Category Archives: Purchasing

The Dangers of Blade Servers in SMB – Debunking the Blade Server Myth

Blade Servers are the hottest trend in datacenters today.  I am sure that you have heard the hype: lower cost and better efficiency.  To be sure, blades have come a long way in the last few years and are looking better than ever, but considering putting blades into your own business is something that should be considered very carefully.  There are many hidden dangers inherent to the blade concept that are often overlooked and these hidden dangers can come back to haunt you long after you have committed to the idea of blades.

Before we look into blades themselves I want to discuss what blades are.  According to Wikipedia: “Blade servers are stripped down computer servers with a modular design optimized to minimize the use of physical space. Whereas a standard rackmount server can function with (at least) a power cord and network cable, blade servers have many components removed to save space, minimize power consumption and other considerations, while still having all the functional components to be considered a computer.”  It is important to define blade servers because it has become common, especially in the used server market, for resellers to use the term blade to refer to standard, 1U and 2U rackmount servers in the hopes of confusing customers new to the blade market.  Blades are a specific hardware category that requires the use of an enclosure and are not simply “small” servers.  Blade servers use shared components in the enclosure, such as power supplies and remote management consoles, reducing the components necessary in each individual blade server.

The first danger of blades is cost.  Blade enclosures are generally very expensive even though blades themselves are often less expensive than their rackmount counterparts.  In a quick price comparison of a large blade vendor’s offerings the enclosure was approximately $5,000 and could hold a maximum of eight blade servers.  Each blade was roughly $500 less expensive than the matching vendor’s rackmount server of the same or similar specs.  This means that a fully populated blade enclosure, at list price, from this vendor would cost $1,000 more than the equivalent computational power in traditional form factors.  And every blade slot not populated would be an additional $500 deficit.

The cost of blades is not just a total cost factor.  Blade enclosures, often holding eight to sixteen blade servers, need to be purchased up front.  If you need enough servers to match the capacity of an enclosure this is not a factor, but if you are looking to buy only a single server now you may be making a significant investment in proposed future server farm growth.  This means increased risk as well as an investment against the time-value of your dollar.

Hardware cost is always a difficult number to nail down.  Stated prices from the vendors rarely reflect reality and, as most companies know, dramatically lower prices are available if you demand them.  I have known companies to get their blade enclosures for free, for example, which completely changes the cost equation of blades.  But in the same breath one must remember that if a blade enclosure is available for free that serious discounts on traditional rackmount servers are likely also available.  So the list prices are often a good judge of relative prices even if not absolute ones.  Your mileage will vary – so due diligence is necessary to create a cost analysis appropriate for your given situation and the deal that you receive from your vendor.

The second danger of blades is technological obsolescence.  Unlike traditional racks which have gone practically unchanged for many decades, blade enclosures are new and relatively dynamic.  Several generations of blade enclosures have come and gone since their inception in 2001 and each subsequent generation, thus far, has required shops to replace their enclosures to support new blade servers.  This is a high risk if you are not buying servers often enough and in large enough quantity to justify the technology churn in the enclosures.  This rate of change is slowing as the technologies mature, but risks remains.  When doing a proper cost analysis of blade servers this rate of change needs to be factored.

The third danger is vendor lock-in.  Traditional rack technologies are vendor agnostic.  Most shops will mix and match not only servers but batteries, routers, switches, monitoring equipment and other gear into their racks.  Blades are vendor specific.  For a large enterprise this is of little or no concern.  In a small shop with a limited number of servers it can be crucial not to give up the ability to use different vendors and technologies.  This can be a limitation on technology but also is a limitation on leverage to obtain premium vendor pricing discounts in the future.

Take, as an example, a shop that wishes to run HP Integrity blades with their Intel Itanium processors today.  They invest in blade enclosures and begin using them.  In three years they purchase software that runs on Sun UltraSparc or IBM Power processors.  In order to use blades each of these technologies will require their own brand of blade enclosure and will significantly increase the risk in a small shop that enclosures will not be able to be fully populated.  There is much more flexibility in technologies using traditional rackmount servers because each vendor generally supplies one set of RISC or EPIC-based systems and one set of AMD / Intel-based commodity systems.  If you want more than that blades will become quite difficult for a small shop to manage.  I have worked first hand with shops that use multiple technologies like this on a regular basis making blades a most difficult choice today before considering potential future platform desicions.  The use of Apple Mac OSX must also be mentioned as Apple does not provide blade servers so any deployment of OSX-based servers cannot be integrated into a blade enclosure.

