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Purchasing workstation hardware during transitional times

If you're buying workstation hardware, thinking back to the last transitional period in terms of operating systems and processors can help guide your purchasing decision.

We've all heard the cliché about a new computer being obsolete by the time you get it home from the store. In the real world, things aren't that bad, but rapid hardware obsolescence is a fact of life.

If you're an administrator or in purchasing, you want the computer you buy today to be useful for as long as possible. But since the prices on state-of-the-art hardware tend to be ridiculously inflated, so it doesn't always make sense to buy absolute top-notch workstation hardware. So that brings us to the question: What should you be buying?

For most people involved in IT, shopping for workstation hardware is pretty easy. However, right now the IT industry is in a transitional period, the likes of which has not been seen for over a decade. There is a gradual shift going on from 32-bit to 64-bit systems, and the release of Windows Vista is less than a year away. Depending on your budget, the purchasing decisions you make today could affect your company for years to come. As such, it is important to understand this transition that is occurring and to make intelligent purchasing decisions based on that knowledge.

The last time a similar transition occurred was in late 1994 and early 1995. At that time, Windows 95 had not yet been released, but was rumored to be the next big operating system. It was also around that time that the first computers with Pentium processors began to hit store shelves.

Back then, I was in the market for a new PC, because my old 386 wasn't getting the job done anymore. I had to decide between a 100 MHz 486 and a 70 MHz Pentium. I ended up choosing the 486 because it had a faster clock speed and because at the time many computer magazines were bashing the Pentium processor (for various reasons).

What a mistake that decision turned out to be. The 486 went extinct shortly thereafter, while the Pentium is still around today (although in a different form).

Windows 95 offers lessons for us today. At the time, a lot of people were saying there was no need for Windows 95, that Windows 3.11 was perfectly fine. Others were saying that Windows 95 was marketing hype and that its extreme hardware requirements (8 MB of RAM!!!) would doom it to failure.

But Windows 95 was a major success in spite of its hardware requirements. Sure, Windows 95 had lots of bugs, but at least three more operating systems (Windows 98, Windows 98 SE and Windows ME) were based on Windows 95 technology. Windows NT 4.0 wasn't based on Windows 95 technology, but it did adopt the Windows 95 user interface and some other features introduced in Windows 95.

Now let's examine the current situation. We are again in a transitional period regarding processors. Not only are 64-bit processors starting to gain popularity, but so are dual core processors. And again, we have a new Microsoft operating system on the horizon that many are touting as being nothing more than a marketing ploy, or as being impractical because of its outlandish hardware requirements. The resemblances to the situation in 1994-1995 are uncanny.

If history teaches us anything, it is that the key to knowing which hardware purchases constitute a good investment is knowing what the market is going to do. I don't have a crystal ball, but some things are fairly certain.

In spite of what you might think about Windows Vista, it is destined to become the dominant operating system. It may take a long time for a lot of companies to phase out Windows XP in favor of Vista, but there are several factors that ensure Vista's success.

The first of these is the consumer market. As soon as Vista is released, most PCs sold to consumers will come pre-loaded with Windows Vista. The consumer market alone should be enough to ensure that Vista becomes a major contender.

Many corporations will initially shy away from Vista because of the costs involved in upgrading. However, companies with volume licensing agreements in place may be entitled to receive Vista at no additional charge. A lot of the existing computers within corporations will lack the necessary hardware to run Vista efficiently, but Vista will probably be the obvious choice for new hardware acquisitions.

But what will really drive companies to adopt Vista is the switch to 64-bit computing. As 64-bit applications become more common, companies are going to have to invest in 64-bit hardware and 64-bit operating systems to take advantage of those applications. Granted, there are 64-bit versions of Windows XP, but 64-bit device drivers for Windows XP are hard to come by right now. Vista, however, comes loaded with 64-bit device drivers. The device driver issue may be enough to make companies run Vista on their 64-bit workstations rather than using the 64-bit version of Windows XP.

I predict that Vista is destined to become the dominant operating system, just as Windows XP is today. If you are thinking of eventually deploying Vista in your organization, it makes sense to make sure that the hardware that you are buying now will be sufficient for running Vista. My next article for will discuss what you should be looking for in the workstations you are purchasing today.

Fast Guide: Purchasing hardware for Vista

  Tip 1: Purchasing workstation hardware during transitional times
  Tip 2: Buying a PC to run Vista? Consider CPU, memory issues
  Tip 3: Buying a PC? Consider CPU, video, disk space issues related to Vista

About the author: Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. He writes regularly for and other TechTarget sites.

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