General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology & Practice Guide

Hardware Options

Get More Bang for Your Buck

By Matthew A. Jure

So your firm has finally decided what direction to take in implementing a technology plan. The next step is to determine what hardware is needed to turn the vision into reality. Choosing the correct hardware for your office is as important as choosing which reference books to use when preparing for a case. One school of thought is that cheaper is better. But remember, you get what you pay for.

In purchasing servers and workstations there are two ways to go. You can either buy what is known as a "second tier" machine (one produced by Compaq, AST, Gateway 2000, Dell, or any other well-known manufacturer) or a true clone, one built by a local computer company or a mail order company. You’ll need to consider several factors when making this decision:

• Price. While the price is higher with the well-known companies, they usually carry a better warranty. Most of these companies offer a multiyear warranty, usually on-site (where the technician comes to your office). With a local company, the price is somewhat less expensive, but the machine usually carries a one-year warranty.

• Quality. You do not want machines that are going to be a problem after they are installed. The bigger companies usually have a better track record of quality control.

• Service. What type of service does the company offer? Are their warranties on-site or depot, where you have to carry the machine to them? What is their turnaround time for fixing broken equipment?

• Reputation. What is the reputation of the company that you are investigating? Do they have a good track record with existing clients? Do not be afraid to ask for references when researching a particular company. Are they responsive when there is a problem? This is probably the most important factor to consider, because if your workstation or server goes down, your business goes down with it.

Of course, cost is important when starting up a firm. However, you are looking to make an investment into your firm’s future. There is no need to go and buy the Mercedes of computer equipment when what you need is a workhouse of a machine, which is considerably less expensive than the Mercedes. But you’ll also want more bang for your buck than a Yugo. Most of the time, I recommend the better-known names, like Compaq or Dell, to my clients. There are probably some good clone manufacturers in your area. The key is to investigate a company before you purchase machines based solely on price.

File Servers

The first step is to purchase your server. If you have decided to run a small peer-to-peer network, then you can use a workstation as the server. But if you decided on a Novell or Windows NT network, you’ll need a dedicated server. This machine will be the backbone of your technology plan, so choose wisely. A file server is considerably more expensive than a workstation will be, and rightfully so—this is where all of your applications and data are stored. Much of your resources should be spent on your server.

The server should be as high powered in the CPU as possible; currently, Intel has a 200 MHz chip out. (But, as we all know, that could very well change in the next week or so. Make sure your information is up to date.)

For both network options, the memory should be at least 32 MB. That will prevent your machine from crashing when you try to perform certain functions.

You should get as much hard drive as you can possibly afford. I recommend at least 2 to 3 gigabytes of storage when designing your server. Set up your hard drive to "mirror" itself to another drive. "Mirroring" means that an exact replica of what is on one drive is copied to another drive, providing you with fault tolerance. This important feature will allow your firm to continue to operate even if one drive crashes.

Your server monitor does not have to be the best on the market, since this machine will not be used regularly by a user. So you can save some money here and use the resources elsewhere.

A typical server based on these configuration will cost your firm between $3,300 and $4,500, depending on the manufacturer you choose. This price tag should include the cost of the network operating system. I recommend that you purchase a well-known name like Compaq or Hewlett Packard for your server. These two companies have incredible track records when it comes to building quality file servers. They also have great warranties—both carry multiyear, on-site warranties.


When pricing out workstations for your office, the typical workstation configuration should include the following items. Expect costs to range between $1,300 and $2,500, depending upon the manufacturers.

• Pentium-based CPU. This can range from 100 MHz to 200 MHz depending on your budget.

• 16 MB of memory. This the bare minumum recommendation for workstation configurations. If you can afford more, then by all means purchase it. After all, you can never have too much memory.

• 1.2 GB hard drive. This is pretty much the standard size of hard drive out today. Since most all your data and applications will reside on your server this size hard drive is more than adequate for your firm. (Note: If you are using this machine as your server, then I would recommend increasing the size of your hard drive to at least 2 gigabytes of storage.)

• 3.5" floppy drive. This is standard for all machines.

• Keyboard and mouse. A standard option that is needed in order to manipulate your workstation.

• Operating system. The standard operating system today is Windows 95. However, if you are running in a Windows NT environment, you may want to consider using Windows NT for your workstation’s operating system.

Monitor. This is a tough one to make a recommendation on. You have to look at the monitor before you purchase it. You should choose one that has a good appearance and does not hurt your eyes after working on it for an extended period of time.

• CD-ROM. These have become a standard item on workstations since the cost has come down and most applications are being produced on this media.

• Network Interface Card. This allows connectivity to your network.

Also, you may want to consider adding the following options to some or all of your workstations:

• Tape backup unit. This will only need to be purchased for one machine. The unit should have more than enough capacity to back up your file server. And you will need to purchase backup software to go along with the tape drive. Two options include Cheyenne ArcServe and BackupExec, both of which are widely used in the marketplace. This option will cost between $1,300 and $2,500, depending on which tape drive and software you purchase. Remember, this option is a necessity as it provides you with a backup in case something should ever happen to your server.

• Modem. This will allow you access to the Internet and remote access to your system, allowing you to create a virutal office and work from home. This option will cost between $75 and $150 per machine.

Other options that you can add onto your workstations include a scanner and a sound card. But these are probably not necessities when looking for machines that will be used in your firm.


I recommend that you purchase at least one laser printer for your firm. Knowing your budget and expectations of output will help you determine the printer to purchase. Another factor to consider is whether the printer will be able to communicate with the network. Printers range in price from $600 to $3,500. The difference in price can be attributed to the manufacturer and the speed of the printer. If you want faster speed, you have to spend more money. n

Matthew A. Jure is the manager of Information Technologies at Fidelity First Financial Corp. in Columbia, Maryland, and the owner of GW Technologies in Felton, Pennsylvania. GW Technologies assists many solo and small firm practitioners with their computer needs. He can be reached via e-mail at

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