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Selecting the Right Hardware and Software
Often, organizations start to look for a new system before they have done their homework. They really dont know or havent agreed upon and documented exactly what they want to do or how they want to do it. Then, when the project team attends software demonstrations, and reads the Collections Management Software Review they are overwhelmed by the variety of software approaches that are available.
Requirements drive the system selection process. It is almost as simple as that. Software should be selected based on the functions your organization specifies as mandatory, and hardware should be selected based on the software requirements. Don't look for hardware without first knowing your requirements for software.
Remember, to be cost effective, every hardware and software feature you buy has to satisfy a requirement that you or your staff have identified in advance of your purchase. Compromises should be allowed only on functions at the bottom of your priority list.
Not replacing any aspect of your current computer hardware adds another constraint to your software selection process. Another major factor to be considered - beside price, of course - is how the software actually operates. Look at factors such as ease of use and how well the software works with your current procedures. Additional factors, such as staff training and data conversion difficulties should also be evaluated.
One final major consideration before you sign the contract: How have you, your staff, and the vendor gotten along up to this point? Buying a major business system is like marrying the vendor. You are important to each other and you want the relationship to be good and last for the lifespan of your system.
Once your needs have been defined as outlined in the Criteria session you can decide to take one of four approaches:
1) Purchase a commercial software package
One approach to systems acquisition is to buy an application that is built to perform all or most of the functions required by an institution. Very rarely will a system be perfect for everyone who owns it. Some compromises are almost always necessary in taking this route, but it is normally the most economical in both the short and long term. Commercial software will differ in their approaches and emphasis but come prepackaged with most of the fields and functionality required for use.
2) Purchase a commercial software package and customize to perform functions specific to your institution
This type of customization may avoid some of the compromises necessary with "off the shelf" packages but is generally more expensive. The initial cost and ongoing support requirements may lessen the value of purchasing a commercial system, depending, of course, on the extent of customization. It is also possible to purchase commercial software and customize as time and resources allow.
3) Purchase a development application that provides a basic information and functional structure and develop an application specific to your institution
This is an in-depth approach to customization. The term development application refers to tools that assist in creating applications. Customization by your institution or by the vendor is required to suit specific needs. Development applications offer the ability for each institution to adapt to changing standards, fields or processes. They also require that you be well trained and highly knowledgeable in information management.
4) Develop a customized system
This is done using basic programming software that has no built in collections management functionality. It requires a great deal of time and specialized expertise, both in the development phase and in the longer term production and maintenance environment. It is rarely a timely or cost effective solution.
We recommend buying commercially available Collections Management packages. If you decide to build your own system, at this point you would go in another direction where you would design, develop, test and then implement your system.
The Collections Management Software Review
CHINs Collections Management Software Review has, to date, evaluated 16 of these commercially available systems. Its intention is to outline the suitability of specific software to museum discipline, collections size, museum functions, and hardware and software environment. It also analyses vendor reliability, support requirements, customization possibilities, costs and more. The Review also ensures that the software meets CHIN and international standards and allows for Canadian institutions to export data to Artefacts Canada; the Canadian National inventories.
Because what is right for one organization seldom will be right for others, the Review is not meant to recommend one specific system but to give museums a tool with which to work after they have defined their requirements. It should allow you to shortlist from the 16 systems outlined in the Review to 3 or 4 to evaluate thoroughly on your own.
How to use it:
- use CHINs Criteria Checklist to help you define your requirements and create your own checklist,
- compare your checklist with the results in the Collections Management Software Review to help shortlist products,
- evaluate shortlisted products using the criteria you defined,
- select a system.
Integration with other software
Nothing we have discussed so far has addressed the other computer software applications that your organization already has or will probably want, such as word processing software, electronic mail, desktop publishing, Internet, etc. If you are already using these software packages on your existing hardware and you plan to run your new software on the same system, you need to determine if the old and new software are compatible. In any case you almost certainly will be required to upgrade your hardware and possibly your network to run everything simultaneously.
When you install a completely new software package or system in your organization, you will change the way your organization works and probably will spend more money than you initially expected. The only way to keep your costs down is to minimize your modifications and do as much of the staff training, data conversion, and installation of hardware and software as possible in-house with your own staff.
