How Computer Hardware Fits In With Your Firm

“I had recently purchased a standard Dell desktop PC for my family, which the kids used for playing videogames; it came is a terabyte internal hard drive. My children had twice as much storage as my entire staff. How did this happen? The answer is simple: We had gotten stuck thinking that storage was expensive, which in fact is had become dirt cheap. We treated the abundant thing – hard drive capacity – as if it were scarce, and the scarce thing – people’s time – as if it were abundant. The corporate bureaucracy had gotten the equation backward.”

Waste is Good, Chris Anderson, Wired – July 2009

One of the challenges that all firms have today, along with every other business in today’s world, is the decision of how much money to invest in technology. Between old-school alternatives of hand rendering, the temptation to wait “one more year” to get equivalent technology for half-price, and the possibility of buying bargain machines for cheap, there are a lot of reasons to not buy the latest and greatest machines, and for the vast majority of firms, they would be a complete waste. The trick comes in finding the correct balance, and finding that balance is not an easy thing.

The first obstacle to find the right balance is education on computer hardware. Many of the senior level people in firms have not used computers for things like production graphics in years, if ever. And many who have used them never bothered to learn what makes them tick- like most PC/Mac users, they know that they start the software, and that some will run that software faster then others, but not why. There are two things that can be done to address this.

First, everyone in a firm should get a basic understanding of how their computer works, and what can cause bottlenecks when using certain software. It is similar to how all landscape architects need to know a base level of civil engineering- even if your firm outsources its grading work, everyone needs to speak the same language. You don’t need everyone in your firm to be able to build their own graphics rig (although that would be quite a money saver), but you need everyone to be able to communicate what problems they are having, and they need to know that the upper-level person they are talking to will have some understanding of it. I am going to try to lay out a base level description of stuff here that I use at Best Buy when I am educating customers about laptops/desktops, which should be enough to get lines of communication going.

Second, follow the old adage of surrounding yourself with people who are smarter then you are, and then listen to them when they voice concerns about technology issues. Even without knowing the difference between RAM and a CD-ROM, if one of the people you hired as CAD-monkey tells you that their computer is bogging down, and that they think they need another gig of RAM, it might be best to trust their judgment. By all means, call your IT guy to see what he thinks and see how much it will cost – see where it will fall in the budget, or if it is going to have to wait a bit. However, the key thing is to both trust your workers that you hired based on their expertise in computers, and that you let them know you are looking into it, and let them know where in the pipeline their suggestion is- One of the things I have learned in my time in Best Buy’s Future Leader Program and as part of our store’s employee team that bridges the gap between managers and the sales staff is that if you want employees to talk to supervisors about ideas, you have to ensure that the supervisor keeps the employee up to date, and aware of the situation, so they don’t think that any future ideas that they have will simply be ignored.

Computer Hardware Basics

In any computer there are a few key internal components that will effect the performance of the machine, all of which have had some significant additions in the recent past: the CPU, Hard Drive, RAM, Removable Storage, and Graphics Cards. Each one of these has its own role, and will effect the performance of the computer in different ways, however a bottleneck at any one point can cause system wide problems.

The basic part of any computer is the CPU or Central Processing Unit. This is essentially the brain of the computer- its the workhorse that does most of the calculations that your computer does. The speed of the processor directly effects every other part of the computer. PC processors are generally either Intel or AMD, although there are a few other companies. For the most part the two brands are fairly close in performance, with AMD a slight bit slower, hotter, using a tad more power, and a little less expensive. In a tower, no big deal, in a laptop that might be running CAD/Photoshop? I would go with the Intel to move a half step further from possible overheating. One of the new big things is Intel Core i7 chip. Both AMD and Intel have quad core processors (For simplicity sake, its basically 4 CPU’s in one), and the Core i7 is a hyperthreaded quad core (again, to over simplify, 8 cpu’s in one). Whether this matters to you and your firm is mostly a question of software. you have to look at the software you use to see if it will be able to use 4 cores efficiently, much less 8. If it can, this could mean a HUGE advantage in time, but if you are using software that can only use 2 cores at a time, it will be a minor advantage at best.

The Hard Drive is where all data on the computer is stored. There are two factors that determine how “good” a hard drive is, other then brand to brand differences. The first is size- the more space the better in general. You can get single hard drives in multiple terabytes these days, which is one of the biggest changes in computer technology in the last few years. The advantage to having more space is two-fold. First, at any point you should have around 10% of your hard drive open for your software to use to store data on a temporary basis. Having less then that will cause noticeable slowdowns. Second, software often gets broken up into thousands of pieces when it is installed, which slows down the process of using it. The best way to combat this is to defragment your hard drive from time to time, and the more space you have open on your hard drive, the quicker and better the drive will be defragmented. The second factor in speed in a hard drive is the speed – traditional hard drives are basically a set of magnetic disks, similar to vinyl records, that have magnetic data stored in rings. The speed rating for a hard drive tells you how fast the hard drive can spin while reading, so a faster drive can read identical data faster then a slow drive. The newest thing for hard drives is Solid-State Drives. These are essentially flash drives, and have faster access times, don’t need to be defragmented, and use far less power, as there is no mechanical movement involved with them, and they are fairly expensive as of now.

