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How To: Building The Extreme Home Office

Selecting and installing the best products and technologies for the home office can be challenging. To help in that quest, Digital Connect Lab engineers set out to build the best--and most cost-effective--home office infrastructure. See what they came up with.

April 18, 2006

7 Min Read

Many digital integrators today are building home offices. But, as with any sophisticated undertaking, they face many obstacles along the way to creating the ultimate solution. First off, what defines the ultimate office? Should integrators aim for getting the biggest bang for the buck or leverage the latest technology? What about the difficulty of weighing functionality against cost? As a way to address these issues, Digital ConnectLab engineers set out on our own to build the best--and most cost-effective--home office infrastructure.

We started out with a couple of prerequisites: a reliable broadband connection and a strong network backbone. For our ultimate home office, we took the approach of building a solution suitable for a home-based professional, with the typical needs of Internet access, customer management, accounting, intrahouse access and graphical processing needs. For our example, let's say this system would be for an architect or building engineer.

Of course, the primary element is the PC, which should be a workstation-class machine with the typical suite of software used in an engineering-based practice, where speed and graphical capabilities are a must. DC engineers chose a dual-core processor-based system, which balances value against speed. Those considerations drove engineers to build a system based upon an Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) dual-core Athlon 64 FX-60 ($1,253), which will work with the latest socket 939 motherboards, in this case an A8N-SLI motherboard from Asus ($199). Engineers loaded the system with Windows XP Professional OS.

Two Gbytes of Kingston RAM and a Hitachi 250-Gbyte SATA drive rounded out the basic desktop system components. An Nvidia e-GeForce 7800 GT Video Card (256 Mbytes, PCI Express x16, Dual DVI, VIVO, $399) was selected for affordable video performance. The assembled PC was housed in an Antec TX1050B black SOHO tower case ($149.95). Other components included the normal accessories, such as a keyboard/mouse combo, CD/DVD burner and so on.

For a display, a DoubleSight 19-inch dual LCD setup ($1,399) was selected. DoubleSight pairs monitors on a single stand to create a wide view or a dual-independent view of a user's desktop applications. The monitors are mounted on a specialized stand that allows swiveling, tilting and angling. When mounted, the displays appear as a cohesive unit, allowing users to extend their desktops over an enormous amount of screen real estate.

While the home office has quickly moved into the digital age, there is still a need for printed output. Whether it's faxes, photos, reports or diagrams, most users still require, and find comfort in, the ability to produce physical documents. Luckily, convergence has made selecting a device for handling printed material a snap.

DC engineers chose an all-in-one (AIO) Color LaserJet 2840 ($899) color laser from Hewlett-Packard, which combines a color photo copier, color scanner, fax machine and color laser printer into a single desktop unit. The 2840 also offers integrated networking and a host of utilities to scan, copy and print across the network. The 2840 doesn't offer the performance found on dedicated color laser printers, but the output speed and quality should be more than adequate for a small office, especially at such an affordable price.

With a PC and AIO selected, its time to move on to some more specialized options that no small office should be without: storage. The typical small office stores all of its critical data on individual PCs, with sharing and backing up data as an afterthought. Integrators should strive to change that practice and help their customers implement a centralized storage methodology, which offers simple file sharing and data backup. There is no better choice today than network-attached storage (NAS) to accomplish this goal. For a small office, a NAS unit must combine simplicity, security and affordability into a single package.

DC engineers selected the ReadyNAS NV ($1,199) from Infrant Technologies. The unit offers Gigabit Ethernet connectivity, SATA drive performance, easy management and capacities as high as 2 Tbytes for an affordable price. The unit's integrated file sharing allows users to quickly set up secure shared folders, and the Gigabit Ethernet speeds make the unit ideal for Disk to Disk (D2D) backups.

Security also is a big concern for the small office. While many have turned to desktop utilities to try to keep systems secure, those utilities have proven to be less than ideal, requiring a lot of manual configuration and fine-tuning. That's a chore an integrator and a small-office user does not want to deal with.

Again, this is a case where convergence comes to the rescue. Today, the market is full of security appliances that combine connectivity with antivirus, antispam, antispyware and other security capabilities into a single unit. The trick is to find a security appliance that combines ease of implementation and use with a full suite of security capabilities at an affordable price. Lab engineers selected an SGS-1620 from Symantec ($990). This all-in-one security appliance combines full inspection firewall with application proxies, VPN (IPsec and SSL), gateway antivirus, dynamic protocol anomaly-based intrusion prevention/ detection system, dynamic content filtering with dynamic document review, and antispam capabilities into a single device.

With a price point of less than $1,000, and yearly subscription fees of less than $500, the SGS-1620 brings rock-solid security and affordability to the small-office environment. What's more, for businesses looking to increase broadband speeds and resilience, the SGS-1620 can bridge two broadband connections. That allows integrators to bring in a cable-based broadband connection and a DSL-based broadband connection and combine those for maximum throughput, along with a failover capability.

Home-based businesses will appreciate the SGS-1620's integrated content filtering, which prevents users from accessing inappropriate Web sites. While the SGS-1620 brings the Internet securely into the office, integrators will need to network the various pieces of hardware with an Ethernet switch. With the move to Gigabit Ethernet technology and the growing number of devices that require an Ethernet connection, selecting a switch is one of the most important choices for integrating a small-office network.

For our wired connections, we chose SMC Networks' SMC8508T EZ Switch ($119.99), which offers eight ports with speeds of 10/100/1000 Ethernet connections. The unit features auto switching and auto-crossover ports, and supports full duplex connections, which can double the throughput. With an eye toward future connectivity, we also added Netgear's WPN802 RangeMax Wireless Access Point ($157). That device will provide the office with 802.11g networking for Wi-Fi devices, such as notebook computers, PDAs, cameras and other devices. The WPN802 offers MIMO capabilities, which can extend range and speed while offering backward compatibility with 802.11b networks.

With any home office, the ability to effectively communicate with customers is essential. While most small businesses rely on traditional land lines and cell phones, there are better options on the market that will bring economy and professionalism to voice communications. Small-business users have gone to great extremes to replicate the communications features found in larger businesses. Options such as voice mail, follow-me, caller ID and multiple lines have proven expensive for the typical home office, but small-business owners can turn to a VoIP solution to bring those features and much more to the office.

Packet8 Networks offers a Virtual PBX service for small businesses. For less than $50 a month, small-business owners will have unlimited national calling, along with an automated attendant, conference bridging, voice mail, Web-based administrative control, multiple extensions and a host of other features. Packet8 also offers less expensive services that cover the basics very well.

For many professionals, the home office extends beyond the home, and computing power must travel with them. A notebook computer makes an excellent addition to the ultimate office solution. Integrators should focus on portability, battery life and economy. The recently released NX series of business notebooks from HP should fit the bill. Offering several options and starting at just $549 for an entry-level model, integrators should have no problem finding a way to balance economy and performance for their home office customers.

Tying everything together is software. Here, at a minimum, integrators should offer an office suite (Corel's Wordperfect Office brings low-cost full functionality to desktop systems), a remote control package (3AM labs offers a low-cost service for remote access in the form of its LogMeIn product) and an accounting solution designed for small businesses.

By using their knowledge, access to the channel and proper planning, integrators can build an "ultimate" home office that's rich on features, low on cost and avoids all the complicated gadgetry that can try the neophyte's patience.

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