Don't cut corners on e-gov hardware (part 2)

1. Design in parallelism at all levels when building systems. Avoid linear designs.

The Web works because of parallelism. Some programs must reside on the server side, such as database software, but most processing actually occurs on the client side or at your own PC. There are literally millions of PCs and servers all simultaneously processing information in parallel to create this rich environment and phenomena we call the Internet.

Generally, you should separate key functions to run on their own processors (servers). More processors (servers) will result in a faster overall design. Use separate front-end processors (or function-specific servers) to manage your disk farms, your communications out to PCs, your modem pool and other devices. Having separate front-end processors each for managing device "pools" (modems, disks, etc.) adds parallelism to your design, which then allows the whole design to operate at higher speeds.

By "off-loading" critical management functions from the server that runs the applications, the applications will appear to run much faster. In addition, consider having some applications run on their own separate servers. For instance, any intensive database activity should be run on a server apart from those that support your office automation software.

Increase the number of channels (or paths) to your devices (PCs, disks, modems, etc.), which is another way to create parallelism in the overall design. Rather than one path out to your disk farm, instead have two. Favor hierarchies for creating communication paths over "daisy-chains" or circles. Hierarchies by nature incorporate parallelism, because each branch can process simultaneously. A linear chain or circle must process everything sequentially.

Also, your servers and front-end processors should be linked together on their own high-speed local-area network. This specialized LAN is in addition to the LAN that goes out to your PCs. The server LAN should be the highest baud rate that can be bought off the shelf—do not go cheap in this area. The servers must talk to each other at extremely high speeds when going to the distributed and parallel architecture suggested here.

2. To contain costs, buy hardware over software and invest in both hardware and software over more people.

In today's software environment, a significant amount of time is consumed "tinkering" to make different vendors' software "play well together" on the same server. This results in an enormous and often hidden cost. Labor hours tick away fast when integrating, and integration problems can be reduced by simply hosting applications on their own dedicated servers.

In all cases, favor buying off-the-shelf rather then investing in more full-time employees to create, maintain and operate your home-grown hardware or software. If the functionality you want does not exist on the market, I would strongly consider dropping the requested functionality.

Another reason for the emphasis on buying off-the-shelf is that the market leverage of the federal government is not as great as many people assume it is. The federal IT budget of around $40 billion is a small percentage of the total national expenditure on IT. Furthermore, the federal government's purchasing power is decentralized: It behaves more like 50 to 100 companies rather than a single entity.

3. Identify and then design around the information-processing choke points, using basic approximations for speed.

When designing your systems, identify the choke points simply by determining their basic speed and conducting a comparison of the differences in speed.

You should identify the basic measure of speed for each of your components throughout the entire design of the proposed system hardware architecture. The critical ones are as follows:

  • Servers (or front-end processors) and the number of servers.
  • The LAN linking the servers and front-end processors.
  • The link running out of the back of the PC to the server.
  • The read/write speed for your disks.
  • Memory cache.
  • Modem communication rates, including telephone line speeds and wireless data communication rates.
  • Keyboard typing speed.

Next, draw a diagram of each of the components and write the speeds identified for each of these components next to them. Obvious problems will come to the fore immediately. Several fast servers with multiple co-processors each running at a high speed will need to communicate to your Internet service provider at something greater than a single 56K modem rate. You will need one or more T-1 lines in this instance.

The choke points can be identified simply by comparing the difference in the orders of magnitude in the numbers you have written next to each component. For example, compare a modem speed of 56K with a server speed of 500 MHz. You don't have to be a scientist to gain an intuitive feel about this mismatch. Such a broad feel will give insight into how many components are needed in each category to maximize the responsiveness of the overall system.

4. Incorporate significant extra capacity throughout your design, recognizing that systems degrade exponentially and that the Internet is driving a boom in information processing requirements.

As your server approaches capacity, responsiveness degrades dramatically. For example, adding 10 percent more data to a processor nearing capacity could lead to a 50 percent reduction in responsiveness. At near capacity for any component in your design, simple tasks that occur in seconds for the user can take hours or even time out.

With the low costs of hardware, it is senseless to have any dialogue about "fine-tuning" the amount of hardware to buy—buy as much as you can within your budget. Cut corners somewhere else. No one likes a slow system. So if the server allows for four co-processors, buy four co-processors. Maximize the memory. Maximize the number of channels out to other devices such as disks, modems and cache. Buy the fastest disk drives and fully populate the allowable disk drives. Never underestimate the growth of the Internet. Never underestimate the capacity requirements for true video.

Make buys based on the assumption that 50 percent capacity is the maximum. If any component reaches capacity or near-capacity, it can cause the whole system to begin to fail.

Also, look to the future. Estimate what you think your organization will need in two to three years, and at least double your expectations about what will be necessary. Video, sound and the ever-increasing size of software will bog down even the most far-reaching thinking about capacity requirements.

As processing speed increases, the size of software applications increases to consume the available speed. As software grows larger, it leads to the need for faster processing speed. This never-ending cycle pushes the need for continuously accelerating your hardware speed.

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