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How Do I Provide a Workstation To Last 15 Years? 655

An anonymous reader writes "My father is a veterinarian with a small private practice. He runs all his patient/client/financial administration on two simple workstations, linked with a network cable. The administration application is a simple DOS application backed by a database. Now the current systems, a Pentium 66mhz and a 486, both with 8MB of RAM and 500MB of hard drive space, are getting a bit long in the tooth. The 500MB harddrives are filling up, the installed software (Windows 95) is getting a bit flakey at times. My father has asked me to think about replacing the current setup. I do know a lot about computers, but my father would really like the new setup to last 10-15 years, just like the current one has. I just dont know where to begin thinking about that kind of systems lifetime. Do I buy, or build myself? How many spare parts should I keep in reserve? What will fail first, and how many years down the line will that happen?"
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How Do I Provide a Workstation To Last 15 Years?

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  • by jonbryce ( 703250 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @04:30PM (#27467955) Homepage

    Hard drives and fans will be the first to fail as they have moving parts.

    You can get systems that don't need fans, but replacing the hard drives with flash memory probably isn't going to help reliability.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Most of the failures of my home machines in the last six years have been fans and/or the power supplies housing them. (sometimes hard to tell what died first) With six desktop class machines running in the house, I've only had one drive failure, but I've replaced four power supplies and several frozen case fans. These aren't gaming rigs, just basic surf/email/homework boxes.

      That said, with the price of used off lease gear on ebay and elsewhere these days, you could pick up machines that would run rings aro

      • by Vadim Makarov ( 529622 ) <> on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:23PM (#27468455) Homepage
        Get well-designed fans []? Might not worth the trouble for computers, but we get them for self-built scientific equipment with potentially long lab life.
      • by packeteer ( 566398 ) <[packeteer] [at] []> on Sunday April 05, 2009 @11:23PM (#27471491)

        You are right that fans and power supplies usually go first. I personally use a little bit of an overpowered power supply so it runs cooler and more stable.

        Also I think the more general concern I have is that possibly planning for a 15 year lifespan might be the wrong way of looking into this. It is always much better to have a flexible upgrade and repair plan than try and force something to last much longer than it is intended. Make no mistake that consumer hardware is not intended to last 15 years.

        I would much rather look at something like software of a data base that can upgrade smoothly in the future.

        • by Sj0 ( 472011 ) on Monday April 06, 2009 @12:05AM (#27471817) Journal

          I'd say an online UPS as a component to help prevent premature power supply failure. It rectifies the signal at all times and creates a new perfect sinewave at all times. That'll get rid of transients and make your power supply far more reliable after you get past infant mortality.

          My full solution would be a fanless rig, with RAID 1 for full redundancy of disks so if a hard disk fails, it doesn't take your data with it, and weekly backups to DAT tape stored off-site. Then I'd use a pair of power supplies, using a diode to prevent power from one from getting into the other, and a zener diode or 78 series linear regulators to ensure a failing supply can't overpower any one line. Then, from my little power circuit, the two power supplies would feed the one motherboard, which would be underclocked at reduced voltage. It would have the highest possible amount of RAM in it, because that would reduce the writes to the hard drives.

          That should be reasonably reliable.

          • by doodleboy ( 263186 ) on Monday April 06, 2009 @07:40AM (#27474127)

            My full solution would be a fanless rig, with RAID 1 for full redundancy of disks so if a hard disk fails, it doesn't take your data with it, and weekly backups to DAT tape stored off-site. Then I'd use a pair of power supplies, using a diode to prevent power from one from getting into the other, and a zener diode or 78 series linear regulators to ensure a failing supply can't overpower any one line. Then, from my little power circuit, the two power supplies would feed the one motherboard, which would be underclocked at reduced voltage. It would have the highest possible amount of RAM in it, because that would reduce the writes to the hard drives.

            On the software side, I would consider hosting the DOS app on linux using an emulator such as dosemu or dosbox. The OP's dad would have an environment very similar to what he's using now. I would probably use Debian stable for both boxes, which has very long release cycles and is very stable.

            With linux comes the option to replace the DAT tapes with an off-site rsync over ssh. If the main box dies, you'd be able to just swap in the backup box in a couple of minutes. If the data set isn't very large the mirror will complete in a couple of seconds. It's very easy to do:

            Create a RSA public/private key pair: ssh-keygen -t rsa, press enter at the password prompts.

            Copy the public key to the remote box: ssh-copy-id -i ~/.ssh/ remotebox.

            Have a nightly cron job to push the files: rsync -ave ssh --delete /localfiles/ remotebox:/localfiles.

            For bonux points you could even throw in snapshots [].

            I'm backing up hundreds of partitions this way at work, each with snapshots going back a month. Tapes are slow, unreliable and expensive. I would not use them for any purpose.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            >>>I'd say an online UPS as a component to help prevent premature power supply failure.

            IMHO ye are over-engineering this whole project. Instead I'd recommend the approach I used six years ago: (1) Buy the best product you can with the latest CPU (i7). (2) Max it out with as much RAM as you can afford so there's room for future software, growth. (3) Buy a good product, not an eMachine.

            The end. I've had my PC for seven years now and although it's started to feel a little cramped (1 gi

            • by Sj0 ( 472011 ) on Monday April 06, 2009 @11:37AM (#27476675) Journal

              I'm the head of the Reliability Centred Maintenance program at the industrial plant I work at. In RCM, we look at the dominant failure modes, and prescribe a maintenance program to mitigate the risk, or reduce the frequency.

              In this case, the "I want this computer to last for 15 years" implicitly means they don't want to do scheduled maintenance. They want it to sit there and run, like the previous machine. They don't want a PC in the way you or I think of a PC, they want an appliance that just works. That being the case, We NEED to look at reliability centred design, rather than maintenance.

              So what are the dominant failure modes for a PC? Clogged fans, failed power supply, hard disk failure. If you don't experience these failures, odds are your computer will run indefinitely.

              The first problem can be solved with a machine that doesn't have any fans. Design your machine so convection currents carry the heat out the top of the case. This will mean you'll never have a fan failure.

              The second problem can be solved with two methods: First, redundant(fanless) power supplies. Second, an online UPS to prevent dirty power from damaging the machine. I might actually just use an industrial deep cycle 12V battery with a pair of inverters, and a 12V smart battery charger on the AC side. It's dirty, but it's functional. Your charger should last 15 years, your battery should last 20, your inverters should last indefinitely and are redundant. With these two solutions in place, I wouldn't expect a total system failure for 25 years. If the charger fails, you should have more than enough time running a 50W fanless PC and 50W lcd monitor to schedule replacement of the charger.

              That leaves the hard drive as the only remaining failure mode. Hard drives aren't going to last 15 years. I had a hard drive from 1989 that lived to see the new millennium, but it's dead today. Along the way, many of its contemporaries decided to die. The only solution is to mitigate the consequences of failure with redundancy, so the drive can be replaced. A CompactFlash drive might be a good option, but the standard itself is only 15 years old today, so it's difficult to say whether such a solution would work. With this solution, you would probably need to replace a drive every 7 years, but it could be done during a scheduled outage, outside of office hours.

              If you're serious about reliability, leaving it to luck is a good way to be negatively surprised. I've worked with too many failed PCs in the past few weeks to believe you can just build it and forget it.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by GregNorc ( 801858 )

              Top of the line will generate a lot of heat though. OP doesn't need lots of processing power... an Atom processor would be better.

