High-Tech Mecca

Back in January, I wrote about some of the startup expenses for my new company and made some observations about minimizing the total cost of ownership (TCO) for my little network of computers.

Some readers asked for more specifics, so here’s a little more detail about my high-tech Mecca.

I have a 100 MB LAN throughout my house. Since everything depends on the wiring, I hired a wiring company to replace all the old phone jacks and wiring with Cat-5 and new faceplates. It all runs to a patch panel in my laundry room, where I can connect jacks either to phone lines or one of my 10/100 LAN hubs.

I also added a DSL Internet connection. DSL is still a very new technology, and is not available everywhere. I bought DSL service from the partnership between Onvoy and Covad Communications Co. Onvoy is one of the largest and oldest ISPs in Minnesota. Covad is a nationwide phone company that specializes in DSL technology.

Here’s a secret -- when I called US West, the local telephone company, they said DSL is not available at my house because I live too far from the closest central office. Later I learned that Covad uses a different DSL technology than US West, so it can move data over longer distances. The lesson: Don’t believe everything the local telco says.

I bought a main file server and e-mail/Web server from a local computer parts store. Both of these Windows 2000 Domain Controllers are clones, each with two 18-GB SCSI disks and 256 MB memory.

The two servers are identical except that the main file server has a 20 GB Travan tape drive. In my opinion, Travan drives don’t perform as well as 4 mm drives, but they don’t cost as much either. Media, however, is more expensive. Given the opportunity to do this again, I would take a closer look at 4 mm drives.

I bought a fax server from Egghead.com for about $270. It’s an IBM PC 365 with 32 MB memory and 2.5 GB IDE hard drive, running Windows NT Workstation and Winfax Pro. It’s not the best fax server in the world, but it works for an operation of my scale. With this setup I have a record of all inbound faxes, and I can clean up the images and print as many copies as I want. Winfax now has drivers for client PCs to centralize outbound faxing, but I haven’t installed them yet. It’s a cash issue. Winfax wants me to buy a copy of its software for each station that uses the drivers.

My main user workstation is a Compaq Armada 6500 laptop, purchased from Ubid.com for a little less than $1,300. It’s a P300 with 64 MB memory, a 6.4 GB hard drive, and an integrated combo 10/100 NIC and modem. I’m running Windows 2000 Professional, which includes fax software. I use the integrated modem to send faxes directly from the laptop. The real network fax server will have to wait.

The next piece of the puzzle is my Linux DNS (domain name system) server. I use the Linux server to advertise my DNS domains on the Internet and Windows 2000 DNS internally. I’m struggling to learn Linux, but I know enough to get DNS up and running. I still have lots of knowledge gaps, but nothing a little light reading won’t fix.

I bought a $30 four port keyboard video mouse switch to save space. Unfortunately, I got what I paid for. Despite assurances to the contrary, it doesn’t work reliably with PS/2 mice. I’ll live with it until I can afford a nice switch.

Finally, I bought one more clone PC for troubleshooting and experiments. I’ll try to avoid putting this machine into production. This one has a hard drive enclosure that allows me to snap hard drives in and out at will, so I can set up various scenarios and demos as needed. For about $25 for integrated drive electronics (IDE), about $100 for SCSI, these enclosures are a steal if they stand the test of time. If they work, why would anyone pay hundreds for the proprietary stuff?

All this lives behind a Flowpoint 144 Kb router/firewall: A nifty, low-cost piece of technology.

Total cost for hardware and software so far is about $12,000, financed with several credit cards offering introductory 3.9 percent interest rates.

I’ve learned two lessons from this: First, I don’t like juggling credit card debt. I’ll be much happier when it’s paid off. Second, My attitude around low cost hardware and non-traditional buying sources is definitely changing for the better since my luck with clones and refurbished equipment bought at auctions has been pretty good. I’ll write about some of those buying experiences in a future column. -- Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is Chief Technology Officer of Infrasupport Etc. Inc. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@infrasupportetc.com.