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Mobile IT Education? 240

Posted by Cliff
from the here's-an-interesting-thought dept.
SickKiwi asks: "A client, a local polytechnic, has recently asked me to come up with plans for a mobile IT bus to bring technology to rural areas. I would love to find out what other people in the field have come up with in the way of workstation layout, OS choices and Internet connectivity. There doesn't appear to be a huge amount of material available but as the technology gets smaller, mobile classrooms become more and more practical." What vehicles would work best for this kind of application? A converted bus? A mobile home? An 18-wheeler with a heavily customized trailer? What kind of hardware would you put in it?
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Mobile IT Education?

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  • by Em Emalb (452530) <ememalb@gmai3.14l.com minus pi> on Friday January 18, 2002 @03:46PM (#2864405) Homepage Journal
    We need a little more info on this. How big is their budget? How far does the vehicle need to go? What type of terrain? I ask the last one because I worked for the school system in Nashville for awhile, there are some really remote communities there. As far as OS goes, I would show just about all that you can, I would even include *shudder* MS products...if you can give some more info, I think I can add some to your conversation. ;-)
    • by SickKiwi (413787) on Friday January 18, 2002 @04:12PM (#2864616)
      The budget isn't huge - in the order of about $20K US, the bus they're looking at is a full size Isuzu bus. The terrain could be pretty rough in parts (we're talking South Otago in New Zealand here). There's some pictures here http://www.catlins-nz.com/. If the budget will allow I'd really like to use LCD flat screens as I figure they'll last longer with no tubes etc and offer a much smaller footprint. I'm strongly tempted to have some sort of thin client setup for ease of maintenance. Win2k Term services is an option *shudder* I know, but unfortunately Windows/Word/Excel etc is what most of them will be running at home. Although the area is very rural, a lot of farmers and rural workers in the area have PC's. The idea is to teach the basics, and also more specialist classes on demand. A lot of these people just don't have time to enroll in courses in urban areas, but there is a general degree of excitement about the mobile classroom. Hope this helps ... Paul
      • Terminal Services / Metaframe and winterms (Wise, etc.) are probably the way to go. Put a (donated) big-ass SMP server on the backend, and a bunch of (donated) software on there, and off you go. If you want to offer more diversity, add in a second big-ass Sun server and use the winterm that are also XTerms. Opensource is great, but I'm guessing that the folks coming to these classes would prefer to learn mainstream skills that they can use at home and work.
      • Do not go with LCD, unless power is an issue. They have tubes of their own. The backlight(s) behind the LCD, of which there are between 1-5 do break. And if you are driving over rough train they will break even faster.
      • Wow. You're going to need quite a few satellite dishes just to load the homepage of that site.

        Has the concept of text not reached New Zealand yet?
      • So I suppose ruggedized machines are out of the question. To be honest, you are rather limited (it would seem to me) in what you can do. You stated above that a lot of them have pc's in the home, so I would assume that most also have a connection to the net, so your idea of term server sounds good in that case. Hard luck for those that don't have a modem or other type connection. The kicker would be how far can you stretch your budget? You can get w2k term server running on a relatively low speed machine, and allow them the use of their own machines, OR, you could use several dumb terminals allowing access in (again, nothing fancy, just good enough to not hinder their learning.) The sad fact is, you might want to keep the OS the same. (meaning MS in this case, as you stated the majority probably will be using MS products. Also, the truly interested will be able to make their own decisions just like you and I did, with a little help from you of course) The reason I say this is it will be a pain in the you-know-what to get various flavors to hook into one another. If you are also heading into what I call Croc Hunter Territory, do two things, make sure everything is secured properly, i.e. tied down, bolted, etc., and bring Suie the dog to chase hogs :) The bottom line is, don't make it hard on your self. Keep things fairly simple, and you should do fine. One other option, then I shut up, if there is a military base near you, you might be able to get some hardened cases for storage during the trips from community to community. Contact your local PR guy or gal, they should be willing to help, and in fact might donate some equipment (The military loves easy GOOD press) Ok, have fun, I would love to be doing this, sounds like a neat gig.
      • Is there a reason you're not considering a Mac?

        The iBook, old iMac, and new iMac all seem to fit the bill nicely, especially considering for maintanance and netboot purposes these are BSD machines, have integrated LCD screens, and run the prerequisite Word, Excel, Office, applications?
        • A very good suggestion, but I raise two points. First, Mac hardware is expensive versus PC clones, and it's a lot harder to find places willing to donate Macs to the cause than old PCs. Second, you have to have some (not tons, but not zero) Mac savvy to keep your network happy, and if SickKiwi doesn't have the expertise he'll have to learn it or hire it.

          Still, despite these pitfalls it's worth some consideration.

          Virg
          • Re:Good and Bad (Score:3, Informative)

            by 2nd Post! (213333)
            True enough, but it's not like LCD PCs are cheap either.

            As for networking... I'm not sure what his requirements are, but Mac networking is easier to setup and maintain, from my experience, than anything else out there.

            Caveats: I don't run OS X server or Windows NT/XP servers, so I can't speak for those flavors. I have a mixed Debian, Powerbook, Win2k, and Win98 network at home.
      • Excuse me but HOW does poor Rural families afford $300.00 office suites with word and Excel? they would be using works if they use the bundles software that comes with the machine or open office if you maybe were a nice guy and burned a few copies and had them on hand, but then that is assuming that they have gobs of money and can afford state of the art computers.. if rural NZ is anything like rural America, these people bought a pc 5-7 years ago and W2K and all the other aps wil NOT run on their pc's.

        scale back man, wayyyy back. I strongly suggest finding freeware productivity apps (abiword) and burning cd's to hand out to people. running around showing off your XP and office XP doesnt help and is only flaunting.

        and I do suggest having 2 Linux boxen up as an example of free, and have some copies to hand out also. I would throw in a mac too just for effect.
    • I don't know all the details, but a local non-profit (local to Grand Rapids, Michigan anyway) recently did exactly what you're talking about.

      I doubt that their budget was very large. On the other hand, they may have just gotten a grant (standard procedure for a non-profit).

