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Starting a Computer Co-op? 26

spacechicken asks: "I am studying at a major university in Australia. As is the case with (almost) all educational facilities there are never enough computers available for students. So I (with some friends) are thinking about setting up a computer co-op at (or near) the university. In exchange for membership, members will get a small amount of storage and reduced usage and printing rates. The hope is to not only provide word processing/web surfing (using Linux, Staroffice6.0 and Netscape) but also access to various apps needed for serious academic work (eg CATIA, ProEngineer). We are planning to run standard PCs, with higher end machines if needed. My question is, does anyone have any experience with this type of facility? Any advice?"
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Starting a Computer Co-op?

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  • Well, the first rule of a co-op is that everyone's property is the property of everyone. There is no "personal" property, so no one will mind if you appropriate their machine for the good of the co-op. Feel free to just walk into their dorm when they're not around and lug the box out. Don't worry, you're doing this for the betterment of the many.

    Secondly, you should sell all the computing power to the university. Put all of your users processes at lower priorities, because, after all, the university is condoning your actions, so you'll need to give them something in return.

    Finally, don't charge any money to anyone for the use of this facility. Just appropriate their machine when they're not looking. Make all their processes have equally low priority on all of the machines and you'll be set.

    Oh, and if you have any trouble with people complaining to you about their missing machines, don't worry. You can just send them to Siberia.

    • Rule one: Co-ops work (sometimes anyways) communism as a government does not.

      Seriously Co-ops and comunes work fine as long as members are self-selected.
      • And they only really work when there is a capitalist escape hatch. When people no longer want to be part of a commune, it helps a lot when they can simply move back into the mainstream of society. Communes become oppressive when no escape hatch is available.
    • Been reading Catch-22, eh Milo?
  • Hmm my educational insititution has plenty of comps, unused 99% of the time except for around finals, and even then not wholey used. Of course they keep on trying to raise the tech fees. I'd first ask the Institution to fix the problem.

    If that doesn't work, well some places actually have extra space that if you are a Student Organization you can rent out, don't know the term of that rental thing though, or the distribution limits, and there are lots of rules involved with SOs normally. Still try to work within the beureaocraccy before breaking it.
  • Our solution... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Papineau ( 527159 ) on Wednesday June 12, 2002 @07:16PM (#3690219) Homepage
    I have no experience running a co-op either, but I can tell you how part of that problem is solved at my faculty (it's not the whole uni which does that). Actually, there's a co-op on campus, but they sell computers, and they also own the convenience store. And they're not run by students.

    At the engineering faculty, the way it works is that the faculty puts some money, the departments put some more, and the students (undergrads) put some also.
    The departments have department-wide computer rooms (usually with some lab stuff around), and loaded with the specific software needed by their students (ie, Catia/SolidWorks/IDEAS in ME, Composer Studio in EE, etc.). The faculty has some general purpose labs (Word, PowerPoint, IE, AutoCad LT, etc.). And the students's money? There's a committee of students which directs the money to departments according to the number of registrations, for specific projects: in the last years, they bought a powerful microscope for materials characterization, upgraded the P133 we had in ME, etc. All in all, there's about 250 computers accessible to students, for a total of about 1000 students for the fall semester (there's less at winter and summer because we normally finish in december, and it's almost fully coop, so roughly 40% of the students are away at any given time). And then there are the grad labs (usually more specialized in terms of software/hardware), the staff's computers, etc. But those are normally not accessible to students.

    Is the problem that there's no space for additionnal computers, or is it that nobody wants to pay for them? And besides, if it's not on campus, people will rather work from home, even in team assignments.
  • I've never heard of this application of a co-op before but I ve been in others, and this one sounds like a pretty good one. First, someone else said it but it is truely important you have to make sure that all the members feel like they belong. Not in a freindly way, although that helps, but in the sense of their actions impose a cost on other members. Second, I would suggest incorporating to limit liability. Third, try to think of all the possible nast situations that could come up while you are writing the bylaws. You might want to go visit some established co-ops for ideas here. Finally, after you are more established a good idea to broaden membership is allow people to join without paying out any money, working for the co-op or something similar. Good luck!
  • Lemme guess... Sydney University? I'm there myself, and I heartily agree that there aren't enough terminals available. There's far too many Celeron 700s that are used as dumb X11 terminals, too!
    • There's far too many Celeron 700s that are used as dumb X11 terminals, too!

