Our Schools

Equipment Standards

Richland Two's Choice in PCs

Richland School District Two has chosen to standardize all desktop purchases with Dell PCs. Our relationship with Dell has been very beneficial to our school district. Dell equipment has proven to be reliable, supportable and cost competitive. Dell support offerings and service, in our experience, are unmatched by their competitors. Dell's PC sales nationally reflect this in their growing numbers. 

Why Standardize?

Standardization is key for any efficient support organization. It is not possible to support hardware from any and all vendors in a timely manner. It is especially important in Richland School District Two, where over 14,000 computers must be maintained, repaired and improved upon. Even companies with excellent PC to technician ratios, such as Blue Cross & Blue Shield, recognize the importance of equipment standardization.

As technical staff become familiar with specific hardware, they are able to diagnose and resolve issues more quickly. It's similar to an auto mechanic that services GM vehicles every day. The mechanic would become very familiar with specific parts, tolerances, settings and procedures that are part of every day. While it would be technically possible for this mechanic to service each make and model of every manufacturer on the market, the reality is that service would suffer, whether through quality of workmanship or simply time required to accomplish a task.

With each varying hardware model, software varies as well. It isn't practical to maintain software drivers and technical information for any offering on the market. Additionally, large PC manufacturers offer several models within their own products. Some are intended for the home market and others are for the corporate/business market. Business PCs generally consist of more standardized components that will be offered for a longer period of time. These components are tested specifically for use in network environments, and are certified by software developers to work well in those environments. In consumer models, PCs generally use the latest or most cost effective market offerings for components. If there's a really great new 3D Video Accelerator card available from ATI, you'll find it as an option on consumer grade PCs. Business lines, in contrast, would have a video card that has been "Tried and True", and would offer it as an option for a long period of time.

One widely used industry method employed to support large PC installations is Disk Imaging. This is the process of setting up one PC with all of the software and configuration settings that are appropriate, and making a copy of it. to distribute to other PCs You use products like Ghost or ZenWorks to create the image and distribute it to your other PCs. This process is a life saver. However, the hardware of each PC must be specifically supported by the basic configuration and driver sets that are put together for the image. Unplanned variations in the hardware and other exceptions must be dealt with by a technician. That consumes time. Standardization of hardware is most helpful in this process, and results in a great time and cost savings.

What is Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)?

Total cost of ownership is computed by combining a PC's direct costs (hardware purchase or lease, and software licensing) with its indirect costs (administration, support, and other unbudgeted costs). The direct costs are easily determined by looking at an IT department's capital budget. The indirect costs, however, are harder to quantify.

Because different research groups calculate indirect costs differently, it's hard to find authoritative figures. Estimates of the annual TCO of a typical unmanaged Windows desktop vary widely. While the Gartner Group calculated an annual figure of $9,784, the Forrester Group lists PC TCO at $2,680, and Zona Research's estimate is $2,859.

Though their numbers differ, TCO research groups all agree on one important conclusion: The soft, or indirect, costs of operating a PC far outweigh its hard, or capital, costs. And PC TCO is so high because PCs are complex devices whose highly configurable setups make big demands on an enterprise's service and support departments. Researchers consistently estimate that 60 to 70 percent of a PC's TCO is directly related to the time and effort it takes to support it.

So, the bottom line is that the initial cost of a PC is just scratching the surface. Cheaper, non-standardized equipment may save a little up front, but it costs big in the end. Users might like to think that this is a problem for Information Technology, but the truth is that TCO has a big impact on the end user from "How much equipment can be purchased?" to "How long will it take to repair?". For this reason, the community must consider that equipment donated to a school district is never really free. Chances are if a local company is replacing its own computer equipment, its being done because it is either too expensive to maintain or will not perform well enough to do the job. Those problems don't go away when the equipment is donated to a school, rather they are amplified by the fact that the majority of our users are transient (not tied to a particular PC) and that school PCs are expected to run an incredible variety of software, unlike most business environments.

