Data Centers

Members respond: Should you use cheap parts when building a server?

This week's Point and Counterpoint looks at the responses given by TechRepublic members regarding the use of cheap parts instead of standard server parts for servers on a network.

Point and Counterpoint's purpose is to present a balanced discussion among our members regarding hardware, software, and any other topic that our members wish to debate. If you have a suggestion for Point and Counterpoint, feel free to send us a note.
TechRepublic members have spoken
In a recent edition of Point and Counterpoint, I asked our TechRepublic members to give their thoughts about whether a server should be built out of cheap PC parts, or if it’s a better idea to use equipment that was designed for servers. The response was staggering, with quite a few heated thoughts on the subject.

Below, you will find a sampling of the e-mail and post responses from TechRepublic members, explaining why they believe that a server should either be built from server parts, cheap workstation parts, or both. Please note that due to the volume of e-mails and posts received on this subject, not every comment submitted can be included.

Only server designed parts!

  • Chaz S.
    ”Should servers be built with server parts? That is simply an absurd question. Should a Porsche be built with Pinto parts?

    ”What it really comes down to is that you will eventually pay the same price. If you build a system out of cheap parts, you may save money up front but you will pay it back exponentially on the back end by having to support it later.

    ”Think about it. You will have replacement costs, as the parts will invariably wear out due to lower MTBF ratings. You'll get loss of productivity when the system is down and from reduced performance since the cheaper parts cannot possibly maintain the levels of performance of the higher quality server components. Workstation parts do not have the manageability or fault tolerance built into server components, so you then sacrifice more efficiency.

    ”Overall, it is just a bad idea to ever compromise when building a device that you need to count on!”
  • Skillsky
    ”Cheap parts?! OK, ‘Why?’ is all I have to say. The server is your lifeblood to the network, and unless you have multiple servers doing the same job, then you take a risk of hardware failures. If you can afford redundant servers, then just build a server with the best that money can buy. This is a no-brainer. Duh.”
  • Bruce P.
    ”You get what you pay for. If you go cheap, you get cheap results. You should use equipment that displays the quality of your work. It will cause fewer headaches and allow for more free time. The added benefit of keeping your job is also a plus.”
  • B. Calfee
    ”To paraphrase Ben Franklin, 'He who buys cheap, pays twice.'

    ”More than just the reliability of the system is at stake—the recovery work required to restore the system, reputation, and future business. If I use cheap parts, and I'm still around when (not if) it dies, I have to:
    1) Explain without much detail what happened. ‘Yeah, boss, I care so much about the company that I foisted off a bunch of cheap stuff on you hoping you would never notice and, if you ever found out, you wouldn't care.’
    2) Fix it. ‘Man, we should have done this right the first time, and I ain't ever gonna let this happen again.’

    ”If I am gone from the scene when the defecation hits the ventilator and word catches up to me, my reputation takes the hit and I lose business later.”
  • ITP
    ”I have worked on both clone server boxes and Compaq servers, and hands down, Compaq knows how to build a server box. Fans are an example of quality parts that quit working.

    ”A Compaq insight manager will notify me and shut down the server before any damage occurs. I have only replaced one fan in six years supporting 25 or more servers. Quality servers are worth the extra money.”

Use cheap parts!
  • Tom L.
    ”If you don't have to deal with more than, say, a couple of dozen machines (like the small business where I work), the ratio between initial cost and maintenance cost works in favor of cheap parts, as long as you don't mind doing some hands-on repair work once in a while.

    ”Cheap parts will save you money, and they'll have 100 percent of the functionality of more expensive parts. I said ’functionality,’ not ‘performance.’ For companies on a budget with in-house technical skills, this is the way to go. Just make sure you put some money into backup systems. Even ‘expensive’ parts will fail, and you'll be thankful you have a good backup.”
  • Point and Counterpoint's purpose is to present a balanced discussion among our members regarding hardware, software, and any other topic that our members wish to debate. If you have a suggestion for Point and Counterpoint, feel free to send us a note.
    TechRepublic members have spoken
    In a recent edition of Point and Counterpoint, I asked our TechRepublic members to give their thoughts about whether a server should be built out of cheap PC parts, or if it’s a better idea to use equipment that was designed for servers. The response was staggering, with quite a few heated thoughts on the subject.

    Below, you will find a sampling of the e-mail and post responses from TechRepublic members, explaining why they believe that a server should either be built from server parts, cheap workstation parts, or both. Please note that due to the volume of e-mails and posts received on this subject, not every comment submitted can be included.

    Only server designed parts!
    • Chaz S.
      ”Should servers be built with server parts? That is simply an absurd question. Should a Porsche be built with Pinto parts?

      ”What it really comes down to is that you will eventually pay the same price. If you build a system out of cheap parts, you may save money up front but you will pay it back exponentially on the back end by having to support it later.

