Shop Talk: CEOs search for the right technology

Choosing the right network may be the most important technology decision you make

Royal Construction's computer setup was getting to be a royal pain in the you-know-what. In the spring of 1998, the $4-million company, which is based in Eau Claire, Wis., had strung together its three computers and a printer in a Microsoft Windows "peer-to-peer" network -- an arrangement whereby each device was connected to the next by a cable. The design was supposed to enable each user to view files on the others' hard drives and to print documents from his or her desk. But after six months, the system still wasn't working properly, so the staff returned to its old system, a "sneaker net," copying the desired file onto a diskette and running it over to the one computer that was connected directly to the printer. Even more of a nuisance to Royal Construction's owner and CEO, Tim Pabich, was what he had to go through to check on the status of an account. "I'd have to ask Cheryl, our bookkeeper, to check for me," he says, noting that the account files resided on her hard drive. "She'd then have to print all that out, or I'd have to go look at her screen."

Something had to be done -- and Pabich didn't feel that it was fair to ask the company's regular IT troubleshooter, a friend of his, to take on such a big project. So instead the CEO grilled his colleagues and combed through the yellow pages in search of networking consultants. The few who seemed appropriate were brought into the office. "I basically threw my hands up in the air and asked them, 'What do I need? What hardware? What software? Do we need to start over?' " says Pabich.

He ultimately went with a small-business reseller called Computer Business Solutions (CBS), which is also based in Eau Claire. The reason? The CEO felt that CBS was the only consultant that took the time to understand his situation by asking him about things like the type of software he was running and his plans for the future. "The others just were not asking me questions about how much I knew or what my needs were," recalls Pabich.

Pabich also appreciated the way CBS network specialist Dan Gharrity helped him increase his knowledge about Royal Construction's needs so that he could evaluate the consultants' proposals better. Gharrity pointed out how relevant Royal Construction's growth plans were to the selection of a network, for example. And whereas proposals from other consultants consisted of a laundry list of applications with a lump-sum price tag, Gharrity's provided individual price breakouts and indications of which applications were essential and which were of the "wish list" variety and could be implemented later.

Gharrity created a three-step plan. First, he upgraded the computers' operating system, replacing the old Microsoft Windows 3.1 with Windows 95. He also exchanged the bookkeeper's Pentium 100MHz computer for a more robust Pentium II 266MHz model. Since the company's most important data were stored on the bookkeeper's hard drive, it was crucial that her computer be more powerful than the others.

Second, he replaced the varied generic network cards in the computers with 3Com cards. In order to be linked together with cables, computers must have network cards inside them. And brand homogenization would simplify the maintenance of the system by making it much easier to troubleshoot problems. Error codes would be consistent across the system, for example, rather than a jumble of numbers that took time to decipher.

And third, Gharrity changed the "topology," or design, of the network from a ring configuration to a star configuration. While a ring design is fine for a small network and has the added benefit of being less expensive to implement because of lower cabling costs, it's more vulnerable to crashes. Like a string of Christmas-tree lights, computers and other devices in a ring configuration are dependent on one another: if one locks up, the entire network goes down. In a star topology, on the other hand, each device is connected to a central piece of equipment called a hub. If a cable connecting a particular device to the hub is damaged or somehow incapacitated, then only that device is affected. Gharrity started Royal Construction with a four-port hub, which allows up to four devices to be linked in the network.

About two weeks after CBS had come to the rescue, Royal Construction's new network was up and running. Pabich was ecstatic about the time it was saving him. "I could now do my own editing of estimates," he says. "In the past, we had to pass hard copies with my handwritten comments on them back and forth three times." And the star design, with its resistance to breakdowns and its faster transmissions, not only kept the network up and running but also allowed users to open and use files much more quickly -- benefits that enabled Pabich to finally use Timberline's Gold Collection, an accounting package designed specifically for the construction industry.

Sure, there were some glitches in the plan's implementation. For one, a miscommunication led to Pabich's purchasing a Hewlett-Packard printer that was incompatible with the new network. With some configuring, Gharrity did get it to work, but he replaced it as soon as he could with an Okidata printer. "I've learned it's not going to run smoothly right away," says Pabich. "I remember being pretty frustrated as we switched to this new system. But Dan was very responsive as we got the bugs worked out." In the end, the pain and the $13,000 investment were worth it. "We can probably now handle 25% to 30% more jobs with the same number of people," says Pabich.

GOT BUGS? TRY RAID
As the superstition goes, if you break a mirror, you're in for seven years of bad luck. For Kirkegaard & Associates, a $2.8-million architectural-acoustics consulting company based in Chicago, a "broken" mirrored hard drive on its server resulted in bad luck of a more concentrated variety: a network shutdown and a bill for $7,000. The price tag included some $5,800 in consulting fees to diagnose and fix the mirroring (a setup in which any action taken on a file on one hard drive -- whether it's created, changed, or deleted -- is simultaneously replicated on another drive) and, finally, $1,200 for a new mirrored hard drive and other parts.

But those numbers don't begin to reflect the loss in productivity that Kirkegaard & Associates experienced. "When the system was down, we had to resort to faxing clients instead of using E-mail," says founder and president R. Lawrence Kirkegaard. "Also, our employees had to go to the office's backup tape to retrieve the files they were working on. That all worked, but it increased the time it took to get the work done."

