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Designing Computers for Small Business

Dell just sent me a letter advertising their new Vostro line “especially for small business“. They say “we listened, then we listened some more” and explain that it’s based on feedback from people in small companies. The problem (which should be familiar to everyone who has ever done any consulting work) is that people don’t ask for what they need! Ask someone what they want in a computer system and the first thing that they will ask for is a fast CPU and a low price, the colour of the box will probably be higher on their priority list than the option of a backup.

Dell have proved this by advertising their small business machines by advertising cheap desktop machines for small business use.

Here is a list of the features that I consider essential in small business systems (based on my experience working for dozens of small companies):
Reliable operation. Using a relatively inexpensive machine as both a desktop machine and a server for the company network is very common in companies with less than 10 people. The Dell PowerEdge Tower systems are reasonably cheap (as little as $800AU – $100 more than a low-end Vostro in the base configuration, although the Vostro includes a bundled monitor). The PowerEdge machines have ECC RAM as a standard feature (avoids data loss due to memory errors) and can be delivered with hardware RAID support (SATA-2 or SAS) and a variety of backup options. A low-end tower PowerEdge server with 250G of hardware SATA RAID-1, a 160G removable disk for backup, and an extra gigabit-ethernet port costs $2015. Such a machine would do really well as a server for a small company while also being quite good as a desk-side workstation (the cooling fans would probably be louder than on most workstations but the money saved would be worth-while for most small businesses). If Dell was to promote PowerEdge tower machines (maybe under the label “Vostro Servers”) it would be good for customers and should be profitable for them.

The next thing that Dell should consider is a laptop with ECC RAM. Many small businesses start out as a sole trader with a laptop. Data loss on such a machine would be catastrophic. At the design stage ECC RAM would not be difficult to add – if there was a company that produced such RAM (I expect that Dell could purchase enough volume to drive the creation of new memory modules).

Another laptop issue is the reliability of mass storage. Laptops tend to get dropped and hard drives tend to break when dropped. Lenovo sells a “ThinkPad Serial ATA Hard Drive Bay Adapter” which allows two hard drives in a Thinkpad which could be used for RAID-1 (if you don’t want a built-in DVD drive). I chose to use regular backups instead of buying the extra hardware for RAID-1 but it would be good if other companies offered such options – especially when promoting their products to small businesses (who often don’t do regular backups). Even Lenovo could improve things in regard to their potential RAID-1 support in Thinkpads by promoting this feature (instead of just having the hardware listed as an optional extra with no mention of why you would want it) and offering a default install with RAID-1. Better still would be hot-swap RAID-1 in a laptop (which would be quite easy to do if the expansion bay was changed to use USB as it’s method of connection). Of course RAID-1 only covers you in the case where the drop is only enough to destroy one disk or if it causes partial damage to both disks but doesn’t destroy the same section of data on both disks.

The next big thing for laptops will be flash storage. One of the major advantages of flash is that it’s almost impossible to destroy it by dropping it. I would rather have my important data on a flash storage than a hard drive (it also saves electricity and therefore makes the battery last longer). The option of having flash as the primary storage device and a hard drive for files that are larger and less important would be useful to most small businesses. Of course hardly any small business owners will ask for this, they will probably ask for a machine that has a fast CPU.

Sometimes when developing a product you have to design something with the features that customers need and get the sales and marketting people to convince the customer of the benefits of the features. Even though the number of people who understand the technology and will jump at the opportunity to buy good things (such as me) is rather small, the number of people who can understand once it’s explained to them is quite significant. I’m sure that if Dell released a new line of computers with the slogan “reliable machines that don’t lose your data” instead of “good-looking new machines” then they would get some interest.

After writing this post but before publication time I happened to be speaking to the owner of a small business on the topic of choice of computers for a company such as his. He seemed convinced of the benefits of a better machine to replace his current desktop PC that is running as a server (it’s yet to be seen whether he considers the benefit to be worth the cost).

I wonder if Matt Domsch reads my blog…

4 comments to Designing Computers for Small Business

  • [...] Designing Computers for Small Business He seemed convinced of the benefits of a better machine to replace his current desktop PC that is running as a server (it?s yet to be seen whether he considers the benefit to be worth the cost). I wonder if Matt Domsch reads my blog? … [...]

  • The number one option I predict manufacturers will offer for a small business server is “don’t ship it, keep it.” Instead of shipping the machine, the manufacturer sticks it in a rack for you, and instead of a big box with the server in it, you get a little box with a bootable CD that turns your desktop into the server console and your desktop machine’s CD or DVD drive into a virtual drive on the server.

  • Gernot Hassenpflug

    Hello, your article caught my attention (on Planet Debian), partly because of the mention of ECC RAM laptops, something I too have been secretly wishing for, and also because you mention flash memory. The new Sony Vaio 4.5″ models (90 series) have that option, of 30 or 40 GiB flash memory instead of HDD. I suppose other companies will be following suit.

  • etbe

    Don: The problem with manufacturers doing that is that they will have huge difficulty in competing with ISPs that are dedicated to such business. The larger manufacturers have a chance of getting some success (although Sun’s Grid idea apparently didn’t work).

    Xen based virtual servers are also significantly eating the margins of the manufacturers. Instead of getting a complete server you can just get a fraction of a Xen machine for much less money.

    Gernot: Great news about the Sony. Pity that they don’t support the Trackpoint (IMHO the finest mouse-like device ever invented). My current Thinkpad should keep working until Lenovo releases a Flash-based Thinkpad.