The fourth danger is the shared backplane and other key components.  A blade enclosure, while generally built with massive redundancy and with truly amazing design, still represents a single point of failure that must be considered.  If your enclosure fails you do not lose just a single server but as many as sixteen physical server platforms.  With rackmounts servers you can add redundancy simply by adding an additional server – typically one matching server for each server you need.  With blades you have to have redundant enclosures for the same level of reliability.  Again, for a large enterprise this is trivial and obvious.  For a small business the need to suddenly own dual enclosures for full redundancy will often result in simply foregoing that level of protection and increasing risk.

The fifth danger is in the cost of flexibility.  Small IT shops may not often move their equipment around.  The option is generally there, though.  If a small business owns three servers and replaces one with a shiny, new unit the option is almost always there to redeploy the old server to another role elsewhere in the company – perhaps in a branch office.  With blades the old blades can only be redeployed in a location that has a blade enclosure matching the one from which the blade was pulled.  This is a cost of lost opportunity late in the server lifecycle and often completely ignored in cost analysis of blades.  If there is not a spot ready for an older server it is far more likely to be discarded in the blade model rather than redeployed unless the company is large enough to have many enclosures available all of the same generation and with available space ready to accept an older server.

The sixth danger of blades is the high cost of storage.  Storage is a subject all its own these days with SAN, NAS and DAS as possible options.  Shops of all sizes are moving to SAN and NAS quickly and with enough network storage in place this can alleviate much of the storage risk associated with blade servers.  Many shops, however, use circular reasoning and justify SAN because of the blades and blades because of the SAN.  Taking a holistic view of the server and storage picture is crucial.

A typical blade server can house only one or two 2.5″ SAS or SATA drives.  This is far less than a typical rackmount server would provide as potential storage space.  It is common to find eight to sixteen drive bays available in popular 2U rackmount configurations – sometimes using 3.5″ drives rather than 2.5″ drives.  One popular and very cost effective 2U server can hold 28TB of low-cost storage on fourteen spindles.  You cannot put this type of storage into a blade enclosure.  Because local drive space is simply not available, blade server owners are forced to use minimal direct attached storage and use SAN or NAS instead even when DAS would provide better performance and cost (otherwise) for that particular application.

To bridge this need most blade vendors provide storage blades – blade servers that act as tiny, low volume SAN devices and fit directly into the blade enclosure.  These units are generally of rather low capacity, often just six drives, and rather expensive compared to other means of providing storage.  Additionally they use a critical enclosure bay removing one of the potential slots necessary for a blade enclosure to provide server density.  So an eight bay blade enclosure with two small storage blades would only be able to house six blade servers.

Obviously buying a blade enclosure does not mean that you have given up the ability to also use rackmount servers when appropriate.  You can continue to mix and match.  But to obtain the numbers necessary for a small business to cost justify the blade infrastructure often requires that purchases lean heavily towards blade servers to fill the enclosure(s) as densely as possible.

Much of the danger of blades is in the potential for lost opportunities.  Small businesses especially function best and compete most strongly against larger businesses by being flexible and agile.  Blades are the opposite of agile.  They require large, upfront infrastructure planning that includes technological, physical and geographic lock-in.  Even if a business plans ahead and sees no obstacles to adoption this does not mean that opportunities will not be missed in the future, caused by a lack of flexibility to adapt to changing business conditions effectively.  Once a blade enclosure is in place purchasing decisions almost certainly are made based on the investment already made and no longer on simply what is best for the company.  This doesn’t have to happen but almost certainly will.  The existing investment needs to be protected.  This is the natural reaction to have.

All of this being said, blade servers can still make a lot of sense for certain businesses.  Blade servers generally consume less power than their non-blade counterparts due to their shared system components.  Be sure to consider the power consumption differences in the storage area, however, as blades push power consumption from the server to the SAN and can often be misleading as to where the power is going.  A savings in one place is only valuable if the cost does not appear again in another.

Blades are easy to transport and relocate when enclosures are available.  This can be a bigger factor than is obvious especially when it means that there are several additional staff members capable of relocating a server.  Almost anyone can lift and move a blade server.

