Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Benchmarking Technology: A Theory of Penultimacy; When Choosing Technology, Consider Buying One Notch Down from the Top-of-the-Line for Your Best Value. (the Systems Librarian)

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Benchmarking Technology: A Theory of Penultimacy; When Choosing Technology, Consider Buying One Notch Down from the Top-of-the-Line for Your Best Value. (the Systems Librarian)

Article excerpt

In making decisions about procuring technology components for a library, I could reduce my opinions on the topic down to a single word-penultimate-- but that would make for a very short column. The word fits, though. The dictionary defines penultimate as "the next to last member of a series." When it comes to technology decisions, look not for the latest and the greatest available today, but consider buying a notch down from the top. If you follow this rule of thumb, your library will benefit from computer equipment that performs at a more-than-adequate level, while providing a great value for the dollars spent.

When managing the technical infrastructure, a systems librarian (or equivalent) must regularly make decisions about what hardware and software will meet the library's needs. Many factors prevail, including functionality delivered, cost constraints, relative value, and level of risk. These factors apply to the types of technologies to consider as well as to the specifications of items in individual categories of hardware and software. Whether you are considering which type of network media to install, which operating system to deploy, or what model of desktop computer to purchase, you can use the penultimate principle. While this approach works well for libraries, it may not be well-suited for other environments. Some organizations place much higher demands on their computing equipment and need to buy much closer to the leading edge of what's available. Companies that deal with mathematical modeling, engineering, or high-transaction financial applications come to mind. Other organizations have minimal computin g needs, have small budgets, and need to buy at the low end. It is my experience in acquiring technologies for libraries that leads me to this approach, but it doesn't necessarily generalize to other environments.

One of the main benefits of the principle of penultimate buying lies in its protection from new technologies that companies release with hype and promise, and then fail to catch on. There have been a number of technologies introduced over the years that initially seemed to be the wave of the future. Notable examples include the OS/2 operating system and OSI networks. These technologies failed in the marketplace at the first generation of deployment. Those who invest heavily in a technology that doesn't make it past the second generation and into the industry mainstream can experience expensive technological setbacks. Waiting for the second generation of a product cycle greatly reduces this type of risk.

Buying Computer Hardware

It rarely makes sense for a library to purchase the highest-performance technologies available. In the cycles of technology development, you pay quite a premium for buying the latest and greatest available. You can easily pay double the price for a computer based on the processor that has just been released. While its performance may be stunning, the relative value may be low given the high price and a lack of applications that can genuinely take advantage of its top-end performance.

Libraries rarely have applications that demand state-of-the-art performance. While we generally want to keep an arsenal of computers that run today's software with reasonable speed, few libraries have applications where super-high performance will yield increased productivity. Even the servers that run our automation systems and other Web-based applications work quite well with penultimate technology.

It also doesn't make sense to buy on the low end of available technology. Each generation of computer operating systems and application software makes greater demands on hardware. The processor speed, amount of memory, and disk storage available need to keep pace. There comes a time when computers will not run current software with satisfactory performance. Most libraries expect about 5 years of service from each computer they purchase. If you purchase hardware that is already at low-performance capabilities, you will find that they will feel obsolete 1 or 2 years sooner. …

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