NOTE: Information referred to in the TCO section was gathered from various research groups specializing in studies of TCO.

What's The Problem With Generic/Clone PCs?

No Consistency: Generic, Home Built or Clone PCs may be built from a variety of components from any manufacturer. Because of the extremely wide variety of PC components, it is impractical to support all hardware. In major business networks, it is very important to maintain consistency with hardware and software. No matter what organization, whether Richland Two or Microsoft, consistency is a must in providing quality and timely service.

No Testing: When PCs are purchased from major manufacturers such as Dell and IBM, the customer can be assured that all components have been tested and re-tested to operate properly together. It is to their benefit to ensure that this is the case so that customers will be satisfied and warranty/repair service will be minimized. Clone PCs do not have this benefit. If a clone is assembled by a local PC shop, or by a school, there is no guarantee that an ASUS system board, a Diamond video card, an SMC network card and a Turtle Beach sound card will all operate happily together running on the particular operating system that was installed. You're taking your chances. What's worse is tracking down problems related to hardware interaction. That is not something that you want your technical support staff spending their time on. It can be very time consuming, and very unproductive. ASUS has no information as to why a Turtle Beach sound card and an SMC network card may malfunction when used together with their system board. Perhaps is was a result of the order in which they were installed into their respective PCI slots. Without system testing and verification by a single company, consumers will get varying results. This is not a big deal at home or in a small office with three PCs, but on a business network of thousands of PCs, it can be a real resource hog.

Basic/No Warranty and Manufacturer's Service: Clone PCs built by individuals or schools have no warranty. While individual components may have manufacturers warranty, it's not always clear cut as to the real cause of a problem. Maybe the system board is causing the network card to malfunction. You wouldn't know until you've replaced the network card. Productivity suffers greatly when you have to work with many manufacturers for warranty service, if you get past the finger pointing. Local PC shops may offer beyond an unrealistic 90 day warranty to a basic full year. For an additional fee, you may even get a multi-year warranty. Even with that, local PC shops do not have the resources to properly support PCs in the numbers that school districts have. Again, this may work for small office or home use, but not for a large network.

Can't You Buy Cheaper Locally?

In times past, building your own computer or purchasing from a local shop, or possibly even off the shelf may have been cheaper than purchasing from a large manufacturer like Dell or IBM. Now you'll find exactly the opposite. The market is very competitive. Local PC shops and off the shelf resellers can't compete with the big international resellers and manufacturers. If you really work at it, you can purchase all of the components for a PC and build it yourself for just under what you would pay to purchase direct from Dell or IBM. Then you would have a computer with no warranty, testing, or support for around the same price. If you can't build it yourself, shopping locally won't save you much, if anything. In recent side by side cost comparisons from local PC shops and national electronics resellers, we found that Dell is much cheaper with the features that we require than any off-the-shelf brands - even the most generic, like E-Machines. Locally built PCs don't fare any better.

The most important thing to remember is that you have to compare apples to apples. The price advertised may not include a monitor, and the monitor that is recommended at the lowest possible price may be of low quality. Most lower cost off the shelf PCs and locally built PCs come with a 1 year warranty, if that. Richland Two purchases all PCs with a standard 5 year warranty, which would raise the cost of the comparable off the shelf PC greatly, if it's even available.

The bottom line is that while it may be possible to find a cheaper PC from a local source, you generally get what you pay for: lower quality, consumer grade as opposed to business grade, less warranty and service, no consistency and possibly missing features. The reality is that it costs us much more in the long run.

