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Rolling Your Own Business Desktops? 643

Posted by Cliff
from the is-DIY-worth-it-in-this-case dept.
mike asks: "I'm mulling the logic of my company building its own desktop computers. As the IT Manager (plus sysadmin, janitor...) of a struggling-yet-thankfully-still-alive dotcom, money is really tight. We have around sixty ~400MHz desktops which are increasingly showing their age. Acceptable P4 systems from the big guys run at least $1000. By recycling the OS (Win2k), case, cdrom, floppy, and K/V/M, I figure I can assemble a good AMD system for about $600. That's a 40% savings. Is it worth it? The cost difference could very well determine whether this project proceeds or gets put on the back-burner again."

"Some negatives about rolling my own:

  • Management: I won't get the special business features offered by some manufacturers. Dell's OpenImage, for example, looks awfully nice. But how much does that really buy me in a company of 60 machines? I don't use such stuff now; am I missing out on nirvana?
  • Time to build: Even though we'd leverage Ghost wherever possible, handmade systems nevertheless take time to build, load, & configure.
  • Supporting different platforms: Because money is so tight, I can at best afford a capital replacement rate of 25%-33% (15-20 units) per year. That means I'm committing to the support of 3 or 4 different platforms. Having just one platform is great, but how many companies, even ones that actively strive for it, truly enjoy that luxury? I inherited two platforms (Micron & Gateway); support isn't that bad. With proper planning, I don't see why we can't support four.
  • Hardware quality: How much can I trust a popular Athlon chipset in a business environment? I feel silly bringing this up because I have a few Athlon systems at home, each with a different chipset, and they've been nothing but rock solid. But I know the lack of a really good chipset has been a large contributor to why AMD's aren't more prevalent in the business world. (well, that and long term bullying by Intel).
  • I don't get a proven, prepackaged system that works right out of the box.
Positives of rolling my own:
  • Cost savings. Plain & simple.
  • Increased horsepower per dollar spent.
  • By choosing my own equipment (mobo especially), I suffer fewer OEM shortcuts.
  • I have to admit that I'd enjoy the pure geek satisfaction of rolling out 'my' creation to the company.
So is it worth it, or am I setting myself up for disaster?"

For those that are curious, Ask Slashdot did an article on the AMD issue, here.

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Rolling Your Own Business Desktops?

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  • Solid machine (Score:3, Informative)

    by hobbitsage (178961) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:20PM (#3431821)
    I see it this way. You are the one that will be working on these machines. You must factor in the knowlege that you made them and know what is in them. Just make sure you get a warranty on all the parts since you will not have one on the entire machine
    • by BigBlockMopar (191202) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:58PM (#3432161) Homepage

      Time to build: Even though we'd leverage Ghost wherever possible, handmade systems nevertheless take time to build, load, & configure.

      Yes. But make damned sure that you're building them as an assembly line. The principle is that building a second one will only take 50% more effort than building the first; the third will take only 33% more effort than the other two, etc. Whatever old Henry Ford's theorem was. It works.

      Set aside a room where no one else will bother you. *GOOD STATIC CONTROL* is mandatory. Do all stages of assembly at once, that way you're not wasting time fumbling back and forth for screwdrivers. Get going at a good clip with quality cases, and you should be able to assemble 100 systems/day - but that assumes you have *everything* where you need it when you need it, there's good padded shelving, and you've got a grunt taking care of taking cases out of boxes for you. It also excludes software load.

      Just make sure you get a warranty on all the parts since you will not have one on the entire machine

      Absolutely. But, assuming a competent builder (ie. not blowing processors with bad jumper settings or blowing boards by not having them seated right), the parts themselves should be pretty reliable. If you're buying good stuff, the biggest source of problems will probably be static handling.

      Keep in mind that a modern memory or processor chip has literally millions of CMOS transistors. CMOS transistors have an incredibly thin layer of glass between the gate input and the source-drain circuit. A voltage applied to the gate influences the flow of current through the source-drain circuit. Trick is, the layer of glass involved is so thin that you can punch a hole in it with 30V. Next trick is that static electricity generates kilovolts (thousands of volts) with sufficient current to blow holes in the gate layer, but be imperceptible to you.

      All it takes is one transistor out of the millions inside a modern chip to be defective and the computer will crash apparently at random... you know, when Windows VMM writes a 0 to a memory address and gets it back as a 1 later on... BSoD. Kernel Panic. Choose your flavor.

      Wrist straps, static baggies, conductive floors, grounded workstations are *crucial*. Dell, Compaq, Asus and Abit spend millions of $$ on these things, and for similar reliability, you should demand the same standards every step of the way for your home-rolled machines. Make sure your computer store hasn't "helped" you by opening the static baggies. Write that one into the contract with the computer store. And make sure that the hard disk drives are still in their packing "egg-crate" things. You really don't want a box with a stack of hard disk drives. (Western Digital had a great video on hard drive handling floating around the 'Net, you should view it if you're building en masse.)

      • If you can locate a reliable 3rd party supplier that deals with quality components and offers assembly and a good warranty then its worth it. That was the hardest part for us. We went through a cheap shop initially, but found that the savings on the components was offset by the amount of time we had to spend pulling faulty bits out of machines and chasing up the replacement items.

        Buy good components and generic product lines, that way the variance in the hardware over time is minimised. eg we always buy TNT2 video cards and intel eepro NICS. We've got a few different specs, depending on the intended purpose of the machine, and its pretty easy when comes to ordering more - "give us 5 more machines as per quote XXX". Of course we upgrade the CPU and RAM as $$ allow. One of the problems the main brands caused us was varying the revision of the embedded motherboard components between orders. Even though the model of the machine was the same, the drivers required altered, and finding them can be a nightmare sometimes. If you go for discrete components you always know what you're getting.

        We've even had one of the main suppliers assure us that their embedded NIC was compatible with linux - it was, but only drivers for the 2.0.13 kernel were availible - fat lot of good that was 8)

        As for faults, I prefer to diagnose the problem myself, and our supplier sends forward replacements - the machine is down for a minimum of time and the faulty item is returned to the supplier in their packaging.

        A proper static free workstation is also important, even if you are not assembling the machines yourself. When it comes to pulling faulty bits out and replacing them you know you are not going to make things worse. In fact, a reputable supplier would probably insist you had such a facility in order to be replacing warranty components.
  • Go for it (Score:5, Funny)

    by SoCalChris (573049) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:20PM (#3431822) Journal
    Maintaining all of them would give you plenty of job security.
    • Re:Go for it (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Krimsen (26685) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:28PM (#3431903) Homepage
      I also do the exactly same thing for a small dotcom just like the poster. I brought up the issue of building our own desktops for increased horsepower and reliability (I haven't like the experiences I've had with big name manufacturers) but they countered with "Well, if you leave, who is going to support our machines? At least we can call Dell if we buy from them." I know I'm in this position for the long haul, but they have no guarantees of that. Support is a big thing for small companies.
      • Re:Go for it (Score:3, Insightful)

        by 56ker (566853)
        If you don't want to build your own machines but still want to economise - look for the computer deals that offer you just the computer - you keep the monitor, mouse, keyboard etc - so you save money compared to replacing the whole lot. Surely on the amount of hardware you're going to need you could set up some kind of trade account and get a discount anyway.
      • Re:Go for it (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ahde (95143)
        Introduce them to a little known test called "A+ Certification" -- anyone who has that piece of paper (and heaps who don't) is capable of supporting your PCs. And don't think Dell is going to give you any support for a measly 60 PC order. You get a 3 year warantee, whereas with OEM parts you only get 1 year, and only 30 days on CPUs and memory unless you pay a couple buck extra. That is the 90% of the difference between Dell and Joe Blow. For $600 apiece, I could give you fully assembled Athon XP 1800s (with no OS, shipping extra) -- and that's with *quality* parts. 512MB DDR, 300W Power Supply, etc.
      • Re:Go for it (Score:4, Insightful)

        by TedCheshireAcad (311748) <ted@fc.AAArit.edu minus threevowels> on Monday April 29, 2002 @08:55PM (#3433061) Homepage
        Support for plain vanilla PC's is easy, you could pay high school geeks $10 an hour to fix them up. It's only when you get to laptops that things get tricky.

        my $.02
    • by vladkrupin (44145)
      ... or, since you are already a "struggling" dot-com, this will end your struggles :) (or :( - you choose)
    • to give me all the ~400MHz mobos left. They make great firewalls. ;-)
      • by jawtheshark (198669) <slashdot@ j a w t h eshark.com> on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:14PM (#3432272) Homepage Journal
        Actually the guy doing the "Ask Slashdot" is insane considering a 400MHz Pentium obsolete. In an office environment it's plainly stupid to say that. Heck, I develop Java on a 400MHz and provided it has enough RAM I don't see any performance problems.