      Actually, if I were administering a univ. computer network, taking those Celerons (starting to get a bit slow under XP) and turning them into powerful, easy to administer X terminals seems like a really *good* idea.

      Beats having people install Windows on it and then spending all your time using those slow, shoddy Win32 X servers.
      • Beats having people install Windows on it and then spending all your time using those slow, shoddy Win32 X servers.

        The ideal situation would be if they were loaded with linux, and ran an X server that connected to our Solaris machines. At least that way we could use them for something useful when the login servers die (which happens quite often).

  • by Kris_J ( 10111 ) on Wednesday June 12, 2002 @09:10PM (#3690871) Homepage Journal
    As someone who runs a set of student labs, you're going to need to figure out how to cope with abuse, such as:
    • Viruses, hacking -- people trying to install keyloggers, etc. Mostly from inside, but also from outside. You're going to need to spend a bit on a decent, centralised, rapidly updating, anti-virus system. And/or key very up to date with security patches for your chosen OS and apps.
    • Bandwidth hogs. You're going to need to install a quota system and/or traffic shaping, or else whatever pipe you've got is going to be saturated straight away.
    • Porn. 'nuff said.
    • Don't be surprised if someone uses your labs to cyber-stalk other students.
    Expect the printers to spend most of their time down, particularly at the end of semester. It's not a huge amount of fun when someone who has had four months to do an assignment starts yelling at you because the printers are down for the last hour before their deadline.

    The only way it will work is if a small group really lay down the law as to what is and isn't going to happen. And that's not much of a co-op. You're better to present the case to the various departments that the current labs have reached capacity and new ones need to be brought on-line.

    (Or possibly, someone could teach students that when the lecturer says that the presentation doesn't need to be in Powerpoint that it really doesn't and you don't have to spend 10 hours on the layout when you could just print off a set of overheads from Word.)

    • (Or possibly, someone could teach students that when the lecturer says that the presentation doesn't need to be in Powerpoint that it really doesn't and you don't have to spend 10 hours on the layout when you could just print off a set of overheads from Word.)

      Has Microsoft won the world, or what?
      • Has Microsoft won the world, or what?
        Hey, don't blame me, these labs were like this when I got here. Though, quite frankly, if I could go back in time and change one thing it would be the Zip drives, not Office.
    • The only way it will work is if a small group really lay down the law as to what is and isn't going to happen.

      For a large lab, this is true.

      But I think this need can be mitigated as long as you a) keep the cluster small, b) charge usage fees for any resources that you can, especially printing, and c) track and publish the use of resources that it's inconvenient or silly to charge for.

      I currently run a bandwidth cooperative that has a cabinet, a fat pipe, and about twenty members. For a group this size, name-and-shame fixes most problems; thus, instead of formal bandwidth quotas or charges, it may be enough to post lists of pipe usage and send out the occasional email along the lines of, "Those of you who have noticed slow web connections and full disks, please talk to Joe Bloggs and Jane Smith about their extensive music collections."

      In setting up a coop, I had two big surprises:
      1. Everybody says they are willing to help, but most people won't actually do any work unless it solves an immediate problem of theirs, or you badger them into it. Be careful not to let this turn you into an eternally nagging shrew; not only is that no fun, but people will be so used to ignoring trivial gripes that they'll never notice when you have something important to say. A few of my tricks for improving this:

        • Make everybody in charge of something. Then when person A complains that the trash is overflowing, point them to the list of jobs and say, "Oh, B is in charge of that; talk to him." This will involve breaking the work down into ridiculously small chunks, but it really helps to get people involved.

        • Accept that the group's standards will be different than yours. If you have the gumption to set this up, you will likely have strong opinions about how things will be. Most other members will not be so concerned or so emotiionally invested, and you can easily blow a gasket if you try to bend the coop to your will.

