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Learning from experience

Running a check-list past colleagues can pay dividends when buying a computer network

Buying networks is a slow business. And, if you get it wrong, your system will inevitably run even more slowly than it already does. So, before you rush off to buy a network system for your school, check with your local authority or neighbouring schools about their systems and ask the following basic questions: * Does their network run OK?

* What sort of helpline or support was offered, if any?

* Did they lease or buy?

* Can they update it?

* Does it include the Internet?

* How long did it take from placing the order to the system running properly without bugs?

* Would they recommend the company that supplied the hardware and the installer they used?

* Was training included?

* What did it all cost, taking into account training, furniture, hardware and installation?

* Can they estimate the hidden internal costs like caretaker's overtime, resetting the school alarms, security, additional insurance, teacher and administration time, to set up the whole process?

There are generally two types of networks used in schools; LAN (Local Area Networks) and WAN (Wide Area Networks). LANs are systems which rely on a server and are located within school premises. The server, which has to be a powerful machine, operates and stores data on hard disc for the other terminals. WANs connect computers together over long distances. This allows schools to share common data, video links and communicate information.

The advantages of a network system are considerable. They include having a common set of software with access from any computer on the network, which means shared access to peripherals, such as laser printers and CD-Roms, and sharing of information and data. If the server is upgraded, it will automatically upgrade the whole system. To set against this, the cons include the burden of the significant technical support required, and the troubling prospect of one fault arising which will crash the whole system.

In order to minimise the disadvantages and to avoid disillusionment, there are certain things to clarify. Check your school's budget allocation: for example there's no point setting your heart on a Rolls Royce when you can only afford a Fiesta. Look at leasing. Make sure the total cost of the network includes workstations, computers, cabling, installation, peripherals, training, maintenance and software. There may also be extra management costs to incorporate.

Consider the scope and distribution of the network, how many rooms will be involved, just one or two, or several throughout the school? You will also need to decide where the file server will be located - the library maybe, or the technician's room, or even the corner of a classroom.

Coping with cables will become a priority: how and where are they going to run? Around the building from classroom to classroom? Untidy cables will be an eyesore and a potential hazard. Adding cables and trunking must be approached in a co-ordinated way, so fire alarms, lighting and mains cables may all need to be reviewed if your school has been upgraded in a piecemeal manner over the past years.

Discuss the network with all the staff, including new members, caretakers and site supervisors. They may raise awkward questions, like why do we need a network? If you have a decent school development plan, this will not present a problem but it is worth bearing in mind that the network will only work efficiently if all key staff are enthusiastic.

Ask your network provider whether it will work to BS 5750 or ISO 9000. The BS and ISO standards are like an MOT. Ask for copies of the test certificate and check its relevance. Check whether your school could use the local authority contract for network installation. Companies market similar products at greatly differing prices and the cheapest is not necessarily the best buy.

Watch out for distance. Wires will be fitted to the interior of the building by clips, through conduits or trunking, and the cost of installation can be very expensive. Always ask for a breakdown of costs into hardware, installation, site maintenance, etc. Ask how the wiring will travel from room to room.

It is not uncommon for schools to be caught out. You may be offered dumb terminals with a low spec for the server. Or you could be offered a high spec for the server and expensive machines on the network. Schools are a soft touch, so don't get conned. One school I know is running windows 3.1 with 20 386 PCs and one printer with an under-specified server - it cost Pounds 45,000. This was supplied by a "friend" of the school. Other schools have filled the hard disc and the system runs very slowly. Some networks which include CD-Roms may only be accessed by one of the work stations. So one pupil will receive the first line of text and his neighbour the next and so on.

The other way of approaching the challenge of networks is to buy the cheapest and accept that it will probably last for two years before you will need to upgrade the system.

Finally compare the networks on a "like for like" basis and not on the cheapest price and always check the fine print of the purchase andor lease agreement.

* Acorn - stands 241440. Apple - stand 251. IBM UK - stand 469. ICLClassicl - stand 250. Networks for Learning , Pounds 7.50, from: NCET - stand 560544. Research Machines - stand 131

* Check your school's budget allocation: for example, there's no point setting your heart on a Rolls Royce when you can only afford a Fiesta

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