When combined with a very aggressive SAN infrastructure, blades can be very beneficial to a virtualization environment.  This combination gives the maximum cost and flexibility advantage to businesses large enough to leverage it.  The SMB market mostly consists of businesses for whom this would be very prohibitive, though, and this solution will continue to be relegated to businesses at the larger end of the SMB spectrum.  Virtualization will, in fact, reduce the number of servers needed by most businesses making it even harder to justify blades to smaller businesses where previously a dozen or more servers would have been needed but today only two to four are needed to not only meet but to surpass earlier service levels.

If you can support adequate densities or get really aggressive vendor incentives then blades can be quite cost effective if you calculate against your risks.  Blades are always a little more risky, but if your cost is reduced significantly in buying them then they may be very much worth the risk in flexibility.  The cost of the enclosure is a key factor here.  If your enclosure is free then suddenly the cost savings of a blade system can be enormous – especially if a large number of blades are purchased providing really good enclosure density.

Blade servers are a great technology and show a lot of promise for the future.  As enclosure lifecycles slow, new technologies emerge, costs are reduced, volumes increase and, hopefully, as vendor-neutral standards emerge I am confident that blades will become the de facto standard in even the smallest datacenters.  I see this as taking at least another market cycle before this will really occur.  Most likely, in my opinion, it will be another five to seven years before the form factor truly displaces the rackmount server in general utility.

Desktop and Laptop Purchasing

The first rule for any purchasing situation is, of course, plan.  Desktop and laptop purchasing is no different.  A good plan is the first step to good spending when it comes to your small business’ personal computer needs.  This plan should, quite obviously, be made in conjunction with your IT department or manager who will have valuable input not only to features that may be needed but also important information as to the IT staff’s readiness to support specific models and features.

The first piece of advice that I generally give to small businesses looking to purchase new computers is to not become religious about which vendor to choose.  There are many good vendors.  I, like all IT professionals, tend to be pretty biased towards one vendor over all others and have a few vendors which I specifically dislike.  I won’t mention any of them by name here.  But most anyone to whom you will speak looking for purchasing advice will be almost religiously zealous about one brand over another.  In reality, all of the serious players make very good equipment and you can get your needs met very well by any one of them.  Your key players in the desktop and laptop space include Lenovo, Dell, Acer, Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard and Fujitsu.  Apple, of course, is also an important vendor but is rarely, if ever, purchased in competition with other vendors.  Apple hardware is purchased to run Mac OSX.  There is rarely a buying decision made involving Apple that is not made simply through operating system support necessity so there is no point in including them here.

All of these vendors make great products so don’t worry if your pet vendor does not get picked in the end.  There are other, more important, considerations that demand your attention.  Picking the vendor to supply your needs will most likely be determined by factors that are often overlooked.  Here are a few factors which you should consider when picking your vendor:

  • Which vendor can provide a “holistic” supply of all of your desktop, laptop, netbook and server needs?  Working with a single vendor is often preferable to working with serveral when it can be avoided.  This leaves Dell and Hewlett-Packard as your true “stand outs” simply because of their broad and impressive portfolios.
  • Which vendor’s products are most able to be supported by your IT department or your IT service vendor?  If your IT provider has great expertise with certain makes and models then these may present an advantage not to be overlooked because your IT staff will already be prepared for hidden “gotchas”, common failures, repair tactics, documentation, driver issues, etc.
  • Which models support operating systems that you are using today and any that you expect that you may use during the lifespan of the product?
  • Which models have features which, on their own, are important to your business such as type of processor, power consumption, network options or management features such as Intel ATM?
  • Which products provide the warranty that makes you most comfortable?  I generally recommend getting units that come with a standard three-year warranty as this covers, by default, most of the life of the hardware.

The second piece of advice that I give to small businesses at the beginning of their purchasing process is to be sure to only deal with commercial products.  That means to avoid consumer-grade products at any cost.  There are many reasons why commercial-grade equipment is important to your business and I will just touch on some of the highlights.  I should point out that I also give this advice to individuals looking to purchase computers for home use for the exact same reasons.  In general, computer manufactures make consumer grade equipment for a less discerning audience and you never want to run your business on anything designed around a lower degree of discernment when you have the option.