        • Hire people. Some tasks will be both too necessary and too burdensome for any coop member to take them on. Be wary of taking them on yourself. Instead try saying, "Hey, does anybody want to do X? Or does anybody know how to break X down into tasks that everybody will do?" When the answer is still no, then say, "Ok, we'll, then we need to hire somebody to do X, so that will go on the bills."

      2. Some people, perfectly nice in all other ways, are not so good about paying their bills. They certainly intend to pay their bills, and will promise to pay soon, but they won't actually do it until forced. We solved this by having clear payment deadlines and then degrading service (e.g., null-routing all their bits for an increasing proportion of each hour).

      If you think you might be able to make it work, I'd say that you should go for it. But start small, let it grow gradually, and spread the financial risk around. It's been a very valuable experience for me, and it's the kind of thing that a lot of future employers will love to see on your resume.
  • Lack of computers?? just switch to Acadia University [acadiau.ca] (or a number of others for that matter) where they give you a laptop computer.. the ones they give the students in the fall have a DVD/CDRW Combo .. :) cant wait
  • It strikes me that you might be a few decades late with this idea. Long ago I recall lining up to use a terminal (or a keypunch!), but I doubt that a co-op could have offered competing resources then. Nearly 20 years ago I did see an off-campus computer rental service start up, but there are (or were at the time) some real problems trying to coordinate such an operation when the instructors all only wanted to deal with one of the campus systems.

    Now I would expect that there are enough privately owned systems that a co-op would not be very viable. And I have doubts that you would have enough users of expensive special software to amortize the cost among them. And I would suggest that you at the very least confirm your original premise: As is the case with (almost) all educational facilities there are never enough computers available for students. What I found when running such a facility was that there was plenty of available computers, right up until the night before the assignments were due. Then people were backed up into the halls waiting for terminals. Be sure that's not the case at your target school, else you might find that you only have users on the night before the assignment is due, and then have more paying co-op members expecting the resource they paid extra for to be available than you can support.

    • Initial surveys have indicated that there will be a sufficient demand for such a service - both generally and with specialised software.

      For example, with 100+ undergrad students studying aerospace enginnering there are only 20 CATIA licenses available. For general computing resources, it isn't just the availabilty but the quality, security and general maintainance of the systems available. Mechanical engineering aren't in the business of running and maintaining general PCs - yet they are forced to because the facilities on campus are insuffficient.

      All this, coupled with high living expenses and the high cost of computers here (a USD700 system in the US is probably AUD2000 here - and it's not all exchange rate) means that many students don't own personal systems. And those that do don't have the specialised software.
  • Over here.. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by fille ( 575662 )
    ..our university sells and hires pc's and laptops to students. For something like a Euro a day, you can hire a desktop. Moreover, there is a sort of a co-op where you can get an account on a Linux-server and try your linux-software, check your mail, make backups, etc. But they don't provide other services since the number of volunteers is quite limited.

    Very important: try to use rooms and other infrastructure from the university. Usually, they will provide it for free and especially a fast internet connection is something you want from them.
  • I know this is a little off topic, but what about game houses? They've been popping up here at a rate of about 1 a month here in San Jose. For the price of a membership fee (usually about 2 hours of play) you can get a reduced hourly rate. Some places also offer pre-paid hours at a reduced rate.

    Find a game house near you, i'm sure there are plenty around Sydney. Have your school administrators cut a deal with them. Something along the lines of a reduced rate when a student shows their student body card. Since the school would need a large volume of rental time, any game house would be stupid if they didn't ante up ANY deal the school wants. It works out for everyone because.

    A. The game house gets free customers and advertising.
    B. No real out of pocket expense for the school or you.
    C. Zero maintenence costs, the gamehouse does all upgrades, takes care of the locking down the machines, upgrading to the latest hardware and software.
    D. Zero liability for you or the school, since it would be up to the gamehouse to provide the security.
    Most gamehouses have gig+ speed AMDs or Intels with a nice amount of ram and huge 21" monitors leather chairs, soda's, roaming profiles and the basic office suite of word and excel.
  • I don't know if this is a viable idea or not, but in your business plan (you ARE writing one, I hope?) be sure to budget for replacing the computers and software every 2-3 years on a rotating basis. The membership fees have to account not only for the cost of running the co-op but for upgrades.

The best defense against logic is ignorance.