Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Buying vs Building a Rack Mount Server

The savings you can achieve if you build your own rack mount servers is big. This can be an attractive choice for many, but not all.

The site is still being developed but I wanted to start off the blog with going over some of the benefits and drawbacks of building your own servers. The cost savings can be tremendous, but there are things you need to consider.

What size server can I build?

Theoretically, you can build anything from a 1U single processor server up to a 4 processor 8U server. As the servers get more complex, there might be some real benefits of buying from a good manufacturer such as Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard or IBM.

For that reason, this site is going to focusing primary on entry level rack mount servers. Any one who can follow instructions will be able to build a rack mount server in this class. With so much built into modern server motherboards, all you need to build a 1u server is a chassis, motherboard, cpu, memory and disks. as for tools it's nothing special. Just a screwdriver.

What you lose if you build your own server.

You can save about 50% of the cost of a server if you build it yourself, but don't be deceived into thinking that that server makers are marking up their servers by 50%. Profit margins on entry level servers are pretty thin. A good chunk of the price goes into support costs.

You buy an X2100 M2 server from Sun, for example, and even with the standard 1 year warranty that comes with the purchase, you get next day part replacement. Anything fails and you have one vendor to deal with to get replacement parts. For an extra $400 you upgrade that to 3 years same day replacement or for $700 you can get 2 hour replacement for 3 years. During the warranty period, and usually for a certain period of time they will have replacement parts available.

Need operating system specific support? That's over $1k for 3 years, but it's an option you don't generally get with building your own servers. When you build it, you maintain it.

But you're not completely shut out if you purchase your own components. Most of what you put into your server will have a manufacturer's warranty. It's a little bit more of a hassle and some manufacturers will not give you next day service, let alone 2 hour service, but you can manage hardware failure costs when a component fails.

There are other ways you can deal with hardware failures that might even give you a better response than 2 hours. This tip comes from how construction contractors buy power tools. It's nice to have an expensive Festool or Hitachi and they have their merits, but for the same price you could buy 3 or 4 Ryobi or Ridgid tools. These aren't the junk $20 tools people pick up at Harbor Freight either.

You can do the same with servers. The components in the servers that will be on this site aren't no-names or knock offs. They're from reputable manufactures that sometimes even produce the components that go into big name servers.

Lets take another look at that X2100 M2 server. It is similar to the 1u Quad Core Opteron Server that's currently on the front page of the site except the Sun server is only a Dual processor box but it has a remote management card and 4 network ports. With 2GB of Ram and 1 500GB drive it costs $1,537.

The 1U Quad Core Opteron Kit specified on the home page, with the same amount of memory and disk space costs $816 as of right now. That's a savings of a little over $700. A decent chunk of that is the cost of the chassis and power supply. The chassis is just a metal box. If it's safe and secure in a rack it should outlive the rest of the components. For that $700 you saved, you can buy an extra motherboard, CPU, heatsink, powersupply, drive and ram. If something fails, you have the parts on hand.

It's like you're getting the same day service for free. If the part is still covered by the manufacturers warranty, you can still get a replacement, but while you're wrangling with the manufacturer, your server is still up and running.

For some people, the support their vendor provides is worth giving up the savings. If your $1,000 server generates $1,000 a day in revenue, the savings is trivial and you might like the peace of mind vendor support brings.

There is something to say about the satisfaction of knowing you built and can maintain your own infrastructure.

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