              This would reduce the chances of heat related failures... shell out for good fans and a good PSU. A RAID 1 would be sufficient... you don't sound like you're dealing with a lot of data, it might be better to show him how to use a DVD-R burner and have him manually back up every month or so. If you do go for the RAID, stick to tried and true technology (No bleeding edge 2TB drives

    • by Shivani1141 ( 996696 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @04:58PM (#27468199)
      Not so with the flash drives. I was looking into an equivalent for MTBF for flash drives, and not finding one i started looking into the maximum capacity of writes, and found an article extolling a sort of half-life figure for flash drives. looking into the drive i have installed in my media center (for Quiet) an OCZ model. i found that i'd have to be writing to the drive at maximum capacity 24/7 for 18 years before the available capacity of the drive would decrease by half. they're quite long-lived, if the maximum writes per sector figures are to be believed.
      • by ThePhilips ( 752041 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:16PM (#27468375) Homepage Journal

        Any chances that you still have the link(s)?

        Because my reading of Anand's research [] tells me that in active, non-stop use SSD would fail in about the same time as normal laptop 1.8"/2.5" harddrives - 1-1.5 years. Limit on number of rewrite cycles is high (~100k), yet is quite easy to reach.

        • by Shivani1141 ( 996696 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @06:34PM (#27469085)
          Ah, found one of my original articles, oddly the one corroborating it 404s now. please, read it and make your own conclusions. []
        • by David Jao ( 2759 ) <> on Sunday April 05, 2009 @11:04PM (#27471335) Homepage

          Any chances that you still have the link(s)?

          Because my reading of Anand's research [] tells me that in active, non-stop use SSD would fail in about the same time as normal laptop 1.8"/2.5" harddrives - 1-1.5 years. Limit on number of rewrite cycles is high (~100k), yet is quite easy to reach.

          The article you cite does not contain the 1-1.5 years figure anywhere. How did you get that number? For what it's worth, I've been using solid state drives in both my laptops for more than a year now, with no problems whatsoever.

          Another very important point which often gets ignored is that a solid state drive failure is far more benign than a spinning platter drive failure. When a solid state drive fails, you lose the ability to write data, but you can still read data. On the other hand, failure of a spinning platter drive means that you can't read your data anymore, at least not without sending it to a very expensive data recovery firm.

          • Experience (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Atheose ( 932144 )

            As someone with experience with hardware support for a large company, I can attest to the assertion that SSD's fail pretty often. We use the HP TC4400 tablet, which has a 40gig SSD in it, and we seem to get more of them in with dead harddrives than we do the TC4200, which uses a typical SATA drive.

            This may not be true for all SSD's, but it's my experience so far.

    • by mariushm ( 1022195 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:11PM (#27468337)

      Build a computer with a processor that has very low frequency, something like an AMD Sempron LE-1300.

      It runs by default at 2300Mhz but you should be able to lower it to something like 1Ghz or maybe even lower, which will increase the compatibility with DOS (if needed and if there are any incompatibility) and it also means that the computer will run even without the fan running over the processor.

      You can solve the power supply fan problems by buying a passively cooler power supply.

      You could also get a SSD drive or maybe a cheap Flash to IDE/SATA adapter and use 1 or 2 GB compact Flash card for DOS.

      Though you can simply create a virtual machine or even DosBox (if you don't need some complex printing functions)..

    • by prefec2 ( 875483 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:13PM (#27468357)

      The electrolytic capacitor on the main board are also a typical part to fail. The hotter the system the shorter there lifetime. So a cool motherboard and system is required.

    • by mysidia ( 191772 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:15PM (#27468371)

      Keep in mind that it may be prudent to pick less-reliable hardware that should still last 4 or 5 years (most likely), over slightly more-reliable hardware, WHEN the price difference makes it more cost-effective to ANTICIPATE replacement.

      Even the most reliable components may be expected to fail in 5 years.

      I think he's been very fortunate that his setup has lasted 15 years. On average, a computer has had a lifetime of 5 years, before some hardware failures occur. To be honest.. in many cases, newer hard drives has been less reliable or has not lasted as long.

      The higher data density results in more failures not less. The more bits (at essentially the same rate of defects), means it's much more probable for there to be at least one sector defective on a larger drive.

      Power supplies can fail within 1 year or 10. It's random, so there can be no guarantee that the setup will last 15 years without any hardware replacement. (Even using the hardware he has right now, something could have failed in 1 year. A drive could go completely bad tomorrow.)

      So get a very decent power supply, preferably one that is efficient at the anticipated load (which you should calculate for the chosen hardware), but can handle a lot more.

      Using SSDs would improve reliability if used in a RAID 1 array, and a choice made with decent cache and wear-levelling, provided your app is reasonable they should last 50 years (typical use level), more likely the RAM dies first.

      But unfortunately, the suitable SSDs of any reasonable size are also highly expensive. the cheaper ones don't have the few gigabytes or so of battery-backed RAM cache that would be necessary for high speed. --- Which come to think of it, may also be a reliability risk, since most types of rechargeable batteries don't last 15 years.

      And I expect you don't need high speed for a small veterinary database, so the most inexpensive SLC or MLC may be just what the doctor ordered..

      Another possible application for flash is simply to boot off of it, and then use an ordinary mechanical hard drive for storing your data. This way, mechanical wear is not introduced when you boot your OS, and writes are rarely required.

      However, Windows XP (or Vista) is not suitable for this, as it likes to write to its own boot media. A Linux-based kiosk with a mysql-backed database app of some sort could work great there.

      Make sure you get a lot more space than you need, i.e. try to fit everything you need within 5 or 6 GBs. And use a 50gb drive, so you can have an "active" partition and "backup" partition

      Minimize mechanical wear on your drives by getting enough memory to run the workstations without a swapfile or pagefile. i.e. get 1GB or 2GB (a workstation that can use ECC memory is better, as you reduce the small possibility of silent data corruption), and make sure you disable all paging/swapping features within your OS.

      Use the most reliable drives available for a reasonable cost; these are probably NOT 1TB 7200RPM drives; these are more likely 30gb 5000RPM drives that come with a 3 year or 5 year warranty.

      Have each workstation backup the other workstation, i.e. so there are always two copies of the database. This is in addition to daily backups to external media to be stored offsite.

      Unless you are using a UNIX/Linux OS with a journalled filesystem (or something like ZFS), it's pretty much a fact, that you are likely going to need an OS recovery at least once.

      Each workstation should have two drives and a 'working partition' and backup partition. That you manually refresh every few months. Even better if they are separate physical disks (but again, more expensive)

      Reliability will be maximized if you use a UNIX or Linux based application. And you minimize unnecessary reads and writes to your mechanical media, and minimize unnecessary load (and therefore heat) emitted by your hardware.

      In any case, the usernames logging into the worksta

      • by nietsch ( 112711 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:50PM (#27468661) Homepage Journal

        But unfortunately, the suitable SSDs of any reasonable size are also highly expensive. the cheaper ones don't have the few gigabytes or so of battery-backed RAM cache that would be necessary for high speed. --- Which come to think of it, may also be a reliability risk, since most types of rechargeable batteries don't last 15 years.

        ehm, Nand flash ram by itself is pretty fast, and Linux can natively handle it. Unfortunately, all available flash is slowed down behind some disk emulation chipset, which would make battery backed ram necessary. Just wait a few more months till the real good ssd come available... (as always in IT, things will be better later).

