Computer Technicians 301: Planning computer configurations – the right tool for the right task

Welcome to the expert section of the Computer Technician series. Although the topics we’re going to deal with here are mostly organizational in nature (with a couple of really troublesome, migraine-inducing problems), the “expert section” title isn’t misleading. Both small and large-scale, short or long-term, planning always takes a lot of knowledge and a great deal of intuition.

In some cases, more knowledge than fixing a computer problem, because the variables you have to count in are much more numerous. With any science, be it electronics, chemistry or digital circuitry, synthesis (creation) is much more complicated than analysis (disassembly).
In this issue we will discuss tailoring a computer configuration to a specific task, currently available components, and, of course, the depth of the client’s pocket. By doing a bit of planning you can ensure you know exactly what kind of workplace needs what kind of machine.

The common ground

Computer experts all around the world would be thrilled if all computers would do all tasks equally well, if all configurations were perfect for all tasks. Unfortunately, a basic home computer would be ill-suited to work as a data center, just as using a gaming configuration for office work would be a pretty big waste of money. The reason is pretty obvious – you definitely don’t need a DX10 card on something that’s going to run Word and Excel, and you can’t really expect a machine with integrated graphics to run a 2007 edition game. In theory, you could, if you can stand seeing a game run at 5 spf (yes, that’s seconds per frame). Despite the differences between task-oriented configurations, there are a couple of common points that should be noted and integrated whenever you’re planning a future computer.

Among the first things that spring to mind is the power supply. As was already covered in TNCT 103, a good powersupply is what determines if the machine will last for the next five years or the next two, and it also determines if the whole computer will survive the first power surge or get completely fried. While you might think a fried machine means more business for you, and therefore more money, don’t get fooled. If the PSU alone dies, all you’ll have to do is swap it with a new one and the machine will act like the power surge never happened. On the other hand, if the whole machine gets a 400 V zap, the company will have to say good-bye to valuable documentation they need for business, and if anyone in the company can think of the power supply, it won’t be long before it can be pinned on your bad assessment and selection. And depending on local laws, mentality, or even customs, it might boil down to a lawsuit, something you definitely want to avoid. The PSU rule goes double for power supplies that come with cases (which are usually only good for scrap metal) and prefabricated configurations.
Prefab configurations bring us to our next section, something which is a common weak point of all prefab computers – RAM. Although decent prebuilt computers do exist, more often than not they go for the common man’s viewpoint – the bigger the Great Number (commonly known as the CPU speed), the better the computer. Checking through the specifications usually reveals a woefully small amount of memory, sometimes as low as 256 MB. Considering most modern machines run Windows XP, going under 512 MB will seriously hamper the computer’s performance, even for low-end machines. Going below that is best avoided for two reasons. The machine will be slow to response and unable to multitask, and with most users not knowing how much a program “weighs” in memory usage it’s a rather common occurence. At the same time, the cost-reduction from buying 256 MB compared to 512 MB is minimal these days – you’re trading off a quarter of the memory’s price for a great deal of CPU and swapfile activity. With the advent of Windows Vista the problem will be even more exacerbated, as a newer OS will ultimately need more memory for comfortable work.

Along with memory, one of the key selling points of any prefab machine is the chassis, an eye-catcher to get the customers’ attention. Naturally, we’re discussing creating a complete machine here from scratch, but three things do appear as very important when deciding on the computer cases for your clients. One, we’ve already covered then discussing power supplies – more often than not, the attached PSU can barely reach 60% of its nominal output before shutting off, and is more likely to pull the whole computer along with itself in case of a power spike. The other issue with computer cases is the size – a home computer can use either a small, medium or desktop case, a gaming machine can use a medium or high-tower case, while the only thing fitting for a server would be a high-tower case, although a medium tower could also work depending on the server’s role. As you can see, there’s a certain level of overlapping between them – we’ll discuss it in detail in specific sections. The third issue is the look – this primarily concerns gaming computers, however, picking a lumbering, towering (no pun intended) black case for the company’s main server adds to the overall network’s image, as well as giving it extra visibility among the beige boxes the rest of the clients will use.

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