  • Companies stake their reputations on their commercial products, not their consumer ones.  The bulk of sales go to businesses and this is where the real money is.  Large companies do not turn down large orders because of home-user complaints and so only issues with commercial products impact corporate buying decisions.
  • Commercial products are often purchased in large quantities to single purchasing managers with a great deal of control over the success of that particular model.  Vendors have a lot at stake with each order and work hard to make sure that the equipment is reliable and consistent.  Consumer gear is sold on an individual basis and so vendors have no reason to pursue consistency and rather than making systems reliable it is easier for them to replace them quickly when their fail.  So consumer parts are cheaper and have less testing.
  • Commercial products are produced in fewer, more useful, configurations in larger quantity.  This means that each model gets a high degree of scrutiny and testing both by the vendor and by highly skilled IT departments.  Consumer goods get a lesser degree of internal diligence and are purchased mostly by average home users who do not provide a great degree of detailed technical feedback to the vendor and to the community.
  • Corporate buyers demand that their systems be field repairable and modifiable using standard parts.  This causes commercial systems to be, almost always, extremely easy to repair and upgrade.  Consumer gear is often highly proprietary and made using non-standard parts making repair and upgrade processes less reliable.  This has decreased in recent years but is still prevalent.
  • Software vendors, like Microsoft or Red Hat, have a much larger interest in making sure that corporate machines are well tested and supported from a driver perspective.  Supporting hardware that may only exist in a relatively few consumer machines is of lesser importance.
  • Commercial hardware is almost always manufactured directly by the vendor directly or under contract to that vendor with heavy supervision.  Consumer systems are often manufactured by third parties, sometimes with no vendor interaction, and then simply labeled with the vendor’s brand name and sold as if the vendor had manufactured it themselves.  Often this results in system documentation and drivers available only from websites hosted in Taiwan with little or no support in English (which is important to my readers who only get SMB IT Journal in English.)
  • Warranty support for commercial systems is generally far superior to warranty support for consumer systems.  Vendors will often overnight parts and allow field repairs at the end-user’s request.  Consumer systems often have to be shipped back to the vendor and will be shipped back weeks later having been wiped clean while out for repairs.
  • Phone support for consumer gear usually involves off-shore call centers using staff that does not work for the vendor in question.  Commercial phone support, while still often off-shored, is usually handled by internal vendor staff with direct access to internal resources when necessary.
  • Most vendors have local partner firms who are available to help your business work with, modify and acquire their commercial gear.  Consumer gear is often available only via the web or from large consumer electronics chains.  One channel is designed for business users and one is clearly not.  Access to local partners can be a big advantage when you need warranty repairs but dare not ship your equipment away or when you need any number of custom services.
  • Commercial hardware generally ships with OEM (original equipment manufacturer) licensed copies of Microsoft Windows in “business” configurations (i.e. Windows Vista Business or Windows XP Pro) which are appropriate for businesses to use while consumer hardware almost always comes with “home” editions of the same operating systems which are not appropriate for business use.  I have known many businesses to mistakenly purchase consumer gear and then have to pay full price for an appropriate Windows license after having thought that they were saving money.
  • Commercial hardware is seldom more expensive than consumer gear by more than fifteen percent and often is comparable in price and sometimes less expensive.  Price is a rather nominal factor when other features are compared side by side.
  • Commercial hardware is generally built on far superior chipsets and with more reliable technologies while consumer gear often comes with “flashy” features designed to entice users looking to use this hardware for entertainment puroses.  In speed tests, commercial gear from major vendors tends to outperform consumer gear from the same vendors when all other specifications are the same.  There are many facets to computer system building that are not mentioned “on the box” and this is one place where consumer-grade equipment can skimp because the purchasing process does not take these things into consideration.
  • Commercial products generally have excellent online documentation while consumer gear often lacks in this area quite dramatically.
  • Commercial hardware is often warranties for much longer periods of time than is consumer gear and generally lasts for many times longer than its warranty period without incident.  It is not uncommon for commercial desktops to be in use after more than ten years.
  • Commercial hardware is often less noisy than consumer gear.  Good commercial computers are often nearly silent.
  • Commercial products look professional and uniform when outsiders, or even employees, come into your offices.  Consumer gear gives the impression that people have been bringing in computers from home to use at work and can give a bad impression to your clients and even to your own employees.

