The Importance of Quality Equipment in Constructing Reliable IT Networks

Naturally, a major component in reliable networks and business computing systems is reliable equipment. Every time a component malfunctions or needs upgrading, the network is at risk. Even seemingly minor components, such as the ubiquitous Ethernet cable that connects a computer to a network port can cause problems if the internal wires break or are not properly insulated. Below is an excerpt from Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses by Donna R. Childs, which describes how to choose quality equipment and which common specifications and metrics to consider.

If you are concerned about contingency, you want to have high quality equipment. A few unreliable components can cause lots of trouble. They fail more often, they require frequent repairs, and they will eventually have to be replaced with a more reliable component.

The question often follows, "Which computer should I buy?" This question is easier to answer if you are looking into some special market segment, like the large scale IBM and Sun computing and storage systems or the Apple Macintosh OS X if you have only basic home media functionality needs or work in a specialized design or media business. But when it comes to standard PCs, the answer is not as straightforward as you might think.

To tell you the truth, the differences between computers are marginal. The parts that are inside the box are pretty much the same in all computers. They are produced for the world market from a variety of large manufacturers. If you are in the market to buy a standard office PC or a simple file server, you should look for systems that have been labeled for use by small businesses. Many manufacturers offer these base systems at attractive prices. However, you need to know that they make their money with all the add-ons to that system which you then purchase at a relatively high price. Not unlike purchasing a car from the dealership! If you are looking for something truly specific, like a fanless, super-quiet system, and you are somewhat PC-literate, you are probably better off looking for a "no-name!" Actually, even with good "no-names," reliability of the parts inside of a computer is of little concern, because if you really look inside, you will find that all manufacturers use more or less the same basic parts from worldwide suppliers anyway. And by the way, for the actual parts, you will always find reliability measurements, like mean-time-before-failure (MTBF).

Let's take a different perspective. Think about the elements that you will interact with daily once the computer is on your desk: the screen, keyboard, and mouse. Here you will find quality differences, and if a part is defective, it is easily changed. So make sure that you always have some spare components available. As for the keyboard and mouse, there are big differences in quality between a no-name and a branded product. From most inexpensive to most expensive, prices vary by a factor of ten and more. If you ever experienced a mouse that constantly got stuck while you were trying to finish an important presentation, you will appreciate an optical mouse. It is more reliable, more exact, and works on nearly any surface. For the keyboard, you should defer to the individual preferences of employees. A keyboard, and to some degree a mouse, can make a difference in someone's overall experience with a computer system. In the end, these are inexpensive purchases anyway.

LCD displays with LED backlighting over their lifetime will actually be the more cost-effective choice as they should outlast about two generations of computers without deteriorating color over time. They use 50% less energy and can therefore provide extra time if you run on batteries. But you should be aware that there are differences in quality between LCD displays. The same manufacturer will produce a "consumer" and a "professional" version. The price difference is often marginal, but the professional versions are improved on important parameters, such as the color calibration or contrast ratio that should be at least 1:500 or higher, but in consumer products you will most often find only 1:300.

The optimal amount of memory and disk space, as well as the processor clock speed, will depend on your specific usage of the system. In general, however, most systems benefit from an upgrade of the video card, as often poor video signals from original video cards can ruin your effort to obtain a clear image on your screen. Remember, no monitor will make a good picture from a poor input signal, and upgrading your video card is inexpensive. Since a fast processor can only perform well if it gets the required data from memory or the hard disk fast enough, plan to spend generously on memory (RAM) and a fast hard disk. Also, note that when comparing different systems, it is not simple to compare the processor frequency from one processor to another. Different processors with different architectures can have significant performance differences on certain tasks.

For contingency planning, "equipment quality" as such is of little concern, as most brand name companies build their systems from parts often made by the same original equipment manufacturers. You need to make sure that the three things you work with every day—the monitor, keyboard, and mouse—meet high quality standards. Keep your computer network as consistent as possible. The greater number of identical systems you have, the easier it will be to rebuild your office infrastructure. You always want to try to buy or have at least two to ten PCs that are identical. A greater number of identical PCs is even better, but small businesses typically buy about four PCs at a time. Always buy the latest generation processor. This should extend the lifetime of the PC for an additional year and usually compares favorably to the cost savings of buying last year's processor at a discount.

If you consider using laptops with a docking station at the office, keep in mind that laptops are generally more expensive and slower than comparably priced desktops. They are, however, very well suited for contingency planning, as you can simply take them with you.

For printers, an inexpensive printer will quickly become more expensive with increasing print volumes. Calculate the cost per page by considering the various ink and laser cartridges and then compare the costs with your expected printing volume. You will find amazing results. So carefully review your requirements. If your printing output is mostly black and white copies, we recommend you start with a laser printer because it is generally more reliable than an ink jet printer. There is simply no liquid ink that can dry and clog-up a print head. The laser printer should print at least ten pages per minute and its cartridge should print 5,000 pages. If you like to print color occasionally, or you need a second, inexpensive printer, then buy a separate ink jet printer.

There is a downside to purchasing a system that has many integrated functions. Multifunction machines have become popular among small businesses. They are less expensive than stand-alone machines as they can share the housing, power supply, and so on. But it becomes quite frustrating when such a machine malfunctions and must be sent away for service. You lose all its functionality at once. This is an acceptable risk for home and personal use, but for your business, you need to ensure that you have at least your basic everyday needs covered with simple, but reliable units, like an inexpensive black and white laser printer. Then a multifunction machine with color printing can be a fun addition for tight spaces.


From Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses by Donna R. Childs. Copyright 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Used by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons, Inc.