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by mysidia ( 191772 )

          Yes, but they're going to be so expensive you'd be better off buying a pair of the cheap old-generation 20gb IDE (or SATA) hard drives.

          Put the difference between the cost of your drive and a SSD in the bank (>$200). When one of your mechanical drives eventually fails, take that workstation out of service, and just use the other one to get by when that happens.

          Use the money in the bank to acquire a second mechanical drive, or more likely that GOOD SSD, which in 5 years, will be dirt cheap and pretty

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ShakaUVM ( 157947 )

        >>Keep in mind that it may be prudent to pick less-reliable hardware that should still last 4 or 5 years (most likely), over slightly more-reliable hardware

        What is reliable hardware?

        I'm sure every nerd on here has his favorite brand of motherboard and hard drive, but by and large, we don't have the slightest idea which DVD drive out nowadays will have a high or low failure rate 5 years from now.

        We like to think we know more than we do.

    • by cbiltcliffe ( 186293 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:48PM (#27468641) Homepage Journal

      Well, since the old machines are 15 years old, and still running fine, my suggestion would be this:

      Don't buy a new one. Don't build a new one. If you must have a backup computer, find another old machine that's in somebody's basement, garage, or otherwise not being used.
      Build a low-power machine (Celeron, Sempron, whatever) with quality parts (3 year warranty, at least), with RAID, install Linux on it, and use it as storage for the database.
      Pull the cover from the old machines, take an air compressor to them to clean them out, then replace all the fans. Again, use high quality parts.
      Format and reinstall Windows on both, so the flakiness goes away. Install all updates, and the customer/patient management database, and configure it all to access the data on the server.
      Then, pull the drive, and use something like Clonezilla on a laptop with a USB-IDE adapter to take an image of the drive and save it on the server.
      Now you've got a couple of clean machines, with fresh software, redundancy for the data, and nobody has to deal with a change as drastic as Win95 to Vista.
      If a drive fails, you've got an image of the software preconfigured.

      After you've done this, keep an eye out for old drives in the 1-5GB range. Try to get at least 3 or 4 that work well, so you've got spares for when one fails.

      As long as you don't get hit with a power surge or something, this is the most likely failure of anything this old, as it's just too low powered to generate enough heat to cause too many problems.
      And if you need them, I've got a couple of AT type power supplies kicking around that work fine.

      Also, make sure a proper backup is done of the data on the server. If he's got Internet access, encrypt it (GnuPG with a strong password or key) and send it to a gmail account, or something like that. Otherwise, a removable or USB drive that he can take offsite.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Ron Bennett ( 14590 )

      Occasional thorough cleanings of dust off the fans and power supply will greatly extend the life of the entire computer.

      Flaky / noisy fans, and especially, buzzing / irregular sounding power supplies are telltale signs of serious dust problems.

      Sucking / blowing out dust is sufficient for most of the parts, but sometimes not enough for fans (including those on graphics cards, etc) and power supply where dust can easily cake up necessitating physical disassembly for cleaning.

      In short, the OP, if they haven't

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 05, 2009 @04:31PM (#27467969)


    Then your father's old setup can remain DOS and Win95 effectively forever, on any modern hardware. I've done this for lots of clients with legacy WinNT and Win95 systems.

    The process is called "physical to virtual" (P2V) migration.

  • forget it (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Arthurio ( 1392181 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @04:32PM (#27467973)
    Tell him that replacing the system every 5 years will be cheaper than getting one that will last 15 years. There, problem solved.
    • by vajorie ( 1307049 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:17PM (#27468389)
      lol, it's her father, not her client.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      There, problem solved.

      That doesn't solve the problem, it ignores his principal request. The guy looking to buy a computer has made it clear that he doesn't want to have to replace his computer every few years; nowhere does the description say that he's looking to minimise cost. Your response is typical of IT (and other) professionals who presume to know users want, rather than listening to what they actually want.

      • Re:forget it (Score:5, Insightful)

        by rennerik ( 1256370 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:41PM (#27468583)

        Sometimes (most of the time) users don't know what they want, especially when it comes to IT. Many times they ask for the wrong things, and make the wrong decisions. It's our job, as IT consultants, to let them know what the best solution to the problem would be.

        For example, asking, "Why do you want your setup to last fifteen years?" may yield answers like, "I don't want to deal with the costs involved with constantly upgrading" or "I'm familiar with my current system, and I am willing to change, but I don't want to have to refamiliarize myself with it every five years" or maybe even "I don't want to have to pay for someone to upgrade our systems every five years."

        All of those answers are perfectly reasonable, but all of them are misinformed. It's our job to let them know that, yes, it may sound expensive at first to upgrade every five years, but putting together a bullet-proof system to last fifteen years is much more expensive. We can also explain how to remain compatible (say, via virtualization, as stated in another post) so they don't have to relearn everything every five years. In fact, the experience remains consistent well into the future. And finally, we can say that, again, the costs incurred with upgrading hardware every five years is much less than designing a system that needs to last at least fifteen years... not to mention, the system still has to be maintained, rigorously, so those costs don't just go away simply because the system has been designed to last a longer period of time.

        If, after all of that, they're still set in their ways and aren't willing to take your advice, then I suppose you just have to do what they want... but it would be disingenuous for IT professionals to just do what the user asks on spec, because, as said before, most of the time they don't know or understand what they want. There's a reason why we're the professionals and they're not (i.e., I'm not going to tell an architect that I want a house without a foundation and expect him not to tell me I'm an idiot). Why do people insist on doing that when it comes to IT?

        • Re:forget it (Score:5, Insightful)

          by RichardJenkins ( 1362463 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @06:36PM (#27469095)

          Two minutes ago I was thinking the exact same thing. Then I realised if a small business owner tells you that 15 years ago he set up a system at minimal cost and is only now looking at changing because the hardware is noticeably ageing, you'd have a hard time explaining to him that it's going to be *harder* to set up a system with similar longevity nowadays.

          I wouldn't know how to even approach the subject without sounding like I'm just trying to extract more cash out of him.

          • Re:forget it (Score:4, Insightful)

            by Kaboom13 ( 235759 ) <kaboom108.bellsouth@net> on Sunday April 05, 2009 @07:43PM (#27469647)

            I wouldn't, because his original solution probably cost a small fortune. Compare PC prices from 1994 to pc prices today. You can probably buy 3 computers today for what each computer cost in 94. The downside of that is they may not last as long. That said, he's damn lucky if all his pc's have kept going for 15 years. In fact, the only reason he hasn't upgraded before is probably because of luck.

            That said, while hardware designed to last 15 years is probably extremely cost-prohibitive, you can design the system to make replacing hardware very easy. Who cares about hardware failures if you can drop in a spare in minutes?

            Anyways, if you want a system to last a long time with little management, there are some easy steps to take.

            1. Use mature technology.
            2. Use passive cooling.
            3. Provide automated recovery. There will be failures in any system, make it easy to recover from.
            4. Document and schedule regular maintenance, with reminders. For example, once a year blow the dust out of the pc's. Clear old entries out of the database. Run a hard drive/memory diagnostics to spot failures before it becomes a major issue.