        This guy is either going heavy 3D, or something like that...or he has quite a strange concept of "obsolete". Add some RAM to those machine be happy with them.

        *sight* People don't know how to take care of computers anymore :-(

  • Microsoft allow it? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mrmaster (535266) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:20PM (#3431825) Homepage
    Will Microsoft even allow you to recycle your Win2k license on a new computer?
    • This is a bit hazy, the way I think it stands now (IIRC) is that if it an OEM license, you /CANNOT/ put it onto a new system other then the one that it came with. However, if you buy a bare bones system, you can quailfy to buy an OEM license, you just need to ask the place that you are buying from.
      • by ahde (95143)
        To qualify for an OEM copy of windows, it must be purchased with a new cpu, hard drive, or motherboard.
    • by nick this (22998) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:44PM (#3432048) Journal
      Nope.

      If it was a full retail version of Win2K, it can be transferred. But nobody has full retail -- everyone has the OEM version. That's part of the lock-in of preloads.

      OEM versions can't be moved from one machine to another. Also, Microsoft has strict rules about what constitutes an "upgrade". I don't have them here, but "upgrading everything around the W2K license" is not an upgrade, it requires the purchase of a new license.

      Don't take my word for it, though, or anyone on slashdot. Check out http://www.microsoft.com/licensing, and see how Microsoft is making it so much easier for the consumer, by not having so many confusing programs designed to save the customer money.

      By gouging the crap out of everyone, you now don't even have to go to the bother of trying to save money. You can just assume you are going to get poked, and sure enough, you are! Don't even *need* to read those agreements anymore. :)

      Boy, that *is* easier. Thanks Bill!
      • by Anonymous Coward
        You can change CPUs though.

        But whats the fine line, you change cpus, or keep same cpu but change motherboards....

        Personaly, who cares what the EULA is, just do it , as long as its not running on the old pc too.

    • by Fizzlewhiff (256410) <jeffshannon@@@hotmail...com> on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:14PM (#3432273) Homepage
      Will Microsoft even allow you to recycle your Win2k license on a new computer?

      They let me recycle my XP license on a new computer. They asked if I removed it from the old computer and then gave me a new code. The lady on the other end of the phone was very polite too. They didn't ask about any first born children and I could barely here the voodoo drums in the background.
    • by BrookHarty (9119) on Monday April 29, 2002 @07:35PM (#3432748) Homepage Journal
      Will Microsoft even allow you to recycle your Win2k license on a new computer?

      This really pisses me off. This should of been part of the settlement from the DOJ. M$ Screwed Consumers.

      The OEMS had to accept the M$ price discount plan, and only sell OEM versions to stay in business. M$ should of never been allowed to tie an OS to hardware, too late, damage done.

      We had a site license for m$ at work. We bought 40 pc's and could not get them without windows. We just paid for an OS which we would never use, and couldnt sell. What about all the schools across America that got double billed for an OS? Thats alot of tax money M$ should pay back. I wont even go into the tax scam [billparish.com] m$ has, they do not pay federal income tax.

      If I was going to roll out desktops.
      1. Terminal Services/Citrix/etc... Will NEVER tie M$ into hardware, repeat never, rinse repeat, never.
      2. Linux workstations.
      3. Fast network, with gigabit upstream to the TS servers.
      4. Ghost images on CD.

      BTW, 400mhz boxes make good linux workstations.

      -
      Where does an 800 pound gorilla sleep, anywhere he wants.

  • by joshamania (32599) <jggramlich@@@yahoo...com> on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:20PM (#3431827) Homepage
    ...but Microsoft might be. You might want to take a look at the EULA from M$ and see if they allow the transfer of operating system. Not that I'm suggesting you follow that load of malarky, but it may be a consideration.

    Personally, if they're just office type machines. Get Star Office and Linux and see what you can do. Experiment with a couple of your users to see how much trouble it might be.

    • I agree.

      If you purchased machines from an OEM and they came with an OEM version of Windows (9.x or NT) which you later purchased an upgrade to Windows 2000, then you CANNOT transfer the Windows 2000 license to new hardward unless it too came with a previous version of Windows.

      If you upgraded using Upgrade Advantage, then you can't even transfer the upgrade.

      Special rules apply to OEM licensing.
      • Doesn't this raise an issue of what constitutes a system? Is it the hard drive that the software resides on, or is it the motherboad? Could you move the hard drive to the new system without breaking the Eula?
  • Recycling (Score:3, Interesting)

    by airos4 (82561) <changer4&gmail,com> on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:21PM (#3431828) Homepage
    I really don't see a downside to the project... if you had a few people you trusted to help upgrade the systems, you could assembly line the upgrade and get things up and running in a couple weekends. The only things that I would see as a concern would be the age of power supplies, hard drives, etc. But if you do regular backups, that risk is minimized.
  • by leshert (40509) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:21PM (#3431829) Homepage
    If, two months from now, one of them dies and dies hard, you're on your own to figure out what went wrong, find a replacement part, try to get warranty service from wherever you bought that component, etc.

    Most of the majors offer very good service. Often it's just a cross-ship for the whole system, and you're in business the next day with no time invested by your IT department.
  • by notbob (73229) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:21PM (#3431832) Homepage
    Those that actually need them?

    I mean really suzy in the phone center has no need for over 400 mhz, I'm striving along just fine on my 667.

  • You might check your OS license. If your current computers are from a mainstream PC provider, they may have an OS license that precludes you transfering the OS to a new computer. You might get away with bending this rule, just hope you don't get auditted...
  • by edashofy (265252) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:22PM (#3431839)
    Don't forget having to run your own assembly and tech support shop as well. I can usually coerce somebody to come out from Dell and replace my broken (video card, motherboard, CD-ROM drive) with little effort here at work if the need arises and it's covered under warranty. At your shop, YOU are the warranty guy.

    Also, factor in the labor costs (which will be substantial), count the amount of time it will take for you to assemble a machine, the cost of ESD straps and mats (you will be using ESD mats, right?), the time it will take to set up an assembly area, and the space that will take up, etc.

    I used to build machines for other people (family members, etc.) Now I just tell them all to buy a Dell because the hassle on me to maintain them is WAAAAAY less. The only machine I build myself anymore is my personal box, because I spec out stuff that is too high-end for a manufacturer like Dell anyway.
    • by davmoo (63521) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:45PM (#3432065)
      I used to build machines for other people (family members, etc.) Now I just tell them all to buy a Dell because the hassle on me to maintain them is WAAAAAY less.

      Preach it, friend!

      For the last near 20 years I often built systems for friends, family, or businesses who wanted to save money. But these days I can't build them cheaper than Walmart sells them. The only time I build a system now for anyone other than myself is if all they want is some old wreck good enough to get on the internet and I already have the parts laying around.

      To the guy who started this discussion: You start out by comparing a pre-built P4 system to a scratch-built Athlon system. You also need to be looking at Duron/Celeron pre-builts. I bet there is only a handfull of people in your company, if ANY, who need the power of a P4 or a top of the line Athlon. A Celeron or Duron would them just fine, and you're not going to build something from scratch with either of those that is cheaper than what Dell or Walmart can sell them to you for.
  • Cost savings? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MattyG (6408) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:23PM (#3431844)
    What's your salary/the salary of the people that will have to build 60 boxes? How long will it take? Are you sure $600 + labor costs + no manufacturer support will be less than $1,000? If not, there's no business case to do it yourself.

    -matt
  • depends on what your time costs the company. If you are willing to eat the extra hours to build the systems then yes you can save a lot of money. In this economy the extra hours put in to save your job might very well be worth it. YMMV but everytime I have done this the first couple of boxes have taken a long time then once I had working with the hardware being used down the time to build went down a lot. I would not worry about support you are most likely better than anything Dell could provide.
  • You can get a motherboard, CPU, and 256MB of ram for less than $400. For instance, access micro [accessmicro.com] (my favorite computer etailer) will sell you an abit AT7, athlonXP 1600+, 256MB of DDR333 memory, and a fan for $339 (with burn-in test.) $40 will get you a GF2MX 64MB SDR. pricewatch [pricewatch.com] indicates that WD 40GB EIDE disks (plenty for most applications) are down to $52 - Call it $75 for a disk, then, just for laughs.

