Selecting a Computer System

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While most people developing a new facility consider computer-system decisions an afterthought, you’ll save time and money if you begin the process long before breaking ground.

The computer system includes hard drives, network cabling, switches, routers, backup devices, uninterrupted power supplies, operating system, application software and a secure room for back-up tapes and servers.

A good tip is to install computer cabling with every phone line. It costs less to include it in the construction phase than after the fact. Have the electrician lay two runs of the same four-pair network cabling used by your computers—one for your phone system and the other for your computer network. This enables you to expand your phone system for a minimal cost at a later date.

Whereas wireless networking is all the rage right now, in new buildings it’s best to install cabling for overcoming issues with security and weak signals. With advancements in Internet connectivity, it’s possible to employ state-of-the-art communication technology inexpensively for remote access of your office network. This way you can connect to your home office network to view daily receipts without having to speak with the local manager or view live video feed from security cameras. Speak with a local computer consultant for options about remote access.

The Line on Cable

Category 6 is the accepted standard for new cable installations and was designed for transmission speeds of up to one gigabit per second. Make sure you check with local building codes because certain conditions require the laying of Plenum-rated cable specially insulated for low-smoke and low-flame characteristics. Plenum cable may be mandated for some building spaces, such as between dropdown and actual ceilings.

Network cables must be installed in a star configuration. In other words, all network lines run to and from one central location known as the wiring hub. Visualize a wagon wheel where all of the spokes start from one central point. At the hub is an Ethernet switch or router, allowing all network cables to be connected to a common device.

The length of each run should be limited to 295 feet. If your network runs are longer, you may consider using fiber optic, a repeater switch or a wireless run. Also consider installing a power socket beside each phone or network jack in case you need to power phones, faxes or a computer.

Find an electrician familiar with the many intricate rules of laying computer network cabling, such as those mentioned above. It’s an involved process that should only be attempted by an experienced professional.

Central Server

Depending on the size of your business, you may have a central server computer either for data storage or running client and server applications. If you foresee the need for a server in the near future, include a small computer room in your building blueprints. Request the carpenter use fire-resistant walls and build abundant air conditioning into this space. Also make sure the door has a deadbolt to protect your server from mischief so you can store daily backups before moving them offsite.

Hard Facts on Hardware

Cost, expandability, speed, chassis size, compatibility and portability are the main considerations in selecting hardware options. Buy what you need to manage operations effectively and efficiently: anything more won’t create more business, just more expense. For example, it’s highly unlikely that a $3,000 computer will return any more investment than a $1,200 model. While it’s easy to spend too much on a computer, today’s storage software packages and general-office applications will run on any decent major brand.

As a general rule, keep the cost below $1,200 per computer. Currently, it’s possible to configure an ample Dell office computer for around $1,000 with a two year in-office warranty. Ask a sales rep to explain specifications and answer any questions you have when shopping.

The printer is one piece of hardware that businesses routinely try to cut costs on, but it ends up costing more in time and money down the road. If your office is going to be networked, consider a standalone printer to connect directly to the network and then place it in a prime location between employees.

Choosing the right printer obviously depends on your needs, but generally steer away from models priced less than $500 because they will probably fall short of expectations. A good option is HP’s LaserJet 2400 series, ideal for small offices with up to 12 users. It’s user-friendly and delivers professional black-and-white laser prints instantly.

The last hardware item is the all-important uninterrupted power supply (UPS). This device has two functions. First, if you lose electricity, the UPS will power your computer until you can do a clean shutdown, preventing unsaved data from being lost. Some can even be set to safely power off your equipment in the event of a prolonged outage.

Second, the UPS will clean up dirty power, correct for brownout conditions and, most important, protect your computer against power surges from lighting strikes. It provides a clean 120-volt power source no matter what. It’s a much safer option than a surge protector, which has a limited ability to protect against power spikes and offers no back-up power during a power loss.

Worried about costs? The APC Back-UPS RS 500, priced at only $113, provides more than an hour of battery time and protects against modem and network spikes.

Software

At the time this article was written, Microsoft Windows XP Professional with service pack 2 was the only logical choice and typically a standard feature for new computer-operating systems. Several options for a standard business-software suite exist, but recommended is the Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003, which comes with a word processor, database, spreadsheet, e-mail and publishing software for creating numerous business publications. It’s capable of handling most small- to large-business needs exclusive of self-storage specifics.

Self-storage software comes in many varieties and prices. A quick check on www.insideselfstorage.com, the Inside Self-Storage website, and a Google search for “self-storage software” will provide a comprehensive list to get you started. Research and reduce the names on this list until you have two or three companies and request a demo CD from each. Compare prices and features (gate access, credit card processing, customized building graphics, e-mailing of reports, ability to back up database to the web), and find out how customer service is handled (phone or e-mail) and expensed.

Before buying, answer the following question: Does the software do what you need it to do within your price range and does the software company have the right customer support for you? Purchasing the wrong self-storage software wastes your money and robs you of valuable time managing your new storage business.

No single printer or computer is right for everyone. The key to making a good selection is assessing and identifying your needs before you shop. As with any major purchase, forethought will help you avoid vulnerability to sales pitches that entice you into something you don’t need and can’t afford.

The right computer system will reward you with years of reliable service. Plan wisely. Your new self-storage facility’s success depends upon it. 

Tredd Barton is the owner of Tredd’s Software Solutions, which has been developing self-storage software for the past nine years. His company just released version 6.3.7 of its self-storage software and has expanded into New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. For more information, call 724.484.7801; e-mail sales@tredd.com; visit www.tredd.com

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