Archive for April, 2009

Nick’s Hardware Picks

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles

© 2009 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from The Clergy Journal

As a team of consultants that work on church and ministry networks nationwide, we have wrestled through many hardware issues.  Having worked on so many hundreds of ministry networks, we’ve seen firsthand which hardware improves system reliability and which hardware hurts it.  In this article I’ll share with you the hardware we currently spec for our clients— specs that help ministries build the Kingdom.

Locally Built vs Name Brand
Our clients have found that locally built hardware has a higher failure rate.  Though sometimes less expensive to purchase, the cost in lost productivity and in increased support can easily— and usually does— outweigh any possible advantages.  Add to that the cost of church staff to support those systems, and it only gets worse.

Locally built systems are usually built with the best of intentions.  In fact, the builder may have meticulously searched out the best in each component category to assemble in a box.  But few local builders have research and development budgets to ensure that each component works well together.

The Right Name Brands
Not all name brands are created equal.  As the saying goes, some are a little more equal than others.

Some name brands haven’t any more research and development in them than locally built systems.  Thus some name brands are little more than locally built systems with national distribution.

Desktop Computers
For the ninth year in a row, Dell has won our preferred desktop hardware provider status.  Most of our clients are buying Dell Optiplex desktop computers; Optiplex is Dell’s enterprise (optimized for corporate networks) line of desktop computers.  These reliable systems come in a number of configurations.  Our basic church desktop spec is an Optiplex 760 (2.66Ghz Intel Dual Core processor, 2Gb RAM, 80Gb hard drive, 10/100/1000 NIC, 17″ flat panel monitor, keyboard, and optical mouse) running Windows XP Pro SP3.

A note about Windows:  Windows Vista has not been adopted by mainstream corporations, and for good reason.  We are testing the beta of its successor, Windows 7, and it shows great promise.  We hope it will be as solid in final release.

Dell includes a 3-year, next-day on-site warranty, taking our clients out of the hardware support business (which saves them a lot of money).  This desktop spec is under $850 (Spring, 2009).

Notebook Computers
Dell had some problems a few years ago with its notebook line, and we switched to another solution.  Dell has since resolved their issues, and has won our endorsement again for notebooks.

Our current minimum spec is the Dell Latitude E6400 (2.53 Intel Dual Core processor, 2Gb RAM, 160gb hard drive, 14.1” WXGA monitor, NIC, WiFi, Bluetooth, WebCam, backlit keyboard, WinXP Pro SP3, DVD, Spare A/C Adapter, 3-Year Next-Day On-Site Warranty including Accident Coverage) for about $1660 (Spring, 2009).

For those wanting something a little smaller and lighter, we spec the Dell Latitude E4200 (1.4 Intel Dual Core processor, 2Gb RAM, 64gb solid state hard drive, 12.1” WXGA monitor, NIC, WiFi, Bluetooth, backlit keyboard, WinXP Pro SP3, DVD, Spare A/C Adapter, 3-Year Next-Day On-Site Warranty including Accident Coverage) for about $1760 (Spring, 2009).

Network Servers
Servers come in many shapes and sizes.  Because ministry teams rely so heavily on these systems (the most important part of the network), they need to be engineered with The Right Stuff.

We usually recommend Dell’s PowerEdge T610 (2.0Ghz Intel Xeon Quad Core processor, 8Gb RAM, 3 146Gb SAS 15k hard drives in a RAID 5 configuration, DVD, LTO2 tape drive, and 2 power supplies) for about $3500 (Spring, 2009).  Depending on client needs, we sometimes increase hard drive and backup capacities and add more processors and RAM.

We usually put into a network server as much hard drive capacity as we think will be needed for the next two years.  As technology continues to improve, more can easily be added later, and probably for considerably less than it would cost today.

We also like to go large on RAM.  RAM is inexpensive, and the more you have, the better your network will perform.

SANs
SANs (Storage Area Networks) are large external hard drive arrays.  They are optimal for those with large hard drive capacity needs (4Tb or more), though they are not inexpensive.  Our favorite SANs are made by EqualLogic, which was recently bought by Dell.

