Archive for December, 2011



19
Dec

The importance of hardware consistency

If you look at any of the posts I’ve done regarding server or computer setups, you’ll find some similarities in the way I set things up. After enough testing myself and reviewing other people’s experience I like to stick with certain brands and specific models of hardware when setting things up. For example, I almost always use Tyan or Supermicro motherboards for servers, Dell Optiplex computers for desktops and workstations, CentOS for server operating systems, Areca hard drive controllers, the same brand and model hard drives when possible, etc..

A few months ago we had a major server crash, and the importance of using the same hardware came blatantly apparent. We lost our primary web server for reasons unknown at the time, and after some panicking and troubleshooting, we found that the server’s hard drive controller was blown. This is the first controller of its type that I’ve ever completely lost, and luckily it’s the same controller that we use in almost every server we own, and even some workstations. Rather than having to completely rebuild the server from the ground up, or overnight an expensive controller for several hundred dollars in shipping fees alone, we took an identical controller out of a backup server, and had the machine back up in a much shorter amount of time, about 2 hours, without any re-configuring. Normally we have backup hardware but $1500 hard drive controller cards aren’t something we keep a lot of in stock.

Typically, when you start doing everything yourself, or run a limited or no-IT company, which many entrepreneurs and boot-strapping business and non profit owners do, you’ll want to stick to the same hardware and same software when you can. Running IT like this can greatly reduce setup and administration costs and greatly increase the speed that things get fixed when they go down. It also allows you to keep broken hardware and use it effectively for spare parts. And finally allows you to stock backup supplies like hard drives, power supplies and fans and not worry about them going to waste. If your IT, or yourself if you are the “IT department”, have computers and servers from 10 brands, all with different software and different operating systems, it’s time consuming to just to figure out what a problem is and more time consuming figuring out how fix it.

Computer accessories that are often interchangeable:
Case and CPU fans
Power supplies
Computer cases
Hard drives
CPU’s
RAM
CD / DVD and floppy drives
Power cords
Video cables
Operating system installation disks

Because computers become obsolete and some die more quickly than others it’s probably not possible or a good idea to always replace dead hardware with the same hardware. However, when your Dell GX280 goes down, it’s likely that the GX750 is going to be more similar than a HP or Sony computer, whatever the model. This allows you to progressively upgrade computers and equipment and continue a logical administration pattern.

The caveat to upgrading and administering IT like this is that it inherently prevents you from getting more reliable or more appropriate equipment. If you convince yourself that some computer model or brand is the best, you prevent yourself from even looking at other options when it comes time to purchase new, or upgrade existing equipment. Make sure you research the equipment that you are interested in purchasing before you do, especially if you are just starting out. IT firms can be a good source for learning what is good and reliable equipment, but they may also have their own motives in mind, so it’s important to do your own research when you go to purchase equipment as well. Also, don’t just read reviews but try to connect with other businesses that are similarly setup. Finally, don’t take consumer reviews the same as a business owner or IT review. Business and consumer usage often differ greatly, so as a business owner, you should be more focused on long term reliability in performance and failure rates, while consumers are much more often concerned with aesthetics or some arbitrary performance level.

Another caveat to all similar equipment is the potential for synchronized failures. We experienced this will some hard drives that were all purchased at the same time and were all the same model and had nearly sequential serial numbers. Non-coincidentally, they all started failing at the same time, literally within days of each-other, in separate computers, all 2 years before the warranty was up, which leads us to conclude that they had some defective part in them causing them to fail at the same time. This can end in a true IT disaster as most disaster preparedness plans don’t account for synchronized failure like this. Let’s say a very important database server(s) were built with identical hard drives for redundancy. One of the primary reasons for multiple drives was to prevent data loss if one or two or maybe even three drives failed. It’s unlikely that any plan was in place for all the drives failing. Assuming you have external backups, it can still take a long time to restore the system even if you have a solid disaster recovery plan. There;s not really any sure fire way to circumvent this sort of failures, but it’s something to keep in mind, if you start getting a lot of similar premature hardware failures.

So if you are starting out, or next time you go to purchase equipment, make a solid plan on how you will replace and upgrade equipment in the future and maximize the benefits of hardware consistency. Unless you choose the wrong computers from the start, this will save most businesses a lot of time and money in the long run.

5 tips for limited or no-IT companies

  • Buy the same brand and line of hardware when possible (Assuming it’s solid and reliable).
  • Buy the largest size desktop computers possible. Ultra compact computers break much more often and are difficult to impossible to replace components in.
  • Always buy computers that include a full operating system installation disks. The branded system recovery disks are worthless. Find a new brand if you can’t get actual Windows or actual operating system installation disks!
  • Used and refurbished computers are great but know that they will fail more often than new computers. The cost savings is still usually worth the risk of failures.
  • Unless you run software requiring very high performance hardware, don’t think you must have the latest and greatest equipment.

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