      Here's what they call what they did:

      "MOLLIE (Mobile Learning Laboratory for Information Education--20 laptops connected wirelessly to hub which is connected to Internet)".

      If you're interested, I can connect you with Ray Hoag and Dirk Koning (the people behind the project.

      Otherwise, you can probably get in touch with them through http://www.grcmc.org.
  • They'll use the A-Team Bus!!!
  • Do you like information? Do you like technology? Do you like things that are mobile? Do you enjoy buses? If so, then you will love the mobile IT bus.

    I think what we also need to consider is whether or not this bus will be driven by DeVry graduates. They are serious about success, but are they serious about keeping their eyes on the road? I don't really fucking think so.
  • Honestly... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 18, 2002 @03:48PM (#2864421)
    I'd want those in rural areas to come to urban areas for schooling. Mobile classes will necessarily need to become permanent classrooms in those areas that you want to teach. IT isn't something that is static, like your mom's computer. It is always changing, and unless the IT manager has a firm grasp of the fundamentals, they will be lost without further instruction.

    Have the ambitious ones come to the city to learn and take their newfound knowledge back with them.

    Unless this is simply a scam you are running.
    • Have the ambitious ones come to the city to learn and take their newfound knowledge back with them.

      You expect them to go back? I'm reminded of a former resident's characterization of a town in backwoods Ontario: "It's reverse natural selection. The smart and ambitious ones move to the big city, the rest stay here and breed."

  • A mobile home. with 2 x86 desktops, a g4, and a Ultra10, all hooked up to a nice KVM
    Linux/Win2k/OsX/Solaris
    a single screen (KVM) and it doesn't need much power
  • OS Choices? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by FortKnox (169099) on Friday January 18, 2002 @03:49PM (#2864429) Homepage Journal
    OS Choices

    Well, if that isn't a loaded question... :-P
    Of course 99% of the community will say Linux, but I'll be the guy modded down that says go with Win2K. Don't do anything too hairy with the Win2K boxes (to get it so you don't need to worry about crashes), but MS makes good GUI's. Its easier to understand point-and-click with people that don't know how to use a mouse, than command line execution in a shell window.

    Sure, you can spend mucho time getting SuSE (or GNOME) to have nothing but point and click, but I ask one question:
    What do you have more of (or, more freedom of)?:
    Time to setup the systems, or
    Money to buy the systems?
    • How much time does it really take to set up one machine correctly, with apps, security settings, X, etc, then clone it off to as many as you need with Ghost or something similar?
    • Why Win2K? Why not the latest and greatest XP? It's all Win2K is and then some.
    • I don't think you should be modded down, because I also agree Windows (2000, XP) would be much more user-friendly than, for instance, a slack 8 + kde 2.2.

      And I'll be more bold. I'll even say that a Linux distribution requires contant maintanance to stay secure, while Windows XP has automatic updates.

      Don't consider me anti-linux. I do use Linux, but I don't recommend it to beginners who are not inclined to read books and books on how to use it. However, if the person really wants to learn hard, then I recommend linux.

      Most beginners don't even know the difference between a file and a folder. Will they grasp the concept of devices and symlinks ? Fat chance.

      You have most [dumb] users, for who Windows XP would be the best solution. And a handfull of [geek] students that would love linux, and could learn a lot using it. So why should you stick to just one OS? Use dual boot and have the best of both worlds. This way, they all can learn in their own pace.
    • Re:OS Choices? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Xibby (232218)
      but MS makes good GUI's

      What? Oh my...

      My Grandma got a new computer from the family for Christmas. Nice new Dell box with WinXP pre-installed. Now Grandma's last computer was running DOS, with automenu. (automenu would run programs for you, and when you exited the program, it would dump you back into automenu. She never used the command line.)

      Anyway, try and answer this question:

      When do I click once, and when do I double click?

      Doesn't seem like a hard one, but...
      single click web links.
      click once to select icons on desktop
      click once for start menu
      click once to run a program on the start menu
      double click to run a program from it's icon on the desktop...

      and it goes on and on...

      If MS created good UI, you would be able to answer that question in four sentences at most...
      • Actually, it is simpler than that...

        Double-click to run something or open a directory
        Single-click the rest of the time
        --and--
        if single-clicking doesn't work, try double-clicking.

        There's yer four lines. (And yes, I probably AM missing something)

        But try to explain to someone over ICQ how to double-click, now there's a teaching experience...
      • click once to select an item (menu, icon, etc.) click twice to "activate" (launch, open, whatever word you prefer) an icon.

        simple enough.
      • I believe if you enable "Active Desktop", everything is a single click, web-style. You might give that a try (I haven't used it in a long time, and I don't know what it looks like in XP).

      • "When do I click once, and when do I double click?"

        There's an easy way to answer that question.

        Open Windows Explorer and go to Tools -> Folder Options. At the bottom of the dialog box, there is a "Click items as follows" selection box. Select the bottom radio button, and everything on your desktop acts like the Web -- single click to execute; mouseover to select.

        That's not to say that Windows doesn't have its share of usability issues. However, this one is no longer one of them.
  • Slashdot should remove this posting as "redundant".. segway has already been revealed.
  • What OS could he possibly use. I don't know, but I bet here on Slashdot he will get a recomendation. Would it be...Linux? Yeah, I thought so.
  • Modified school bus (Score:3, Interesting)

    by booyah (28487) on Friday January 18, 2002 @03:51PM (#2864447)
    Modified school bus with every other row removed, a server near the front running dumb linux terminals (for heat, space, costs issues) running star office (most places use msoffice but star is very close in interface) with gecko for browsing (keeping it lite). if available run packet radio or if not i would have to say cell for internet uplinks...

    all said and done that would make an interesting project.... want help?
  • wow, that would be one expensive trailer/bus...