Donated Equipment Standards

PCs are often donated to schools from local businesses. In order to use our resources most effectively and provide the best experience for our end users, we must evaluate donated equipment based on minimum specifications for use on our networks. Richland Two is committed to providing hardware and software to prepare our youth for what they might encounter in the business world. With that in mind, we try to maintain reasonable pace with widely used industry software. Therefore, our hardware must be capable of supporting such software. Based on realistic usage and internal testing of the performance of current operating systems and software applications, Richland Two has set the following minimum requirements for donated PC equipment for use on our networks:

  • 1.6 GHz Intel or AMD Processor
  • 1 GB RAM
  • 40 GB IDE or Serial ATA Hard Drive
  • Internal CD-ROM Drive
  • 10/100 Mb Ethernet Network Card
  • 17" CRT or LCD Color Monitor
  • PS/2 or USB Keyboard and Mouse
  • License for Microsoft Windows XP Pro
  • License for Microsoft Office 2003 Pro

While individual schools may opt to invest a nominal amount of money to bring donated equipment up to specifications, a Cost/Benefit analysis should be performed before accepting equipment that does not meet these basic requirements. It may be argued that any working PC is better than none. However, this is not really the case. For more information regarding Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), please see the TCO section above or reference research by companies such as the Gartner Group or the Forrester Group, explaining the true cost of supporting PC equipment.

NOTE: Notebook computers must meet similar specifications, with exceptions of monitor size, keyboard and mouse.

Some Support Examples

Here are a couple of experiences that we have had with non-standardized PCs in Richland Two.

Example One: A locally purchased clone PC was freezing in Windows consistently. Some steps that were taken to resolve the issue included checking hardware resource conflicts, updating device drivers and disconnecting from the network. All well known patches and service packs were applied, but the problem persisted. After some research, a less than obvious hot-fix was found to be available from Microsoft. The hot-fix stated that some PCs with AMD processors running Windows may experience intermittent lockups. Applying this hot-fix resolved the issue. The entire process took 2 hours. Although 2 hours may not sound like a long time for one PC, you have to consider that our average service time per PC is less than 15 minutes for standardized PCs. When supporting a network with over 14,000 nodes, this is crucial.

Example Two: One of our schools has several locally built PCs that were all purchased at the same time from the same company. After a hard drive failure, the operating system and all software applications had to be reinstalled. The first problem is that since these are not standard PCs for us, we didn't have an image to use with them - so it had to be done manually. If everything goes perfectly, installing a PC operating system and all of our standard application software manually takes a considerable amount of time. Of course, during this process, driver software for certain components of the PC had to be located for installation. The video card, system board chipset, audio card and network card were all required.

Upon examination of another computer "exactly like it", we found that the driver for the PCI network card was named "PCI Network Card", as opposed to something useful like "3COM Etherlink III". In order to identify the network card, which is required for locating drivers, the case was removed and the card inspected for identifying marks. The network card had no manufacturer or model number on it - not even an FCC ID was stamped on the board. Forget the network card, let's move on to the video card. The video card was more easily identified by inspecting the board and noting the manufacturer name. We visited the website of the manufacturer and were able to locate the 3 year old device driver for this out of production video card. We were also able to locate and download drivers for the system board and sound card at the respective manufacturer's websites. It became time prohibitive to continue searching for the network card software with no helpful information, so the card was replaced. The entire process took nearly an entire day to complete.

A Better Way:

Here's what would happen in Example Two if the computer had been one of our standardized Dells. The hard drive would arrive next day from Dell under our warranty agreement. The hard drive is installed. The computer is re-imaged from a standard configuration that we have pre-built. The school location is set on the computer. The process is complete in less than 15 minutes.

In addition, we are Dell Premier members, which entitles Richland Two to compensation for all under-warranty parts that we replace ourselves. We generally use this benefit to pay for out-of-warranty parts. Even in situations where hardware and software troubleshooting must be done, technicians have the benefit of familiarity with the hardware, a single point of contact, a quick warranty service and a consolidated software repository provided by Dell for all hardware that their systems contain.

The value of standardization cannot be contested. Standardization ultimately benefits the District's aim of excellence in student learning.

For questions or comments regarding the information or concepts presented here, please send email to webmaster@richland2.org.