      • Re:forget it (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 05, 2009 @06:40PM (#27469139)

        My father is a veterinarian

        He is cheap many doctors are.

        I wrote software for doctors for a few years. They will drop 200k on a bad ass car. But the computer for the front room nurse? "Can we get it for 200 dollars less somehow?". "I found a B/W monitor for 20 dollars less" and so on...

        They are running a business. If they can get ROI of years then they are doing pretty good.

        I would tell him to buy *THE* cheapest computer they can (350-400 at this point in time). It will crush anything they are currently using. Hell it probably will ROI itself in the power bill alone in the first year. Then in 3-5 years when it goes tits up (and it will because it is a cheap computer) just migrate it.

        You are advocating the guy spend thousands of dollars on something that he really doesnt need to do. He probably dropped 5k on those rigs back in 95. He probably can get 15 YEARS worth of computers if he replaces every 3-5. At the same 1995 dollars cost.

        Your response is typical of IT (and other) professionals who presume to know users want, rather than listening to what they actually want
        Your response is one who doesnt bother to dig into what they are really doing. Then showing what it would cost. *THAT* a business man will listen to. "I can do the same thing for 2000 less but there is a bit of a downside and some risk" will get his attention. Also his business is probably hurting in that floppy drives are long gone. The CD (if it has one) probably is on its last legs.

        If he is DEAD set on lasting 15 years then I would say get an asus mini notebook. Plug in some cheap lcds and a 15 dollar keyboard. Probably total cost 500 bucks. Would probably last 15+ years.

        15-20 years ago you thought about computers like that. It is not surprising he is still thinking like that. My dad is the same way. Until I laid out the math for him. He can buy a 2500+ computer to surf the web and hold a simple db and print some pages once and awhile. OR buy a cheapo one and upgrade (and keep your computer from becoming legacy junk no one wants to touch) ever few years and keep up and get the exact same effect.

        There are other benefits to thinking this way. For example backup solutions. He is probably (if we are lucky) using some sort of tape drive. Older types of tapes are long gone and getting more expensive. But keeping up keeps your costs down.

        Computers (least back in 95) were considered a 1 time expense. They are not. They are an ongoing expense. Treat them as such.

        When it comes down to it newer computers are cheap junk. Unless you are really willing to pay for the support costs and buy 8k rigs, with long costly service contracts. You have pretty much no guarantee of lifetime. That he got 15 years out of those computers is commendable. But I would not plan my business that way. I would plan as if they are going tits up at any moment. If you treat them that way. Low cost is a better solution.

        That he didnt keep up now he has other costs. Such as now he needs to be using VM type solutions or get some sort of conversion done to his data (and hopefully the new software does what his old does).

        I would be a poor IT professional if I didnt show him the hidden costs that he has been accruing. There are tradeoffs. It is my job as a IT pro to SHOW management what they are.

    • This is dead on. NASA and the DoD pay serious money to be able to run 15-year-old hardware and software--unless you're made of money, you don't want to be doing this.

      Best suggestion is to use the most Open Source software and commodity hardware that you can. Your proprietary software vendor may not be around in 14 years, and even if they are, they may no longer offer the software you need to replace/fix/etc.

      [Yes, this means you, Microsoft. I designed my enterprise accounting system to run on Bob and I've

  • Expect the fans to go out first, then the power supply. It wouldn't hurt to build a duplicate of the system, for spares; however since that defeats the purpose of the build a single box strategy, then obviously that won't work so well.

    What are you thinking for storage? I would at the least focus on SATA (the 3.0 spec) and use probably software raid, so you're not stuck on a hardware raid failure causing ultimate data loss. This is probably one of the only times in my life I have ever suggested software r

  • by petes_PoV ( 912422 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @04:35PM (#27467995)
    You cannot guarantee that lifetime, so the best response is to design a flexible solution. One that *could* last that period of tim if there are no hardware problems.

    However, you should consider how to upgrade each part in isolation - or with small numbers of associated changes. That means using popular, but not bleeding-edge components. One's that (like with vintage cars) have a good number of enthusiasts using them. That means that spares will be available and the know-how to diagnose and fix problems will be available too.

    The final fallback would be to buy two systems. Keep one in "deep freeze" until you need to cannabilse it for spares. However, don't expect the electrolytic capacitors to last that long.

    • by MouseR ( 3264 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @04:41PM (#27468057) Homepage

      Or just get quality components to begin with.

      At the office, I'm still running a 350mghz PowerMac G4 computer (the bugger is 10 years old) as a server.

      All original components. None failed. System still has it's original bleeding-edge 320megs of Ram, runs Mac OS X Tiger.

      It was given a new 40gig baracuda drive that's been sitting on shelves for years. had never been used.

      We use this machine as a slowest-denominator software test platform for a product in development and as a distributed networked compiler farm node and backup server for another more important machine (it backs up the backup machine's main OS, not it's files).

      MS can argue all it wants about Apple making "aesthetic" machines, they actually use good components. Current XServe hardware being another case in point.

      • by afabbro ( 33948 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @04:56PM (#27468183) Homepage

        At the office, I'm still running a 350mghz PowerMac G4 computer (the bugger is 10 years old) as a server.

        Hmmm, if that's mghz = MegaGigaHertz, then I'm quite awed. But if it's MicroGigaHertz, then I feel bad for you.

      • If you have extremely modest needs, you can get by with extremely modest hardware. For Tiger, that system is butting right up against the ram requirements, and forget getting new parts...With the intel switch all the original mac parts are collectors items, and extremely expensive...I had to replace a wireless card on a newer machine recently and it cost nearly 400 dollars.

        And frankly, I'd never recommend using anything but a new drive on a system you care about. Old drives don't store well.

  • Moving parts usually fail first; get some solid state hard drives. Avoid fans by using components with passive cooling; most importantly get an integrated video card and a passively cooled power supply. Running DOS software? Use freedos. No need to bother with full-blown Windows. Keep to name brand components and you should be fine. As long as you buy standard components, they should be easy enough to replace 15 years from now, don't go hog-wild stocking up on replacement parts. Good luck!

    • "As long as you buy standard components, they should be easy enough to replace 15 years from now, don't go hog-wild stocking up on replacement parts"

      You'd be surprised. I have a 15 year old desktop that takes ISA cards, and I have seen younger systems (relatively speaking) that only took AT keyboards. What seems like a standard technology now, that will "never be replaced," may very well be long forgotten in 15 years. 15 years is a long time to try to keep a single system operational; I would suggest
  • by spazdor ( 902907 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @04:36PM (#27468009)

    If the goal is to get legacy DOS software running on new hardware and being robust, then the most rock-solid option (and maybe the cheapest) will be to put it into a VM such as qemu or VMware. This will allow you to transplant it to new hardware, make/restore backups, far more seamlessly.

    As for the hardware itself, have you considered a Soekris [] box or similar?

  • Industrial PCs? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rorschach1 ( 174480 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @04:37PM (#27468013) Homepage

    How about industrial hardware? You'll probably pay at least twice as much as you would for a consumer desktop, but PCs made for industrial control applications tend to be a lot more rugged and build to serve for many years in harsh conditions. Sounds like you don't need a lot of processing power, so you could probably get by with a fanless system and eliminate a major failure (and noise) source.

