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Internet Related Network Upgrades Can Save You Money!
By Clayton B. Cracklen, Sales & Marketing Manager
Spectra Computer Services Ltd.

As you are no doubt aware, the Internet has, and will continue to have, a profound impact on our lives. It has already changed the way many companies do business. It turns out that in the property management industry, not unlike other business, the Internet can have not only a positive impact on your revenue but dramatically reduce your expenses and enhance your staffís productivity. Believe it or not the capital costs required to take advantage of this new technology are not onerous and will likely show a very quick return on investment (ROI). This discussion will focus on a specific combination of Internet related technology and network architecture commonly called "server based processing."

Before explaining the technology please observe the multiple benefits of Server based processing in a property management environment:

1. Provides an affordable way to establish remote site processing:
Up until very recently only very large companies could afford to set up a "Wide Area Network" (WAN) allowing staff from off site to access the companyís central database either for read only purposes or for transaction processing. Now even small companies can cost effectively decentralize their accounting and property management functions and give off site staff access to their property management software. This "real time" connection means that head office staff also benefits from having up to the minute portfolio-wide information for property owners and management. Due to minimal connection speed (bandwidth) requirements of this technology, connectivity can usually be accomplished using existing modems and Internet connections. Staff can even access the system from home or while on the road. Staff working from home (telecommuting) can reduce a companyís overhead.

2. Give your owners secure, confidential access to their financial or property management information over the Internet.
By limiting owners to "read only" status for just their personal portfolio you can rest assured that the data integrity of your property management system remains in tact yet allows them 24 hour access to the information they deem essential. You may not even need to send them hard copies of financials statements as they can print this out at their location if desired. This increased accessibility allows you to provide better service to your owners with less effort and with less cost.

3. Eliminate or reduce the need to continually upgrade your desktop workstations.
Even though Intel and other computer chip manufactures are continually increasing the speed of their processors and encouraging you to continually upgrade your hardware, server based processing changes this model by letting you continue to use your "outdated" desktop workstations. In fact, if your workstation has a network connection and is running Windows 3.11 or higher, it can even be as old as a 386, yet run 32-bit, state of the art software at Pentium speeds! To accommodate this you are probably going to wish to invest in a faster, more robust server, but the investment is well worth the long-term financial gains.

4. Maintaining your network will be easier, more efficient and cheaper.
The cost of owning and operating your network can decrease dramatically as a result of incorporating this new technology and network hardware. In addition, there will be much less disruption to your employees when it comes time to upgrade software. System administrators can update software, change configurations and perform system maintenance without disrupting any of the staff connected to the network.

So what is a server based processing?

There are two main types of networks; Iíll refer to them as "peer-to-peer" style versus a "dedicated" network. A dedicated local area network (LAN) comprises two major components: a server that stores application data and the workstations connected to the server. Microsoftís Windows NT or Novell NetWare are examples of dedicated network software. A peer-to-peer network doesnít require a dedicated server as one of the workstations will act as a pseudo server. Examples of this type of network might be Windows 98 or LANtastic. Typically peer-to-peer networks are most common in smaller property management companies, which may only have a handful of employees. The server-based model discussed above is only applicable to dedicated networks. However, as previously detailed during the benefit discussion even smaller companies should consider the server-based module because of the numerous advantages this paradigm offers.

With a dedicated network each workstation probably runs individual copies of a variety of software applications, which likely include property management software, word processors or spreadsheets. Although these programs reside and run on the desktop workstation, they likely access the data from the server. Therefore, each time you perform a function in your property management software your workstation requests data from the server, processes the data, and then sends it back to the server. This architecture requires fast network connections for large data transfers as well as powerful desktop workstations that run the programs, process the data, and orchestrate the movement of the data across the network.

Server-based processing radically alters this model as it changes the location where the programs reside, where the processing takes place and how much information travels across the network. First, this technology allows programs to reside and run on the server, rather than on the workstation. Thus, if you have four network users, there will be four copies of a program running concurrently on the Server rather then on the workstation. As no processing takes place at the workstation level, these computers act as essentially "dumb terminals" and donít require fast chips. A low end 486 MHz or even 386 MHz computer may do. Second, because all processing takes place on the server, the only information that travels between the server and a workstation are tiny bits of data such as screen refreshes, keystrokes and mouse clicks. Thus server based processing does not require high network data transfer rates (commonly called bandwidth) for fast performance. This is why the model is so popular in conjunction with the Internet because bandwidth is still a major challenge on the Internet. For example, the most common Internet modem is rated at 56K BPS (56,000 bytes of information per second). A common network configuration offers a data transfer rate of 100 MB BPS (100,000,000 bytes of information per second). The reason that network data transfer rates are so high is because in a standard network application a tremendous amount of data is continually being transferred between that workstations and the server.

Itís a dramatic reduction of data travelling across the network and the requirement of minimal bandwidth that makes server-based processing such a great model for the Internet and can lead to the benefits discussed earlier. However, you donít necessarily have to be interested in remote WAN access using the Internet to benefit from server based processing. Keep in mind that two of the major benefits of this paradigm included reduced hardware upgrade requirements and more cost effective maintenance of your network. Both these benefits can be achieved by configuring a server-based processing model in your office. Companies like Microsoft and Citrix have recently introduced flavors of network software that facilitate server-based processing. Greater numbers of computer consultants are becoming familiar with this technology everyday given the continued acceptance across numerous industries.

Conclusion

If the goals of your property management business include providing better service to owners, reducing your costs, and increasing your efficiency then server-based processing is a model that lends itself well to your business. A server-based processing environment will probably require investing in new network software and a more powerful server but the near term and long term return on investment is significant and very quantifiable.

(as published in the National Apartment Association's Units Magazine, March 2000)

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