When purchasing your new computers keep in mind the importance of uniformity.  Your IT staff, especially if it is just one or two people, but even if you have a large staff, will appreciate the opportunity to get to know the hardware which they support.  This can do much to reduce support issues and downtime.  It is very comforting to know that when a desktop technician arrives at your desk to fix your computer that they know every screw, port, cable and part of that computer inside and out and that they can take it apart and put it back together without thinking twice.

This hardware familiarity means that upgrades are handles much better as well.  If each machine is unique in your environment and you decide to upgrade all machines to double their memory (RAM) then you may be in for one surprise after another as your desktop technicians open up the machines to discover that they have differing types of memory, different configurations and different limits from each other.  Each machine will be a new surprise on its own.  If all of the machines were the same then the technicians would already know that the current configuration was two sticks of one gigabyte each and that there were two open slots which could accomodate a total of four more gigabytes but that the existing sticks had to be moved to the empty slots before putting in the new memory in the currently used slots.  Simple upgrades that are almost a no-brainer in a uniform environment can become a maintenance nightmare when equipment varies dramatically.

Another important consideration for desktop and laptop purchasing is that of the operating system.  Small businesses, unlike large enterprises who get their operating systems through bulk volume licenses with Microsoft, generally get their software licenses through the OEM copies that are included with their purchases.  Small businesses may opt to work with a volume licensing program as well but this generally adds extra cost which only makes sense in the large scale of big enterprises.  Because of this small businesses need to be very aware of the included software license of the desktop and buy accordingly.  The cost of changing the operating system on a newly purchased computer should the wrong operating system be purchased with the system can easily be fifty-percent again the cost of the original computer.  A rather significant mistake to make.

In addition to considering the operating system that ships with the computer we should also consider if we will be changing operating systems during the life of the computer.  If this is the case then we need to be sure that the computer is able to accomodate the changes in the future.  Often this is a guessing game and cannot be determined up front but this is not always so.  Currently it is very common to purchase computers to run Windows XP with the intent of eventually, or at least potentially, moving to Windows Vista.  Many commercial machines today ship with both operating systems as options.  It is very easy for a business today to purchase a machine that is certified to run either operating system so that the business can upgrade when they are ready without needing to purchase new hardware in order to support the new operating system.  Even better is cases where the computer comes dual-licensed and the older operating system can be used until such time as the migration process is ready and then the newer operating system can be installed without any additional licensing costs.

Of course with any computer purchasing plan we also need to consider basic features.  For most businesses there are very few important features for a desktop model.  Almost any desktop unit will suffice from a raw feature perspective.  Occassionally special features like Intel AMT are required but this is rather uncommon and less common in smaller offices.  Laptops often have a few additional features of interest such as wireless connection technologies, availability of docking stations and port extenders, size, weight, etc.

Careful planning for these features can have a big impact on an office environment.  For example, purchasing ten laptops with expensive 802.11n wireless technology might be a great way to improve wireless productivity but it could all be worthless if you accidentally buy one cheap laptop that only has 802.11b causing your wireless system to degrade itself to support the lowest common denominator in your environment.  Or buying all of your gear with GigE connections just to discover there is no budget for a GigE switch or cabling.

Another important factor to consider when planning your buying decisions that applies exclusively to desktops is form factor.  Most major vendors provide commercial products in one of three basic sizes.  The largest size is the “mini-tower” which is the form factor with which most of us are most familiar today.  This form factor looks best when standing “upright” and is, as it sounds, a small tower.  It is able to accept full-sized expansion cards which may be an important consideration depending on what your users will be doing with their desktop computers.  Often mini towers can accomodate two or more hard drives.

The medium form factor is generally known as “small form factor”, SFF or “desktop form factor”.  This is the more traditional desktop style computers that we see mostly in office environments and less often at home.  This form factor is roughly the same size as the mini tower but is “thinner” making it work best when laying on the desk.  This makes it very stable and often it works very well as a stand on which to place your monitor.  This size also fits well under desks especially when mounted to the under side of the desk.  Many SFF models are also designed to be easy to stack so that they can be stacked on a desk when need be.  I often use then this way myself as I use several desktops at a time and have them stacked behind my monitor array.  Small form factor desktops generally can only accept “half height” expansion cards which limits their options significantly although it is not very common for businesses to need to expand their desktops in this way.  Small form factor desktops can often accomodate up to two hard drives although only being able to fit a single drive is quite common as well.  Many vendors provide stands that allow SFF desktops to stand on their sides.  Special stands are needed because they generally vent from their sides and cannot be sat directly on them.