    sounds kinda interesting, but hey, it could give a whole new meaning to a system crash
  • hmmm (Score:3, Insightful)

    by nomadic (141991) <nomadicworld@NOSpam.gmail.com> on Friday January 18, 2002 @03:53PM (#2864465) Homepage
    I don't know if I'd try to trick out a bus or anything. Maybe just design a network, then put enough PCs in it (carefully placed with all the cords and peripherals attached and ready to go) so it can be removed, hooked up in a few minutes with help from the local citizenry. I'm sure most communities would allow you the use of a local building.
  • by Sj0 (472011) on Friday January 18, 2002 @03:55PM (#2864475) Homepage Journal
    A pinto filled with laptops should do. :)
  • May sound absurd but I know that AOL and NASCAR had some kind of mobile web access thing going. There is a picture of it on Here [aoltimewarner.com]. Of course, I am not sure how cost effective it is to have two satellite dishes on top of an old mac truck.
  • KNIGHT RIDER MAN! have you not learned your lesson?
  • Tech Demos (Score:3, Informative)

    by truthsearch (249536) on Friday January 18, 2002 @03:56PM (#2864485) Homepage Journal
    The mobile tech demos I've seen have all been in heavily modified 18-wheelers. But they've all been by big companies and I'm sure the cost is exteremely high. I certainly can't speak for how to equip it, but I would think a stripped bus would be the most economical way to go. It's easy to find a used charter or public transportation bus and rip out the passenger seats.

    On the flip side, it's much easier to configure the power sources you'll need with an 18-wheeler, especially since many are already built for electric power.
    • The problem with these is that the ones by huge companies often land in cities where they can lease temporary T1s and T3s to accomodate bandwidth. Setting up a mobile center lacking Internet connectivity isn't all that hard, most of the comments cover that. The hard part is getting any reasonable connectivity to the mobile center.

      I'd look at satellite broadband options (DirectPC used to have this.) There are also operations making equipment that make mobile satellite tracking possible, although if it will be stationary, you can just re-align manually at each site.
      • Since it's for a "local polytechnic," I wouldn't think their budget allows for many high-end options. And I'd also think that most of these mobile connectivity solutions are geared for big business, and if so you'd expect them to cost a fortune. Maybe there's some way to rent or lease that kind of connectivity equipment? Or even better, if it's for educational purposes (granted the polytechnic's probably not a public school), maybe the telephone or cable companies would offer discounts.

        Looks like this guy's going to be making a LOT of phone calls.
  • How about an iMac as well? Show the different options and systems out there is good. Of course you should have Windows and Linux, but that iMac is from another planet.

    A satellite internet connection would be neat too.
  • Rural could mean (1) West Virginia, or (2) Afganistan

    Technology is just to open ended...but I suppose the poster meant Web Surfing

    Afterall, a steel Hunting Knife is technology in many parts of the world.
  • Learning how to setup a WinNT network, setup a Cisco router, or a little JavaScript is NOT an education. These schools, with waaaay too much government and business "help" , have ripped off thousands throughout the 90's.

    How much does it cost to go to CompuCollege? ITI? Yea, all your money are us!

    These days, all these graduates [*chuckle*]work at Microsoft... but many more are wandering the streets of America wearing signs that read: Will code in VB for food".
  • by AntiPasto (168263) on Friday January 18, 2002 @03:59PM (#2864510) Journal
    Out here in rural ohio, the local tech school has a mobile lab of like 10 machines. They also have overhead projector I believe. Basically it's just an old mobile home stripped out, and they bill it out onsite at like $170 an hour.

    Works for them!

  • i-Macs (Score:3, Insightful)

    by sitturat (550687) on Friday January 18, 2002 @03:59PM (#2864515) Homepage
    I see this as a good opportunity to put some i-Macs to good use. They take up so little space; perfect for a bus or whatever.

    Also, OS X is perfect for little kids that haven't yet gotten into the bad habit of using MS Windows.
  • ...it's called a BookMobile!
  • A school bus would be a huge mistake.

    Put it in a trailer that can be pulled by a large rig. This will give you much more space and better heating/cooling options.

    A school bus is made to commute students, not sit around w/them working in it. Your eqipment would kill most of your available space. (Not just computers- but power, a.c., all that good stuff)

    Not to mention- what do you do when the bus breaks down? Let it sit until you can drop a new engine or tranny in it?

    Much better to hitch the trailer to a new truck and keep rolling.

    These are just a few of what to seem to be the more obvious reasons why a bus would be a poor choice.

    .
  • It sounds like a wonderful project on which to work.

    As to the internet connectivity, I was thinking that perhaps a couple of webservers would be a better idea. House some complete web-sites, or create specific html content geared towards the matter at hand. May be easier than looking for signals in rural areas. You would still be able to illustrate the mechanics and experience of hyperlinking.

    As to OS, the context would have to be considered. Ideally, I would want a number of OSes running, with largely Linux/FreeBSD on the server side. But one would have to include Windows in some form. I would also want to be able to show Mac OSX and some X-windows desktops as well.
    Have fun.
  • The new iMac seems an obvious choice due to its excellent size (can be practically flush with the wall of the vehicle, no box to store anywhere), excellent ergonomics (flat screen readily adjustable), relatively solid state which is a bonus for a vehicle based classroom.

    Also, it has an excellent technological base of UNIX, Java, all unix open source available, as well as MS Office for OSX, and Virtual PC (if you want or need to run anything in a PC environment). For a teaching environment, I can imagine VPC could be extremely useful to test Windows alongside Intel Linux in windows on Mac OSX (if they're comparing operating systems, approaches, etc.).

    In sum, the new iMac is pretty all-inclusive with Virtual PC, Unix, Mac, and even MS Office native, not to mention less technical vocations like photography (new iPhoto just rocks), music (iTunes), and movie creation and publication (iMovie and iDVD) which are all excellent ways to introduce creative career paths superquickly and easily.

    Good luck,

    = Joe =
  • My thought would be to get a trailer. Then you could simple rent or borrow something to pull it with... and you aren't responsible for taking care of anything mechanical... Depending on your budget this could be as big as a semi trailer - or something as small as a UHaul or something similar.
  • I would suggest contacting Michael Knight [knightrideronline.com] of the much famed Night Rider series... If memory serves, his buddy Devon Miles [aol.com] had an extremely nice 18-wheeler with all types of elctronic goodies including computers hidden within the custom trailer...

