit use in such a way so as to make sure that everyone gets equal access.

What I would like to do is to equip the laptops with some sort of software that would allow me to send messages to the user ("Hey, please return the laptop!" or "Your three hours are almost up!") and should they ignore their time limit, lock their laptop down (with a message, "If you want to save your work, please return the laptop to the circ desk").

I don't want to set a hard counter like in an internet cafe or public library that counts down from three hours then locks because if there's no one waiting to use the laptop, then the patron should be free to keep working without the interruption of bringing stuff down to the circ desk. I'm also not interested in logging keystrokes or chats or anything like that.

Does such software exist? If so, does such software exist that would play nicely with CleanSlate, Fortress, and anti-virus software that we have running on the laptops?

Basically, I'm looking for a good way of enforcing a "You get 3 hours guaranteed with a laptop" policy without driving me, my staff, or my students crazy.
posted by robocop is bleeding to Technology (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure if it provides the flexibility you're after in a computer reservation system, but Pharos' Sign-Up is pretty good. It might be what you're looking for.

It's not cheap though.
posted by purephase at 6:26 AM on August 10, 2007

Sending messages isnt too hard. You can enable the messenger service and send a net send to the laptop by its IP or computer name like so: "net send Please return this laptop, your time is up." This is built into windows 2000 and XP.

The downside of this is that savvy computer users can also do net sends like "Hey you smell like poop" to someone else. On the plus side the net send message will reveal who sent it, so its probably not going to be too much of an issue.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:41 AM on August 10, 2007

Also a cheap way to lock a computer remotely is to just install ultravnc on it, and remote into it, click on the control-alt-delete button, and click on lock.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:48 AM on August 10, 2007

Psshutdown by Mark Russinovich will remotely lock a windows 2000/xp machine just nicely . It's free btw. However it does not display a message before doing so, so you may need the windows messenger service for that still. Or you could use psexec from the same set of tools to open a local window with e.g. a txt file via notepad or something.
posted by Nightwind at 7:36 AM on August 10, 2007

Can the students avoid your remote Internet control by disabling the Internet somehow? You may need to add a script that will automatically lock things down unless you send a remote reprieve.
posted by grouse at 7:39 AM on August 10, 2007

How long does the batterys last ... you could just not give them the powercord!
posted by jannw at 7:53 AM on August 10, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far!

purephase, I've looked at Pharos (used them to manage printing at my last library) and that program doesn't quite do what we need. Since the laptops are picked up from the desk, we have a queue already in place, meatspace-wise. It's the ending the session part of things that is troubling. Although, Pharos is something to consider for our research stations...

damn dirty ape, I fiddled a bit with net send but was unable to get it to work. It looks like it's disabled at the moment? UltraVNC looks promising and I'm starting to fiddle around with it, but of course now is when my test laptop decides to go nutty. But since we're using XP, could its Remote Desktop functionality do the same thing?

grouse, yeah the big hole in all this is that if a student shuts off the laptop and hides somewhere, we're SOL.

Maybe I should just look into RFIDing my laptops and sending search parties through the stacks, ala Alien to look for wayward laptops? Hrm... that could be combined with our Reserves collection....
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:54 AM on August 10, 2007

Response by poster: jannw, if only! We could wait til the laptops run out of juice, but then the next guy in line will be unhappy when we check out a dead laptop with no powercord to him...
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:55 AM on August 10, 2007

I was about to suggest the same thing that grouse was. Anything that shuts the computers down by remote can be circumvented simply by disabling the wireless connection somehow. The most foolproof way of doing this is to have a program resident on the laptop that will independently lockdown the computer after X hours. This can be set each time the laptop is given out, which is convenient, because it can be adjusted up or down given the queue.

Unfortunately, I'm not a computer person, so I don't know what program this would be.
posted by googly at 8:01 AM on August 10, 2007

IS Solutions makes a product called UserLock which is specifically for controlling access to machines like this. (we use it to kick people off in computer labs if they've been idle for too long - like if you left your machine logged in and then left.) restrictions include maximum session time - so set it for 3hrs and then it'll kick people off after that.

otherwise I'd buy a bunch of batteries and a battery charging station.. letting the power run out would be fine (if you've got like DeepFreeze on it so it won't screw up the OS) if you've got a spare battery you can swap in.
posted by mrg at 8:08 AM on August 10, 2007

I second UserLock and DeepFreeze.
posted by vkxmai at 8:23 AM on August 10, 2007

Yep, the messenger service is disabled by default on XP SP2 computers. You just need to enable it in services. You may have to make adjustments to any firewalls too. This service was abused by spammers so its usually blocked.

You can lock a PC with remote desktop, but if you do it you need to do it with the same login as the person logged into the laptop. If you use a different one, it will force them to log off and they will lose their work. (I think)

The various VNC programs out there dont work like that. They just show you the screen of whoever is logged in, so there's no worries about logging someone off against their will.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:24 AM on August 10, 2007

But since we're using XP, could its Remote Desktop functionality do the same thing?

Absolutely you can RDP in and lock the computer. RDP won't log the other user off, but it will kick them out (was pretty sure of this, and just *tested* it on my XP SP2 machines, so this is the behavior). This won't work if the student has a login with admin priveleges (which I'm assuming they shouldn't) -- if they do, they can simply log back in (or in some cases, refuse the connection). Once you login, they shouldn't be able to reconnect unless you allow it.

This doesn't solve your message problem -- I can't think of any way to send messages on stock PCs except net send, which you should be blocking because it's annoying -- but it should be a free solution for you (and less janky than a third party).
posted by fishfucker at 8:43 AM on August 10, 2007

RDP won't log the other user off, but it will kick them out

to be clear: it'll keep their programs running, but lock the console.
posted by fishfucker at 8:44 AM on August 10, 2007

er, and when i say rdp I mean remote desktop. sorry. lazy fingers
posted by fishfucker at 8:44 AM on August 10, 2007

You can send messages with Deep Freeze administrative console. Here is my cheeky IT guy evidence:
posted by vkxmai at 9:18 AM on August 10, 2007

I think the ideal solution would check every few minutes for a drop-dead time, so that even if the student were to disconnect the laptop from the network, it would still shut down at the last programmed time.
posted by oaf at 10:35 AM on August 10, 2007

Response by poster: I can see the wisdom of setting time limits/drop deads on the laptops, but am unsure if it would fly for a few reasons. First, we queue up laptops behind the desk waiting for patrons. This lets up log them on, verify the wireless is working, and give the battery some time to charge up. Second, I'm wary about adding another step when it comes to a laptop transaction - the bulk of my workforce is student labor, which is vaguely reliable at best, and a second step that requires us to boot up and log in wouldn't be helpful in those really busy times when laptops are going straight from cabinet to patron.

I've spent some time fiddling around with UltraVNC today, but it feels like I'm missing a step when it comes to installing it.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:53 AM on August 10, 2007

Economics!power!: increase the fines?
posted by melissam at 11:16 AM on August 10, 2007

Hey I'm late to the party here, but I liked the "no powercord" idea. Of course you are right about the inconvenience to the next user, so maybe buy a few dozen extra batteries, and whenever a student checks out a machine they also get a battery from the "full" pile. When the laptop is returned, its battery goes into the "empty" pile.

* All laptops to be the same/similar model
* Budget for batteries
* A laptop to stay at the desk for charging purposes

Are you at Tufts? I went to Tufts! We didn't have nothin' like that when I was there, hmmpf.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:54 PM on August 29, 2007

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