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Production Machines

A Web server is a big fast machine that has to be close to the Internet backbones, run for months without crashing, and be manageable remotely. My primary personal Web server now is a Hewlett Packard K460 running HP-UX. Racked up with its UPS, it weighs 3000 lbs. I would not want to have it on my desktop.

Here's what I think a Web nerd needs for a desktop machine:
Ability to run an X Windows server so that one can drive Unix boxes remotely
Crash-proof operating system so that this X server cannot be taken down by a bug in another application (e.g., Netscape Navigator)
Ability to run the latest Web browsers and plug-ins so that one can test one's site.
Ability to run Adobe PhotoShop
Ability to run, it pains me to say this, Microsoft Office
Conveniently enough for Bill Gates, it turns out that there is only one operating system in the world that meets these criteria: Windows NT.

I realized this intellectually long before it was true in practice. I documented my stumblings with NT 3.5.1 and then went back to my HP Unix desktop box. But in September 1997, I finally pushed my HP Unix box into the machine room and went 100% NT on the desktop.
The Right Hardware
You want to buy a machine that is purposely designed to run Windows NT. In the old days, tech people thought that software was more flexible than hardware so they might as well write all the software very generally and then they could use any hardware. Microsoft changed all that. Now hardware engineers have to try to figure out what 22-year-olds at Microsoft had for breakfast and design boards accordingly. This means that you may be extremely sorry if you let a computer into your house that is not already running NT.

My personal choice is a Hewlett-Packard Vectra 200. I like HP for the following reasons:
they have real hardware engineers designing PCs. This leads me to believe that I won't lose all of my data because someone saved $0.25 specing a SCSI card from a cheaper vendor and didn't bother to check whether the components had an adequate temperature range.
HP has good (though not toll-free) telephone support. I think the fact that it isn't toll-free is good, actually. It keeps the AOL crowd from clogging the phone lines with questions like "I set my line speed to 115 Kbits but I'm still only getting 28.8 Kbits of throughput."
It is a shame that there aren't more consumer-priced machines that come packaged with NT. It is obvious that Windows95 is beyond the capability of consumers to administer. Helpless users are constantly having to bring in near-professional sysadmins to make their home Win95 work. NT really isn't much harder to set up and it certainly is no harder for a professional to set up. So people might as well get a system that is robust enough to not mysteriously degrade. Anyway, nobody else seems to share my belief so it is tough to find a $2000 NT box on the shelf.

It is worth paying someone to install everything that you think you will ever want on your computer before you take it home. My experience is that once a PC's case comes off, it never goes back on. If you can make something work electrically, you probably can't get it to work mechanically. If it goes in mechanically, you either won't be able to get it to work electrically and/or you won't be able to get the software to work.

As far as disk drives go, you'll want at least a 4 GB and probably a 9 GB disk. Remember that one PhotoCD contains 500 MB of data. With 9 GB of space, you'll be able to do things like copy whole CD-ROMs onto hard disk for awhile. You want the disk formatted as NTFS (NT file system) instead of FAT (the old losing DOS file system); NTFS is much more robust and doesn't have a stupid set of shadow 8+3 file names.

If you have a big PC server then what you want is a Mylex RAID controller (a $1000 card) and 6 hard disk drives. The RAID controller spreads your data across 5 disks (you want RAID level 5 for almost all purposes). When one of them dies, its place is taken up by the 6th (a hot spare). You do not lose any data. When a second disk dies, you still don't lose any data but you will if you lose a third disk.

Someone malicious and/or stupid could get into your system and delete all of your data. So even if you have a nifty RAID-5 you'll want to back up. What you want is an internal DDS3 DAT tape drive. These store 12 GB of data (24 GB with compression) on a $30 4mm tape. They cost around $1000.

You probably also want an HP CD-ROM writer ($500) so that you can ship huge files to other people and/or archive stuff. Under NT, these require installation of some extra software from Adaptec (ASPI) and you can't copy directly from an IDE CD-ROM reader to the HP (SCSI) device.

As far as graphics go, it is a huge challenge in the PC world to get to where a Mac II was in 1986. NT 4.0 is so primitive that it can't drive multiple monitors. Once again, Microsoft's software backwardness has been papered over by clever hardware engineers. You can buy pairs of identical Matrox Millinium video cards that will pretend to the OS that they are one big 1200x3200 pixel video subsystem. Then you can have two 20" monitors on your desktop. My friends tell me that they can't ever get this to work because the monitors interfere with each other magnetically. My personal desktop has Hewlett-Packard Ergo 1600 monitors side-by-side and they do not distort each other.

All the pictures on those monitors will look incredibly dark, however, because Microsoft forgot to engineer gamma correction into their operating system (another thing that Apple had back in the 1980s). If you look at the comments in my fixing gamma article, you'll see that some people have figured out how to work around this using controls for the display cards. It goes without saying that you want 4 MB or 8 MB of video RAM in each card. This gives you 24-bit color ("millions" or "true color"). Smart programs like PhotoShop can sometimes make do with the more common 16-bit color on PCs but stupid programs like Netscape only display photos properly with 24-bit color.