Plugged In: Connecting price, performance in business networks

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

I’ve just been told that I’m sounding vexed and frustrated. That’s no doubt true — I’ve spent the past 24 hours seeking the perfect small-business networking computer at an affordable price.

It apparently doesn’t exist. Sooner or later, most business owners and many photo enthusiasts will bump into the same problem.

I don’t know enough about Apple to have an opinion about options among those products. In the PC realm, I’ve found vendors, such as Dell, that charge more than four times the going cost for a basic business hard disk, and OEM manufacturers, like Intel, that deliberately cripple otherwise-affordable, business-computing hardware by eliminating highly desirable features typically included with much less-expensive consumer products.

As I searched, I found myself wondering why business-oriented computing products usually had fewer features and slower performance than consumer products where it mattered most — writing and reading large amounts of data. While I’ve not yet found an entirely satisfactory, yet affordable, business-oriented system, I can recommend some important basic features that every computer buyer, whether businessperson, gamer or photographer, should include with their next computing purchase.

I started down this path innocently enough, planning to complete last week’s discussion of how personal participation in the arts benefits both individuals and their community. Unfortunately, while starting a routine data backup Sunday afternoon, I noticed that one of the four data-storage hard disks on my office’s central file server computer was operating erratically. Because I built a redundant disk array into that file server, there was no data loss and the network continued to operate normally, at least for the moment.

However, ignoring a “critical disk warning” is certainly not prudent. After repairing the problem, I decided to upgrade that system while it was still working well.

Generally, it’s good practice to replace the critical components of any business or home network’s central file server computer every 18 to 24 months. These computers are the foundation of every modern business computer system, centrally storing the data used by all other connected computers. Sophisticated users often use a high-storage network at home to store and feed streamed movies, music and other entertainment to all home users.

Because they’re more heavily used, central file server computers should be replaced more frequently. Regular replacement is far less expensive than the data loss and disruption inevitably occurring from an unplanned system shutdown.

Business owners and home networks have somewhat different needs than the average photo enthusiast or gamer, requiring highly reliable storage and uninterrupted operation but only minimal video and computing capabilities. Otherwise, the basic features desirable in a small business or home network’s central file server computer are similar to what a photo enthusiast or gamer finds useful.

Generally, computing hardware is a mature technology characterized by slowly decreasing costs and minimal performance improvements. As a result, high-performance, high-storage computing has become affordable, probably costing less than a single good lens.

As an example, a high-performance six- or eight-core CPU processor like those in AMD’s FX series can be purchased for as little as $150. Adding 16 gigabytes of high-speed DDR memory and a top-quality, feature-laden system board may total another $250 or so. A solid-state disk (SSD) boosts apparent computing performance very noticeably yet even these now cost as little as $100 for a 250-gigabyte SSD drive. A fast-enough graphics card, not needed for business or home networking use, rarely costs more than $150. Aside from a few generic items like a keyboard, mouse, case, DVD drive and power supply, about $650 buys all the top-quality consumer hardware needed for a fast photo-processing or gaming computer with excellent performance and good value.

Most high-end consumer system boards include, or should include, several fast USB 3 connections and external eSATA connector for easy data backup, and four to six high-speed SATA 3 hard disk outlets connected to a built-in RAID disk controller. RAID disk arrays combine several identical hard disks into what acts like a single large, fast hard disk that’s less likely to fail and lose data. When set up properly, one disk in a RAID disk array can fail without any data loss or disrupted operation.

Large data-protected disk storage is obviously important not only to business owners but also to photographers storing tens of thousands of image files, and RAID arrays fill that need nicely. When a system board basic hardware includes a good RAID controller, it’s affordable and easy to buy some high-quality hard disks and build a RAID array in a short time. Two, 3-terabyte (3,000 gigabytes!) Western Digital RED series hard disks, all that’s needed for a basic data-protecting RAID 1 business or home network disk array, cost as little as $236 at Amazon.

Be wary of those low initial prices for custom-configured business computers. Although the advertised cost for a basic Dell file server seemed very enticing, Dell wanted over $1,000 for two comparable hard disks, as well as a few hundred dollars for a RAID controller to run those disks, and that’s before the high cost of adding the CPU processing chips.

Business-oriented computers contain one feature that’s desirable when storing business data, ECC error-correcting memory. That’s a type of DDR memory that detects and corrects occasional random memory chip errors. By doing so, ECC memory helps avoid unplanned central computer system crashes. Although these are rare events, it’s better to entirely avoid them if possible with any network, so ECC memory was on my shopping list of desirable network file server features.

For some reason, system boards intended for file server use seemed to be caught in a 2010 time warp. They generally could use ECC memory but only rarely included more important modern features like built-in RAID and fast SATA 3 hard disk controllers or USB 3 and external eSATA connections. These are crippled products, but crippled products that usually cost a lot more.

After 24 hours reviewing the specifications of dozens, if not hundreds, of computer system boards, I’ve given up. There really doesn’t seem to be the perfect small business computer system out there that’s both fully featured yet affordable, but I’m still looking.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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