    Don't buy more processor than you need; It's expensive. You can always upgrade the CPU later if you pick a good platform. You can do the whole thing for about $450-$500 for each box.

    Incidentally, I picked the GF2MX because it has good drivers and VERY fast 2D. If you are doing cad or something, get something from matrox, they have a much better DAC. The 3D is just icing.

    • Chances are, the cases for the 400mhz machines don't come with the 300 watt power supplies that are necessary to run an Athlon.
    • What you said, except I'd be an even bigger cheapskate.

      What on earth is an office PC doing that needs an AthlonXP 1600+? (OK, the sysadmins need that to play Quake after-hours, but what about the guy who only uses Excel and Powerpoint? :-)

      For that matter - sure, the WD 5400RPM 40G drives are down to $52 - but what are office PCs doing that requires 40G?

      This may depend on what he's already got -- if these PCs have only 100M of space left on ancient 2G drives, then fine, upgrade the drives to 40G. But if they've already got 6-8G drives (which probably have 4-5G free), and all the "real stuff" is stored on a central server, and all the user machines have several gigs free, isn't that enough space for your employees to store their downloaded MP3z and pr0n? ;-)

      What does he need a newer video card for? Are his users likely to run 1600x1280 on their 17" monitors?

      For office computing, you can often KIWI - Kill It With Iron. Add more RAM, swap the CPU for a P3 at either 133 MHz FSB or 100 MHz FSB, and see if it still sucks. If it ceases to suck, the problem's solved, probably for less than $100 per desktop.

      • by rnd() (118781) on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:50PM (#3432503) Homepage
        the parent post is dead on. Most slower machines will speed right up if you put in a sufficient amount of RAM.

        After that, go after the processors, if they're upgradable.

        Find some affordable hard drives and swap them out on the machines that are near capacity.

        Invest the money you save into an upgrade plan based on an upcoming hardware platform, such as the Athlon T-bred, and watch the prices on RAM and buy in bulk when the price dips.

        I think you're better off replacing the existing machines in thirds. First get rid of the most pesky third of the machines, cannabalize some RAM to improve the remaining 2/3. Then institute your new standard (whether its Dells or your self-built machines). You'll learn how to make the DIY approach efficient after the first 20 machines. In 6 months, you'll be able to buy equivalent machines at 2/3 of their current cost.

        Benefits:
        The business keeps more cash all along, and you make the absolute most out of the existing investment.

  • One thing you've got to look at is warranty coverage and who will support these boxes once they're made. Most of these components will have warranties, but there's different coverage for each one you'd have to keep track of, you might get a bad batch if you order in bulk, which can cost time and money in the long run. For a business environment, even small business, I'd recommend looking to a solid company that has a good service record and see if you can get a bid war going between two companies who have small business plans to have your business. Bottom line, it's probably more hassle than you'd want.
    • Or don't get a bid war going at all: get one of them to commit to being your single-source contractor for the whole kaboodle, and demand insurance in lieu of discount -- ie.) a service guarantee that come hell or high water, they'll have a loaner part for anything that fails within two hours of request, and a replacement part within two working days, delivered.
  • Use RIS.

    You won't be tied to hardware configs (unless you have funky hardware that doesn't have a Microsoft driver) and you can just plug your machines in with a floppy telling the machine to RIS itself (or certain NIC cards.. was it newer 3coms or Intels?).

    There are some things that are not fun about doing this, like popping older apps in to MSI's (something I have had difficulty doing), but it pays off in the end.
    • To add, in an MS envrionment, a large up-front investment in SMS will result in MUCH time saved later on. Especially for simply and quickly rolling out apps/hotfixes/service packs, but the magic hardware and software inventory can't be beat. Also simplifies license issues.
    • Use RIS. You won't be tied to hardware configs (unless you have funky hardware that doesn't have a Microsoft driver) and you can just plug your machines in with a floppy telling the machine to RIS itself (or certain NIC cards.. was it newer 3coms or Intels?).

      Bah. The first RIS job I did will be my last one. At least until I have to do > 100 PC's. I never did figure out all the problems we had with that install (project got pulled in the middle of it due to layoffs), but I think our Cisco switches did not like the DHCP requests from trying to boot off the network. About 35% of the machines had to be rebooted 5+ times in order to get a lease. And, even after it loaded (which took a god awful long time), we still had to configure each PC (for Outlook, custom apps, etc.)!

      For the 15-20 PC's he's talking about, I think RIS is a little too much. Just make 2 images (assuming no SCSI drives), one for ACPI compliant PC's and one for APM PC's (assuming you have any), install your common programs (Office and the like) and sysprep them. Then just Ghost from a network server. That's the cheap, slow way to do it. Oh, and it'll also clog the network so you may want to do it off hours. Just make sure your server can support multiple streams (or use a few servers), or it'll REALLY slow you down. I'd suggest using Bart's network boot disk to boot from (hopefully you have supported NICs, most major ones are) and then you can assign an IP if you have trouble with DHCP.

      Or, if your cases are easy to work with (most recent OEMs, barring HP and Compaq, are) Ghost from a few internal hdds (much, much faster). Just give each of your tech 3 hdd's and 3 preconfigured Ghost floppies to boot from (start Ghost in the autoexec.bat file). By the time they've started the 3rd install, the 1st will be done. Reboot it and it'll detect the devices.

      All you've got left is to install the custom apps, and configure email. If you're going to go thru the trouble of making MSI's for your apps, you may as well start using Active Directory's software install services as well. Then your users can just install their apps for themselves.

  • Will the receptionist who plays Solitaire all day need a new machine.... consider that there are probably only a few folks that would need the upgrade.
  • It depends.. (Score:2, Informative)

    by Chicane-UK (455253)
    Well I can talk from some kind of experience.. we had a bit of a botched attempt at trying this one year and decided never to bother again.

    Someone had the great idea to buy a load of AMD K6's and some cheap generic 'all in one' motherboards.. our team of 8 or so techies all sat and built about 30 of this machines in an afternoon or two.. but the machines are pretty stubborn and are already very very out of date - we just used old cases complete with 2GB drives which were more than enough at the time. Now the CPU's are still quick enough for office tasks, but the drives are much to small.. and its too much hassle to go around adding new drives and re-imaging.

    I think buying complete systems is the best way to go about this for a number of reasons :

    a) Standardised hardware (makes imaging a lot easier)

    b) Probably more reliable (you know the hardware combination they give you IS going to work.. sometimes you can put together a troublesome combination of parts and never get the system working right)

    c) Having someone else to blame if the system gives you hassle.. (just call their tech support and get them out to fix it!) :-)
  • i did the same thing you are thinking about doing now. I think the man-hours involved with building the machines ends up costing mre than buying complete machines. It depends on the amound of machines. We had 30 to build. All identical, so we just applied the same image to all of them. the long part was building them. In the end we would have saved money and time if we had simply ordered them.
  • by crow (16139) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:24PM (#3431869) Homepage Journal
    Perhaps you should consider Walmart's Microtel PCs without Windows [walmart.com]. Assuming you don't need software or monitors, you can get a 1GHz Celeron for $400. The trick is the legallity of transfering your Windows licenses (Which piece of the original computer does the license go with, the hard drive? Can you swap that piece into the new system). [Of course, if you could convert to Linux, that would be cool, but that's probably a separate battle.]
    • God, don't buy anything from walmart! http://alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=12962
    • . . .

      Which piece of the original computer does the license go with, the hard drive?

      I can answer that first one straight up : MS licenses software according to a complete configuration, usually specified according to model number.

      Moreover, as I understand it, if Dell or whoever change *any* component specification, they have to seek a *new* license _every_ time this results in a materially different *system*. I understand that system is defined as mobo + processor, disks and ram et.c. don't have any effect. The system system (are you with me? :) is not mutually exclusive with the model number system of licensing - both seem to have simultaneous effect.

      How do I know this?

      Well a year or so back, I ordered up a bunch of IBM "M Pro" dual PIII/i840 machines for my company. Firstly, IBM were sharp enough to take our cash (yup that's cash by direct transfer to their account) stating they had shippable product. Rubbish. Weeks later we were still being fobbed off. So at that point I called the legal department at their regional HQ and pointed that they had a material breach of contract and had better sharpen up. We got our boxes pretty darn quick. But with NT4 loaded instead of Win2k. (we'd ordered W2k)

      In trying to fix our fulfillment problems I had a direct line to their assembly/engineering management, so this info is near as dang it from the horses mouth. IBM couldn't just switch us a new license for Win2k. Moreover, once an OEM license is accepted by the end user (like when you power up and configure :) , you're bound by the same OEM terms. You are *supposed* to keep the base system.

