When we started this company in 1998 it was common to build a computer out of parts. That is something that we almost never do any more.
For most of the common office computer needs today, one can buy a ready-made computer from a mainstream supplier. Some people still put specialized computers together that are mostly for gaming or other high performance needs but there is rarely ever a business need.
Server computers have also become fairly standardized and the options that one can select at purchase cover most of the needs. Any quality server allows for more storage (hard drive) and operational memory (RAM) and usually allows for multiple processors (CPU’s).
Most computer needs can be met with an off-the-shelf product but not all. Engineers, designers and architects have special needs because of their use of a combination of high end graphics and rendering software. 3D rendering of different types can be very demanding as can modeling packages.
For a lot of these exceptional needs, the manufacturers allow the customer to customize the work computer when one orders it. Sometimes we still go to the electronics stores and custom build the computer from the box and motherboard up. In either case the exact components selected are determined by taking the software list, summing up the requirements and checking with the software publishers for advice on using their product together with other specialized and common software.
Most of us know about the hard drive, RAM and CPU specification needs for their basic software package. More elements that determine real performance include the speed at which the components transfer data (the bus speeds) and the video cards, which have their own co-processing, ram and bus speeds. If either of these is insufficient or incompatible, a very good computer could have very poor performance.
In the network environment a firm that is constantly opening large files from their server needs to pay attention to the network speed between the server and workstation and how much traffic is sharing that connection. Gigabit speeds are imperative. At times one should divide the data traffic from print and internet traffic so both workstations and servers might need more than one network interface card.
In one case we had to build a computer from scratch designed to open only one file. The client’s privacy needs to be respected, so I cannot say what the file was of exactly but it was a large engineering project, rendered in 3D and viewable as a whole, but including all the assembly parts to the smallest detail when one zoomed in on it. The data was gigabytes. The software was demanding and expensive.
When we added up the basic needs, the RAM required went past what all workstation operating systems could address. We had to use Microsoft Enterprise Server just for the RAM and then make it work to host the software and a video card able to handle this size of file in real time. The computer had its own local data host array which was also chosen for its performance.
This machine did its job and both we and the client were proud of the results. This was an exceptional example. Other customization is usually done with options that the manufacturer provides and more common software from larger publishers.
The importance of knowing the complete list of needed software and the size of the data sets before customizing cannot be overstated and when something is overlooked the impact on performance can be devastating.
Even mainstream software packages such as Adobe Creative Suite, AutoCAD and Sketchup can be very demanding and require some time to make sure that the software installations needed all works together well.
For an architectural client we once spent a lot of time, and their money, customizing a set of workstations. The ones that they had were excellent equipment, but running way too slow and having frequent system crashes.
Our tech did his job, working backwards from the software and the data and picking components that should have been more than enough to be able to open all their needed work at once.
Yet the workstations failed. Once in use the performance was still unacceptable. With egg on our face we started to look into it and found that there was one more piece of software we did not know about that the client hade installed themselves. That piece of software, Rhino, could only run on a certain type of video card that costs a good $1,200. This video card incompatibility had been the main problem all along and the error kept repeating itself because that one program that was not on the list of standard installed software.
The high end design software environment is demanding and does not leave room to just “wing it” or install more tools without looking at the big picture and it is one of the remaining environments where it is well worth the trouble to buy customized equipment.