Building the Community Computer Lab – The Parts

CAVEAT: The information provided herein is most likely exactly correct, HOWEVER use it at your own risk: we assume no risk or liability. Do your own evaluation and make your own choices. 

How does an organization whose skills and focus is people not technical things build an appropriate computer lab? Money helps, but it is not the answer because there is no end to expenses if an organization does not develop some internal technology confidence, and money (for most of us) is not exactly in abundant supply – you don’t get rich providing help for poor people! (Well, as Harry S. Truman said, “Unless you’re a crook”)

Adult Life Training, Inc. exists to “To holistically improve the lives of our community through training, mentor-ship, and example”. Part of that mission is helping other not for profit agencies with their technology when they request our help.

In this article I will detail the technique used to determine the workstation buildout used at the Adult Life Training, Inc. computer lab and supporting facilities, with sufficient detail that a nominally technical volunteer should understand and duplicate our successes in their own agency. In a couple of days I intend to provide the next post on how to install the parts and operating system(s), and configure the equipment so it takes care of itself and remains mostly unmolested by criminal interests.

Objective

Non-profit public charities must operate under different conditions than for profit businesses. For profit businesses have fairly predictable income flow and can allocate funds for equipment. Charities have no guarantee of incoming funds at all – everything depends upon donations which may or may not happen. As such, things such as debt financing are inappropriate for a charity even though I was taught in business school to use 50% debt financing.

So when I specify equipment it needs to last more than a year or two since I cannot rely on a large donation coming in every couple years. Also, since our purpose is to train people in skills suitable for a real job, the computers need to be adequate for software in common use in contemporary businesses.

Workstation Specifications

I covered the specifics of the equipment purchased three years ago in a prior post (see here – some links were lost when we changed web server companies last year) and here is updated information in this post with links current at the time of writing. A summary from that post is as follows:

To buy a full system from scratch, including screen & UPS, $596.84. System stats are 6-Core AMD CPU at 4GHz, 8GB RAM, 250GB SSD Fixed Drive, DVD, Top of the line solid gamer’s case with three silent 120mm fans and USB 3.0 & ESATA connectors, 500W P/S, Logitech Keyboard / Mouse, and UPS. If you have a usable case, P/S, keyboard, mouse, UPS, DVD, the MB, CPU, RAM, SSD comes to $266.19, or $199.70 without the SSD.

To build your own equipment you need a few specific parts: Main Board, CPU Chip, RAM Memory. To build equipment that will last eleven years you really cannot escape buying these parts. If you do not have old equipment to upgrade, then you also need: case, power supply, keyboard, mouse, display, un-interruptable power supply.

This is how I decide on parts for the build. Our build was from scratch, and you can omit parts you do not need. I will use NewEgg.com for this example but the same technique applies to Amazon.com and other vendors.

Processor

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CPU – needs to be at least 3.5GHz and six-core. Quad -core is typical and dual-core is frequently what you get for cheap retail junk. However four core will be obsolete in a short time – maybe two years. Eight core is still too pricey to be appropriate at this time, so look first at the product offerings and choose a CPU in the price range JUST BEFORE the cost jumps – you want good commodity pricing, not premium parts.

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You can choose either Intel or AMD processors. I felt AMD was what we should do – AMD has a few more optimizations and Intel had a serious security flaw revealed recently. You want the current technology, which is going to be AMD “socket AM4”. Don’t buy old tech.

Main Board

Main Board – The main board needs to fit the CPU. If you are buying an AMD CPU get an AMD main board: if you are buying an Intel CPU get an Intel main board. Be certain the SOCKET specified for the CPU MATCHES the socket the main board says it provides!

The CPU I have chosen (above) is an AM4 socket, so I need a main board with an AM4 socket. I search for “motherboards” and specify “AM4”, then see many choices. There is so much information available no one can possibly study enough to know all of it. So use crowd sourcing – the number of people who purchased each board. Look at the rating (the number of eggs) and how many buyers. When buying new technology there is usually safety in numbers.

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The $326 board has only 13 people bought it. The $79.99 board has 152 buyers and the $199.99 board has 283 buyers. Many of the boards are in the $70-$100 range, so it looks like the $79.99 board would be a good choice. Looking at its specs again yes, it does have an AM4 socket.

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Check and re-check: you don’t want to end up with a main board that doesn’t fit the CPU!

Video

Because this is a Ryzen processor you will also need a cheap video card, even if the main board has embedded video. I do no know why, but it won’t work otherwise. There were many PCI video cards. I selected a cheap one from a brand name I recognized that had an order of magnitude more buyers than the others.

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RAM Memory

Finally you need some DDR4 RAM memory. There are many offerings in many different sizes. The most common are 8 gigabyte (8GB) which you install as two separate 4GB parts, and 16GB as two 8GB parts. The most people were buying the 16GB set around $80-$100 but we could also choose the slightly less popular 8GB set for around $50. The larger RAM set will fulfill the software requirement well into the future, and the cost difference is about $40, so I went with the 16GB set. ($40 more divided by the cost of the computer is a small percent increase but buys several years more useful life)

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After this the choices are less demanding: a case (box), a power supply, and fixed storage of some kind such as a Solid State Disk (SSD) or a rotating magnetic fixed disk (Hard Disk). I went with the commodity priced item in each part.

The shopping cart then has $470.55 for a complete, really good performing new computer that will most likely remain quite useful for more than a decade.

Newegg.com Shopping Cart

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As a final comment, if you do not yet have keyboard, mouse, and video, you can shop locally where you can actually feel the keyboard and see the video, or you can shop on-line for those items also. Microsoft and Logitek are reliable brands, and our video is Asus but other name that you probable recognize could also be good. Or you can shop locally, write down the model you want, then buiy it on-line. Kinda dirty but it gives you a lower price and you know what your’re getting.

And after adding a cost-efficient keyboard, mouse, monitor, and UPS our expense for a computer that will last our agency for the next dozen or so years comes to $630.52, about $50/year. About the same cost as three years ago, with newer technology, faster CPU, and twice as much RAM Memory – what a deal!  For the same money at a retail box store you would get a slower computer with older CPU and about a fourth of that much memory that will need to be replaced in maybe four years. It pays to bother to do the work yourself. You do the math: $650 over twelve years or $650 over four years: which is better management?

To see the shopping cart, Click Newegg.com Shopping Cart. In two days we will look at installing the operating system(s) – such as Microsoft Windows and Linux Ubuntu or Mint/MATE (MAH-teh. MAH like in malt, and -teh like in Gral).

In the mean time, if you are not already registered with Techsoup.org, please do go there now, and register your 501(c)(3) tax exempt social services organization. You will need legal proof that your organization is in fact tax exempt: your determination letter from the IRS and your articles and bylaws. BOTHER TO READ THE DESCRIPTION of what Microsoft needs for an organization to be qualified to receive their product – save yourself some time and work by understanding what they want to know and concisely and accurately telling them what they need to know. Techsoup will then take a few days to verify your tax exempt status, and after that you can buy, er “receive donations of” software for “a small administrative fee” through Techsoup.

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HOWEVER this certification is also requisite for you to go directly to Microsoft and receive your Office 365 subscription FREE for however many users you need, as Microsoft automagically checks  that you are really a tax exempt public charity through TechSoup, and in minutes gives you your Office 365 account. Go to TechSoup, do it now, you know you need this! Left foot, right foot! You can do it!

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