    I haven't bought anything from these guys, so I don't personally know anything about their quality, but SuperLogics has a barebones fanless Atom-based system for $315. Something like that might be a good start.

  • Neurosine (Score:2, Interesting)

    by neurosine ( 549673 )
    Go with an entry level enterprise server, like a Dell T300w/ 5 Yr. NBD warranty, throw on Xenserver 5, Spring for 2003 Standard, and possibly 2008. Install both OS's, develop for 2003 with the idea of migrating to 2008 as you can run both OS's live and migrate at your leisure. At the other end place a Wyse terminal(or use the current workstation as an RDP client if it's not too flakey.) With an ADSL connection he can have a consistent environment from work or home, and more terminals can be added as necesar
  • It depends....

    Do you care what OS it runs on? (It'll be harder if he wants to keep using windows 95..) For reliability, I'd suggest windows 2000, since it will also work with most recent drivers. The trick will be getting his old software working on it. However once you get the whole setup working, it will be reliable.

    How much effort do you want to put into it? You could make this quite reliable by mirroring some 4gb drives, and telling your dad to replace broken ones with spares set aside. Si
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Do you care what OS it runs on? (It'll be harder if he wants to keep using windows 95..) For reliability, I'd suggest windows 2000, since it will also work with most recent drivers.

      I'd be worried about Microsoft (or any closed source vendor) dropping support for older OSs, there may very well still be exploitable security bugs in there that could go unpatched.

  • by blind biker ( 1066130 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @04:40PM (#27468047) Journal

    Take an Ultra 1 or Ultra 2 - they are still rather useful computers, and the OS they run is rock solid by any standards. And there's a ton of software for them.

    Now, I'm not suggesting that a 15 year old Sun Ultra 1 would be what your father is looking for, just that it is possible to have hardware that is both good quality and long lasting, and that it would run an OS and software that is still relevant nowadays. Sun did a great job at keeping Solaris backwards-compatible, both hardware-wise (supports older architectures) and software-wise (you can run a lot of vitnage software even on the newest Solaris).

    Anyhow... an Ultra 1 is still a damn good computer.

    • Sun hardware is awesome. But so is the price tag, and, if you're not willing to pay support, so is the bill if something breaks.

      If you use commodity hardware with OpenSolaris or Linux, you can get some of the same benefits, without the cost.

      I wouldn't recommend Sun for a small shop with indifferent data storage requirements. It's worth the money if you're dealing with a lot of money, but otherwise cheap works just as well.

  • by Scrameustache ( 459504 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @04:40PM (#27468049) Homepage Journal

    But I'd just like to say that this is one of the most interesting "ask slashdot" questions in a long time, and I look forward to replies from my more knowledgeable peers! :D

    Ok, small contribution: The dad obviously doesn't need much power, so maybe this would be a good time to make him switch from windows to a bare-bones open source solution which will be most likely to still be supported in 10-15 years, as opposed to the much shorter upgrade-and-obsolescence cycle of Redmond.

  • by maroberts ( 15852 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @04:41PM (#27468053) Homepage Journal
    The original systems probably cost $5k-$7k 10-15 years back. Systems to replace these will cost $1-2k and deliver much higher performance. Tell him not to worry about lasting 10 years as the investment cost is not so high. He needs a backup system which it sounds as though he hasn't had. It sounds as though his backup can simply be a couple of USB keys which would hold all his data.
  • by node159 ( 636992 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @04:41PM (#27468061)

    Would your father ask you to get him a car that lasts 15 years?

    I hate to say it, but lasting the designed life span of computer parts (2 years) seems to be a challenge as of late, and buying quality doesn't seem to gain much.

    The failure rates now days have been getting a bit long in the tooth.

    • by Toonol ( 1057698 )
      Would your father ask you to get him a car that lasts 15 years?

      Many people do drive the same car for over a decade.

      However, I bet the father is not concerned about the cost of the hardware; the problem is the cost and failure rate of changing hardware. Every OS upgrade runs a risk of something not working; every time a configuration is touched, something may mysteriously break. Every change means time and effort spent training, changing work procedures.

      I think the best bet is generic commodity e
    • by Q-Hack! ( 37846 ) *

      Would your father ask you to get him a car that lasts 15 years?

      I hate to say it, but lasting the designed life span of computer parts (2 years) seems to be a challenge as of late, and buying quality doesn't seem to gain much.

      The failure rates now days have been getting a bit long in the tooth.

      Your car analogy doesn't work. Many people get 15-20 years out of a vehicle. I personally drive a 1991 VW Jetta.

      Getting computer parts to last is not hard either. Don't buy bleeding edge. Those brand new super high speed drives today do tend to fail, so buy the slower models that came out a couple of years ago. They have the bugs worked out.

  • The current system is getting unreliable. If your father leaves it 10-15 years between upgrades the next system will be even less reliable.

    Also realize that no matter how much you and your father dislike it, current machines aren't built to last as long as old machines were. The parts can do amazing things but wear out more quickly. I don't know if you'll get 15 years out of a modern disk drive (but then consider that a Gigabyte on one drive would have been a far fetched dream 15 years ago but is commonplac

  • You don't. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SatanicPuppy ( 611928 ) * <.Satanicpuppy. .at.> on Sunday April 05, 2009 @04:42PM (#27468067) Journal

    15 years ago systems were night and day with the way they are now, and it's only going to get worse. After 10 years you won't be able to find anyone to work on the legacy stuff (unless you buy a proprietary unix system), and there is no guarantee for new parts.

    The only way you've gotten away with it is that you have one application which has a very limited required environment, and drive interfaces have only changed once. If you stick with that philosophy, and get lucky with the drives again, you may be able to get by with something similar.

    If you have to (which I don't recommend) then pick up a midrange quad core server with a ton of RAM and plenty of room for extra drives. Put a Linux distro on it: no hope of keeping up with Windows security for 15 years, and forget Mac, they're very prone to changing interfaces internally, and then discontinuing the old products.

    Then use the server to push whatever app you need to some low duty desktops. You could use a web app, or a client/server desktop app. Again, you're probably good with a *nix.

    Your biggest fear is drive space. In 15 years you won't be able to buy the drives you're using today, but there is no point in stockpiling them: they'll be dead in the box after 15 years. Solid state won't fail in the box (probably, but they're too new for it to have been tested) but you may have to replace them more often, depending on your utilization.

    Just from personal experience, you're much better off buying a modest new system every 5 years, than a major new system every 15. It's cheaper, and the chance of a catastrophic failure are lower.

    • Re:You don't. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Ian Alexander ( 997430 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:02PM (#27468231)

      If you have to (which I don't recommend) then pick up a midrange quad core server with a ton of RAM and plenty of room for extra drives. Put a Linux distro on it: no hope of keeping up with Windows security for 15 years, and forget Mac, they're very prone to changing interfaces internally, and then discontinuing the old products.

      Then use the server to push whatever app you need to some low duty desktops. You could use a web app, or a client/server desktop app. Again, you're probably good with a *nix.

      I think that's overkill for one veterinarian.

      I suggest going virtual on commodity hardware that changes out every half-decade or so. I suspect that as long as your virtual machine itself doesn't change the cost of buying hardware with the chops to run it will only decline over the years.

  • Just use standard parts and you should be able to easy replace stuff if it brakes down with a standard part no need to replace the same video card, psu, hdd or other part just replace it with a new one that uses the same bus.