    Additionally, if you adopt their layout you would have a great parking spot!!!

  • A Microbus is cheap ($1000). Easy to maintain. Has kitsch value. Tack on a generator for power and you're set. Low complexity == maintainability.

    Plus there are many available configurations to choose from in addition to the widespread user community which can advise you on any customizations. :)

    Of course, you would need to keep it in a garage for security, but that would be true no matter what vehicle you put a signifigant amount of tech stuff into.
  • Image a Beowulf caravan of these things!
  • Sounds like its time to send in our old friend MegaCar!!! [tomshardware.com]

    I'm sure there have been developments in uber-cool tricked out cars since MegaCar debuted, but I find it hard to care too much.

    Is the poster looking for a big wow! factor, or something more practical?

  • a mobile education unit, eh? how about a mobile teach with a laptop? what more do ya need? what real need is there for internet connectivity in a classroom environment? i know if my classrooms had more than a teacher's computer for sleep demanding powerpoint presentations i surely would have shaved a few grade points off my gpa. if every student has a laptop and it's connected .. during class ..

    btw - the gateway folks or whoever came to one of the city festivals downtown with their bus last year to show off their kewl computers. i don't know how it went for them, but when i go out side, downtown, i really would like to NOT see a computer.
  • better idea (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    How about you just take the bus, and bus all those rural types into some normal, stationary lab? Is that really so difficult?
  • "What vehicles would work best for this kind of application? A converted bus? A mobile home? An 18-wheeler with a heavily customized trailer? What kind of hardware would you put in it? "

    I think the main question to answer this are :
    1) Budget
    2) How many people will be using it
    3) What sort of internet connectivit will be avaiable where the bus/van/truck is going. Will there be a phone line, if not then some type of two way satillite would be the answer.

    To get a good start on saving money.
    1) Make sure you use as much open source/gnu software as you can.
    2) Try to get a load of out of date pc's. Most education can be done on ~133mhz. You could get quite a few computers here for $5000. Mabey 3~4 upto date systems for projects that warrent it.
  • Just make sure that you allow yourself the ability to check the van/bus/trailer out so you can be the person to bring the LAN party to the rural keggers.

    -J
  • Most training areas that I've seen would be semi-trailers, but the problem with them is width: the instructor ends up teaching in a long hallway. (Unless they haul around one of those houses cut in half, each part sitting on a semi. hmm... classy. wait, impossible to assemble in the city...)

    For interior hardware, I would want a distributed system -- since the trailer is in a rural area, it has to be able to switch configurations quickly and easily.

    are they going to want to have 6 trailers? one for NetBSD, one for linux, one for microsoft, one for apple, one for cisco, one for sun? heck no. that gets expensive, and you need to cut a costs somewhere; there's less money to be made in a rural area (with less people) than a urban area (with lots of people).

    mook
  • I've done this (Score:4, Informative)

    by marshall72 (552073) on Friday January 18, 2002 @04:10PM (#2864589)
    When I was in the Marine Corps, we gutted an old mainframe trailer (approx 40' semi trailer), and built areas for workstations. Primary use was for data processing related to scoring and timing the Marine Corps Marathon, but we also used it at Ft. AP Hill to teach Computer Merit Badge to the Boy Scouts. Forgeting the OS and workstation/server configurations, you need to make sure that you have AC (as well as heat). We used satellite for internet access at AP Hill, but we'd use ISDN or DSL at the race site in DC (more reliable then the satellite). Oh, and remember you'd also need a generator. If you want more specifics email me @ marshall dot lewis at starband dot net. I can also get you in touch with the guy that took it over after I got out of the corps, I know he did a lot or work with it.
  • Personally, I doubt it would be very effective in teaching people about the Internet. Sure, it can teach people a little, but is it really going to stick around long enough to teach little Timmy about Linux kernels and such? Most people shut off their IT learning capability after 'double click My Connection and hit connect'. Of course, some people could really soar with it.
  • Cheap laptops may be an oxymoron, but there are low-end PII laptops real cheap. Even if you don't expect internet connectivity, connections between the workstations is important.

    My idea... Van with a pull behind trailer. Get a couple of E-Z Up tents, folding chairs and tables.

    Securing the laptops is the biggest problem I see...
  • First, let me say that I think this is a commendable idea -- I grew up in towns of one to three thousand people, well outside of major urban areas, and any access I had to computers prior to high school was a special experience. As the technology needed to do highly mobile, Internet-connected computing gets smaller, cheaper, and more reliable, this kind of thing just becomes more and more appealing.

    As far as the actual equipment used is concerned, I think there are better ways to go than a big truck full of gear. I think the best example to follow might be the sort of "mobile lab" starting to be used by a lot of schools: inexpensive laptops for each student, with 802.11 connecting them to a "server on wheels", which in turn handles user profiles/home directories, Internet connectivity, etc. If there's not going to be reliable hard-wired net connections in many of the areas, look into business wireless service; a number of digital cellular networks are starting to offer ~128Kb/sec dialup connections, which can certainly (with a proxy cache or compressed VNC gateway running on the classroom server) handle serving 15-20 students for basic email and browsing.

    For hardware, if you're looking at new purchases, I think you'd be hard pressed to find better machines than the recent iBooks: they're sturdy, compact, fairly inexpensive (especially with Apple's educational discounts), and can run either OS-X or Linux without a hitch. With a decent KDE or GNOME setup, they could look and feel to the user eerily like a Win2k/XP machine, but you save $500+ on application licenses for each box.

    Go for it, but don't forget that things have progressed well past the point where computing requires big iron and lots of space.

  • by signe (64498) on Friday January 18, 2002 @04:21PM (#2864666) Homepage
    I did something similar when I was at Washingtonpost.com. They wanted to simplify their show setups, so we came up with the idea for a "roaming cybercafe". It was very much a prototype, but I the tech was sound.