RAM is one of the most misunderstood parts of any computer. The best way I have come up with to describe it is this: If the library of congress is your hard drive, then your notebook is your RAM. You can take notes on anything you want, you can easily erase notes and replace them with other information, but you have a limited number of pages. You might go in knowing that you are writing a paper on the civil war, so you fill your notebook with notes on battles. You then can start writing the paper with the notes you took. However, if you then figure out that there was a key battle that you did not get any motes on you would have to go over to the card catalog, find where to go, find the right shelf, find a book with the info you need, find the right page, and you could then start writing. When you are running photoshop with a large image, its possible that between the image, photoshop, your Operating System (Windows/Mac OS/Linux etc) take up more space then you have in your RAM, so some of the brushes for photoshop have to be taken out of the RAM to make room for the image. That works OK until you need one of those brushes that got taken out of the RAM. At that point your computer has to go looking through the hard drive for all of the fragments of the program needed for the brushes, and that takes time. While it still gets the job done, it takes much longer then if it was in the RAM ready to go. Having more RAM, and faster RAM means there is more room in the notebook, and that you will be able to read from the notebook faster. (OK, I didn’t say it wasn’t a little clumsy, but I think it gets the point across). The latest thing for RAM is what is called DDR3. Most computers sold today use DDR2 RAM, but there are new machines that use DDR3 RAM. In theory this RAM should be roughly 50% faster then DDR2, however, most software cannot use it effectively enough to make a big difference in performance. For general use, anyone running Vista should have 2 gigs of RAM, if not 3. For the type of graphic work we do, more would be far better, so on a Vista machine I would go with at least 4 gigs.

Removable Storage is everything from Flash Drives to CDs and DVDs. Most Flash drives are fairly equal as long as they fall under USB standard 2.0 which has been the standard for the last few years. USB 3.0 will bring faster speeds, but is still in development and is not expected to be on the market until 2010 sometime. The place where more evolution is happening now is in the disk based platform. CDs (with a ~700 Meg capacity) made way for DVDs (~4.7 gig) which have made way for BluRay disks (~25 gig) in the last year. BluRay disks and burners are still expensive, but no more then DVDs were in their first few years. Obviously the choice on what one of these disk formats will fit your firm best depends on what they are used for. For archiving purposes, BluRay will allow you to cut your disk count by a factor of 5, but most clients don’t need nearly that amount of data, unless there are some high quality models/renderings going on the disk. For most purposes, DVD drives are more then enough.

Graphic Cards are one of the most interesting and mysterious parts of computers for many people. This is due, in part, to the fact that graphics cards have only existed for 15 years, and still are not included in full on most home computers. A true graphics card is essentially a separate computer- it has its own processor (a GPU- Graphics Processing Unit), RAM, and outputs. However, all of these pieces are designed specifically for the purpose of making images. The RAM is similar to traditional RAM, except it is dedicated to nothing but graphics- allowing a much faster transfer of information from the RAM to the GPU. Most cards today have somewhere in the range of 256 meg of RAM to 1 gig of RAM. The outputs allow you to connect a monitor to the graphics card- it also can allow for special outputs, like HDMI, or dual monitor outputs. While the GPU is similar to your CPU, its architecture is fundamentally different- it has been designed to do many small things at the same time instead of a few big things. The best example I have seen of this was done by Jamie and Adam from Mythbusters, albeit a bit exaggerated:

While that is an extreme example, its does explain the basic principal. GPUs are good at doing multiple small things, like drawing pixels, at the same time, while a CPU can do a few big or small things at a time, which means graphics on a CPU will lag. One thing to note as well, many computers now come with what is called an integrated graphics card. That is basically a small GPU attached directly to the computers motherboard, without dedicated RAM. While it takes up the slack for most light computer users, it is far from enough for software like CAD, Illustrator, or Sketchup.

What Components are Right for You?

The right computer for your firm depends greatly on what type of firm you are, and where you want to be in 10 years. Do you want to be a firm known for great design with a classic, warm, personal hand graphic style? Or do you want to be a firm on the cutting edge, with high-end graphics and a big web-presence to pair with your innovative design? If the former is where you want to be, you should still have enough power to run CAD without a problem, so you run Vista you should have somewhere around a dual core, 2-2.5 gig processor, 2-3 gig of RAM, and a 128 meg Graphics card. While all your machines don’t need to be that fast, at that speed the computer will stop limiting the speed of your workers, and it will stop costing you money in delays.

If you are a cutting edge firm, where most people use CAD, the Adobe Creative Suite, and do some SketchUp, I would try to be somewhere in the dual-quad core, 2-3 gig processor range, with 4-8 Gig of DDR2 RAM, and a 256-512 Meg Graphics Card. You may also want one real beast machine for any high-end 3D work you do. 3D Studio Max is designed, for instance, to take advantage of network computing- meaning you can set up your network so every computer will work together to get a rendering done faster over a weekend or-night, when the other employees are home. That also means it can take advantage of pretty much anything you can throw at it. Doing what I like to do, I can tell you my current dream rig is somewhere in the range of a Core i7 CPU, with 16-32 gig of DDR3, and 2 crossfire 1 GIG graphics cards. There will still be slowdown on some really big models, but that is a given with software that can create movies like Wall-E.

The thing to remember is, speed is much cheaper then it used to be, and it is getting cheaper every day. Labor, however, is not getting any cheaper. Look at the business, and figure out what works best for your firm, but don’t discount the fact that spending $150 more on a graphics card, and $100 on an additional stick of RAM now could save you a few hours each week. You know the billable rates for your workers, and that at that rate, it will not take long for you to make that money back, and more.

Do you have any ways to describe how computer components work? Any thoughts on the AMD/Intel or NVIDIA/ATI wars? Let me know!

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