U offers computer support to students

University students can seek solutions on campus for technical problems and repairs.

As students prepare for the upcoming semester, some find themselves preparing their computers as well – clearing them of viruses, backing up important data or buying new equipment altogether.

But even the best preparation can’t always prevent disaster, which usually comes in the form of a late-night error warning or an ominously blank screen.

Whether students are looking to buy new software, secure a laptop or save whatever is left of a formerly robust MP3 collection, there are many on- and off-campus services that directly relate to students’ computing needs.

Network maintenance
Academic and Distributed Computing Services provides the University with computer-related services, from graphic design to database programming.

The group also monitors the hundreds of application servers that make up the University’s online existence. Because so many of the University’s operations rely on the servers, things can get hairy for students, like political science junior Nichole Pittsley, when one or more of them goes down.

“It’s really inconvenient because so much depends on everything being up and working,” Pittsley said. “When it’s down, nothing can get done.”

But the network itself rarely is down University-wide or on a large scale, said Shih-Pau Yen, the deputy chief information officer for computing services. Compared to average corporate networks, the University experiences relatively few network problems, he said.

“If e-mail’s down, then it’s that server that’s down,” Yen said. “But after the upgrade last summer, the network hasn’t been down longer than 30 minutes.”

A majority of the “network downtime” is a result of outside events such as power outages, he said. If construction accidentally causes the power to go out in an individual building, the effects can be far-reaching if that building houses part of the network.

Aside from running the network students use every day, the group also oversees other student-oriented programs, from daily laptop rentals to the 1-HELP technology helpline.

Computing services also is planning a new approach to technical support for fall semester, Yen said.

“We’re going to create ‘minute clinics’ where 10 to 15 known computer problems can be quickly fixed,” he said. “If a student has one of those problems, their computer can get fixed just like that.”

The service will begin about the start of the semester and provide free, walk-in help with University accounts, WebCT, Internet access and other common problems. The “minute clinics” will be at Walter Library, Coffman Union, the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs building and Magrath Library.

Computer repair
If a computer needs more repair attention, University Computer Services, a part of computing services, can put one of its six consultants on the job.

The Rent-A-Guru program gets about 90 requests a month from departments and individuals for technical services, said Renee Rivers, the computer support and services manager at University Computer Services. The number of monthly requests is expected to increase to 120 as the academic year starts again, she said.

The consultants are students with a computer background who work their way through an internal process, Rivers said.

“It’s been a very successful program,” Rivers said. “Students know the most current viruses. We also get them in line with what the University requires.”

While University Computer Service’s East Bank location is considered convenient for students, there are off-campus options for technical support that can be a better deal depending on students’ needs.

For example, Best Buy’s Geek Squad offers a few services that cost less than University Computer Service’s minimum charge.

However, if a computer needs significant repair, the Geek Squad’s diagnostic services alone will run $70. That price doesn’t include repairs.

For students who don’t have a warranty or service plan at a retailer, having a computer repaired by students at University Computer Services can be a less costly alternative, depending on the problem.

Computer software
University Computer Services also sells a variety of common software and since last summer has offered Windows XP upgrades and the Microsoft Office Suite at a significant discount.

There are some limitations to the deal; only currently enrolled students taking at least one credit are eligible and students aren’t supposed to put the software on multiple computers.

But products that normally retail for a few hundred dollars are available to students for the cost of the CD. Microsoft Office can be downloaded for free.

As a result, it’s hypothetically cheaper to enroll for one credit at the University (a cost of $291.85) than to buy Microsoft Office Suite as a new user, which costs $399.

The $2.7 million licensing deal has proved popular, judging from the 24,000 orders since it began roughly a year ago, Rivers said.

Manish Prahladka, a graduate student in electrical engineering, said he’s a big fan of the software contract.

“The cost of software for students is really prohibitive, coupled with high tuition and cost of books, supplies and rent. Providing them with free basic software that everyone is going to use is a huge advantage.”

Refurbished computers
Although University Computer Services does not sell new computers, they sell used, “refurbished” computers that are picked up from University departments and labs. University Computer Services tests the equipment, reinstalls the operating systems and wipes off all data, Rivers said. In 2005, 1,300 items were sold, she said.

Although the computers come at a discount, they are covered by a 30-day warranty. Most new computers come with a yearlong manufacturer’s warranty.

“With most refurbished items, if it’s going to fail, it’s going to fail within the first 30 days,” Rivers said.

Eric Varghese, a biomedical engineering junior, bought a refurbished monitor.

“(University Computer Services) prices are great if you don’t need the latest and greatest technology,” he said. “It really just depends on what you need.”

– Freelance Editor Nina Petersen-Perlman welcomes comments at [email protected]