Do your homework before computer shopping

Too often, the details that vendors present as important buying criteria are window dressing of little importance to most business and enterprise buyers. I'm addressing PC and PowerPC servers in particular, as they make up the bulk of my lab's current research resources.

Vendors tout the speed of a server's CPUs the way carmakers crow about horsepower. It's a detail thrown in to make a prospective buyer feel he's making a uniquely well-informed decision. But whereas the masses opt for 300 horsepower over 280 and fall for a pitch that includes a thump on the bonnet, the real sharpies pop that bonnet while the salesman describes the modern science of fuel injection. Because he knows you're that rare breed of buyer that understands.

For servers, the subsurface detail understood by those in the know is the speed of the FSB (front-side bus). Those who use the acronym scoff at those obsessed with gigahertz as the great unwashed. The speed of the FSB has become vendors' criterion for that rare breed of savvy buyer, an opportunity for vendor salespeople to puff you up by saying, "That's a great question!"

As every FSBer knows, its speed is expressed in megahertz -- higher is better -- and indicates how fast stuff moves from one thing to another thing inside the computer. How much stuff moves per hertz, where it goes, how long it has to wait to get there, what the FSB is on the front of and whether 800MHz Opteron, Xeon, and Xserve FSBs are comparable are details that vendors know one buyer in a thousand bothers to look up.

Many facts related to the purchase of servers are genuinely useless trivia, such as the number of onboard USB 2.0 ports -- two is always enough.

If you're savvy enough to know that gigahertz no longer matters, you've found a thread worth pulling that will reveal meaningful details, fuelling questions that vendors should have to answer in the course of earning your business. It's not my goal to make you an ubergeek who trades a social life for an encyclopedic knowledge of trivia. It is my goal to keep you from being the sucker on the lot who turns horsepower, dealer invoice, and window tint into deal makers. It always helps to do your homework.

Tom Yager is technical director of the test centre at Computerworld's sister publication InfoWorld

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