Thursday, 28 May 2015

Macs-imising IT rooms

With a smattering of terrible puns, Adrian Young explains how we're going about providing iMacs for students.

Delicious Apple by cheriejoyful
Used under a Creative Commons licence
Some months ago, a student asked why IT Services don't provide Apple Macs in our IT rooms?

Good question I thought, why don't we do this? Is it because the hardware is too expensive, or that the systems to provide the service aren't available or are equally expensive? I decided it was worth having a look into this further to see exactly what we could do.

Putting a managed Windows PC onto a desk is pretty easy for us - we've been doing it for many years and the systems we use to manage them are effective and powerful. To do the same for Macs needed thought and investigation. We couldn't use the same systems to manage the Macs as we do the Windows PCs as obviously they use different technology. We had already experienced this when developing the managed Linux desktop. The fundamentals are the same - it's still some hardware with an operating system and some applications - it's just that the hardware and the operating system are different.

Where to start?

iMac by Adam Maracz
Used under a Creative Commons licence
The first thing to look into was how much more would it cost to buy Apple hardware as opposed to the PCs we get from Stone. If it was far too expensive then this wasn't going anywhere, and we would use the budget to buy more PCs instead.

Well, it turned out that it wasn't too bad. Yes, the iMacs cost more but not horrendously so - especially with the educational discount we get from Apple. Mac minis were cheaper but the spec for the hardware was lower than we wanted. iMacs provided the necessary spec and are a neater solution - an all in one system, without separate monitors or keyboards.

So, the financial aspect was ok.

Next question was would we be able to provide a similar service to that of the managed Windows PCs? What systems did we need so that people could log in, get to their filestore, use applications, and print? A quick proof of concept seemed to say we already had available systems to do most of the things we wanted to do.

So, the technical aspect was ok.

The practicalities

Once we had established that this could be a viable option we needed to look at some of the practicalities of doing this.

First of all where would we put the iMacs? Somewhere in the Library seemed the logical solution, it's a popular study space and a good place to try out new services.

Ok, the Library looked promising, but would we use one of the existing IT rooms or find somewhere new? Space is an issue and taking out some of the existing PCs could be problematic. What about the Fairhurst? There's some space there that we could use, and this means that the iMacs are close to the IT Support Office if anything goes wrong.

So, the practical aspect was ok.

Next question. What software do we put on there? Well we already have quite a few applications installed on the Windows PCs that we could use, so MS Office, SPSS, Endnote. That would be a good start. What about the old cliche of using Macs for creative stuff? Should we look at the Adobe Creative Suite? As it's expensive and we don’t have much call for it academically, we decided that we could look at that later. We'd launch the service with a standard set of applications, and see what feedback we receive.

So, the software service aspect was ok.

Now we know what hardware we want, we know what systems we want to run it, we know where to put them, we know what we want on them. It sounds like we're pretty much there.

The trial iMac service

Pixel and her iMac by Mik Ayre
Used under a Creative Commons licence
The outcome of this is that we will be providing a small trial of iMacs on the 2nd floor of the Fairhurst building over the summer holidays. You'll be able to log in with your normal IT username and password, and you'll have access to your personal file store (H: drive): there'll be some familiar applications on there, and you'll be able to use York Print Plus.

We'll see how it goes and see if there is a sufficient demand to continue with this as a service. If budgets allow, maybe we'll expand it a little to other areas, especially for staff, and perhaps look at other software.

It's been an interesting journey to get to this point, there have been many discussions about the best way to do this, hopefully we will deliver a service that will be useful... we will certainly be pushing IT to the Macs.

UPDATE: The new Apple Macs were installed at the beginning of August 2015 on the second floor of the Fairhurst building (where the PC thin clients are). While we finalise the software suite for the Apple Mac service you can use the iMacs for browsing the web, printing and editing documents.

We need your feedback on the service, including suggestions for software and comments on your experience. Have you used the iMacs yet? If you have, please complete our survey here:


  1. If they aren't going to have any extra software other than standard fayre which runs perfectly adequately on the Windows hardware - what is the justification for getting them?

    1. Hi,
      That's a good point but we want to offer as many platforms as possible so people have a choice and it gives us the possibility to consider other mac-specific software in the future, depending on feedback and demand.


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