Why is my practice computer so slow?!
The IT performance problem, and why it's more complex than you might think.
One of the most common complaints from users is slowness. There can be a number of reasons for this, and the issue is often more complicated than you might think. Throwing money at upgrading the entire network might work, but it is not necessarily the right answer, and certainly not the most cost effective one.
Expectations and the type of user
Firstly, it's important to consider that there are different types of user, and their expectations of their IT, and their usage of it, will be very different. Some users might be operating 3D image viewing software and have the Internet open, and Microsoft Outlook for their emails, as well as a Word document for example. I would typically refer to this user as a "power user". In addition, this user works fast, is highly IT literate, switches between applications often and is frequently typing up notes and adding data onto the system. This type of user is very likely to be frustrated by slow and lagging IT systems, whatever the cause. Other users, either due simply to their job role or their expectations or skills, do not demand anywhere near so much of their IT. Perhaps they only work on one document at a time, or just one line of business application. Maybe this user logs into one software system in the morning, uses that system intermittently, and then logs out at the end of the day. They are unlikely to need a highly performing system, and spending money on providing them one would be a waste of time and resources and a poor investment. So part of the picture is identifying what the user expectations and usage patterns are, and how to answer these. Whatever vertical market this IT is in, whether a dental practice or a manufacturing firm, it is likely that some users in the business would be absolutely fine with intel i3 based workstations, whereas others would benefit from an i7 or even faster. So unless you have a very generous IT budget, you should target your resources at the users and locations and applications that will benefit most from this.
Always consider the server
Unless all of your services are online in the cloud and you run a "serverless" network, it is highly likely that the server plays a large part in the performance of all the networked computers. Servers typically have a number of "roles" including file serving, authentication and policy and credentials for the network, application servers, database servers, DNS servers helping with Internet access and other functions too. To provide all this to multiple workstations at the same time means that they work very hard processing and serving request and responses. A dedicated server will always perform better than a shared server on a network, but a dedicated server also needs to be appropriately specified. Does the server have enough CPU power, enough RAM, and is the underlying disk architecture suitable for serving, accessing and saving data fast enough to cope?
The network is often a bottleneck
It is easy to assume that your local network, especially if it is an ethernet network as opposed to a wireless one, will not be part of the problem where there are performance issues - but in fact this comes up surprisingly often when the issue is properly diagnosed. Bad network infrastructure means that your devices may not be achieving gigabit connectivity between each other and the server, and this significantly impacts client/server based applications and their performance. Even if gigabit is being achieved, it may not be error free and this can massively hurt load times and even cause applications to time out or crash.
The workstation specifications
As you would expect however, a major factor is often the workstation specifications. As explained above, you should consider user expectations and usage, but in general and on average you want to be aiming for PCs that have at least a Core i5 processor, an SSD drive and at least 8G RAM. Even older machines of 5 years old or more will speed up dramatically if upgraded with an SSD drive instead of the older mechanical disks - start up and operating times will all improve a lot if this cost effective upgrade is installed.
A performance issue requires proper diagnosis. Whilst the above factors are the main ones, a host of other considerations should be made, and this includes possible issues with the applications, the database, faults on individual machines or the server. Questions need to be asked not only around the user expectations and usage, but whether the problem manifests on all machines or just some, at some days or times of the day and not others, or when some actions are triggered. Is this problem historical or did it start last week, and if so what changed? All possible fixes arising from a thorough diagnosis should be tried before upgrades are considered.
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© Liam McNaughton, Dental IT ltd May 2021