      Yup that sucks. FYI IBM set us up with a bunch of nice SCSI 18Gb 10k drives by way of apology, and the machines are rock solid, service since then good et.c. It was an interesting education.

      As far as the real world goes - not that I advocate this - how exactly is MS going to be able to tell you replaced the whole underlying System?

      If that made any sense to you, I guess it's a result! I'm too tired to unravel the rest of the gobbledygook that was pumped into my mind when I got irate and pressed for answers why I couldn't just get IBM to hand us the licenses we originally ordered.

      Good luck to ya, hope the BSA doesn't catch you at anything you shouldn't be doing:-0

    • Fry's in Southern California has been selling $250 PCs from BTC with Linux on them. That's what I'm posting on right now. Works great! The Linux that comes on them is not a "real" Linux distro -- more like an information appliance shell -- but you can replace it with something else, and you're not paying for a Windows license if you don't need it.
  • There are a few advantages of building the computers yourself, but it's not something I would do in your shoes.

    Consider first the labor costs. Even assuming you can ghost your software and buy exact matching hardware, you're still looking at 2-3 hours per machine in the actual hardware construction/testing phase. Depending on what you could be making billing out to clients (again, depends on what kind of business your in, and your position in the company), you may loose your cost savings.

    Second is system hardware management. You know for a fact that a solid system from Dell or another giant will most likely have every component working together and all the neccescary drivers functioning right out of the box. Most of the time off the shelf components play nice these days, but you never know.

    And, of course, there is the licensing issues. If you plan on migrating your current software licenses to the new machines, make sure they all work ok.

    Just a few things to think about.
  • Why upgrade? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by j09824 (572485) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:25PM (#3431876)
    400MHz is plenty fast for web and software development.

    If you must, go out and get some low-end consumer PCs and buy a bunch of spares: it's less work than building your own and still very cheap.

  • Support issues (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Chibi Merrow (226057)
    Speaking as someone who has to support about five hundred of Some Other Guy's Product(tm), the main issue I'd have with us rolling out so many of our own custom built systems is just that. Systems from some other guy (say, Dell) come with pretty comprehensive service plans that lets me make Dell deal with dead monitor/mouse/HD/power supply problems in 24 hours instead of me having to track down the manufacturer and get him to ship me a replacement within a couple weeks time.
    If you're already supporting the systems, though, as you make it seem... then this may not be an issue for you. Just find out about RMA policies of your vendor beforehand! :)
  • $600 to high (Score:2, Informative)

    by bool (144199)
    I don't know where you are getting $600/system but I can get a 1ghz duron system complete with no scavenging for less than that. I would think w/o software that you could get about $400/system if you really skimmed.
  • by Verteiron (224042) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:26PM (#3431884) Homepage
    While I can appreciate the geek factor here, I think you'd be nuts to roll your own systems here. It will eat up loads of your time, overall costing your company more than it would to just pay more for each system. And I'm not just talking build time. When (not if) one of the systems go kerput, you'll end up diagnosing it yourself, RMAing the defective component, replacing it yourself, testing, reloading OS (if needed), etc etc. Compare to getting a Dell or something, where you determine software or hardware. If hardware, it's under warranty, you don't have to so much as crack the case open. Saves a lot of time and therefore cash.

    Even if they cost a little more, I think you'll find yourself grateful for a warranty to fall back on. Plus, when machines go boom, you aren't instantly blamed. If you roll your own, any system that crashes will be pinned on YOU, and you alone.

    I know that's not a situation that I'd like to be in. Would you?
  • It depends what you need them for. I'm not sure where you get the $600 per unit quote from, but assuming you recycle most of the things, I'd say $300 a unit is likely sufficient.

    For simple office work, a $50 Duron and something like a $100 moderate quality motherboard should suffice, throw in a $100 hard drive to increase speed, maybe add 128 megs of ram for a little boost too, without topping $300

    For 3-d or crazy amounts of compiling, you can probably upgrade to a 1.6ghz Athlon XP and a new hard drive as well as DDR RAM for under $500.

    What I would do is build a couple dual Athlon linux servers and compile code on them while doing development and small compiles locally on the current 400mhz machines, but it depends on your application.
  • Go with the names (Score:2, Informative)

    by First_In_Hell (549585)
    I would have to say go with the big name guys. Dell's prices are insane. I cannot build a better system (we are talking quality parts here) for the money than they can. Also , you don't have to worry about moving OSes around . . everything is already done for you. Also to get a decent business system from Dell will cost you way less than $1000 (especially if you use your old monitors), plus most of the time you can get the latest copies of MS office for no charge.

    Also I know the name may be tainted, but I cannot stress the quality of E-Machines. If your tech staff knows a bit about hardware, their horrible tech support is not an issue. We have about 50-60 E-Machines here, and only 2 or 3 have ever gave us a problem. These PC's are insanley priced and the components are name brand. You can a 1Ghz+ machine for under $800 with a monitor if you look around.

    Remember these big guys buy in bulk that is why they offer good prices. Plus most of the time the PC is ready to go (as long as it comes with the OS you want which you can customize with Dell.)

    • OK, eMachines computers are decent, and the price is right. However: some caveats.

      We have about 50-60 E-Machines here, and only 2 or 3 have ever gave us a problem. These PC's are insanley[sic] priced and the components are name brand.

      Here are potential points of failure on an eMachines:

      • Power supplies
      • crappy Samsung Hard Drives
      • icky built-in video/audio

      Strictly, the last is not a point of failure, but more an annoyance that is easily remedied.

      My suggestion: if you go the eMachines route, replace the boot hard drive right away with a boxed Maxtor and use the Samsung as a slave data drive. Also get a spare Sparkle SFX-L form-factor power supply for each machine...the power supply WILL DIE. I guarantee it. Maybe not this week, maybe not this month, maybe even not this year, but IT WILL HAPPEN.

      Also I strongly suggest using the expansion slots to replace the video with something that doesn't suck memory and processor cycles. You can still find decent PCI video cards.

      Do this and you will avoid most of the eMachines' endemic problems. It's better to build from scratch, but if you must buy a box with a name, you can do worse (cough*HP Pavilion*cough) than eMachines.

  • Why is 400mhz so bad for desktop systems ? What are your users' needs ? Must every system be upgraded to a 'blazing' Ghz+ processor ?

    Cobbling together parts saves cash initially, but what about technical support and part replacement ? Do you call each vendor for each component when something fails ? How do you prove you bought the part and deserve support ?

    Example: buy an OEM system - say, a Dell, and you call them when anything breaks that came in the box. Hard drive, keyboard, mouse, monitor, etc. Are you now going to keep track of Viewsonic, Maxtor, Microsoft (periphs), Xircom, Intel, 3com, Logitech, Samsung, Sony, etc etc etc! support contracts ??

    So basically I'm curious as to two things -

    Why the need for a processor upgrade across the board, which is what I'm understanding this to be ? You're keeping everything else from the original systems, right ?

    Do you have a system to manage proving you deserve support to a dozen vendors ? Will you no longer have support from the original OEMs who built the systems you're canabalizing ?

    __
  • I've done it... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by drteknikal (67280) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:28PM (#3431904) Homepage
    ...and I can't really recommend it.

    I worked in a 50-user shop, and provided services and equipment to a 200-user shop under contract.

    In our case, the only way to get decent specs and meet the client's budget was to roll our own. The other options were too few systems, or systems too cheesy to contemplate. Cheesy as in crap, not as in creamy goodness.

    If you go down that path, my suggestion would be to make sure you have confidence in your component choices, and that all your component choices interoperate flawlessly. Any system you have to see again will blow the savings - your first callback or return could be fatal. Make sure you source quality components, and if you're trying to minimize the number of discrete configurations, buy all your components at once.

    Spend money on decent cases with good power supplies. Don't yield to the urge to "cheap out" on components that "don't matter" - they all matter. Don't buy cadillac parts, but make sure everything you do buy is good quality, sound, and durable. Keep extra original parts on hand, especially a mobo or two.

    Come up with a logo and have the stickers printed - it amazed us how many people would readily accept a brand they'd never heard of, but would never accept an unbranded system.

