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Here's a checklist of actions you should take before evaluating a hardware product for your Windows infrastructure.
- Determine your requirements. Before you begin evaluating a specific product, clarify which features are critical to you. Make a list of "must haves" and "nice to haves" and prioritize each item with a number or value that indicates its importance. This list will keep you focused on utility and keep you from being distracted by marketing gimmicks or cool features you didn't want in the first place.
- Verify the vendor's claims. Every vendor makes extraordinary claims about its products and, in many cases, those claims come with a disclaimer in fine print. Always verify a manufacturer's claims in terms of your own requirements. If you have an electrical engineer on your staff, you might be able to verify claims to a fine detail. If not, your best bet is to test what you can and look for independent evaluations in industry magazines and other sources.
- Review the story behind the documentation. I believe that you can tell a lot about a company by the quality of its product documentation. Request or download a copy of the support documentation early, and take a good look at it. Are there grammatical mistakes? Is it a poorly translated version of a version written in a foreign language? Is it illustrated properly? Do the instructions make sense?
- Investigate its quality of support. Salespeople always make promises about how great their company's product support is. When you actually need the support months later, that's when you find out whether the promise holds water. The best time to call product support is before you buy the product. Call the main number and see how fast the response time is. Tell the technician you're considering purchasing his hardware and then ask him any technical questions you may have. For example, if the hardware fails, how long will it take to get a new one? The quality of this experience will tell you a lot more than any sales pitch about support.
- Research the product. Before I buy any product, I dig around on the vendor's Web site and look at the support knowledge base that may exist. I look for incompatibilities with other hardware, known bugs, what bugs previous patches fixed, how often new drivers are released and anything else I can find. I also spend time with a search engine checking for blog entries, discussion forums, newsgroup postings and other resources that give me real unedited feedback from other customers. I consider the information and ask myself if the complaints are serious. Would these issues impact my environment? Is it an isolated incident or a pattern?
- Determine the company's history. How long a company has been in business can tell you a lot about its product quality. If you've never heard of a company before, a little research can save you headaches later on.
- Ask: Does it make its own components or is it a reseller? If the company imports components or uses offshore manufacturing, are the components tested again before they ship to the customer? What is the return rate? What is the failure rate? The more money you're spending, the tougher your questions should be.
- Determine if it's compatible. Microsoft maintains a hardware compatibility list that you should consult before purchasing or attaching any hardware to a production server. If the hardware is on the list, you're not as likely to get stuck in the tech support blame game where the vendor blames the operating system and Microsoft support blames the vendor.
- Ask about ease of installation. Many hardware components only need a driver, but the more complex components may come with a suite of utilities and other software that is of varying quality. You'll want to verify the ease of installation, compatibility with other programs or drivers and whether the program requires specific versions of Dynamic-Link Library (DLL), runtime libraries or other components.
About the author:
Bernie Klinder is a technology consultant for a number of Fortune 500 companies. He is also the founder and former editor of LabMice.net, a comprehensive resource index for IT professionals who support Microsoft Windows NT/2000/XP/2003 and BackOffice products. For his contributions to the information technology community, Bernie was selected as an MVP (Most Valuable Professional) by Microsoft.