Firewalls
Every network must be protected from intruders and malware.  Our favorite appliances to keep your system safe are:

  • Protection from SPAM:  Barracuda Networks’ SPAM Firewalls are king when you’re looking to keep your team focused on mission.  They eliminate SPAM very well, and that keeps most malware from getting into your system.  We inexpensively host SPAM filtering for churches and ministries, and thus see statistics on a large scale.  More than 94% of all email is SPAM!
  • Protection from intruders:  There are computer programs and people trying to exploit your networks’ vulnerabilities.  The best appliances to protect your system are from SonicWALL.

Printers
It’s conclusive:  the most reliable high-quality printers are made by Hewlett-Packard (HP).  They’re reasonably priced, fast, and any computer or application can print to them.  With HP LaserJet printers (we recommend staying away from DeskJet printers due to high ink costs and slow speed) printing is easy.  Our favorite model is the HP LaserJet 4700 DN.  Capable of fast high-quality color, it’s networkable and can print on both sides.  Some available options for the 4700 include multiple drawers for different paper needs like plain, legal, letterhead, etc, and a stapler.

Network Switches
When building a network, the best you can hope for is that the process is trouble free.  Foundational elements such as cable and switches must be dependable.  Our team has worked with just about every brand of switch available.  Those we believe offer the best balance of reliability, features, and price are the Dell Power Connect 2724 and 2748.  These 24 and 48 port switches combine high performance, management, and reliability with a very reasonable cost.

Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPSs)
Network servers should be protected by uninterruptible power supplies to keep them up during short power outages.  These unsung heroes of the computing world keep our data from being scrambled like an omelet.  We prefer the American Power Conversion series of Smart UPSs.  A smart UPS is one that communicates with the server and can be programmed to shut the server down when necessary; then bring it back up again when power is restored.  Our favorite models are the 750 and 1500.

Where to Buy
Through a special arrangement with Dell, you can purchase hardware at a discount by calling their representative who is focused on helping those who are referred to Dell by our firm, MBS.  Because Dell reps change, I recommend going to our website (www.mbsinc.com), selecting the Links option, and then choosing the hardware category.  We keep the Dell link there updated so that you’ll know who to call and how to reach them— just make certain you tell them you’re calling at MBS’ recommendation (we don’t receive any proceeds for referring to them).

However, if you’re considering getting an EqualLogic SAN, your best bet is to call Jason Powell with VR6 Systems (jason.powell@vr6systems.com, 574/532-3352) before ever talking with Dell about it.  Jason and his team will save you thousands, but they can only do so if you cal them first.

CCB (Consistent Computer Bargains) can save you the most money on HP printers, Barracuda SPAM Firewalls, and SonicWALLs if you’re a not-for-profit church or ministry.  They can be reached at 800/342-4222.

What About Macs?
I prefer the MacBook Pro notebooks to their standard notebooks because of the extra engineering that goes into them.  Apple has a House of Worship market team that can save you money, and they’re great.  Contact Chris Miller (chris.miller@apple.com, 916/399-7404) for details.

Well, there you have it.  These are tried and tested solutions that work in ministries of all sizes: from single-computer churches up to the largest ministry networks in the country.  Our networks have earned a reputation for very high reliability— based in part on the right hardware.

Maximizing Your Network– Virtually!

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles

© 2009 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from CTI’s Your Church Magazine

There’s a new technology in town, and it’s a pro at helping you maximize your network— budgetarily and operationally.  But there’s one catch: it’s free.  Yup!  Free!  The first time I heard about it I asked, “Can it possibly be any good?”  I think you’ll be just as surprised as I was.

What is this strange new technology?
The most expensive component in your network server is its processor chip.  Yet if you look at the percentage that chip is actually being used, you’ll likely find that it’s usage is less than 10% of its capacity.  This technology takes advantage of the extra capacity and allows you to run virtual servers on one physical computer.  That means less computers running as servers, which will save you money.

Doesn’t ‘free’ always have a catch?
Though that’s always the right question to ask, the answer is not always.  In this case the software that would meet the needs of nearly all churches really is free.  The companies offering it make their money on larger operations, and the percentage of churches that need the more expensive versions is small.

The only cost is that of installing the software.  That either means time spent by your staff, or funds to hire an engineer who knows how to configure virtual server hosts.  But before you wonder whether or not it is really worth doing, here’s a quick list of the benefits I’ll expand upon further in this article:

  1. Fewer physical servers are needed to run your network, saving money on hardware.
  2. Increased reliability and stability of your network.
  3. Easier network administration.
  4. Better disaster recovery and business continuity.
  5. Lower electrical power usage.

