Computer Speeds and Relativity

September 23, 2010

And yes! that is a deliberate play on Einsteins’ theory!

We are human, and when dealing with concepts that either we do not understand, or we have an inability to immediately visualize, we tend to try and make a mental comparison about that concept relative to a concept that we can understand or appreciate.

To illustrate, consider all of the press coverage of the massive Gulf oil spill after BP’s DeepWater Horizon exploded and started spewing oil into the Gulf.

If your press coverage was like mine, after numbing your brain with a massive amount of oil measured in tens of thousands of gallons (or Litres), there was usually a reference relating that massive number to; “the equivalent of X Olympic sized swimming pools”

Putting in this relative reference allows our brain to put a rough estimate, or mental framework around what would otherwise simply be a dizzying number.

It is not just gulf oil, how many times in your life have you heard relative comparisons similar to;

– the length of three football fields
– as high as two Empire State buildings

And Computer speeds?

I was asked to get pricing on a new computer workstation capable of very demanding, very heavy duty work. The tasks the machine would be doing included creating and editing of massive digital imagery, manipulating, editing and working with full screen quality video, and other compute intensive tasks.

I checked various machines and their specifications with corresponding prices, then supplied a recommendation.

It went over like a lead balloon

A week or so later, I was asked why a local Big Box computer retailer had computers with the same computer processor, the same amount of RAM (memory) but about one half the cost?

I had made a mistake.

I had forgotten this relativity.

In modern computers, the processor, or brain, of the computer is no longer the single key to how that machine will perform. Basically, a computers fitness for your purpose is driven by many other pieces of the machine.

So, how did I try and recover from my error?

First I told a story, then related that story to the specifications of the computer.

You don’t need to be a fan of auto racing to grasp the idea that taking the engine out of a racing car and sticking it into your minivan won’t let you win the Montreal Grand Prix. (or Brickyard if you prefer!)

Sure, the engine is a big part of a race car, but it has a stellar supporting cast in transmission, suspension, and brake components. And your minivan? well it does not have that all star supporting cast.

I then showed three computer specifications with exactly the same processor, and same memory. One machine was a consumer product, the second a mid range general purpose business machine, the third a high end engineering class workstation. I could then point out visually the differences in this supporting cast of components.

In our race car, the supporting cast includes the suspension and brakes, some of the computer related supported cast includes the electrical speed of the data bus (in MHz) that ferry’s data in and out of the processor. The speed and size of the layer 2 and 3 cache (that increases the predictive opportunity for the processor) The speed and architecture of the RAM chips.

These supporting pieces are what separates the race car computer from the minivan.

The SMB Takeaway

There is more to know than the type of processor and how much RAM is in a computer to determine if it is fit four your purpose.

If the workload is heavy and complex, look at the improved supporting cast. If not? you can get away with out it.

PS, did my recommendation get accepted?

Actually no! armed with that information an even higher powered machine was preferred- but hey – all is good.

Photo Credit Martin Pettit via flickr

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One Response to “Computer Speeds and Relativity”


  1. […] Computer Speeds &#1072&#1495&#1281 Relativity « A Dime a Dozen Small Business, Tech &#1072&#14… […]


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