  • You could get computers about 15 times more powerful than his old system with 1000 times as much storage for under $300. My guess is that the hard drives are definitely going to fail in 10-15 years -- possibly several times. You could get a motherboard with RAID 5 and that would help prevent data loss.

    You would also need an install disk for Windows 95 or Windows 98 -- try to get the most recent operating system that this dinosaur can still run on.

    I would also expect that the fans and the power supply migh

  • Okay, here's my thinking: consider what things fail on a system, and why.

    Number one thing that shortens system life of your average non-overclocked machine: bad power. This includes a crappy PSU, and bad power coming into the machine from the wall. The solutions: PC Power & Cooling PSU, and a good power-regulating UPS. Keep in mind if you have some severe power surges, you may have to replace parts of your UPS over the years. Better parts in the UPS than in the computer itself. It's there to take the hi

    • by Renraku ( 518261 )

      Actually, building a barebones system shouldn't be this complex at all.

      You can build a decent machine that doesn't require a fan on the CPU at all. Granted, it wouldn't be very fast, I don't think the current setup is very fast either.

      Just use onboard sound/video/data and use a cheap 200GB or so drive that will cost you $30 to replace, new, if it dies. Backup regularly and it shouldn't cost you more than $200 or so to replace most of the system. A UPS is important, though, as it will greatly extend the l

  • by robably ( 1044462 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @04:46PM (#27468105) Journal
    I wouldn't worry about the system having to last for 15 years if he's already a veterinarian. What is that, 140 years old? Wow.
  • I went through this with a company 3 years ago that was running their billing and inventory system off DOS and it still worked with all their venders/payment company. The owners were getting ready to sell and retire (both in their mid 60's.) Contingency of the sale was the upgrade of their systems.

    Fortunately, their backend wrote to CSV files. When it came time to choose a new billing system, we found one that ran over generic ODBC and could support a number of database venders including PostgreSQL (whic

  • by thue ( 121682 )

    We have an old server in the basement with a very custom setup, which I would rather not mess with. It is internet gateway for 300 people, so I would rather not take out of production to play with it.

    It has a 3-way RAID 1 (linux software raid), so it will take 3 disk failures for the storage to die. In fact, one of the disks have failed already, but since it still have 2-way RAID it I see no reason to do anything about it :).

    The point: Using 3-way RAID is a good insurance for a long lifespan without maintai

  • Quick question, is either of these systems currently or in the future going to be connected to the outside world?

    If so consider this, you have obsolete, out of support software running without anyone developing security patches for it anymore, which is storing client and financial info. The only thing protecting it is its own obsolecense. That is simply not acceptable.

    If its an air-gapped network that will never touch the outside world run whatever you like.

    My personal suggestion, virtualize the workstation

  • This thread was finished on the third post.

  • If the hardware is still running, there's technically no need to purchase new computers. You could replace the 500 MB drives with up to 4 GB ones (Win95 can handle that much). Do an inventory of all applications installed on the machines, and reinstall them after setting up fresh Windows 95. Or use a tool that can copy a smaller drive to a larger one. If the software works and everything, it should be best left as is. A new system might offer more speed and storage space, and reliability, but the custom app
  • And what about virtualization options? That lets you move around to various hardware without causing an upset on the system build.

    I'd second this. I've had pretty much every component in a computer fail on me, CPU, mobo, graphics card, HDD, PSU, whatever. Shit happens and trying to make sure you're covered with spares on everything in 10 years is highly impractical. Things like a bad PSU can kill a component twice before you realize the true problem or fail twice just for the hell of it Of course you can pick quality hardware, run a pair of disks in RAID1 and all that but having an easy migration path that'll be up an running in minu

  • Go server hardware (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Bigjeff5 ( 1143585 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:04PM (#27468255)

    Get server hardware. It's the only stuff built these days with reliability as the #1 concern. And get GOOD server hardware. That doesn't mean dual quads with 64gb ram, that means a well known line in a company known for servers. I'd probably go HP or IBM, and for what your father needs you can pick the bare minimum and it will be fine for years.

    Remember when you spec this out, that #1 failures are those with moving parts, as others have said already. This means, when you build your server, you want the LOWEST capacity and LOWEST speed you can get, for reliability. The high capacity, high speed drives fail the quickest because they push the hardest. SSD might be a good alternative, but as yet the long-term reliability is unproven and they have a definite limited life-span (i.e. # of writes, how quickly that is used depends on the application), instead of a constant potential failure rate. The plus on that is there should be very little chance of a SSD failing until it actually reaches its end of life.

    So, slowest fans you can get, or no fans if possible, and slowest HDD. You should probably go with as low a power CPU as possible also, to keep from taxing the PSU.

    Also note, VM would be a heck of a lot of work to get going, but new migrations and failure recovery should be simpler. Gotta pick what works for you.

  • by try_anything ( 880404 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:06PM (#27468281)

    Your father might be in for a shock if he thinks he can keep running the same computer system for the next fifteen years. Almost all veterinary clinics have a web presence these days (if only contact info, a map, and some cute photos) so it's a cinch that in five years the bar will be raised to include real online functionality. Make an appointment, see when your dog is due for shots, see how much Poo-Poo weighed at his last checkup -- sounds nice, right? His current customers won't care if he falls behind, but without a steady stream of new customers, his practice will dwindle.

    That means he needs to plan on new software. Software upgrades are much more painful and expensive than hardware upgrades, and new small business software has a way of running poorly on five-year-old machines. The next fifteen years will bring painful changes for his clinic's computer systems, much worse than simple hardware upgrades, and he is the one who will have to understand and deal with it. Of course, he might soon have the option of having his data and applications hosted elsewhere, so he might be able to keep the same hardware for the next fifteen years after all, but I don't think that scenario satisfies his current expectations.

  • I'm pretty sure you can get a Z-series mainframe that they'll support for > 15 years.

  • Just take image-based backups. When the system finally fails, virtualize a new one on top of whatever system can do it cheaply and reliably. Repeat until there's some compelling reason to upgrade the software, and thus the [virtual] hardware. Start over with a virtualizable platform... Right now your best bet is Linux on x86, but Windows on x86 is a strong contender as well. x86 should be around for quite a while yet and if it isn't then you can bet there will be shitloads of emulators.

  • by barfy ( 256323 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:20PM (#27468421)

    There are two possible solutions.

    First is to change nothing. Why fix what isn't broke?

    The second is to change your time frame entirely. 10-15 years is too long and too disruptive when the time comes, and you lose out on presumptive benefits in the middle.

    Surely there are network aware applications that do what you want on standard systems today.

    You want to be network aware. In todays world you do not want to be cut off from your customers, and more importantly you want to push of data integrity to others.

    You should develop an annual budget for IT expenses that rolls over. You should be on a 3-5 year schedule rather than a 10-15 year schedule. If you do this, you will have more predictable costs. You won't have competitive disadvantage because of software. You will have advantages of providing more and more reliable services to your customers.

    As in all businesses information and digital information can be used to extend and monetize your business in all sorts of ways. But only if you choose to keep on top of it, and you don't constrain your learning cycles to whatever is new now.

  • by Rix ( 54095 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:39PM (#27468577)

    With your father's data, that is, rather than Windows 95 just barfing over the drive.