    Your initial problem will be evaluating a number of different hardware options, then settling on those you want to standardize on. Once you get to that point, what do you do with the bastard love children of your prototype period? Don't deploy them to users, you'll water down any faith and confidence your production systems should inspire.

  • A motherboard based on the nVidia nForce [nvidia.com] chipset. Several manufacturers make 'em. Basically it's the first all-in-one mobo chipset that WORKS out of the box. And yes! it's an Athlon chipset.

    With all the issues with the VIA K7 chipset, it's natural you'd feel a little queasy about going the AMD route. Also there's the heat death issues to consider. I understand there are now safety measures in place to save an Athlon XP if the chip fan/heatsink fails, but that was not the case with earlier Athlons. But keep that fan on tight...it's important.

    • I will concur with this idea.

      Get a decent nForce system, one with the integrated graphics, but you don't need the integrated dolby surround digital 67 channel audio southbridge, nor do you require dual-channel DDR. They are icing on the cake otherwise, if you have enough memory. It has graphics, audio and network on board - what else does a corporate PC need?

      What you need to do is use quality components from the beginning, all the way through your systems. That means a case that is easy to take apart, with good power supply (min 300W) - you are the one doing the repairs remember!

      And try and get bulk discounts from suppliers if possible.

      Another good idea is to have a few *really* powerful servers around to do the compiling on. I.e., dual athlon MP2000+'s with a SCSI raid array. This could obviate the need for new desktops for quite some time - maybe 6 months, maybe a year, if this is solution solves the problem.

      Personally, I think that 400MHz should be more than fine. Your users have probably clogged up the hard drives with spyware, mp3 players and loads of crap. You might get a good return on simply wiping and rebuilding each machine from scratch (using an optimised ghost image or two), and locking down the machines from user interference. This solves the licence problem as well.

      Also find out which of your users are Linux friendly and are willing to use it solely on the desktop (with the old 400MHz machine for Outlook and Word, if necessary). The research could come in handy down the line, and you can sneak Linux into the office for those users, and it might spread - saves money on Microsoft at any rate!

  • Honestly, with the possibility of needing more storage (I'm guessing that 400mhz systems probably had what? 10 gigs or so?) I don't see what problem you have. These are office machines, not servers whose load increases each week. Even then, these not only meet the minimum requirements for win2k (Which, btw, I think is a bad choice), but should be spiffy enough that no one dies of terminal annoyance using them.

    Am I missing something? Are these software development systems (where compile times have alot to do with productivity) or maybe web design/graphic arts systems (where someone is bitching for the latest Macromedia tool) ? You've given absolutely zero compelling reasons for such a massive upgrade, with you willingly admit that you are on a shoestring budget. It's a wonder that your dotcom isn't dead like the rest.
  • If something in an OEM machine breaks, you can be assured that they can get you something to replace it. If you made it yourself and it's been a while (>6 months) there's a good chance the entire component you need is no longer available.

    So you put something else in it. Next week something else breaks. A couple weeks later another one. Now you already have four different setups, and the ones with replaced parts will give you trouble if you put a GHOST image back on them. Not to mention the hassle when you have to install new applications or drivers.

    I personally prefer the OEM workstations with lots of stuff integrated: video, sound, controllers, NIC with lots of features. And you can be assured these machines will be tested when some ISV who's software you use (Microsoft?) brings out a patch or update. If you have self-made Athlon boxes sitting on all your desktops, what are you going to do when some crucial piece of software doesn't work? Blame the guy who sold you the 60 Athlons? :)
  • Bang for the buck is always a great exercise to play, but how about maximum buck?

    Why $600 per machine? Why not.. $400?
    Worst case you've got a power supply, motherboard, CPU, and ram. Everything else (peripheral cards, video cards, networking cards, sound cards, monitor) stay the same.

    Best case, you can reuse the power supply.

    Go for 800-900 MHz, rather than 1.4GHz.
    Go for 266DDR, rather than 500+
    So you spend about $60 on a CPU, you spend about $110 on the motherboard, you spend about $180 on 512mb RAM... that's $350...

    How much performance do you need, how much performance can you afford, and how much performance can you settle for?
  • but for our servers, not our desktops.

    We returned all our expensive, overpowered equipment to Sun, and moved to hand-build machines.

    With two or three of us doing it, it only took a while to assemble, and get the OS's installed.

    The biggest threat is probably hardware incompatibility. I would suggest you go to Dell, customize a computer; Dell puts alot of work into making sure hardware works together. By putting together a computer based on what Dell would offer will minimize the risk.

    Also, buy from a local computer store that's been around for a while. You want to be able to return bad motherboards, etc. And make sure they have an abundance of the components in stock. If they have just enough motherboards to satisfy your order, and one of your boards is bad, you might have a delay.
  • My experience has been that when you're too busy to handle your own hardware/software support, you should find a competent local firm who can build machines to your specifications, support them, and provide warranties.

    I have found that name-brand systems (i.e. Dell, Gateway, Compaq, etc.) are overpriced, underfeatured, and have a very limited hardware upgrade path.

    When you find a local computer reseller who will provide you with the support you need you can get the AMD systems you want with the componentry you want, without the hassle of taking the time to order, build, and load them.

    This arrangment is especially valuable if any of your hardware is DOA. The vendor will take care of any returns. You only get working hardware.

    Finding a competent local vendor is tough. Everyone thinks they know their hardware and their hardware is the best. It pays to go with someone who has been in business at least a couple years. Talk to their customers and get feedback. Check out ResellerRatings.com [resellerratings.com] for comments on some of the larger resellers.

    Good luck.

  • by X!0mbarg (470366)
    I see you already have a Pro/Con list. Here's a few more thinmgs to consider:

    DIY Rollout:
    Pros:
    You know exactly what parts are, or are not, in your systems, and can (usually) get spares easily.
    OS installation/options/configuration is(are) also a known quantity.
    Can be extremely cost effective to roll out.

    Cons:
    Warrenty is provided by whoever you bought your parts from (new), or long-past dead on recycled parts (in most cases).
    Tech support? Look in the mirror! ;)
    Large Scale network support? See above.

    There are a few good reasons for a DIY rollout, but the long term support may be the price you pay later. If you have confidence in your skills, and have a friend or two that can help you out when "it" hits the fan on the next "I Love You" type virus hits, I'd say, Save The Cash, and Go For It!

    If your Boss (the guy signing the cheques) want "Guarantees", you just might have to talk to a Big Name company.

    Here's a thought: Try selling off your older componants. The extra revenue, however small, might be enought to help get things rolling.

    Good Luck eigther way!
  • You could pull off $600 in savings if you did it right -- I just replaced the CPU & motherboard in a 266 mhz box, kept all the peripherals (although I did buy newer, faster RAM), total cost was $325.

    But anyway, you think you'll get $400 in savings per machine. OK, how much do you make an hour (on average, if you're salaried)? Let's say you make $40/hour, roughly. OK, so if it takes you 10 extra hours to custom-build the box, then you break even. Because you'll have to do without a support contract -- which I find is rarely used, anyway -- you may want to factor in cost for that, too. OK, so let's say you'll spend 3 hours, on average, servicing each machine yourself. So if you can put together the box in less than 7 hours, it's a savings. But it's really a good savings only if you can custom assemble those boxes in something like 2 or 3 hours. Then the numbers start to show promise. If you save $100/machine, that's $2,000 a year on 20 machines. So-so.

    I guess for me, if I could replace the machines for $400 in parts, that's a $600 savings. If I then could assemble the thing in just 2 hours, that's roughly $100 of "savings" that I lose. That's 20 machines/year X $500 = $10,000. Yeah, that starts to sound worth it. If I was your manager and you came to me suggesting this big plan which would save the company $2,000 a year but suck up a lot of your time, I'd say no, let's have you spend your time doing other things that might have more bang for the buck. But if you come to me with a plan to save $10,000, and you are demonstrably capable of pulling it off, it starts to sound like it might be time well-spent.

  • If you buy a machinefrom a ``real company'', you get support. If a hard drive breaks, Dell will forward-ship you one overnight. If your AMD system breaks...um...you'll have some guy breathing down your neck while you hope CDW has some spares in stock.

    In a corporate setting, there's simply no reason to roll your own systems.

    - A.P.
  • (Note: I don't work for Dell, but after buying this latest round of systems, I wholeheartedly recommend them.)

    I got two Celeron 1.1GHz systems and a Pentium IV 1.6GHz for $588 each (shipped!) Here [slashdot.org] is a Slashdot post that details my experiences with them.

