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Nick’s Hardware Picks

© 2016 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from MinistryTech Magazine

As a team of consultants who work on church and ministry networks nationwide, we have wrestled through many hardware options. There are two issues we always consider: 1) hardware that improves system reliability vs that which hurts it, and 2) budget sensitivity. In this article I’ll share with you the hardware we currently spec for our clients– specs that affordably help ministries build the Kingdom.

Locally-Built vs Name Brand
I’m surprised every time I learn of a church or ministry that still buys locally-built computers. In the early days of personal computers many preferred buying locally-built computers because the support would be more convenient. Maybe in the 1980s that was sometimes true, but more often locally built systems need more support because they do not have the benefit of the level of R&D (Research & Development) a larger company, like Dell, can invest in them.

Even consumer-class systems have some R&D; but locally-built systems are only assembled. A local shop may do its best to buy great components, but local shops have limited ability to test how each of those components work together. There is no way a local shop can compete with the quality, reliability, and support of a well-engineered system, like Dell.

Workstations
We have found the two most reliable workstation manufacturers to be Apple and Dell. Though both are about equally good from a quality perspective; Dell is the clear winner from a support perspective. The truth is that both are man-made systems that occasionally have support needs. Dell comes to you to replace the failed component (for up to 3 years), whereas you need to take your Mac to Apple.

  • Desktop Computers
    • Apple. The 27″ iMac is terrific for most graphics processing, and the 21″ is a great general workstation. For a graphics workstation, be sure to get a video card with its own memory (rather than borrowing from the logic board memory), and the more RAM and processor speed, the better. For a general workstation, 8gb RAM is probably more than adequate.
    • Dell. Dell is our preferred Windows desktop provider. We recommend Dell Optiplex desktop computers because they are 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 7040 small form factor (3.4ghz Intel i7 Quad Core processor, 8gb RAM, 180gb flash storage, Gigabit NIC, 22″ monitor, keyboard, and optical mouse) running Windows 10 Pro. With a 3-year next business day on-site warranty, the cost should be under $1200.
  • Notebooks & Tablets
    • Apple. Most Mac users will be very happy with a MacBook Air configured with 8gb RAM and 256gb of flash storage. For those doing higher-end graphics, though, a MacBook Pro is the only way to go because it’s Apple’s only notebook with the option of getting a video card that has its own RAM.
    • Dell. For those wanting a more traditional notebook, we recommend the Dell Latitude 5470 (2.6 i7 Dual Core processor, 8gb RAM, 128gb flash storage). With Dell’s 3-year next business day on-site warranty including accident coverage, the cost is about $1560.
    • Microsoft. Surprise! For those wanting a Windows tablet, you can’t beat the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. Under 2lbs, configured with an i7 processor, 8gb RAM, and 128gb flash storage, and docking station, the cost is about $1980.

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 three levels of servers depending on our client’s needs. Though we work with tower and rack configurations, to save space I’ll only mention our tower configuration here.

  • Level 1 (about $3665). Dell PowerEdge T430, two Intel Xeon 3.0ghz Quad Core Processors, 16gb RAM, dual 8gb SD Boot Module, three 1tb SATA drives w Perc H730 RAID Controller, DVD, four Gigabit NICs, iDRAC Express, two Power Supplies and Cords, 3-year Next Business Day On-Site Pro Support
  • Level 2 (about $4690). Dell PowerEdge T630, two Intel Xeon 2.4ghz Six Core Processors, 32gb RAM, dual 8gb SD Boot Module, six 1tb SATA drives w Perc H730 RAID Controller, DVD, four Gigabit NICs, iDRAC Express, two Power Supplies and Cords, 3-year Next Business Day On-Site Pro Support
  • Backup/Light Purpose (about $1150). Dell PowerEdge T110 II, one Intel 3.1ghz Quad Core Processor, 8gb RAM, two 1tb SATA drives w Perc H200 RAID Controller (requires Windows), DVD, one Gigabit NIC, one Power Supply with Cord, 3-year Next Business Day On-Site Pro Support

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; it 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 (10tb or more), though they are expensive. The key is to make certain your SAN has full redundancy of all components to keep your services running and available in case any components fail.

SANs are different from NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices in that they do bit-level storage (much more efficient) rather than file-level storage. NAS devices cost less than SANs, but don’t have the reliability of SANs and so should not be used in mission-critical roles.

Firewalls
Every network must be protected from intruders and malware. Firewalls, like servers, need to be refreshed periodically to make certain your network and users are protected from the latest schemes that have been devised to hurt them. 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.
    • Many think that by going with Microsoft O365 they can rely on Microsoft’s anti-SPAM solution. Our experience, however, is that an inappropriately high amount of SPAM makes it through Microsoft’s anti-malware solution.
    • To help churches and ministries save money, my firm inexpensively hosts SPAM filtering using a Barracuda SPAM Filter 600, and thus see statistics on a large scale. Surprisingly, more than 83% 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, which have a sweet spot match for the services churches and ministries need while staying budget sensitive. SonicWALLs even have an option for internet content filtering that works well, and does not overburden your system or team. We consider it essential.

Network Switches
When building a network, the best you can hope for is that the process is trouble free, and that the system is, simply, reliable. Foundational elements such as cable and switches must be dependable. Our team has worked with just about every brand of switch available. Many mistakenly think they need what’s referred to as Level 3 features, but it is the very rare church or ministry that can take advantage of those expensive features. The switches we believe offer the best balance of reliability, features, and price are Dell’s Networking X Series. They combine high performance, management, and reliability with a very reasonable cost.

Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPSs)
Network servers and switches 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 servers and can be programmed to shut the servers down when necessary; then bring them back up again when power is restored. Our favorite models are the APC Smart UPS 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).

Well, there you have it. These are tried and tested solutions that work in ministries of all sizes: from small-staff 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.

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