    I pray this system isn't connected to the internet in any way, because if it is it must have hundreds of worms crawling around in it. Windows 95 is of course terrible for this, but any system you plan to keep running unmanaged for 15 years should be kept far from any network and physically secure.

    I really can't imagine a single veterinary practise generating gigabytes of administravia, nor can I imagine some slapdash DOS application that does generate gigabytes of superfluous data being able to index it once it grew to that range.

    Check to see how much he's really using. If it's a small enough, move it over to a flash disk and run the application with DOSemu or in a VM. Build a system with cleanable/replacable air filters over the fans, and train your father to back up his data. (If he hasn't had a hard drive fail in 15 years of use, he's damn lucky.)

  • by Fortunato_NC ( 736786 ) <> on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:41PM (#27468585) Homepage Journal will tell him to get a professional to do this for him. Whether he understands it or not, your father's livelihood depends on having computers that are up and running, and from the limited picture you've given us, it sounds like he only thinks about information technology when something is going wrong.

    Simply replacing his current hardware with newer gear is just kicking the problem down the road. In the last 15 years, there have been significant advances that he should consider taking advantage of, because they can make his business run more efficiently. But the only way to determine the "right" solution is to have someone who understands your father's business design a solution for him. A good place to start would be with the vendor who sold him his current setup, if they are still in business. They can most likely recommend a suitable hardware platform and assist with data migration to a newer, supported version of their software, and provide some sort of service arrangement that will ensure that these systems are maintained, not just used.

    If you're bound and determined to do this yourself, the recommendations about virtualization are good ones - you can build a couple of VM images that you can backup to a USB flash drive nightly, or even better, several flash drives - learn about backup rotation schemes and design one that gives you the ability to recover two weeks worth of image data at least.

    Up thread, someone said that if you do this, you will be supporting it for the next 10-15 years. You need to keep that in mind when deciding how to proceed. Best of luck!

  • by Bill Wong ( 583178 ) <> on Sunday April 05, 2009 @05:58PM (#27468737) Homepage

    keep the existing setup and virtualize it (vmware is nice, but, xen is free)
    upgrade the vm host hardware as needed or as necessary, instead of upgrading a machine that should really be left alone.

    1) minimal effort needed on your part
    2) your dad doesn't need to learn new software as it is exactly the same, and all the data is retained
    3) hardware upgrades are transparent to the client vm (hopefully)

    (but, don't forget to routinely backup the data on the vm like any other machine though)

  • NVidia Tegra (Score:3, Interesting)

    by im_thatoneguy ( 819432 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @06:16PM (#27468941)

    People are going the wrong direction. Don't build 1 big beefy machine.

    Build an incredibly small lightweight machine. Like the NVidia Tegra platform. It costs less than $200. At that price you could replace it every other year for 20 years for the cost of one low-end server.

    Now. Find a simple web-app which can be hosted. HTML and CSS don't change from decade to decade. Use a CSV file as the database. Now setup a one click option which downloads the data to a CF Card.

    This website should be entirely file based so no need to install php, cgi, mysql.. nothing. This way you can copy an entire clone of the site to a CF Card.

    Make sure it's a password protected ZIP file that is downloaded so that customer information can't be stolen.

    Install a fast booting linux distro with Apache and Google Chrome or Firefox.

    Now all you need to do for 15 years is install the latest web browser. And backup the website to a removeable drive every couple of days.

    Here are some ways to add bonus points: Put the OS on a CF Card and clone it. Since all he needs is a dumb client and a barebones web server you should be able to fit it pretty easily onto a 2GB CF Card. You also now don't need any fancy ghostingesque software just a straight drive image. Keep 2 copies of the OS on CF Cards. Then if the computer ever breaks. Just replace the CF Card. Have a button which copies the latest website state to the new OS and off you go.

    Websites are designed to be portable. They're meant to run on new hardware without a lot of setup. They're the perfect candidate for an application which can move easily from system to system and since you're only spending $200 on hardware which has no fans and no moving parts, but insane redundancy and replaceability I think your Dad should be able to run it himself.

    "If it stops working. Just swap out the 'broken' card with the 'new' card." Then every 5 years you can update the instructions on cloning his system drive using the latest software.

    And you've already written a little one click macro to restore and backup his web data so he should be able to easily follow the step by step instructions.

    I could see this system easily running for 20 years.

  • by Dahamma ( 304068 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @06:23PM (#27468991)

    My father is also a veterinarian with a private practice... I don't know enough about the exact details of his software but can give you the high level, as well as issues he has had, etc.

    First, he has gone through a few (2 or 3 not sure) completely different systems (hardware and software) in the last ~20 years of having a "computerized" practice.

    When they got the first system the practice was much smaller - 3 vets in the partnership and a handful of employees. Over time it has grown to employ another 3 full time vets and a much larger staff. So that's question 1: it may be small now, but do you expect it to grow? 2 networked workstations won't be enough if he may have 20+ employees in the future, and deciding on something today (hardware and software) that at least supports upgrades will go a long way to prevent having to redo the whole thing later.

    Question 2 is related to the nature of his practice. Is it a relatively low-tech, rural practice or is he planning on modernizing/keeping up with technology? Back in the 70's the most high-tech equipment in most practices was the x-ray machine. Since then, my dad's practice has added an ultrasound, laparoscope, and most recently a digital x-ray that allows inexpensive, near instant access to results (without having to develop, etc) as well as convenient storage, display on a number of terminals in exam rooms, even convenient consults from remote specialists. That's in addition to all of the other benefits that come with professional veterinary software packages, like integration with outside labs to get faster test results, tracking of inventory and reordering, etc.

    Question 3: how much does he care about his data/computer systems? If down is it a minor inconvenience or a crippling liability? If the latter, do you really want to build something for him with off the shelf parts with no support? Are you available for 24/7 support if something goes wrong? My dad's practice has 24/7 1 hour business support (from IBM? or something similar). If a system goes down, HDD dies, network is flaky, etc they will have someone there in less than an hour to replace hardware, diagnose issues, restore backups, etc. Sure, that service costs money but has been necessary several times over the past couple decades and saved their ass when it happened. On the other hand, if your father is basically using the machines for payroll, inventory, and bookkeeping, he might be ok with a simple backup system and your help when something goes wrong...

    Anyway, I know my dad's practice now has a central server (I think just standard workstation HW with RAID and nightly backups?), a few terminals (I believe all Windows-based, since that's what the veterinary SW runs on), and most recently a medical grade monitor and high-res video card for x-ray display, along with a couple of WiFi laptops they use in exam rooms to show x-rays, look up histories, data entry, etc. All of it comes with 24/7 HW and SW support, which for their type of usage (and the fact they don't want or need a full time IT employee) I'd consider a must have...

    Anyway, hope that helped. But to summarize I'd rank the goals as (not counting cost, which of course needs to be factored in depending on personal situation):

    1) minimize downtime/lost revenue
    2) allow modernization/support for new technologies as necessary
    3) scalable if/when the practice grows in the future

    What I would most definitely NOT worry about is the latest fancy hardware. If he's still surviving on a 486 with 8MB RAM, any reasonable modern HW will be cheap and more than enough. By all means go for reliability over performance, especially if you are doing it yourself. If buying HW/SW/support from a professional company, they will make sure the HW is adequate and reliable (since it costs THEM much more in the long run if it isn't).