      ”Think about it. You will have replacement costs, as the parts will invariably wear out due to lower MTBF ratings. You'll get loss of productivity when the system is down and from reduced performance since the cheaper parts cannot possibly maintain the levels of performance of the higher quality server components. Workstation parts do not have the manageability or fault tolerance built into server components, so you then sacrifice more efficiency.

      ”Overall, it is just a bad idea to ever compromise when building a device that you need to count on!”
    • Skillsky
      ”Cheap parts?! OK, ‘Why?’ is all I have to say. The server is your lifeblood to the network, and unless you have multiple servers doing the same job, then you take a risk of hardware failures. If you can afford redundant servers, then just build a server with the best that money can buy. This is a no-brainer. Duh.”
    • Bruce P.
      ”You get what you pay for. If you go cheap, you get cheap results. You should use equipment that displays the quality of your work. It will cause fewer headaches and allow for more free time. The added benefit of keeping your job is also a plus.”
    • B. Calfee
      ”To paraphrase Ben Franklin, 'He who buys cheap, pays twice.'

      ”More than just the reliability of the system is at stake—the recovery work required to restore the system, reputation, and future business. If I use cheap parts, and I'm still around when (not if) it dies, I have to:
      1) Explain without much detail what happened. ‘Yeah, boss, I care so much about the company that I foisted off a bunch of cheap stuff on you hoping you would never notice and, if you ever found out, you wouldn't care.’
      2) Fix it. ‘Man, we should have done this right the first time, and I ain't ever gonna let this happen again.’

      ”If I am gone from the scene when the defecation hits the ventilator and word catches up to me, my reputation takes the hit and I lose business later.”
    • ITP
      ”I have worked on both clone server boxes and Compaq servers, and hands down, Compaq knows how to build a server box. Fans are an example of quality parts that quit working.

      ”A Compaq insight manager will notify me and shut down the server before any damage occurs. I have only replaced one fan in six years supporting 25 or more servers. Quality servers are worth the extra money.”

    Use cheap parts!
  • Tom L.
    ”If you don't have to deal with more than, say, a couple of dozen machines (like the small business where I work), the ratio between initial cost and maintenance cost works in favor of cheap parts, as long as you don't mind doing some hands-on repair work once in a while.

    ”Cheap parts will save you money, and they'll have 100 percent of the functionality of more expensive parts. I said ’functionality,’ not ‘performance.’ For companies on a budget with in-house technical skills, this is the way to go. Just make sure you put some money into backup systems. Even ‘expensive’ parts will fail, and you'll be thankful you have a good backup.”
    • B.B.
      ”The question we should ask is not necessarily ‘cheap or expensive?’ And is not even about technology (’EIDE or SCSI?’). But we better ask ’good or bad?’

      ”We used to say that expensive is good. But as administrator, the only thing I care about is the recover time. I was surprised to see that replacing a crashed component or upgrading a leader-brand server (I'm not mentioning the name) takes about two months!

      ”On the other hand, when we had to repair a defective cheap server (made by us from pieces!), we simply went to the closest computer shop to buy a new component and rapidly replaced the crashed one. It took only three hours!

      ”After all, let's face it: The components in the brand-name servers are also made in China, Malaysia, or Singapore just like the cheap no-name parts, but sold double in price.”
    • Barry G.
      ”Just because IDE drives are cheaper doesn't mean they are less reliable than SCSI. In fact, I believe IDE is just as reliable as SCSI without RAID, and you can do mirroring/RAID on IDE, too. SCSI may be faster, but speed is meaningless in a DHCP server.”
      Read Barry’s entire post.
    • Richard J.
      ”As an ISP in a small town, as well as a software developer, network designer, and other 'Information Technology' things, we started out using cheap PC parts because of the tremendous cost of other services and products. We’re a pioneer in the ISP game, and have been in the business for five years now, and we still use 'non-server' components.

      ”As a test, we recently purchased a dual server chassis with dual power supplies, two processors, and two SCSI drives for mirroring. Out of the box, the server had a problem with the integrated HW on the motherboard. It eventually went back to the supplier for either replacement or repair.

      ”The lesson learned? Cheap works, and is easy to build redundancy. We keep a complete set of servers—HHTTP, FTP, Radius, and E-mail—ready to take over the primary, with mirroring on the primary HD in a hourly basis.

      ”The cost? Two fast desktops are cheaper than one dual server, and you have better redundancy. You can also keep redundant parts on the shelf for the whole system. P/S is always a problem these days. Cure it with replacements on the shelf. RAM? Keep a few extra around. Hard drives? At a few hundred bucks apiece, have some on a shelf. All in all, cheaper is better, safer, and easier!”

    Both sides of the fence
    • Bob O.
      ”There is a middle ground here. Expensive does not always equal better.