Steps to Follow When Choosing Your Hardware and Software
- Conduct a software search based on your requirements and using the Collections Management Software Review.
- Select two or three systems for detailed demonstrations using your data.
- Issue a Request For Proposal (RFP) if necessary.
- Do demos of products that meet the RFP using the checklist. Record your evaluation results.
- Ask the vendors you like to submit written proposals based on your criteria checklist and a list of questions that subsequently have occurred. Direct the vendors to quote hardware, training, data conversion, consulting or implementations, and annual maintenance fees.
- Compare the cost quotes for hardware, training, data conversion, consulting, and maintenance fees to your budget.
- Select and contract for the system that best fits your needs and resources. Using the term "contract" here is appropriate as it effectively conveys the long term aspects of this type of project. It is important to remember that you do not actually buy software but license for the use of it.
- If you do not currently own computer hardware that will efficiently run the software you have chosen, get at least three price quotes on the computer configurations recommended by your software vendor.
- Purchase or lease the appropriate computer hardware and have it installed.
- Install the software system and conduct training, data conversion, and system acceptance tests.
- Put the new system into production.
- Follow up with staff and systems support.
Once you have followed the steps outlined here you can determine how successful you have been by looking at the following factors:
- Whether or not your staff accurately have defined requirements.
- Whether or not your staff will revise its policies, procedures, work habits, and work flow to take advantage of the new system's capabilities.
- How much time and money you are willing to spend on training staff to use the new system.
- How well you are able to convert the data between your old and new systems.
- How well you are able to implement the new system and its technology in your organization.
- How able you are to provide technical hardware and software support for the new system within your organization.
- How well you did your search for the new system.
- How much money you have to spend.
- How politically acceptable the system is, if your organization is complex enough to have a unique political environment
Selecting Hardware to fit your Software
Just as requirements drive your software selection, the software you choose drives the hardware you should select to run your system - unless, of course, you already own computer hardware that you do not plan to displace. In that case, you should always make it clear to every software vendor and consultant that you will only consider software that will run on the hardware and network that you already own. Remember, though, you might be able to upgrade what you own for a relatively small additional investment. If need be, phase in the right software and the required supporting hardware upgrades rather than bring in something less than your staff really needs in the way of a software system.
Helpful Hints For Selecting Hardware and Software
- Dont chase technology, its faster than you are. Dont get carried away by bells and whistles. Technology marketers have been tremendously successful in creating the need, at least in peoples minds to change to the latest products as soon as they arrive on the market. Flashy features dominate -- not mundane requirements. Those same marketers have been able to downplay the real costs of buying, implementing, integrating, training, and supporting the newest hardware and software that the industry has to offer. The point is that the speed and features of todays computers really are fantastic. But does everyone really need them?
- It takes time and skill to separate the emerging technology features your organization can use effectively from those it cant; and it takes money, time, and skill to keep your computer hardware and software up to date and consistent over time. This type of systems maintenance never ends. It is or should be a continuous expense item in your organizationss capital and operating budgets.
- Don't just take someone else's success with a system as proof that it will work in your situation. Make every effort to test the system in your own organization, with your own data, before you buy it.
- "Fly before you buy". Have the people who will use the system every day test your critical and desirable features list, using some of your own data on the exact hardware and software that you plan to purchase.
- If your staff members aren't happy with the test results, don't buy the system no matter how much you like it.
- Don't spend a penny before you have training, data conversion, and system implementation plans in place.
- Remember that some solutions may be cheap to buy, but that doesn't mean that they are inexpensive and easy to support.
- Make sure that your contract with the vendor specifies that there will be little or no advance money paid and that progress payments will be made only upon satisfactory testing and user approval of each of the software modules, in accordance with criteria specified in the purchase contract. Be fair, but make sure that you have protected yourself.
- Spending a lot of money does not guarantee that you will end up with the best or even a good system. Knowing your real requirements, buying the hardware and software that efficiently satisfies those requirements, and thoroughly training your staff to properly use the hardware and software will ensure a successful project.
Go to the exercise for this module.