URGE OVERKILL

by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, February 1994 - The Law Works, August 1994

It's happening again. People have such a great fear of falling behind technologically, that they are willing to delay purchases or make illogical buying decisions in a vain attempt to protect themselves.

This is most often seen with people who were caught in the switch between 8088/8086 (XT-class) and 80286 (AT-class) systems or in the demise of the 80286 in favor of the 80386 chip. They were stuck with a generation of chips that couldn't run the latest versions of software! Some of them went through both generational cycles. Imagine being forced to scrap thousands of dollars worth of precious XT's (Bought for $5,000 a pop!) and purchasing a load of hot new AT's, only to find that software is being written to demand an 80386 chip or higher. Now that's traumatic.

These people are now demanding the hot (literally) new Pentium-based computers. After negotiating for computers appropriate for a particular client's needs (and budget) I have been getting blindsided by sudden changes in the clients attitudes. Suddenly, the clients are desperate to get their hands on a Pentium, even though I previously had to twist their arms to get them to specify a 486/33SX instead of a 486/25SX.!

In order to pay for these systems, they start cutting back on other parts of their systems. Usually backup systems are the first to be scaled back. Less tapes and lower capacity tape drives start looking attractive. Reliability features such as RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks), UPS's (Uninteruptible Power Supplies), and reliable servers are usually next on their hit list. RAM, quick video cards, fast hard disks, and fast or reliable network systems (network cards, concentrators, even the cable plant) are next - anything to get a faster CPU (central processing unit). I guess the Intel propaganda machine is really working.

Before directly commenting on the facts, I would like you to keep in mind that for some time now, I have considered it inappropriate to sell 80386 machines due to their lack of upgrade options. I've even declined opportunities in which clients demanded systems too weak to do their jobs. This, in spite of the fact that faster computers are more profitable to sell.

Now, on to the facts. When making purchasing decisions, first base your choices on fully optimized systems. It doesn't help to compare systems that are crippled by ignorant or lax installers. Running installation programs alone just doesn't cut it. I regularly receive calls from network users on the day after an optimization, asking if I had given them a replacement server since their system now runs faster.

It isn't magic, though it often involves some not-so-secret incantations and gestures, none of which can be repeated in this publication. It's just a fact of life that installation programs are meant for the lowest common denominator. That, combined with inept installers, makes many systems run even less efficiently than the way that standard installation programs left them.

After optimization, performance considerations get easier to track. In general, the "weakest link" theory applies. The key is to figure out the primary limiting factor - the weakest link.

In a server, memory is the critical component. Quantity of memory is followed by access time. That includes the speed of the chips, the size of the processor cache, and the underlying speed of the motherboard. That's why servers with 50MHz 80486/50DX (50MHz CPU and 50MHz motherboard) frequently outperform an equivalent server with an 80486/66DX2 (66MHz CPU and a 33MHz motherboard).

Next in line is disk access. Disk interface, speed of the disk, efficiency of the controller, and the bus interface of the controller all go into that equation.

After that, the network becomes the limiting factor. The network type, network card speed, and bus interface control this item.

Finally, the CPU speed comes into play. While there are situations where database server software or other NLMs (Netware Loadable Modules) change this equation, most servers are not CPU bound (That's tech-talk for a weak link). Only after the other factors, especially memory, are satisfied, does raw CPU power matter.

Windows machines parallel servers in their hunger for memory. More memory for them means extra speed and a lot of extra flexibility. You can run more simultaneous applications if you feed Windows more RAM (Random Access Memory).

The other major consideration for Windows is video performance. Video speed is improved by specialized video processor chips, faster or more sophisticated video memory chips (VRAM), and faster card bus interfaces. Video is such an important factor that a slow CPU combined with fast video can outrun a fast CPU with mediocre video performance.

In plain DOS machines, memory isn't as critical, but a couple of megabytes of left-over memory for caching and memory management sure helps. The demand for video speed is entirely dependent on the specific application involved. AutoCAD has completely different requirements from a character-based accounting system.

Once you have winnowed the choices down to the CPU, you have to be careful about your choices. Make sure that the 80486 chip really is one. An 80386 compatible with a cache added is not an 80486 compatible! If it is not an Intel chip, then ask for confirmation in writing that the "80486" you are getting will run the 80486 instruction set.

As for Pentiums, I am waiting for the low-voltage, cool running version before I suggest them for general use. I only use them if my client understands the potential drawbacks. This chip runs so hot that in initial tests for several manufacturers, it did what I call a "China Syndrome". That is, it melted right through the motherboard! With an added heat sink and more numerous fans, the motherboard will only just survive.

The problem is that heat is the ultimate enemy for motherboards. I wouldn't want to guarantee the long term viability of a motherboard equipped with an air-cooled Pentium. I am, however, intrigued by some new gadgets that provide for liquid cooling - like a Cray supercomputer! A cooling unit sits on the Pentium with a small tube snaking outside the computer to a small radiator unit. This radiator is supposed to be placed on top of your monitor. It's a clever solution, but a pain to deal with as well as a possible hazard. I wonder how an insurance company would react to a claim on a microcomputer that leaked!

Another concern is that current software is far behind hardware. Only Netware 4.x takes advantage of the full power of the Pentium. Only Netware 3.x and 4.x (though I've heard rumors about a couple of UNIX dialects) take full advantage of the 80486 chip. The rest of the industry is just now catching up with the 80386 chip. The theoretical advantages of an advanced CPU chip don't mean a lot when it is simply emulating a more primitive predecessor.

The final decision on CPUs has to take into consideration the cost effectiveness of the incremental increase in processing power that a more powerful CPU buys. What can be overkill for simple DOS-based word-processing might be just the thing, reliability questions or not, for CPU-intensive engineering or financial analysis tasks.

For those of you who don't follow rock music trends, the title of this article is also the name of one of the bands (along with "Smashing Pumpkins") that has brought Chicago into the limelight as the center of rock music. Now you know why the publisher originally wanted me to name my column "Wayne's World" instead of "Putting It All Together". Party on.

1994, Wayne M. Krakau