      ”I have seen my share of expensive, brand name parts fail, while the no-name ’cheap’ parts keep on working. There are server applications where basic components will work fine. You don't need a dual processor with a high-speed SCSI raid array to run a simple proxy server.

      ”On the other hand, if you are running a net server that has to be up 24/7, buying the best parts (not necessarily the most expensive) is cheap insurance. And, of course, the parts need to be compatible with the OS.”
    • Tom M.
      ”If you're smart, you do both!

      Intel 440BX-Dual Motherboard, Embedded SCSI, Video, 100Base—$405
      18-GB SCSI—$325
      CD-ROM, Floppy—$90
      Dual power supply case—$125
      P-III/533—$193
      ————————————
      A nice server for $1,138!

      ”Or you can go hog-wild! Mirror the drive, toss in the second processor, and buy a backup motherboard. Buy another power supply for the case. Heck, stock another CD and floppy. You're loaded for bear for $1,949.

      ”I'm finding that I often disagree with either the premise of these debates, or both sides of the issue. Look for creative solutions! It will serve both you and your customers well.”
    By submitting your answer, you agree to let TechRepublic publish your thoughts and/or suggestions on its Web site. You also agree that TechRepublic may adapt and edit and authorize the adaptation and editing of each submission, as it deems necessary. TechRepublic may or may not publish a submission at its sole discretion.
    • B.B.
      ”The question we should ask is not necessarily ‘cheap or expensive?’ And is not even about technology (’EIDE or SCSI?’). But we better ask ’good or bad?’

      ”We used to say that expensive is good. But as administrator, the only thing I care about is the recover time. I was surprised to see that replacing a crashed component or upgrading a leader-brand server (I'm not mentioning the name) takes about two months!

      ”On the other hand, when we had to repair a defective cheap server (made by us from pieces!), we simply went to the closest computer shop to buy a new component and rapidly replaced the crashed one. It took only three hours!

      ”After all, let's face it: The components in the brand-name servers are also made in China, Malaysia, or Singapore just like the cheap no-name parts, but sold double in price.”
    • Barry G.
      ”Just because IDE drives are cheaper doesn't mean they are less reliable than SCSI. In fact, I believe IDE is just as reliable as SCSI without RAID, and you can do mirroring/RAID on IDE, too. SCSI may be faster, but speed is meaningless in a DHCP server.”
      Read Barry’s entire post.
    • Richard J.
      ”As an ISP in a small town, as well as a software developer, network designer, and other 'Information Technology' things, we started out using cheap PC parts because of the tremendous cost of other services and products. We’re a pioneer in the ISP game, and have been in the business for five years now, and we still use 'non-server' components.

      ”As a test, we recently purchased a dual server chassis with dual power supplies, two processors, and two SCSI drives for mirroring. Out of the box, the server had a problem with the integrated HW on the motherboard. It eventually went back to the supplier for either replacement or repair.

      ”The lesson learned? Cheap works, and is easy to build redundancy. We keep a complete set of servers—HHTTP, FTP, Radius, and E-mail—ready to take over the primary, with mirroring on the primary HD in a hourly basis.

      ”The cost? Two fast desktops are cheaper than one dual server, and you have better redundancy. You can also keep redundant parts on the shelf for the whole system. P/S is always a problem these days. Cure it with replacements on the shelf. RAM? Keep a few extra around. Hard drives? At a few hundred bucks apiece, have some on a shelf. All in all, cheaper is better, safer, and easier!”

    Both sides of the fence
    • Bob O.
      ”There is a middle ground here. Expensive does not always equal better.

      ”I have seen my share of expensive, brand name parts fail, while the no-name ’cheap’ parts keep on working. There are server applications where basic components will work fine. You don't need a dual processor with a high-speed SCSI raid array to run a simple proxy server.

      ”On the other hand, if you are running a net server that has to be up 24/7, buying the best parts (not necessarily the most expensive) is cheap insurance. And, of course, the parts need to be compatible with the OS.”
    • Tom M.
      ”If you're smart, you do both!

      Intel 440BX-Dual Motherboard, Embedded SCSI, Video, 100Base—$405
      18-GB SCSI—$325
      CD-ROM, Floppy—$90
      Dual power supply case—$125
      P-III/533—$193
      ————————————
      A nice server for $1,138!

      ”Or you can go hog-wild! Mirror the drive, toss in the second processor, and buy a backup motherboard. Buy another power supply for the case. Heck, stock another CD and floppy. You're loaded for bear for $1,949.

      ”I'm finding that I often disagree with either the premise of these debates, or both sides of the issue. Look for creative solutions! It will serve both you and your customers well.”
    By submitting your answer, you agree to let TechRepublic publish your thoughts and/or suggestions on its Web site. You also agree that TechRepublic may adapt and edit and authorize the adaptation and editing of each submission, as it deems necessary. TechRepublic may or may not publish a submission at its sole discretion.

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