    There was absolutely no way I could undercut Dell on price by building my own -- especially not when you include the cost of Windows XP (preinstalled), one-year on-site warranty, and the awesome cases that open with the press of a button.

    It really doesn't make sense to build PC's yourself anymore when manufacturers are offering PC's like this for bargain-bin prices. Plus, you can always recycle monitors as well -- that's what I did with this set.

    Building your own will certainly give you job security (as someone else mentioned), but it will also give you no end of headaches. Why doesn't video card A work with motherboard B? And installing Windows 60 times is enough to make even the bravest person run away in fear. Even with a copy of Ghost in hand, you still have the daunting task of putting everything together (and charging the company for your effort). In the end, it's really not worth it to either you or the company. Besides, do you really want to spend the next two weeks testing out RAM and hard drives by hand? Bleh. ;)
  • Rather than buying from Dell/Compaq/HP...

    You might want to consider what a local computer assembler would charge you for a generic PC with equivalent specs. Around here, at least (SF Bay Area) there are a number of mom-and-pop shops that consistently beat the large manufacturers on price. It's helpful to have someone local to call for repairs, too.

    Also, a lot of these places will do the upgrading labor for you (and test/warranty the machines, as well).

    -Mark
  • I've built 3 AMD-based systems in the past few months for dirt cheap prices. Currently, I'm rebuilding my girlfriend's computer, recycling only the HD, RAM, floppy, and a CDROM. So far, I'm at $180 in costs, and she's gonna have a 1GHz Duron system w/ 128 MB RAM, new case, all that jazz.

    If you know where to get stuff, it can be cheap. Definately check Pricewatch [pricewatch.com] for your stuff. You'll even get discounts on shipping if you buy in bulk from most places!

  • I've learned a few important lessons from having set up networks of white boxes. The little problems you have setting up your home gaming box just aren't acceptable when multiplied by 60...

    - Buy good RAM. I've never had a problem with the Crucial stuff before, and have had problems with just about everything else. Bad RAM can cause intermittent failures, disk corruption, and a heck of a lot of wasted time.

    - Buy a mainboard from a reputable manufacturer with a solid chipset. Don't buy anything cutting edge, get something that is stable and proven to work. Normally I go with one of the more mainstream Asus boards.

    - Buy retail boxed CPUs. In my experience, the brand-x bundled coolers WILL FAIL within a year or two. Even the supposed high-end ones. The boxed CPUs don't cost any more when you factor in the fan cost. The retail boxed CPUs come with a 3 year warranty from AMD.
  • Yes, if you can keep sufficient staff to handle the workload, and remember you'll need some space to do the work.

    But I've always found it better to use clones, and the more control we had over the design, the better. The real savings come from being able to set up all your systems consistently so that you can manage them more effectively. You might have to deal with a variety of hardware (video cards and NICs are hard to stay consistent with, they change every six months or so), but you can account for that.

    Using brand name systems, even if you stick with one brand, involves extra work, because they change so often now. You always end up managing a heterogeneous environment that was designed by a marketing department. And desktop PC's are so disposable that any extra warranty you'd get on a brand name is going to cost you more than it's worth. Much easier to just replace a hard disk than to ship a PC out for service.

    Your biggest cost is staff, so if you use the opportunity effectviely, you'll make everybody's job easier, and the hardware savings won't even matter. It will also shorten your lead times if you set it up right.

    Also, be careful that you don't over-use spare parts, thats' one problem with having a lot of new hardware hanging around. My motto is, "If we have too many spares, we'll use them." Sometimes you swap out a hard disk, throw the old one in the "we'll test it someday" pile. But if it turns out that wasn't the porblem, then you've pretty much throw away a hard disk without realizing it.
  • by maggard (5579) <michael@michaelmaggard.com> on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:47PM (#3432082) Homepage Journal
    The real question is how much is your time & energy (meaning paid-for-by-your-employer) is worth vs the benefits of buying from a vendor?
    1. You can get a reasonable deal from a Dell or IBM for 50 PCs. This includes putting your own image on the drive, support, a decent salesdroid who will likely help with any issues down the road, a sturdy warrenty to back your purchase up, lotsa help in the drivers & spares market, etc.

    2. You can get 50 PCs assembled at ye local screwdriver shoppe for about what it would cost you to build-your-own but insofar as support & such you are own your own (unless it is some gross defect they can return to the manufacturer.)

    3. Or you can do it all in house and assume you've got the time to do it all, keep up with everything, and of course document it all in case of a proverbial bus hitting you.
    My own argument would be if the business is a real business it should invest in its tools that are a critical part of it's operation. If this eats into the other budgets tough - employees need a roof, lighting, and decent computers. Trying to nickel & dime on hardware is foolish because you invariably end up with a herd of increasingly quirky systems slowly becoming Frankensteined. Unless the tech support (you) is free they're going to end up spending any savings in your time as well as the downtime of the aging & rebuilt systems plus the increasingly irate rest of the staff.

    Put this all on paper, generate some good estimates of costs & time allowences, failure rates & resolution times then present it to the CFO. Even for a company in a cash crunch these are generally compelling arguments that are well understood by the numbers folks.

    They they don't bite then ask yourself if you want to hang around babysitting these monstrosities as the rest of the world moves on?

  • I would buy from a trusted local store. You might end up spending a bit more, but at least you can go exchange a component without having to worry about S&H and delays.
  • You mention ghost. There's also Partition Magic's drive image program. There's also using any of the free cd-rom imaging programs to make an image of the final install. Slap that image on a harddrive and since you'll have the case open anyway, just put that hd in as a slave and copy the image over. There's a few things you can do since you'll have the case apart.

    One thing you are factoring in is your time. You will be using it to do these upgrades. You know what you are paid and you know how long it will take you to do the upgrade. You do the math. 2 hours a machine can easily shave a hundred bucks off the price difference.

    Yes, your time is a sunk cost for the company, but your time is valuable and could be spent on other projects which must now go without you.

    Plus you've got the added cost of ordering multiple parts from different vendors, tracking these parts as they come in, etc.

    I'm not saying you won't be able to save money, but be aware that there are these hidden costs as well.

  • Please send us:
    Your company name, address, phone number, and you and your manager's contact info. We will be glad to assist you in any licensing issues you may have, especially in the area of OEM licenses. Glad to be of assistance.

    Sincerely,

    The Business Software Alliance [bsa.org]

  • Though you'll save $400 per box, the noise that all those AMD-powered boxes will generate may not be worth the savings.

    I'm not sure how they do it but Dell boxes are extremely quiet.
  • by rusty spoon (564695) on Monday April 29, 2002 @05:50PM (#3432103) Homepage
    I own and operate a small dotcom like business and we always bought the bits for our machines, and built them ourselves.

    We bought the best components, big cases and were able to ensure everything worked as desired. But reliability is a BIG issue.

    We recently stopped this practice and decided to buy from a small but reliable company (armari.co.uk). I bought a test machine (dual amd 1800+, 1GBram, etc.) and the build quality is amazing...we are now purchasing these machines (plus dual monitor) for all the team.

    It's a big relief knowing that I can just call someone and have it fixed asap. Armari even provided named Win2k login, partioned the way I like, and system rescue CD's that in 10 minutes put the os, drivers and configs all back to factory ship.

    No looking back to the dim and dark days of spending hours trying to get a SCSI card to boot a CD :-) Get someone else to burn it in - it's a waste of your time.
  • Don't do it (Score:3, Informative)

    by Pedrito (94783) on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:41PM (#3432442) Homepage
    We thought building our own would be cheaper, but the maintenance turned out to be a nightmare and cost us a lot more than the machines themselves. In once case, we had a machine that had a bad motherboard, then a bad replacement. Took almost 3 weeks to get that one machine up and running.

    Dell is great. They'll come out and fix your machines for you. After the build our own fiasco, we went with Dell. The only problem we had of all the Dell machines was a bad IDE cable in one machine. Otherwise, things were great.

    I bet you'll average more than $400 in labor time, for each machine, in the long run. Also, I think your math is bad. I bet you can get decent Dell P4s for $600 or so. A Dell, 128MB P4@1.7GhZ(without monitor), $500 after rebate.
  • by Ryan Amos (16972) on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:51PM (#3432514)
    You're either crazy or just a masochist. Yes, it sounds cool and very geeky, but it's also rather impractical. The money your company would save by doing this in house would be lost on having to maintain them and pay you to set them all up (thus taking you away from your other duties.)

