The Joys of Relocation by Steve Cunningham

When circumstances dictate a move, it’s often planning versus expediency

  • It would appear that the on-again, off-again, move of our departmental computer lab is back on again. We've known this was coming for awhile, and the particular building that serves as home to the lab has been scheduled for demolition for a couple of years. But as faculty we'd hoped that the transition could be made as smoothly as possible, preferably between semesters or during a break. I'm afraid it's not going down that way.

The computer lab is used to teach Digidesign’s Pro Tools audio editing software, along with other audio and video editing software. It is not complicated, consisting of 24 stations each with an iMac and a MIDI keyboard controller. Network connectivity to each computer is on Cat-5e cable (as 100BASE-T), and servers on the other end of the cables authenticate users' sessions using Windows Active Directory while providing basic file-storage and -sharing over AFP and the occasional SFTP connection. The furniture consists of off-the-shelf commercial chairs and worktables with built-in cable management, supporting two stations to a table, with two tables comprising a row.

Projection is handled by a couple of "mid-life-crisis" model Mitsubishi projectors, which share a feed from the teaching station computer. One points forward while the other, closer to the rear, points right so students can see reasonably well from any seat in the room.

There's no lectern in the room, but rather an older Digidesign Control 24 mixing console faces the wall under the front projection screen. It's a less-than-ideal presentation since the instructor's back is to the students while working at the computer or the mixer, but we're used to it. The audio outputs of the Control 24 feed a full set of JBL powered studio monitors. It's wired for full 5.1 surround, although for most lab classes it is used in stereo.

This wasn’t exactly the plan…

So how much trouble could it be to move that lab? Probably not much... except that after several false starts, the move is now scheduled to occur during a weekend in October, right in the middle of the fall semester. It seems that permits for new construction were pulled on the old schedule, and although the building schedule changed the expiration date of the permits did not. So the building must come down or the permits will expire, and so on... you get the picture.

Keep in mind that this lab is host to 15 classes per week plus open lab hours, serving a total of about 250 students, from 8am until 11pm nearly every day. Each class and each student requires access to the network and servers every week, since that is where students store their works-in-progress, and by October they definitely have some of those. Continuity must be maintained, and we have to be back in business by Monday morning.

Clearly the goal must be to prepare the new space as completely as possible prior to the move. In an ideal world, one would be able to simply unplug and pick up the computers from the existing lab, drop them into the new lab, plug them in, and Bob's your uncle. How many of you, dear readers, think that will go simply? Although the basic requirements are simple – stable AC power and Cat-6 network cable – the proposed space is not yet suitably equipped. Then there is the issue of acoustics, although I doubt there's budget for heavy room treatment.

Continuity in chaos

The proposed new home for the lab is in the basement of a building that is wired with Cat-3 cable (or so we think, perhaps it's older than that). New wire will need to be pulled – we've asked for Cat-6 – and a new switch will probably become necessary. The Operations Manager who is tasked with readying the space for the "drop-in" move has put forward a plan that calls for him to duplicate the wiring and furniture setup that is in the existing room right down to the speakers, so that the computers can literally be carried from one room to the other, connected to the network, and made to work.

It all looks and sounds good, since his plan includes some new projectors and furniture, and an opportunity to turn the instructor station around to face the students. The acoustics will probably be difficult, but given a concrete floor and plaster walls, there’s not a lot that can be done cheaply in any event. Will we be able to get 25 to 30 lines of Cat-6 to that basement, and what will that look like? To be frank, the question is whether any budget is available for those niceties, and whether we as faculty can clearly communicate our needs to the Ops Manager and others, all within what has become a highly compressed timeline.

I don't know how this situation will work itself out, although I continue to look on the bright side. Today I know that one weekend in mid-October several of us will be very busy. Unless the schedule changes again. Either way, I promise I'll keep you in the loop.

Steve Cunningham is a Lecturer of Music Industry at USC Thornton School of Music with expertise in digital audio recording and editing.

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