  • by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @06:59PM (#27469311)

    How do you build a system that a BUSINESS is reliant upon? Easy, the same way you build one for a multimillion dollar company.

    Weigh the risks of the "system" going down hard. What impact does it have on the business? If he can be down for a few DAYS, then no big deal. If he can only be down for a few hours, then the hardware obviously needs to be a bit more reliable (at least throw some RAID in there).

    Regarding the 10-15 year "wish", throw that out. Sorry, but you probably paid $3000 back in "the day" for that state o' the art 486, and these days, you can afford to replace said hardware 3 or 4 times over for that price. Purchase what is needed based on business impact, and simply plan on replacing every 5 years.

  • A few comments. (Score:4, Informative)

    by drolli ( 522659 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @08:33PM (#27470043) Journal

    The things i have seen failing are HDs, Power supplys (heat because of jammed fans), and cheap capacitors (on not-so-cheap mainboards), and monitors.

    1) Keep the power low, so ventilation and heat problem are no issues

    2) Use SSDs (keep the power low, no reason they fail)

    3) Use an RAID of SSDs (they are not out long enough to know how often they fail practically)

    4) Buy a few more HDs/SSDs of hte same type, just in case

    5) If you don't manage to build a system without fans, dust will be the biggest problem. Keeping the place clean can help.

    6) Even risking being modded down: If DOS did the job the last 15 Years, think about Freedos. Or DOSEMU running on to of a linux kernel.

    7) Buy a high quality power supply and and mainboard (not a very new one).

    8) Make a Virtual Workstation.

  • I have experience building workstations and servers that last. Nearly all of the ones I've built for customers are still functional more than 10 years after first install.

    Experience counts so I suggest you use a system builder with a similar track-record.

    The more powerful the system, the more challenges in building it to last. Many of the items on the check-list below need to be balanced against the needs of the customer, including noise, environmental conditions, performance aspects, and frequently budget.

    Check-list for Building a Computer that Lasts

    • Minimize expansion hardware. Expansion slot connectors sometimes oxidize so the less plug-in hardware the better. This includes on-board video, serial-ports if needed, etc.
    • Use a high-end board from a quality manufacture. High-end boards tend to have powerful CPU voltage regulators and are designed to support lots of memory, which reduces memory controller issues as the board ages. They also tend to be the boards preferred by early-adopters, which manufacturers are probably more thorough in validating. My current preference is for Asus as they have the highest end consumer boards which support ECC for AMD CPUs. Make sure not to overtighten the mounting screws.
    • One or two identical memory modules. when memory modules are mismatched, or with more than two unbuffered modules, when the memory controller ages you're more likely to run into trouble. Use memory approved by the motherboard manufacture. ECC is recommended.
    • A great power supply. An oversized PC Power & Cooling power-supply is the best choice for environments that can handle a fan and noise isn't an issue. That said, quiet is very important in many situations, and PC Power & Cooling's Silencer models certainly aren't silent under load. For those situations I use an oversized Zalman heat-pipe cooled power supply I install a Noctua fan into. With that setup you don't hear a sound from the cooling fan and the power supply runs extremely cool.
    • Hard drive redundancy. RAID-1 or RAID-10 is the only way to go for normal systems. A quality true hardware RAID controller for Windows, and software RAID for Linux. A hot spare is recommended. When using a software RAID, if you need to be sure the machine will boot with a HD failure, use a hardware RAID for the boot volume. A rather neat low-cost way I'm doing that for the next Linux server I'm building is using an Addonics duel CF interface that has hardware RAID in it.
    • Plenty of cooling with quality fans. No sleeve bearing fans, and if the speed of any fans is reduced to control noice, make sure they can start from every rotational position.
    • Use quality HDs and install them correctly. For the past several years Western Digital's high-end hard drives have had a perfect track-record for me. The most important thing to remember when installing a HD is absolutely, positively, don't over-tighten the mounting screws. Plenty of clean power, good cooling, and eliminating any vibration being transfered to them is important. Mount them as low in the case as possible to help keep them cool, and leave space between drives. If you use Seagate drives, server class is a must. In the last server I build, I did a RAID-1 between an Intel X25-E SSD and mechanical HDs so all the eggs aren't in one brand/type of basket.
    • Good power protection. I've never had a computer damaged by lightening plugged into a metal-case Tripp Lite surge protector. Also protect the cable, DSL, and modem connections, and any non-fiber runs that go outside the building. Make sure you protect all network equipment too. Plug an APC Smart-UPS into the Tripp Lite and you have total protection. No other brand or model UPS has help up as well in the long-term. Dedicated circuits are the icing on the cake, but with the Tripp Lite + APC SmartUPS combination, as long as the outlet is wired correctly, no matter how bad the power is the computer has always worked fine for me.
    • P
  • by goldcd ( 587052 ) on Monday April 06, 2009 @03:32AM (#27472889) Homepage
    Firstly - Running IT for your family is a pain. We all know you'll get nothing out of it apart from grief :) If you are feeling altruistic, then read on.
    Secondly. Moving parts break. Heat breaks things. Fans sucking dog hairs into the system will break things. Assuming he's going to be using the same MS DOS app for the next decade or so, he does not need a powerful machine (which is handy). You just want some ultra-low power system (Atom? - how about one of those Asus desktop EEPC thingies - fit a cheap SSD if it doesn't come with one) - ideally just get something with a CPU and a PSU that doesn't need a fan, just a heatsink.
    Thirdly it will fail. It's a PC for your Dad, it's critical to his business - therefore whatever you do will screw up. Install a backup solution. I'm assuming it's not creating vast amounts of data, so just something that'll spool the new data up the ADSL/cable/modem to a NAS/PC you can get your hands on somewhere out there.
    Finally - you might want to consider VMWare. Performance hit isn't a problem in his case, and wouldn't it be nice if you could restore a complete failure/screwup in minutes (Oh and allow him to run a decent OS alongside the DOS app - as a bonus). Hardware's going to be cheap, so might as well buy a spare system. Anything does wrong - you just zap the image onto the new system and he's up and running whilst you try to work out whether the old PSU shorted, or the memory just came loose. If you feel very techy, could just setup the systems to mirror and implement a hot-standby (although possibly we're moving into the realms of overkill here).
    • Another alternative (Score:3, Interesting)

      by goldcd ( 587052 )
      would be to just rent a virtual machine (and let a 3rd party company deal with all the backup/hardware gubbins).
      Weak point here though would be the connection to the server - so as well as primary ADSL/Cable access from his office, you'd then need maybe 3G dongle backup on his router, then a spare client machine and then.. :)
  • Don't Buy Spares! (Score:3, Informative)

    by supernova_hq ( 1014429 ) on Monday April 06, 2009 @03:49AM (#27472969)
    If I have learned anything about computer maintenance it is the following:
    • Don't buy spare parts! (except ram, it increases in value...)
    • Moving parts == bad (but SSD don't last very long yet)
    • Don't rely on windows for long-term projects!

    Ram is the ONLY thing that appreciates over time. Don't buy spare parts for anything else. Unless it is something that will be obselete, but that's a dumb thing to buy for a long-term machine...

    If you can get him off windows (or any closed-source software for that matter), DO IT! You will always have the source code to linux+gnome+firefox+apache+mysql, but windows will probably never be available for more than 10 years.

No problem is so large it can't be fit in somewhere.