Before you rush out and buy a new workstation class computer, it’s worth taking a look at your existing machines to see if it’s possible to update them to improve their performance.
That’s what I’m doing with the HP Z-620 workstation I mentioned in my previous column. It’s a real workhorse and was part of HP’s lineup until only a few months ago. The one we’re working with was apparently built in 2012.
But unlike basic laptop and entry level desktop computers, workstations don’t become obsolete in a couple of years because they used high-end components to start with, and those components can be upgraded, which is what we’re doing with the test machine.
What I’ve noticed about this machine is that some applications are slow to start, that things sometimes get slower when you’re trying to do a lot at the same time. When several applications are open at the same time, one will sometimes crash. The application that seems to crash most often is Microsoft Office Outlook.
In addition, the 4 disks that make up the RAID 10 system are as old as the computer. One of them has already failed and been replaced, which demonstrates the ability of RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) to protect against data loss in the event of the failure of individual disks. But an additional disk failure could happen at any time.
Of course, the 2 GHz Xeon processors aren’t as fast as you’ll find in newer machines, and while they provide up to 24 virtual cores among the two processors, most applications can’t take advantage of multi-processor designs.
While it’s possible to swap out the processors with faster Xeon processors with more cores, that’s a fairly involved operation. We’ll only do that if the changes we make first aren’t enough and if cost is justified. Meanwhile, we’ll start with the memory.
One of the most common causes of slow performance in a computer is inadequate memory. What happens is that the operating system (Windows 10 in this case) maintains a swap file on your system’s hard disk. When it needs to use the computer’s memory for applications, it moves whatever is in memory already to that swap file, and loads something else in to memory where it’s available to the computer.
This constant movement of data between the computer’s memory and the hard disk takes time, and that slows things down. It can also lead to crashes if you don’t have enough space on your hard disk. The way to solve this issue is to add memory.
Fortunately, memory is cheap these days, and with an older workstation it’s readily available from a number of sources. You can go to on-line sellers such as Crucial or Kingston, you can buy it from Amazon or you can buy it from the manufacturer. What’s important is that it’s from a reliable source and that it’s got a warranty.
You also need to find out what’s already in the computer you’re planning to upgrade. There are two ways to do this. One is to open the computer and look, which will tell you how many memory slots there are, and how many are full. But that won’t necessarily tell you what kind of memory is in which slot. The other way is to run a Windows utility from the command line, which you invoke by typing “cmd” in the search box in the lower left of the screen.
Now you have a choice. If you just want a quick look, type the following command at the command prompt:
wmic memorychip get banklabel,devicelocator,capacity,tag
For a more complete report, you can run it through the Windows Notepad using these two commands in succession at the command prompt:
wmic memorychip get >memory.txt
Once you’ve determined exactly how much memory you have and which memory slots are occupied, you know what to order to increase the total amount of available memory.
Note that if you have, say 16 GB and there are still four slots free, as was the case with the project computer, then you’d probably want to buy four rows of chips that total the amount you need. You can find out what type of memory your workstation requires by looking in the system manual. However crucial.com also has a memory scanner that will provide the same information.
It’s important to remember that with workstations, just because the amount of memory is the same in two separate computers, that doesn’t mean the memory configuration is the same. You can, and frequently will, find that some computers have several smaller memory modules, while others have fewer larger ones. You need to check what is in each machine before you start ordering.
Once the memory arrives, putting it into the workstation is a snap. You open the computer, remove any of the fans and cooling ducts that are covering the memory chips, and install the memory. You’ll notice that there are two small tabs on the end of each memory slot. They should be leaning away from the slot, so that when you insert the memory card, the tabs close to hold it in place. You’ll hear a snap when that happens.
Once you’ve done that, and reassembled the fans and cooling ducts, closed up the computer and restarted it, you’ll need to look closely at the startup screen. You may see a warning that the amount of memory has changed and you’ll need to enter the proper configuration screen to register it. Usually you’ll press one of the function keys (you’ll be told which on the screen) to do this.
With some practice, the entire process takes about 10 minutes. If inadequate memory was the reason for poor performance, then you should see an immediate performance improvement. But the biggest improvement will come from an upgrade to solid state drives and we’ll talk about that next time.