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Servers: Build ‘em or Buy ‘em?

To build or not to build? That is the question. If you’re talking about a home extension, you’d probably get the help of a builder. If you’re considering a Lotus 7, you’d maybe hire a mechanic. If you’re thinking about a desktop PC, you might have a go yourself. Yet a server? That’s something else, isn’t it? To take the automotive analogy, it’s more like putting together a bus than a car. And you don’t see too many of them half-built in someone’s garage. HP servers, Dell servers, the manufacturers have some great products out there so why not let them take the strain?

On the other hand, there must be something to be said for the DIY server – mustn’t there?! It comes down to which one will win – the geek in you or the safe professional? Here are some ins and outs.

Can you do it better than them?

Probably the critical issue. What is the logic behind building your own servers? To produce a machine that does things the manufacturers’ offerings don’t? If you have unique requirements, this may be the case. But, given the performance and flexibility of servers like HP’s ProLiant Gen8, they would have to be pretty unique.

Then again, you could turn the question round and ask ‘can they do anything you can’t do yourself?’

Is the whole more than the sum of the parts?

Engineering, design, heat, airflow, systems management, there are many criteria to consider. Yet with servers, as with team games, a vital aspect is how components work together. With units from the likes of HP and Dell they’re designed to do this, then tested ad nausea to make sure they do. With self-assembly, it’s not a given, to put it mildly.

Reliability is one of the main reasons why people trust big brands in any industry. In fact, it’s why they came into existence. You know what you’re getting.

Time will tell

The time it will take to build the server, that is. We’re talking an asset for work here, not a train set in the attic. It will need some serious man/woman hours. Do you have them? And all that energy? Not to be underestimated. Put a value on your time, and don’t undercook it. Remember your core business has first call, that’s what you’re about.

For a low end server, you could save time and hassle by buying the innards from someone like SuperMicro. This is an acceptable option for non-critical applications.

What if there’s a problem?

Some would say ‘when there’s a problem’. Build it on your own and when it comes to support you’re, well, on your own. If the server is to host mission-critical applications, think long and hard about this. If it’s for less serious stuff, you may get away with the inevitable downtime. Generally, if you’ve got enough grey hairs already it’s better to let the vendor or manufacturer take the strain.

Commercial packages score heavily in terms of support, albeit at a price. However, note that many people have had issues with local High Street vendors over warranties. Note, too, that if you’ve put a server together from components bought separately, they may not be covered as a unit. You may have trouble finding spares, too.

It’s bound to save money?

Of course, building your own, on the face of it, must be cheaper. Yet before you finish your sums, make sure you’re looking at the TCO – total cost of ownership.

If it’s all about money, think about buying ‘pre-owned’, as they say at the best electronic retailers. You’d be surprised what you can pick up on e-Bay these days. Auctions and fire sales or sell-offs can also be a good idea.

A word of caution, though. If you’re building a more high performance machine to rival Dell servers and the like, you’ll need to use comparable components. Experience has shown this to actually work out more expensive than buying.

Size is important

Here are some people’s rules of thumb, but you’ll have to take them at face value:

  • 1U? Buy – it’s not worth the effort!
  • 2U? More or less the same
  • 4U or above? You could think about building. Then think better of it! HP servers like ProLiant, for example, come with hot-swap capabilities, pull-out drives and so on, and offer generally easy access to parts. What’s more, diagnostic indicators will let you know if you’re going wrong. Certainly makes life easier

That’s a big manufacturer, of course. With smaller High Street assemblers, you’re not so well-blessed, and may be better off with the DIY route. Clearly, there are arguments on both sides, much of it contradictory.

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