    Our vehicle was a stretch Lincoln Navigator. It won't work for what you want, but it was good for us. It was a Navigator SUV, cut and stretched 10 feet. Each side had a 10 foot "gull wing" door at the top which swung up on actuators. Underneath each door was a actuator-mounted table with 3 systems on it. In the back of the thing was the generator, and there were 2 seats up front (driver and passenger) with the bulk of the backend gear mounted in a small rack between and just behind the seats. If I did it again with more money, I would have used flat panels because they are lighter and wouldn't have needed the motorized tables.

    First, the internet connection. We used a 2-way satellite dish mounted on the top of the vehicle. The dish we purchased was specifically designed for ease-of-use mobile mounts. It had its own compass and GPS unit, and a motorized turntable. Inside the vehicle, we had the equipment for it mounted. All the driver had to do was select the deploy options from the menu on the device, and it would deploy the dish, track it to the correct rough position, then use the satellite signal to finetune the positioning. A unit like this was very important for making setup go smoothly.

    Second, our "backend" servers. Since we were using satellite, we decided to set up a proxy server on the vehicle to try and make the satellite lags a little better. This worked very well for us, since all of the people surfing were supposed to be on the same website. But I think it would be a good idea regardless. You can also run a local website on this box (maybe a portal-type page for your homepage). And this is a good place for a DHCP server.

    Third, the workstations themselves. We used NT Workstation installs, for at least marginal security. Used policies to lock down the systems a little bit and make sure that people couldn't cause too much damage. It helped us that we only had 6 computers, and usually 3 or 4 people on staff to watch them.

    The miscellaneous is all fairly important as well. We used a 12kw gasoline generator which was mounted in the back of the vehicle and drew off the same tank as the engine (which was expanded). I think we had it set up so that we could get 8 hours of 75% load. We also had a connection so that we could connect to a power source at the setup site. This required a decent power management system, but it worked just fine. We did have problems with the exhaust from the generator (because it was so close to the workstations) and ended up having to do some custom work to vent it out the top of the vehicle. But surprisingly enough, the sound wasn't that bad when it was running.

    We also had a sound system installed, so that we could do presentations/classes. Just microphone hookups in the front, a rack-mount DJ quality CD player, small amp, and a few speakers around the thing. I think it's not a bad idea for any application, because there's always going to be a use, even if it's just background noise.

    All told, I designed the system so that it could be setup by any marketing droid that took it out. Flip a few switches to power gear up, deploy the satellite, power up the workstations, and that's it. And for the few times I saw it in operation before I moved out of the area, it worked nicely. There were a few bugs, but like I said, it was a prototype.

    Things I would have done differently this time? First, flat panels. They take up less space. This may or may not work for you, depending on the vehicle you use and how many workstations you want to get in there (and your budget). Second, for your application I might also set up a wireless network. It wouldn't cost that much to add, and while your customers probably don't have laptops with wireless NICs, it would give you a little flexibility for use, as well as letting you roam around with a troubleshooting laptop, if need be.

    Hope that helps a little. If you have any questions about what we did, post a followup to this.

    -Todd
    • You made a roaming cafe!?! Out of a Delorean?

      Seriously, this sounds really really cool. Wish I could have seen something like this in action.

      Kudos
      • I wish they would have kept it running longer. I left washingtonpost.com shortly after it was done, moving on to bigger and better things. But while I was doing it, they wouldn't give me another person to make intimately familiar with how it worked. Then the marketing director that I designed and built it with left the company after I did, and I think they mothballed the thing. I have no idea what happened to it after that point.

        Oh yeah, it was also painted a really cool color, called Dupont Chromalusion True Blasberry. Changed colors depending on the angle that you looked at it from. Blues, purples, reds, oranges, greens, etc. It was especially cool because they painted the satellite housing, which has lots of angles.

        -Todd
    • by guttentag (313541) on Friday January 18, 2002 @04:52PM (#2864839) Journal
      I wasn't involved in setting this up, but as a member of the editorial staff, I got talked into accompanying the navigator at an event to show people the highlights of washingtonpost.com (heck, I still have the "Washingtonpost.com on Wheels" (WOW) sweatshirt).

      WOW was really cool, but a few things stick out in my mind:

      • Sunlight - Outdoors we could only use one side (3 of the vehicle's 6 computers) at a time because the glare from the bright sunlight made the screens on one side unviewable. I suppose a tent-like enclosure could have been rigged to prevent this, but that would have taken away from the vehicle's "cool" factor ("Look Mommy, there are computers in that car!").
      • Lack of Interest - While a live, roving exposition of our Web site seemed like a great idea to me, in practice most people didn't seem very interested. Those who walked over and were interested in more than just the cool vehicle didn't have a very long attention span. Some of them commented they would like to check the site out at home, but at the event they didn't have the patience to stand around using a computer. I guess people are just used to sitting down to use computers... I noticed that the Newseum in Rosslyn had chairs in front of its Online Journalism exhibit.

        Several people actually came over and told us they thought the flashy vehicle's presence was a shameless promotion for the venerable Washington Post. One of them even promised to send a complaint to Katharine Graham, but I think he may have missed his medication that morning. :o) We laughed at him after he was out of earshot.

      • Pencils - The free washingtonpost.com pencils we had were definitely more popular than the computers on the vehicle. In retrospect, I'm not sure if they helped lure people in or just distracted people from our main attraction.
      • Mice - IIRC, WOW used trackballs instead of mice. I thought this was a really nice usability touch. To use mice, we would have had to provide large, awkward surfaces for "mousing."

      You can see a picture of WOW here [naa.org], but I can't find any of its related promotional materials on washingtonpost.com today. At any rate, I thought the vehicle was an engineering marvel. Good work, Todd! :o)

      • Hehe, always good.

        On the sunlight. Yeah, unfortunately, not much we could do about that. We actually thought about putting an extension to the "wings" that would slot into them, so that when you put up the wings, you would then pull an additional sunshield out of them. Part of the problem with this was the added weight for the doors (they were already stressing the actuators, and they were the biggest we could get for this application). The other part of the proble was supporting them. We would have had to have poles on the corners, which would have been a pain.