    This would also take an insane amount of time. Sixty machines is a lot of boxen; optimistically it would take you an hour per machine to swap all the hardware around and reformat the drives and install Windows. In other words, you'd be down at least a week.

    Order sixty new machines from an OEM and you're down 2 days tops. Plus you get the guarantee that the machines work (out of 60 boxes, you're bound to get some bad hardware) and you get a warranty from a reputable company, not to mention saving yourself a MAJOR headache.

    If something goes wrong with one of the machines, you just call the vendor and straighten it out. If you roll you own, you have to spend time doing diagnostics, then tracking down the receipts, RMA from parts warehouses, limbo time for replacement parts.. All this time your company is paying you to not do the job they hired you for.

    Sure, they can hire on another guy to help you, but then there goes all that money you saved having to pay his salary. So in the end, your company didn't really save any money, they just have 60 new machines with no comprehensive warranty, poor tech support, and probably a very frazzled and stressed admin. The geek factor sounds fun, but in reality, it would be more practical to order from a vendor.
  • Cheap Summer Labor (Score:3, Interesting)

    by boopus (100890) on Monday April 29, 2002 @07:14PM (#3432651) Journal
    One thing to add is that summer is almost upon us, and with that season comes many students looking for summer jobs. A couple fliers taken around to the local high school should get your plenty of high schoolers who'd be perfectly competent swapping motherboards/ram/hard drives. Ten bucks an hour to a high school student is better than flipping burgers, and far less than a salried employees time.
  • Get a Dell (Score:5, Interesting)

    by anewsome (58) <anewsome@anew s o m e . c om> on Monday April 29, 2002 @07:16PM (#3432661) Homepage
    If you are going to pay $600 for these things, you would be better off getting a Dell. I paid about that much for a couple of 2Ghz P4 systems fairly well loaded.

    My 2Ghz P4 Dells are:

    • 256MB DDR Ram
    • 80GB 7200RPM Maxtor HD
    • Builtin Sound, Ethernet
    • CD-RW Drive
    • Full Tower case (solid)
    I've been building clone boxes my whole life, but I couldn't pass this Dell up. This is pretty typical on Dell's site.

    I usually check gotapex.com [gotapex.com] for deals.

    Today they have a business class Dell P4 1.6GHz GX240 for $357.64 shipped. You can't build a loaded clone machine from scratch for that much, let alone one covered by a 3 year warranty.

  • Cluster 'em (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Rebel Patriot (540101) on Monday April 29, 2002 @07:46PM (#3432790) Journal
    I know this is a little late, but here's a solution we've come up with that's in the cooker for some of our clients in a similar situation.

    Basically you should invest $4,000 in a single server, RAID SCSI drives, dual athlon, 2 gigs of RAM. You've already got a 10/100 Mb backbone for your network, so you can slip this in just about anywhere.

    Now here's where it gets fun. Load your favorite distro of linux, visit the Linux Terminal Server Project, and make a terminal server out of it. Then, check out MOSIX, or Sun's grid-computing (the later sports better redundancy, a feature I adore when working with end-users). Grab nics and boot-roms for each PC, install 'em, and boom, you've got a complete functioning cluster of what, 40 PII's? You have any idea the power those can muster?

    Not only will you see a huge boost in computing power, but you also save money. Need to use quick books? What's a single liscence for Citrix cost? You can publish the app natively on your terminal server. Open Office works great for converting all those old MS documents.

    Honestly, KDE 3.0 just came out. Use it. :-)
  • by zerofoo (262795) on Monday April 29, 2002 @07:58PM (#3432836)
    I've worked for a white-box builder/consulting company and now i'm a sysadmin. I've been on both sides of the build or buy question and i've finally decided to buy pre-built boxes...here's why:

    Replacement parts availability.

    That nifty Athlon board from MSI, ABIT, Epox, and the like won't be around 1 year from now. If you image machines, you will most likely have to create new images when you service/replace hardware. (Win2k doesn't like having its boot controllers moved around very much...you'll get the "inaccesable boot device error".)

    The upfront cost savings may be attractive, but there isn't a free lunch...you'll have to spend more time maintaining different platforms.

    -ted
  • Absolutely Go For It (Score:4, Informative)

    by foo fighter (151863) on Monday April 29, 2002 @09:37PM (#3433256) Homepage
    I'm not sure what the chances are you'll even see this. 450 posts and the ones modded up are pretty negative. Oh well. . .

    I'm currently rolling custom built machines for our 200 systems network. Oh, and I'm the only tech here. I do the servers, network, help desk planning, everything.

    My place is a non-profit where a very small, chaotic budget. I'm never sure exactly when I'll have money to spend or how much. For strange reasons, when we go to spend money we have to go through a maze to buy complete equipment, but components are no problem. We couldn't buy a new company car, but we could buy all the parts to put a car together ourselves. Same goes for computers.

    The savings we've seen building ourselves are huge. Adding the costs of the pieces and my time spent planning, building, and supporting these systems it is still cheaper than OEM systems and a support contract. A+ certified techs are a dime a dozen, so support of these wintel systems isn't really a factor if I were to leave. (They'd have to get a half dozen to do what I'm doing by myself in 40 hours a week, plus an MCSE and a CCNA, so I'm not worried about job security).

    Here are some tips:

    1) Plan out your configuration and use it for the next year. The most important component is the motherboard. It should be able to accept more RAM and a faster CPU than you are going to use initially. Spend lots of time developing a stable, user-friendly software config (OS and apps). As you need to replace systems throughout the year, use this config. After six months update the config with a faster CPU, more RAM, and maybe a larger HD. Update your software config with patches, fixes, stuff like that now also. At the year mark you can plan your new config.

    2) Integrated components are your friend. I like the nVidia nForce boards because they have the (good) sound, video, and network integrated. Also, if one manufacturer stops making your board, you should be able to switch to another manufacturer but still use the same drivers. Very important for ghosting!

    3) You really don't need the management software for 60 computers. That stuff is usually designed (and priced) for enterprises with several hundred if not thousands of systems. You should be able to keep most of that stuff in your head and in a small text-file database. Learn a little Python/tk and you can even build your own front end to the text-file. Cool!

    4) Develop a relationship with a couple local component vendors, and a couple Internet vendors and have them bid for any purchase more than a couple grand. You'll definetely save money this way, especially if they know they are bidding and not just giving a price quote. I've saved thousands of dollars on a single purchase this way. Also, after a while the local guys will probably be able to send a couple guys your way to help out every once-in-a-while when you get swamped or stuck as a thank you for your business. Very Cool!

    Following these tips, you only have four platforms to work with, you've saved money, you know exactly what you are working with, and you get a sense of pride from creating something from your own two hands.

    I really can't recommend this approach highly enough.
  • Not worth it. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by smoon (16873) on Tuesday April 30, 2002 @01:26AM (#3434085) Homepage
    I used to run a small computer shop -- 30-100 PCs a month kind of place.

    We used to do hand-builds, then eventually switched to getting 'mostly configured' systems we could then further customize for the customer.

    _If_ you know exactly what you're doing, _and_ you have a number of good contacts with various suppliers, _and_ you get a good batch of parts with no incompatabilities -- in other words, best case scenario you will have:

    A: A big pile of boxes to assemble. The days of jumpers and whatnot are mostly gone, but you still need to figure out how everything fits together, do it 10, 20, 30, whatever times in a row, and never break anything or have a DOA part. And even though there probably aren't a lot of jumpers, there are still finicky CMOS settings to set correctly and equivalently on all of the machines.

    B: To then load everything. This is generally best done on one 'master' system with that disk image 'ghosted' onto the other hard drives. Sounds simple, but setting up that master image properly can take a while. Perhaps you'd have to do this with a Dell anyway. YMMV.

    C: To deal with any integration problems -- hard drive fails? Call the hard drive vendor. Flaky problems? Oops, you couldn't afford a RAM tester or other diagnostic equipment, and so you play the swap-out game -- you pretty much need a complete computer on the side for this kind of troubleshooting. And a _lot_ of time on your hands.

    And this is absolute best case. The crackpot idea of upgrading the mobo in place and re-using the hard drive, video, etc. is fine in principle, but in practice doesn't scale beyond the one-off home hobbyist sort of thing.