The least common and smallest is the Ultra Small desktop.  Most commercial vendors only make a few special high volume models in this smallest form factor due to its increased cost and lack of popularity.  Often to keep the size small on these units they have only a single expansion slot, lack many standard ports and can only handle slower than standard processors because of heat dissipation issues.  It is not uncommon for them to have less memory growth options than their larger siblings.  These machines are very commonly mounted under desks as they are so small.  They are very easy to manage for companies that regularly need to move their computers around.  IT staff can easily carry them from desk to desk and transporting several by car is no problem.

Display output is another important consideration when choosing desktops and laptops.  It is becoming increasingly common for office workers to have multiple monitors and not all computers are prepared to handle this.  Many commercial machines support dual monitors out of the box but many require special expansion cards to handle this.  Planning to buy computers that provide this capability natively or planning to add on expansions should be considered from the onset of the purchasing project.  Laptops often have the ability to add a monitor built in either to the laptop itself or, at least, to a docking station.  This can make laptop users far more productive when they are sitting at their desks.  Many businesses opt to simply add high-end graphics cards to their desktop units that support multiple monitors in addition to providing increased GPU power to their users.  This can be a good option but can easily add as much as twenty-five percent to the cost of the hardware so should be considered carefully.  Common configurations appropriate for business machines will often be around ten percent of the initial hardware cost.

As you can see, there are many factors that should be considered when making a desktop or laptop purchase and in this discussion we have not even begun to discuss those factors that everyone discusses under normal circumstances such as cost, availability, performance, etc.  The point here is that cafeful planning should be employed and should not be a purely emotional or financial decision but should involve the staff who will be supporting and managing these devices as they will have a great deal of important insight into this process in your environment.  Be sure to have your IT strategist, whether this is an IT manager or your desktop support technician, play the key role in this process.

Buying Printers for Small Business

While some small businesses today have managed to ween themselves from the world of paper, the vast majority of small and medium businesses are still tied, to some degree, to their printers and faxes no matter how hard we all try to move away from them.  Everyone recognizes the cost of acquiring printers, maintaining them, networking them, stocking ink and toner, etc. and yet we just cannot quite manage to do away with them completely.  Given that printers remain a business necessity we should treat them as such and devise a well-planned printing strategy for our business whether it is for an office with two users and a single printer or several offices with dozens of printers or more.  Every business will benefit from planning before purchasing their printers.

One of the biggest mistakes that I have seen happen time and time again is with small businesses deciding that they need a printer and runing out to buy one at the local shop without any planning whatsoever including failing to determine if the printer being purchased will even meet the immediate need let alone fit into an ongoing printing strategy.  Printers are so common, lack significantly visible new features between generations, are low enough in cost and are so readily available in the consumer market that it is misleading to businesses making them think that buying any printer off of the shelf will meet their printing needs, but this simply is not the case.

Our first concern in printer purchasing is in appropriately sizing our printers.  Before buying a printer we need to decide what type of printing load it will need to handle over its lifetime.  Many small businesses today, as paper begins to phase out, will find that even a very small printer will provide more than enough capacity for an entire office.  If users can share a single printer then printing costs can be saved through centralized printing.  It is far cheaper to maintain a single printer and to stay stocked with supplies for one printer than for one printer on everyone’s individual desks.

If reliability is of concern you could place two printers in the office to be shared and have half of the staff print to one printer and the other half to the other but permission everyone to both printers so that, if one should fail, everyone would remain able to print.  You could take the opportunity to place the printers in different areas of the office to reduce time walking to the printer to pick up printed pages.

Most small offices have no problem sharing a single printer for most printing needs with a single, separate printer on the desk of whoever is doing personnel management to allow for “private” printing for times when the data coming out of the printer cannot be seen by just anyone in the office.  Although this type of printing is one of the areas where the company can go paperless the most easily and so this may not be a factor in your office.

