The Perils of Corner-Cutting

The digital signage industry has a perpetual problem with corner-cutting.

For retailers and private companies, putting in a digital display network is rarely seen as mission critical, so there is a steady push to control costs by choosing cheaper hardware and software.

For start-up companies launching advertising networks, they’re looking to stretch their limited capital budgets as far as they’ll seem to go.

The problem with cutting corners, of course, is that short-term start-up savings often result in longer-term operating pain, and higher overall costs.

It happens when network planners who don’t know any better, or dismiss warnings as just being cynical sales ploys, put up televisions instead of commercial display panels that have actually been engineered for hard duty and the more challenging environmental conditions of retail and public places.

The corner-cutting really happens with computing choices – particularly because the personal computing hardware business is so competitive and covered exhaustively in technology blogs and other publications. Everyone knows how little PCs now cost.

When banner ads appear on websites, or advertisements appear in newspapers and magazines, trumpeting amazing savings on laptops and desktop PCs, there’s an immediate assumption that the going price for PCs capable of sitting at the edge of digital signage networks has dropped.

But consumer and office-grade PCs are rarely good choices for digital signage networks, and even more so than display panels, end up costing far more than purpose-designed industrial-grade PCs that have higher initial costs.

The equation is quite simple. You can pay €400 for a cheap PC now, and then €250 for a field service repair call and €100 for a replacement hard disk drive when things break down. So a €400 PC is actually a €750 PC in real costs, plus the intangible costs of staff resources needed to diagnose and remedy a problem.

Recently, we spent time with a company that installed dozens of consumer grade PCs at field offices all across a country. The IT department, which had expected to very passively pay attention to the PCs in the field, had one staff member devoting 60 per cent of his work week to troubleshooting and remedying problems, usually with the help of expensive outsourced field service technicians. They knew they made a hardware mistake.

We’re in the business of building rugged, industrial grade PC and media player technology, so we see this problem all the time. We have wise customers who start networks with our products, but we also have customers who make the switch after some hard lessons.

Consumer PCs are not designed to run unattended, remotely, for months and years. That’s particularly so when they are loaded to run CPU-straining files like Flash and HD video over and over. Consumer PCs also ship with operating systems – usually Windows – that are loaded with software that’s not needed for the relatively simple task of playing media. All these extra software components can cause conflicts and impair performance.

A PC built for an office will almost certainly have a fan and a hard disk drive. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that the air in busy environments like retail shops is filled with dust kicked up by steady staff and visitor activity. That dust invariably finds its way into the PC, pulled in by the cooling fan’s blades. Over the course of months, and in some cases just weeks, that fan is clogged and the PC is overheating.

Meanwhile, a hard disk is steadily spinning on a digital signage player because a succession of files are being accessed over and over. It’s a moving part that will eventually fail if it’s a consumer grade hard disk.

When a savvy network operator makes hardware plans, industrial grade PCs tend to be selected because the devices are designed for these environments. There are industrial grade fans or no fans at all (energy consumption and heat generation are limited and managed) and solid state memory or industrial hard disks are used to ensure reliability.

Industrial grade is also the preferred option because of predictability and management requirements. Choosing consumer-grade PCs for a network that will grow in scope over time means, in reality, choosing and therefore supporting several different PCs with different components. PC makers selling to the consumer market are constantly changing and upgrading the feature sets to stay competitive, and a product’s lifecycle is usually just six to 12 months.

With industrial grade PCs – the sort of product we develop at Advantech – the standard life-cycle is five years. That means the PC that a client settles on for a network in 2011 will still be available in 2015, and that makes management far easier for a network’s operations people.

There will always be stories of networks that merrily operated without incident on low-cost PCs, but they will be the exceptions. The rule, meanwhile, is that cutting corners is a bad idea.

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