Purchasing Time: Does the Vendor Really Matter?

The big hardware vendors all seem to be selling very similar low-end server hardware nowadays, but with varying features, prices, and capabilities. After working with a number of different Opteron and Xeon servers from various vendors, I started wondering what motivates customers to choose one over the other.

Almost without exception, IT organizations feel most comfortable buying from a vendor they are used to dealing with. They understand how the technical support works, they are familiar with the different hardware warranties available and, most important, are familiar with the hardware itself.

When a competing company releases a product that’s impressive and at the same time cheaper than expected, people take notice. People also notice when important functional features are skimped on. Take for example the ability to hot-swap disk drives in a server. It’s important, even in 1U servers, to have access to one’s disk drives without having to power off the server and disassemble it. Surprisingly, I’ve run into a few servers that lack hard drive trays, causing me to question every other feature of the server. If the designers don’t realize how important disk access is, what else is skimped on or missing altogether? Purposefully avoiding naming names, I’d just like to point out that details are important.

Sun, for example, has begun shipping servers that are completely cable-free. No, they haven’t invented wireless SATA, but every cable of every kind is fastened down, resulting in extremely sexy servers with very efficient airflow designs. Unfortunately, Sun still isn’t the biggest bang for the buck, which is a major motivation to purchase the lower-end Opteron and Xeon servers. Their servers, sadly, lack certain features, even though they have been improving. For example, the X2100 offered no lights-out management, but its successor, the X2200, finally did.

Identify Important Features
So what features are important? The lower-end 1U and even 2U servers from all vendors have been improving. The important features are:

  • Hot-swappable hard drives
  • Lights-out managers
  • RAID
  • At least one PCI slot
  • Multiple integrated gigabit NICs

These are some of the features that have historically varied by vendor. Terminology varies wildly, and so does the technology. The lights-out manager, remote console, or management console is known by many different abbreviations, including IPMI, iLOM, ALOM, and others. They are not always the same thing, either. Some vendors require that an extra management card be purchased to get the more advanced features like remote hardware management. Hardware subtleties such as remote management and the overall look and feel of the configuration interface are probably the number one reason people tend to stick with their most familiar vendor. Learning a new interface, given that the differences can be so great, is a major consideration when people purchase servers. So they tend to stick with what’s familiar.

Judge Vendor Support
Support familiarity is possibly the second most important factor in the buying decision. In the rare event that technical support is necessary, probably because of a hardware failure, it can be and extremely frustrating experience. Granted, server support is worlds apart from desktop technical support, but the same basic structure exists. First line support, and then second, and then you talk to the people who understand the words you’re using. This oversimplified structure does tend to be less rigid with server support, but dealing with a new vendor means learning how their support works.

Dealing with a new vendor also means learning how their warranties translate into mean time to repair (MTTR). A broken server, depending on the support contract, can be out of commission for anywhere between two hours and a week. Some hardware vendors also give better access to knowledgeable support based on dollar amount of your support contract.

Is the Vendor In This Line for the Long Haul?
Unfortunately, the vendor isn’t the only consideration. For example, when a company launches a completely new product line, you have no way of knowing how valuable it feels the new line is. Sun’s lower-end Opteron servers, for example, are in a completely different ballpark than their SPARC servers. Call support with an obvious hardware issue, and they’ll ask you, the customer, to troubleshoot and replace parts. Not only that, they’ll ask you to update the BIOS on the server as well. It may solve the problem, but at your company’s expense. Even with a hardware contract, they will ask you to do their work for them, citing the fact that “these are similar to PC’s.” Contrast that with the order of magnitude more expensive SPARC hardware, where hardware technicians will be at your door within hours, and it feels like these product lines are from two completely different companies. I’m not picking on Sun by any means; this is probably the same level of support you’d get on Opteron and Xeon servers anywhere. Just be aware that different product lines carry different advantages.

To consider new vendors, or even new product lines, one must take into account more than just the price and basic specifications of hardware. The more advanced, but time-saving features are just as important, and they can be found on this class of servers without paying more than you’d expect. Warranties, of course, always need to be scrutinized. For what it’s worth, Dell’s warranty structure is probably the most sane, easy to understand, and readily available in terms of pricing on their website. Other vendors: not so much.

Just remember, it doesn’t make sense to limit one’s self to a single vendor, but supplementing one’s arsenal of servers requires careful planning. Remember these key points:

  • Hardware management interfaces, without exception, will be completely different between vendors.
  • Never assume anything about a product—a standard feature from one vendor may be a spendy option with others.
  • The server you’re getting, which may happen to include all the features you require, may also come with a horrible warranty unless you pay exorbitant amounts of money.

Caveat emptor.

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