Now that we are considering shared printers we must concern ourselves with making sure that the printer(s) that we are selecting has a duty cycle capable of handling the printing needs of the entire office.  In many cases any printer will be up to this task but for offices who print customer invoices throughout the day, for example, may want to step up to a slightly more heavy-duty model designed for the extra wear and tear.  Larger duty-cycle printers often use lower cost ink or toner supplies that reduce the per-page printing cost that is highest with smaller, lower-cost printers.  For an office with very heavy printing needs the cost savings of big printers can be significant just in the cost savings from the supplies before even considering other factors.  Larger printers will generally also hold more paper reducing time spent restocking the printer and will often have other cost saving features such as dual-sided printing and automatic collation.

Many business also need additional functions in addition to pure printing such as faxing, scanning and copying.  These functions are natural extensions of the printer and are available in office all-in-one multi-function printer models.  Often, though, low end all-in-one models are marketed heavily towards small businesses in the hopes that these businesses will buy on a whim without researching duty cycles and supply costs as these models often include a cheap-to-acquire, expensive-to-maintain printing element bundled with the unit.  In general, printer manufactures make their big money on printer supplies and almost nothing on the printers themselves so we must be acutely aware of the specifications of the printer portion of the all-in-one unit before making a purchase.  Often a single all-in-one multi-function printer will suffice for even a relatively large office and any additional printing needs could be met with high-volume printers that do not have additional functions included in them saving additional costs through careful planning.

We must also consider how our new printer or multifunction device will connect to our network.  Most low cost printers use USB connections to allow them to connect to a single workstation or server for printing.  This is fine for most home users and very small offices but larger offices (and many advanced home users) find this unsuitable as it means that all printing must go through someone’s workstation and that the computer must be in close proximity to the printer.  The computer must also be on at any time that the printer is being used and maintenance on the computer will impact the printer as well.  I know many small offices that only use this model and for them it works fine, but it does cause additional management overhead that is not necessary.

Networked printers have long been the norm in the office environment and they provide many advantages over direct-attached print devices.  Networked printers can be located anywhere on the network whether or not there is a computer close-at-hand.  Networked printers can be monitored and managed on the network just like any other network device making their management costs lower from an IT perspective.  Network printers can print even if no other computer is turned on.  Some network printers have wireless networking built in giving them additional flexibility.  Non-network enabled printers can be made into virtual network printers through the use of a print server such as HP’s DirectJet or the NetGear PS121.  Print servers are often built in to multi-function network appliances such as small business firewalls like the Apple AirPort Extreme.  These types of devices will allow you to attach any USB printer to the network if you did not buy this functionality built in to your printing device.

Often overlooked by small businesses is the differences between laser and other printer technologies such as ink jet.  Generally, laser printers cost more to purchase but have lower lifetime operational costs both from a hardware perspective as well as from a printing supply perspective.  Laser printers are more likely to be able to be fixed when parts wear out and their toner costs are almost always significantly lower than the cost of ink for ink jets and need to be changed out far less frequently making printers less of a manual burden as well.

The output of a laser printer is almost always more pleasing as well and looks more professional.  It is difficult to hide the use of an ink jet printer and even if the reader does not directly notice the quality of the printing subconsciously they will often register that the printing process was less than professional.  This may not matter for most of your office printing, but considering that laser printing is generally cheaper in the long run there is little reason to not also get the best looking prints possible.

Ink jet, bubble jet and other non-laser technologies generally come into serious consideration only when photo printing is required which is very rare in a business environment.  High quality colour printing requires additional printer management and very expensive paper and ink supplies.  For most businesses, if this type of printing is needed, it would be needed in addition to, not in place of, traditional monochromatic laser printing.  Colour laser is another consideration for presentation graphics but is generally not suitable for photographic printing.  Colour laser adds additional cost that is seldom warranted for the type of printing that most businesses need to do.

So, in conclusion, when making a printer buying decision for small business we must carefully consider our printer strategy.  We must size our environment, take into consideration our network design, scale our printer(s) appropriately, consider the cost not only of the printer but also of the printer supplies and consider the manner in which the final prints will be used.  A simple spreadsheet can be used to do some very useful and telling calculations about print volume, printer cost and the cost of supplies.  All of the information necessary to do these calculations should be available from printer vendor web sites.  Consider your printer to be an investment and research accordingly and, as always, use your IT department, whether internal or outsourced, as a resource in any IT purchasing decision – it is their job to understand the technical differences in these products and to provide you with the necessary information to discern between different models, vendors and technologies.