The truth about extreme networking

Almost everyone I speak to inside the big players kind of goes fuzzy on me when I hand out examples based on networks of fewer than 25 people, professing to believe (at least in public) that this is all a done deal. Just park the hardware somewhere in a corner, feed it a copy of Small Business Server, job done.

The truth about extreme networking

I’ve never believed this: I think that small businesses indulge in extremes of network configuration that are every bit as freaky as what large businesses do. The difference lies in their reaction to what they’re doing. Overwhelmingly, small businesses seem to believe that it should all just work and that what they’re trying to do is nothing special.

I don’t agree, because I think getting all the jobs you really need doing to share and safeguard the workflow and intellectual property of your business can land you in extreme territory very quickly. That confession from my Microsoft Virtual Computing guru was bang on this topic.

While most of the regular vendors talk up the price for any server worthy of the role of virtual host – five-figure sums aren’t at all unusual for such machines, even in the second-hand market – here’s a guy fresh from the battlefield who admits that he was in the habit of running these systems on recycled (or perhaps it’s more polite to say “repurposed”) workstation equipment.

This is the point where I want to clear up that confusion. Many people – including those happy to call themselves IT professionals – don’t understand why expensive kit does a better job than cheap kit. They’re used to thinking in gigahertz and megabits per second, so that if they see a sticker on a machine that reports a certain figure in these units they’ll assume that it really is working at that speed, and can keep it up indefinitely.

Substandard switches, PCs and servers often look just fine while only one user is standing in front of them, timing a file copy or loading a document

I often hear this asserted along with an inverted-snob attitude to expensive brands: all the chips come from Intel, I’m told with perfect assurance, so what’s the difference between brand X and brand Y? All those people who buy the more expensive option are mugs, they say: this cheap machine has more megahertz so it must be better!

Very often the answer is struggling to get out, because every machine you attach to a LAN looks fast when you’re testing it on your own. Substandard switches, PCs and servers often look just fine while only one user is standing in front of them, timing a file copy or loading a document.

The trouble only begins when ten people sit down together and start to stress the system as a whole – and the real problem, of course, is that this doesn’t happen until you’ve spent the money and the lights are all on. Naturally, those people who are stuck with slow or unreliable setups may feel defensive about their choices and somewhat tetchy when challenged about them.

The problem of appraising your setup and working out whether or not you’re in need of some extreme networking resources is where consultants come in. They get the comparatives that come from seeing a variety of environments and timing what’s happening in them. In effect consultants like me and Mr Honeyball, Mr Jones, and in fact most of the Real World Computing contributing editors bring everyone else’s mistakes with them, in the nicest possible sense, so that you don’t have to repeat them.

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