Choosing workstations

Let’s turn our attention to the fate of the humble workstation. The life of a modern PC on a network is a sharply bipolar one, with, it seems, little or no middle ground. At one end of the spectrum, you have the totally locked-down, Stalinised clone PC with no individuality, its users barely able to distinguish one PC from another, the sole reflex twitch of freedom being a sad little Vicky Pollard effigy stuck to the monitor with Blu-Tack. At the other end, you have the fearless road warrior’s laptop, secured only by his fingerprint, which is free to roam courtesy of at least four distinct connection methods – wired and wireless Ethernet, Bluetooth and infrared – and which is backed up once a year, if that often, using a chipped coffee mug full of USB flash drives…

Choosing workstations

It’s the disasters that can befall the latter category that feed the paranoia which creates the former. Most of the nasty things that imperil laptops or “self-maintained” PCs, such as being infected, stolen or dropped down the stairs, never trouble those corporate lockdown machines. And most of the actions that are prohibited on lockdown systems merely annoy or hinder legitimate users rather than confer any defence against the problems they actually tend to suffer from.

My own approach to the run-of-the-mill company network PC is rather schizophrenic. On the one hand, I utterly despise the idea, often found in corporate purchasing departments, that PCs are commodities as interchangeable as office chairs or reels of Sellotape. Every large corporate network I see contains machines bought on this basis, and I’d guess that the false assumptions that underpin this notion probably shorten their reinvestment cycle by at least three years, in some cases six. Yet the guy in charge of purchasing these systems will often be intensely proud of his BMW parked outside. Whenever I get the chance, I needle these guys into defending their rationale, and it’s astonishing how emotional they get when asked to explain why they equip their users with the computing equivalent of Trabants.

On the other hand, though, I do believe that interchangeability is a good idea. If your PC dies and you can just stroll across and log in again at a different desk, the loss of business revenue is much less than if you need a rebuild that can take two or three full working days, making it well worth the investment to set up hot-desking in the first place. This should also be a strong motivation for attempting to herd together all your laptop users and getting them to provide an occasional image backup of their whole hard disk. This is almost always a tough job no matter how big the company, because the maverick laptop users are almost always senior and therefore highly egotistical.

So when I’m building or specifying a set of workstations, what do I look for? These days, there are only a few things that matter when choosing a general-purpose “office automaton” computer. Whether you’re buying for XP or considering the arrival of Vista, it’s easy to hit the right spec (so long as you realise that it’s equally easy to end up with the evil twin if you listen to too many adverts).

• Sufficient memory It’s so cheap these days that if you find a vendor that’s deliberately included exotic RAM in the spec, mark it down in your list. Dell, Compaq and IBM went there a few years back over RDRAM and the result is quite clear – unless you intend to buy all the RAM you’ll ever want on the first day, proprietary RAM is a nightmare. This is where your money should go before anything else is even thought about, and 1GB is a good working minimum for a new PC. With second-hand or PCs recycled inside your business, aim for 1GB and settle for 512MB.

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