        The lack of interest. Yeah, unfortunately that was somewhat characteristic at a lot of Washingtonpost.com's events, regardless of how we presented the computers. The computer setups were more popular at inside events (like conferences) where the Glamvan (I still refuse to call it WoW :) could not go. At the outside events, like the Vintage Virginia wine festival, not many people wanted to sit and use a computer. When I saw the Glamvan at Vintage Virginia, it did seem to be more popular than the stationary cybercafe was the year before, but that still wasn't much. Thankfully, what was proposed in the article is a little different than Glamvan, so I think it will be more popular.

        Yeah, it was an engineering marvel. And a nightmare. The build process was very painful, and I had to spend a lot of time in Missouri (at the limousine shop that was building it) to make sure everything went right. There wsa nothing like this out there at the time, so we had nothing to build from. There were a lot of things that were jury-rigged, like the keyboard trays (cut & bent from sheet metal. They could have used a little more polish). Part of this was because everything was so custom, and part of it was because outside of the "sponsored" items like the car and computers, Washingtonpost.com didn't want to spend much money on this.

        That's one more thing. It will help your budget on this a lot if you can get sponsors to donate parts. Like approach Dell or Gateway for computers, someone else for the vehicle, a third party for the Internet access.

        Thanks for the praise :) I had a lot of fun building it.

        -Todd
    • I'm surprised someone didn't mod you down because you used Windows NT instead of Linucks.

      Wow [slashdot.org]

  • Rig: Use a trailer. You can hook it up to a different vehicle when the bus/rv is in the shop.

    OS: Linux, *BSD, Win2K, and Mac. Gotta show people the differences out there. We all have our pref's, but poeple need to be prepared for what they may be forced to use. Even if we're all so sure what is superior, gotta show people to convince them ;) Also, you might want to look at thin clients??

    Apps: Think about this one. People want to use applications, not OS's. This may effect above.

    Net: I suppose it depends upon what kinda wireless you may have available in the area.

    General: By rural, what do you mean? Is this an agricultural area? Modern farming uses a lot of IT these days, gps, chemical measurement, databases, sat photos even. Check with your local farmers/agri extension office. What do they use? What do they want to use? How can they help you? If it's not agri, but forestry, mining, tourism, light manufacturing, other, the same applies. Talk to the locals.

    How many people will it serve at once? If not everyone can be on a machine at once, what other resources will you provide for people who are waiting that can enhance things? Video with projector for instruction while waiting? Other not-specifically IT technology education, like some basic electronics or radio stuff? These things can all be quickly unloaded and expand the number of people served and complement the IT stuff itself.
  • Although the bus has the "cool" factor, Cost wise and bang for your buck I would go with there current car and a box of Notebooks in reality the $50k your gonna spend on a bus can buy alot of laptops and most places the bus would go will have desks or tables already there ;)
    --
    That being said If I where to go for a bus/truck ect I would take an existing school bus take out every other seat and add a small desk with enough room for the keyboard/mouse combo route the cables down to the existing storage under the bus add rack mounts and put the the computers down there (In the bus you would have to add extra AC with that many kids / computers plus noise) Put Flat panels attached to the seat infront of each desk and have multiple OS's on each computer..
  • by Plug (14127)
    I see you're also in NZ...

    If your client isn't the Waikato Polytech, ring them and ask them. They had a bus a couple years back that had 10-20 computers in it from memory, arranged around the walls. I'm not sure about its power supply, but I think an extension cord from the roof of the bus (perhaps 3-phase)? did the job.
  • AGP, PCI, IDE, SCSI, ISA, USB1.1, and the all new 2002 USB 2.0, 0 to 480Mb/sec in .0000002 seconds.

    You can put flames on the side of your case and pretend your computer is a hot rod.
  • I recommend a satellite Internet provider like Starband [starband.com] or Wild Blue [wildblue.com] (when it comes out).
  • This photo [communityconnect.org] from the interior of a mobile lab may give you ideas.
    A number of organizations who attempt to tackle the digital divide are considering something similar.

    I would think the actual set up you want would depend on what you wanted people to get out of the experience. If you want to people to learn hardware skills you'll need a different set up than if you wanted to teach them MS Office.

    If you don't actually need to provide the classroom space, I once used a neat mobile set up which had a half a dozen small Windows CE devices wirelessly networked to a hefty laptop than acted as a server. It was all packaged in a wheeled box that fitted into the trunk of a small car.
  • The Travellers School Charity has a "budget" mobile computer classroom project in the UK. with 4 laptops 1 good one, and 3 ancient pentiums. Solar panels, windmill, banks of heavy jelly batterries in an old canteen truck. check it out - I've just uploaded new pics to http://www.tsct.co.uk/tsc-news.html
  • The best way would be to get a bus with 1st class airline seats mounted in instead of bus seats. The ones that you can put a screen right in back of the seat in front of you. A trailer truck I fear would be too loud. Unless you insulate the trailer well (The truck's diesel engine would be loud and would be needed for the air conditioning). The advantage of the trailer truck would be the extra room. I believe both Bus and Truck engines can act as a generator when it is not being used for transportation. Remember get skylights. And either one of these vehicles can have advertising on the side.

    The computer itself could be a small laptop (B-series Fujitsu for example) and seperate the screen from the keyboard. mount a small keyboard on the tray table and stick the computer under the seat with an easy to reach boot switch, CD-ROM Drive, and Floppy Drive.

    The O/S choice depends on what you want to teach. If you are teaching Joe Smoe from Company X productivity teach him what he will be using. The easiest would to do dual boot systems and then reboot as needed. Or if you want to, you could install VMware and skip all the reboots.

    If you are teaching Linux then Linux. If you are teaching Windows then Windows. If you are doing both... well then do both.

    For internet connectivity use a satilite provider. It won't matter on your location.

  • by medcalf (68293) on Friday January 18, 2002 @04:34PM (#2864743) Homepage
    Your limitations will be primarily floor space, power and connectivity. These will drive layout to a very large degree. You will have problems with heat in a confined space as well. Arrangement will largely be dictated by the width of the chosen vehicle.