The company's Novell Netware client/server network hadn't always been so troublesome. In a client/server setup, all the key files are stored on a "server," which is essentially a desktop on steroids. Employees work on the files locally, on their own computers (or "clients"), but save them on the server. The server can also carry out numerous other officewide functions, such as handling E-mail, backing up files, and hosting additional applications. As you might imagine, a server can receive a lot of use -- though it often may bear no visible signs of wear and tear. Unfortunately for Kirkegaard & Associates, says company associate Scott Pfeiffer, an acoustics expert and computer maven whom Kirkegaard eventually turned to for IT advice, the consultant who'd set up the company's network had skimped on the server: he'd used a Dell Optiplex, which is designed to be a desktop computer, instead of using a more robust model.

Although using a desktop computer as a server is not unreasonable if you've got a limited budget, it generally means less RAM and a weaker power supply and cooling system. With Kirkegaard & Associates' server crammed with five hard drives instead of the two it could optimally handle, says Pfeiffer, the cooling system was definitely being stressed.

Sure enough, the server -- specifically, the hard drive that housed the company's network software -- overheated and failed about a year after it was installed. Downtime was not supposed to be an issue, though, because the hard drive was mirrored, which meant that an exact replica of the software ensconced on it, including all changes and updates, was being maintained, in real time, on another hard drive. But tell that to the Optiplex. The first time the server failed, in 1996, says Pfeiffer, a new consultant concluded that the system had never been properly mirrored in the first place. The second time it failed -- more than two years later -- the mirroring was intact but the company had to call in yet a third consultant to get it started again. And the third time -- well, Kirkegaard wasn't about to let it happen a third time. "From an overall economic standpoint, it was time for us to make the move," he says. The president was ready to begin a major search to find long-term consulting help to upgrade the entire network.

Having learned firsthand not to go on paper credentials alone, Pfeiffer decided to take a kind of test approach in assessing IT talent. "The idea was to bring in a consultant and get him to work on a small-project-to-small-project basis," says Pfeiffer, referring to such projects as adding a color printer and fixing a computer that constantly crashed. "Once we were confident that he was good at what he did, we would then consider him for the big work." The added benefit was that consultants could learn about the system while they were doing their job, so that a costly needs analysis could be eliminated.

"Every consultant we talked to said that he wanted to conduct a needs analysis, which would cost us about $2,500. But we didn't want to spend a few thousand dollars to find out that we didn't like the consultant or his recommendations," says Pfeiffer. Three consulting companies and several projects later, Pfeiffer found a good fit with the people at EMO Computer Products, a computer-services company based in Naperville, Ill.

To get going, Pfeiffer bought the hardware setup that had been recommended by EMO: a Hewlett-Packard NetServer (it holds 256MB of RAM compared with the maximum 128MB of the Dell desktop) that was equipped with level 5 of redundant array of independent disks, or RAID. With RAID, a real-time copy of a hard drive is "striped," or duplicated across multiple hard drives, so that any one hard drive can completely fail and the server will continue to work without a hitch. Moreover, the hard drives were "hot swappable," which meant that any of them could be pulled out of the server without first having to shut the thing down. Most important, the server had a cooling system that was equipped to cool up to 12 drives.

Pfeiffer was able to save $1,500 to $2,000 on the equipment by going through CDW, based in Vernon Hills, Ill., a mail-order computer reseller with much greater buying power than EMO. He bought the equipment and had it shipped to EMO's offices.

Now he was ready to wrestle with software choices. The 3.12 version of Novell Netware that the company was running couldn't be easily maintained remotely and was Y2K incompatible. Pfeiffer considered two options: getting a later version of the Novell software (he'd already nixed the idea of installing patches) or switching over to the popular Microsoft NT platform. "The world said NT, but my experience with Novell was so good -- the software hadn't failed once during the past four years -- that I was reluctant to change," he explains. When EMO dug up a small-business version of the Novell software -- Netware 4.2 -- that addressed the company's concerns and was less costly to implement than either NT or the full-blown upgrade of Netware, Pfeiffer decided to stick with what was tried and true. EMO then began installing the system, a process that took two months.

All told, Kirkegaard & Associates spent about $16,000 on the upgrade, with a little more than half of that amount going for equipment from CDW. (Pfeiffer also bought a superfast digital-linear-tape, or DLT, drive to replace the company's DAT backup drive.) The rest went for software and services from EMO.

As of this writing, the new network has been in place for only five months. But the improvements in productivity at the company have been noteworthy. For starters, the increased capacity of the server means that it has to be cleaned out far less often, leaving staff members more time to concentrate on their clients. "Before, everyone was slowed down since they had to be involved in the decision making as to which files would be deleted or would stay," says Kirkegaard. And, of course, there's the peace of mind that the new server brings.

Mie-Yun Lee is the editorial director and founder of BuyersZone, an Internet-buying service that features expert purchasing advice and tools for small and midsize businesses. You can conduct your own search for a network at www.buyerszone.com/network/find_it.jsp. Sandra Boncek contributed to this article.