Historical Perspective
Excess processor capacity was first noticed and exploited in early mainframe computers in the 1960s.  Engineers and programmers found ways to get more out of those computers’ processors, increasing their value and return on investment (ROI) to their organization.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that engineers and programmers started doing something similar for PCs.  That’s when VMware created software allowing one PC to run multiple computers at the same time!  Because these computers are not separate hardware computers but are actually running within another computer, they’re virtual.

Does It Require an Advance Computer Science Degree?
It’s actually very easy to set up a virtual computer!  Once the software is installed that enables this functionality, all you do is click on a button to create a new virtual machine.  It asks what the operating system will be, how large of a hard drive and how much RAM it will need, and then it’s ready to go!  The virtual computer runs in a window on your desktop and can be completely configured as though it were a separate computer!  The first thing you’ll do is install the operating system of the virtual computer, and so on.  Exactly like setting up a physical server.

So… more on the benefits…

  1. Fewer physical servers.  Remember that most servers’ processors are severely underutilized.  Though they may spike in utilization at any given time, those spikes are short-lived and not tied to activities on other servers.

    We have talked with church and ministry IT managers who have said they reduced their physical server count from more than 20 down to 3 or 4!  From 70 down to 10!  In our office we went from 10 down to 5!

    Brunswick Street Baptist Church (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada) is in a century-old building.  Rick Wightman, their IT Director, said, “With a small budget and almost no real estate to put gear in, we pursued virtualization as a way of providing services in a manageable way while staying inside our physical footprint.”

  2. Increased reliability.  One of the best ways to improve network reliability and stability is to take many of the various services performed on a server and split them out to different servers.  This decreases the number of conflicts and facilitates restarting a service without affecting other services.  Examples of services that are often separated are mail, database, communications, security, backup, and so on.

    Virtual servers, even though running on the same physical computer, are truly separate servers.  This technology makes it easily and affordably possible to separate services.  It also makes it possible to set up test servers for new software and patches.  “Virtualization has also allowed us to be more adventurous since we can experiment without incurring additional overhead for the gear to support it, or potentially poisoning a production machine. We provision a new machine and if it doesn’t suit us, delete it. If it does we can decide how to place it in the mix,” added Wightman.

  3. Easier network administration.  One of the features of this technology is the ability to take ‘snapshots’ of virtual servers on a scheduled basis.  Depending on the amount of hard drive space available, this may allow you to keep many snapshots available so that if you had to, you could restore a server to a previous moment in time with a couple of mouse clicks.  This can be very helpful in overcoming a malware infection or crash that has corrupted data.  It’s also easier administration because you might have a half-dozen or more virtual servers running on one computer, and switching between them is all done simply with a mouse click.
  4. Better disaster recovery and business continuity.  Though the host computer should be one that is appropriately engineered for its role, the software that allows hosting virtual servers can run on almost any recent computer.  So if you had a physical server completely crash get stolen, or destroyed you could get your network back up and running pretty quickly by simply taking some desktop computers and putting the virtual server software on them.

    Lakeview Church (Indianapolis, IN) Network & Systems Manager, David Szpunar, said their physical server count only decreased from 11 to 9.  But he has setup 40 virtual servers!  “Almost every virtual server has a dedicated task, and that has increased our reliability and improved our backup significantly.

  5. Lower power usage.  Fewer physical servers means less power consumption, which requires less air conditioning.  Some utility companies even offer incentives to virtualize!

Three Vendors
Currently there are three software providers for this technology:  Microsoft, VMware, and Citrix.  Though Microsoft may eventually win, the market is currently dominated by VMware, the company that invented the technology.  A survey published by Information Week (October 15, 2007, page 40) showed that 77% of business technology professionals’ computers run VMware.  (Both Microsoft and VMware offer free versions of their server virtualization software.)

In our firm’s lab we began our testing with Microsoft’s solution, found it problematic, and switched to VMware.  VMware is easy to use, stable, and powerful; we haven’t looked back.  You can download a free copy for use on as many host computers as you’d like at www.vmware.com.

Virtual computers— especially as servers— make a lot of sense.  They are easy to configure and use, and are cost effective ways to get more out of your hardware investment.  They are easy ways to earn those words we all hope to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”