    Since your audience can be assumed to be newbies, and since your function appears to be non-platform-specific (web access, etc), the OS should be chosen for stability and remote administration capabilities. The hardware should be chosen for space and power features.

    I would suggest either running MacOS X on new iMacs (for space/power/remote admin/stability) or running Linux/GNOME or Linux/KDE on ldaptops, with external keyboards, mice and flat panel screens (for the same reasons, though the admin skill level will need to be higher, and it's more difficult to reload the OS/reconfigure the system if needed).

    Also, in either case, you should be able to get some assistance from vendors in making this work.

    For power, you can use readily-available generators that can be packed into tight spaces. For connectivity, you will probably need a microwave tower (if you can get line of site) or a bidirectional encrypted radio or satellite link. You might talk to the local telecom companies, or the local TV stations - they both have to solve this problem.

    -jeff
  • SGI used to (still does?) have a 18-wheeler with a bunch of their technology in it. It visited the small town high school I used to attend a couple years back. At the time they had it full of a couple of Onyx2s and lots of O2s and Octane2s.

    While not for education, per say, it'd still be valuable to check out for some ideas if it still exists and you can get access to it.
  • Motorhomes Cost at leat $40,000
    School Busses Cost ~$80,000
    Commercial Buses Cost >$100,000
    18 Wheelers cost >$100,000

    There is also the cost of insurance and maintence, neither one of which is trivial.

    So here is what I what I would do instead:

    1)Buy big pickup with shell/cargo van. Maybe 2/3. These don't need to be new.

    2)Attach shell with waterproofing(on pickup) and racks for equipment.

    3)Buy wireless lan hubs and network cards from linksys.

    4)Buy folding card tables, 8 man tents (the ones you can stand in), and folding chairs from sports authority.

    5)Buy laptops from Dell with Win2k.

    6)Install all software you should ever need. Make OS work well.

    7)Use Norton Ghost to make the OS easy to restore to perfect working order.

    8)Build a HUGE fileserver runing linux (put shockproofing in the van so the HD's don't get fooed up).

    9)Make SAMBA/unix acounts on aforementioned fileserver for each user who logs in.

    10)If you want to be able to get internet acess beyond your little LAN, use a couple starband [starband.com] satellite uplinks to connect. Or equiv. service.

    11) Find a source of power, or buy a generator. I would just use local power.
    • Oh...and how to make more than one net connection work? Well Win2k had that nice "Share my connection feature" which might work, or you might have to put a load balencing server as a gateway. But if you read slashdot, linux as a gateway is not probbably a new idea to you...
  • The easiest... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by slykens (85844) on Friday January 18, 2002 @05:10PM (#2864948)
    Obviously the easiest thing to do is to have an SUV with Starband and a proxy server in it with an 802.11 access point parked next to a tent with some tables and chairs and a bunch of laptops. Now, I'm assuming you do want to use this in inclement weather too. Then...

    Use the largest van (trailer) you can legally drive around with (53' I think) and build in a slide out section on one side. If you figure the front five feet go to HVAC, servers, a generator (sound insulated, 5 kW may be more than enough, two 5 kW if you want to be sure and have a backup) and storage and use 4' per workstation you should be able to fit a total of 24 workstations in. I would seriously recommend using laptops with 802.11, again Starband and a proxy. During transport and parking of the van these can be stored in a secured location. You want to be careful you don't have too much trouble with vibration damage too, not much of a problem if you've got a suspension system in the vehicle or trailer.

    Keep in mind you'll need an exit at both ends, you don't want to be the guy responsible for a bunch of kids getting incinerated.

    Be careful with the lighting too. Think about a nice warm environment, the kind you'd like to work in.
  • by doorbot.com (184378) on Friday January 18, 2002 @05:36PM (#2865121) Journal
    a mobile IT bus to bring technology to rural areas

    Is this like introducing fire to early humans? Or is it like selling freezers to Eskimos? Are those living in rural areas really going to benefit from this?

    I think we can all agree that broadband connections in many urban areas are either severely lacking or extremely expensive... so why would they be any cheaper in rural areas? Sure, there could be a community effort to bring broadband to all, but I'm guessing this bus is not going to be visiting those communities anyways. Local telcos are forced to sell rural telephone lines below cost (offset by higher prices in urban areas); however, broadband does not fall under this regulation.

    So one day, suddenly the mobile-tech bus drives up and stops next to Billy Bob's house. Billy Bob doesn't know anything about computers and probably is not going to understand the possibilities of them. But if Billy Bob has children, they may be very much interested in the mobile-tech bus and the goodies inside. But how does the mobile-tech bus really do anything for the rural inhabitants? It's like parading around in a Ferrari and saying, "Gee, isn't this cool? You could have this, but you can't afford it... sorry."

    So now you've managed to generate some interest in computers and broadband in rural areas, but they still won't be able to make use of it.

    I'd like to offer you a solution to the problem, but I cannot. I would recommend that you build your mobile-tech bus while at the same time working with local ISPs or government to promote broadband, etc so hopefully when the bus shows up, you're not trying to sell freezers to Eskimos -- instead, you have a plan for dispersing the technology to those who you're hoping will benefit from it.
    • Look at the guy that posted this story. His nick is SickKiwi which tells me that this guy is a New Zealander. Rural new zealand is not full of rednecks, in fact im willing to bet that new zealand farmers are some of the most technologically advanced and intelligent farmers in the world.

      Most dairy farmers I know have 4 year argriculture degrees. Market conditions demand that they be smart-New Zealand's position means that shipping costs are high so produce has to be top notch to sell overseas.

      Case in point, my cousin uses a farm management program which contains a map generated for sat photographs that allows him to see grass growth rates, possible sheep density etc. It even schedules farm tasks so that workers can be called in just in time. How did he learn this program-? Free training from the NZ government. Its worth it
    • Let me clarify some points that I tried to make.