    Worst case is that you buy parts for perhaps 20 systems, get about 14 built, RMA 3-4 hard drives, have some strange driver problems with the video cards, and get 2-3 variations of motherboard --- rev. 1, rev. 2, one yellow one green -- whatever, RAM seems to be flaky, but you're not sure if it's a CMOS setting or a bad MOBO or a bad RAM module, and if the latter, which one it might be. Start chewing through all of the permutations and eventually you figure it out and maybe get 18 of the original 20 built, the other two are constantly rotated with various users as their desktops crap out.

    IMHO other than for home hobbyist use, getting a Dell/IBM/Compaq/Gateway/HP/insert favorite brand here/whatever computer beats the heck out of a roll-your-own system.
  • by trims (10010) on Tuesday April 30, 2002 @02:43AM (#3434278) Homepage

    Remember the article the other day when we all laughed at the Wilkes Barre IT guy who stopped the IBM maintenance on the AS/400 ? Well, this is the same kind of thinking: penny-wise and pound foolish.

    Remember: support contracts are a form of insurance. They insulate you from the risk associated with the issue at hand. When looking at any form of insurance, you have to take into account what the worst-case senario is, and if you can handle it. In your case, the scenario is that you have multiple desktop failures, including critical failures of important machines (ie, severl of your main developers). Do a cost analysis: if I do a roll-my-own machine, what's the cost of it breaking? How much does it cost for that developer to have no (or a seriously inferior) machine for a week or more, vs. the 1 or 2 days a supported machine would be out?

    For small companies, (especially those heavy in software development) I can't imagine a situation where the TCO of a fully-supported system is worse than a roll-your-own box. None The downtime and IT personnel time alone will kill that equation. For huge companies, it may pan out, but for a 60-desktop company with 1 IT person? Not a chance.

    You need to put this into perspective with Management. Once again, they are looking at only the up-front costs, and none of the hidden costs, which in this case are the majority. Explain to them what the true cost of a desktop is, and how NOT buying a supported machine results in a WORSE return over the next year.

    Now, here's a couple of recommendations for getting SUPPORTED desktops into your organization while not breaking the budget and still meeting increased performance needs:

    1. ADD RAM TO THE EXISTING BOXES If any of the machines have less than 256MB, upgrade them immediately. This is extraordinarily cheap, and eliminates the primary performance problem of most machines. For the developer's, have them look at their RAM usage a couple times each day (using Task Manager, for simplicities sake), then consider if they need extra. Probably 512 in their machines will be sufficient.
    2. Talk to a local PC shop. Many times, a local shop will be willing to take over support for you, in addition to an upgrading contract. They're a good source of manpower, and can even get you a loaner machine faster than Dell, et al. And, you can probably get them to upgrade certain machines you have AND officially support them!
    3. Replace ONLY those machines who #1 doesn't solve the problem. Very, very little stuff on a desktop is CPU-bound. I run a 350Mhz P2 w/384MB of RAM on my desktop. I'm not a developer, but do Power-User Windows + Sysadmin. My machine runs fine with the following apps all open: two JDK 1.1 GUI apps, Oracle SQL+, SQL Builder, Outlook, Remedy, 3 PuTTy windows, 6 IE windows, Excel, and Word. I'm never CPU-bound. The only real jobs that need CPU are compiling, debugging a running app, and hard-core media dev (super-Photoshop, Flash, Dreamweaver...) I'd be surprised if more than 25% of your staff really, truely can justify something better after the RAM upgrade.
    4. After upgrading, sell the extra computers. See #2 for a nice place to sell older computers.

    I don't mean to harp on you personnally, but this kind of thing is why IT has a long, long way to go before being really professional. Folks, this isn't a garage. IT folks need to quite thinking like it's an expanded hobby, and also need to remind the Executives of this, too. It's a Profession, not a Trade.

    -Erik
    Systems/Network Architect and former SysAdmin

  • My 2 cents (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Dragoness Eclectic (244826) on Tuesday April 30, 2002 @09:54AM (#3435163)
    I am commenting as someone who has scratch-built many PCs, both for home and business use. First, I'll assume you know what your needs are, and not try to tell you that your 400 Mhz Pentiums are just fine. You said you need to upgrade, I'll take your word for it. I'm also not going to tell you exactly what you should buy, I assume you know what you need/want. And your Win2K license terms aren't my problem, either. Other people have also commented well on anti-static issues.

    First, don't start this job until you are comfortable tearing computers apart and putting them back together. Building and repairing computers is fairly simple these days, when everything is componentized, but you do have to know what you are doing. You need to be able to understand those motherboard manuals and figure out what jumpers and BIOS settings you need for your particular configuration. You need to be able to screw motherboards into place and shove cards into slots without breaking them or slicing yourself open on the chassis (I swear every one of my personal computers is christened with my blood!), and plug cables in right-side up. All simple things to learn, but they can be expensive and frustrating to learn the hard way. If you're not comfortable doing these things, don't plan on building 60 PCs yourself. Farm the job out to a good local vendor or technician who is.

    Line up a good vendor, either local or mail order, who can sell you what you need, when you need it (finding out replacement parts are unavailable or back-ordered for a month when you need them NOW is not helpful), at a satisfactory price and with a no-hassle return policy--because you will be returning bad components when you order enough for 60 PCs--unless you pay the higher price for a vendor that does 24-hour burn-in. Even then you may not weed out all the bad components.

    Make your PCs as much alike as possible--it's easier to assemble a cookie-cutter configuration, and of course, ghosting a Win installation works a lot better if you're using the same drivers from computer to computer. As others have mentioned, don't cheap out on the components! Good quality, name-brand components are worth paying a few dollars extra for; you get fewer returns and mysterious failures, and name-brand quality components are more likely to actually follow the industry specs for whatever device they are, instead of cutting corners the way cheap components sometimes do. BTW, this is where you win over buying cheap pre-built computers: guys like Gateway and those Wal-Mart computers save money by putting the absolutely cheapest, bottom-of-the-line, no-name commodity parts in their computers. That's how they can sell them so cheap. Sometimes it works; back in the early 90s, the favorite no-name graphics card used in our company's computers had the Cirrus Logic chipset, which was a moderately accellerated, halfway decent graphics card
    that actually had OS/2 drivers (which we were using). Usually, you have the problem with discount computers that the cheapest no-name card changes from week to week, so this week's discount computer may have entirely different components and drivers than last week's discount computer, even though they are supposedly the same model. Now that is a major hassle in the support department!

    OTOH, some parts are so commodity that it doesn't matter. Who cares what brand floppy drive you buy? It's a mature technology and they all work alike. IDE CD-ROM drives are much the same way. IDE hard drives are NOT. Neither are SCSI drives.
    I personally like Western Digital IDE drives and won't touch a Quantum if I can help it; YMMV.

    If you're using AMD Athlons or similar chips, invest in a slot fan or bay fan in addition to the CPU fan. If the noise of all those fans is likely to drive people postal in a week, consider spending the extra dollars for low-noise fans.

    So, you've got a vendor or three, and you've got a list of parts that meet your criteria for price, performance and quality. To lower your own frustration level, make sure you have plenty of tools; those Phillips-head screwdrivers and nut drivers seem to migrate of their own accord whenever you're not holding them in hand. Also, make sure you have plenty of small screws of various sizes, spare Y-junction internal power cables, and spare IDE cables. Save any leftover small screws that came with cases or whatever; you'll need them sooner or later. Spare mounting rails of various flavors are nice to have around; vendors never seem to ship the right mounting rails for your chassis, if they bother to ship mounting rails at all with the drives. If you are lucky, your chassis's don't need mounting rails at all, but support drives being bolted directly to the chassis. Wish mine did.

    If an IDE drive doesn't work, check your master/slave jumper settings first, then the IDE cable (that's why you need spares--I've had a lot more bad cables than I ever had bad drives). Keep a "known good" AGP card around to test out the AGP slot when you think you have a bad graphics card--I've had more bad AGP slots on motherboards than I've had bad graphics cards or bad monitors.
    Ditto for memory and memory sockets. (The quality control on certain brands *cough*SOYO*cough* of VIA-chipset motherboards was a bit off...) Also, watch the fun-n-games of putting PCI cards that don't share interrupts happily (NIC & AGP combo, particularly) in the wrong slots.

    Being able to ghost the first OS + software installation onto all subsequent PCs is a major time and hassle saver.

    As for "support" issues, if you can put together the PCs yourself, you can handle most support issues yourself. PC hardware is commoditized and componentized, and a hell of a lot easier to support than PC software. Keep "known good" components around for troubleshooting, and have spares of everything on hand, including and especially power supplies. (Make sure you get an adequate power supply in the first place).

    Anyway, hope this helps.....

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