A computer lab is a cluster of computers that usually are networked and available for use by the public. Labs frequently are found in public buildings such as libraries, schools such as colleges and universities, community centers and some large churches that have many parishioners. Almost all computer labs offer users access to the Internet and provide software that students can use to do research and complete their homework or that others, such as traveling business people, might need for other purposes.
An Internet café differs from a computer lab in that users must connect to the Internet using their own computer or device, and users of a computer lab do not need any equipment of their own. There is the need for protection and restrictions within networks available to the public. Users might be denied access to websites featuring adult content or sites that demand too much bandwidth. Those using a computer lab also usually are allowed a limited amount of time to be signed onto a machine, whether surfing the Internet or using software to do other work. Seldom is there a charge to use a public computer lab, but labs in educational facilities tend to be available only to current students of the school, and they usually must sign on so that their activities can be traced and monitored if necessary.
Other hardware such as printers and sometimes scanners, compact disk (CD) drives and digital versatile disk (DVD) drives also are available free of charge or for a nominal fee. Headphones also might be freely provided for users who visit sites with sound or video files that need to be played or users who simply would like to enjoy watching a movie or listening to music while they work. Files created by visitors to a computer lab usually can be stored on a universal serial bus (USB) drive, also known as a jump drive, thumb drive or pen drive, so they can take their work with them.
Network administrators almost always are very concerned about security within a computer lab that is open to the public. Antivirus software to protect against malicious code and programs that allow lab monitors and administrators to immediately take remote control over a machine usually are installed and regularly updated so that the network is safe for all users and their files. Although most computer labs run on a Microsoft Windows® operating system, some labs, particularly those in educational facilities, run on a distribution of Linux, such as Fedora, Ubuntu or Debian.