      I'm not suggesting that those living in rural areas are uneducated rednecks. While they definitely exist, and I doubt their need for a computer, the other rural inhabitants are also likely to not have much use for a PC. Computerized farming, or computer-aided farming? Maybe. But frankly a roving vehicle filled with gaming PCs glorifying the Internet is hardly going to be of practical use (remember the price factor) to these people. Do they care about Linux and Open Source? Probably not. Do they care about Microsoft and Bill Gates? Probably not. They want whatever computers they have to work reliably. A visit from a techno bus will not change that. And may I remind you of the issue of broadband that is likely going to be tied to this new technology on parade.

      I see this project as a way to bring technology to the young people in rural areas. But realize that if the areas being visited poorer for whatever reasons, a computer won't be high on the list of necessary household items. The children of this world are our future, and technology is a fantastic way to enable them to express themselves and to learn everything they desire... but ensure they can afford it and make use of it.
  • Buy a small van/SUV. Buy laptops with 802.11. Get an access point, and a server.

    When you go tech, find a local church, school, or other hall with folding tables. Slap down the laptops, turn on the AP, and you're good to go.

    It's very simple. It's durable, laptops are made to be moved around. You can increase or decrease the number of clients with ease, just add or remove laptops. You can probably also carry enough for 50-100 people, if you needed to do that. Also, laptops with batteries won't die if you accidently blow a breaker somewhere.

    It's not fancy, but it would be easy and cheap.

  • by billstewart (78916) on Friday January 18, 2002 @08:51PM (#2866015) Journal
    What you need depends a lot on what you're trying to do and what your audience will be. Are you trying to show people how to use popular PC user interfaces? Word processing? Spreadsheets? Web browsing? Accounting? Finding stuff on the Internet? Assembling PCs hardware? Data collection from rainfall/soil-moisture/temperature telemetry widgets? Bidding on futures markets? CAD/CAM programs for building or machinery? At least in the US, farmers are often heavily involved with computers, because farms are businesses, with accounting to run, and because selling farm commodities is a complex processes, especially if you're trying to risk-manage on the futures markets, plus some of them use high-tech field machinery, and everybody uses weather forecasts.


    Some of your decisions will be pretty obvious - basic flat-screens have come down in price enough that you're far better off using them than CRTs, because you're trading off the cost of the equipment vs. the cost of a bigger bus and more electricity. But if you're trying to show things to a larger group of people, you'll have to find something that fits your budget but still works, though that may be "display the same slides on N screens at once." And of course you'll want a couple of CD-R-burners for giving away software, as well as stacks of blank CDs and floppies.

    Will you be showing off how to build hardware? Letting people know what the basic guts of a PC are like is valuable, so you'll probably want some basic PCs, card tables, and screwdrivers for people to play with, and spare parts to make up for the ones you'll lose or break. But if you're also doing telemetry, you'll need whatever flavors of hardware that uses, whether it's simple RS-232 stuff like X-10 or fancier data bus things, and you'll need a few sample things to telemeter.

  • What you are looking for is this [slashdot.org]

    If you find it, steal it, dump the boat and the BMW for some cash and add a Beowulf cluster.
  • A few years back I worked for a program that was designed to teach principals and superintendants of public schools how to use technology. The idea was that by teaching the top of the education food chain, we could convince them of the value of educational technology. Interesting project, and one I really enjoyed working with. I won't mention what operating system we taught or who sponsered the event in order to protect the innocent. ;o)

    To answer the posted question, we actually roamed all around the state setting up mobile, networked labs at all the major universities, holding multiple sessions of four days for a few weeks at each location, and then tearing it all down to head to the next site. All of the sites were VERY different--we had to get creative when wiring networks and power setups.

    As for how we traveled, we used a large Chevy van for all of our equipment. We had a couple of printers, a scanner, digital cameras, 80 toshiba laptops per site, a ton of hubs, power cords, a large spool of cat5 for wiring the rooms, and assorted other details. It took about 2 days to set up at each location, depending on how the layout of the rooms whatever university we were at had [grudgingly] bestowed upon us. We also patched into local drops at each site. This got real interesting when working with the campus sysadmins in each area.

    At any rate, we had a good time and from the responses we got the program was a complete sucess. I wish you luck in your own venture!

    -s
  • Take a wander around a fairground, circus, sideshow alley at a Royal Agricultural Show, whatever. Take a look at what they are doing for design, because to an extent they are solving the same problem as you.

    One approach would be to get a large trailer, just small enough that it can be towed on a conventional vehicle like a ute or something, and set it up with a fold-down side or sides. This radically increases your available floor space. Set up your PCs on desks such that in travel mode, all the desks can simply be dragged into the centre of the trailer, and the side(s) folded up. In classroom mode, you just fold down the side(s) and drag out the desks. In travel mode, if all the desks fit snugly and the monitors and PCs are bolted to the desks, there wouldn't be an issue with gear moving around in transit.

    The trailer wouldn't be open to the weather; you could set up some simple canvas tenting arrangement to cover over your folded down side, creating the necessary three walls and roof. Temperature management would obviously be an issue; so you'd want some fairly gutsy reverse-cycle airconditioning.

    On a separate subject, when contemplating glass monitors vs. LCD monitors, think about the cost difference per monitor, and the cost per square metre of floor space in your chosen vehicle. A glass monitor takes maybe a quarter of a square metre of space, versus an LCD monitor taking negligible space. If an LCD monitor costs, say, NZ$300 more than a glass monitor, is it worth spending that, or would it be better to simply spend NZ$300 more on the vehicle, to get one that's a teeny bit bigger? Plus, the glass monitor has the advantage of being less theftable.
  • Don't think fixed, think mobile. Apple sells iBooks in 5-packs [apple.com] at reduced rates to education. Fit them out with Airport cards, put the basestations and uplink or whatever in the van, and have people sit on lawnchairs and use the computers in the open air, or community hall or whatever.
  • The Maximog [maximog.com] is a real Humvee-killer and it should respond nicely to having the trailer gutted and filled with Linux boxen on fold-out tables with a canvas roof and tent chairs.

    (To the Moderator: Yes, this post was designed to be modded as "Funny" or "Redundant" Go right ahead and do that, but if you label it as "Insightful", you need to up your medication dosage. OK? Fine. :-)

Life would be so much easier if we could just look at the source code. -- Dave Olson

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