The beast arrives (or, Stop! Don't buy that new server!)

Is it possible to save enough money on servers by going refurbished that schools can pay for necessary infrastructure upgrades or even deploy larger-scale solutions? This is what I wanted to find out.

A tractor-trailer pulled up outside my house yesterday and, much to the delight of my 8-year old and the chagrin of my wife, the driver hopped out and proceeded to pull a pallet with a very large box out of the truck and across the street on a pallet jack. "Delivery for Chris Dawson!" I happened to be on a call, so I didn't pop up to grab what I knew was the server Insight Systems Exchange had sent me to test. I probably should have when my wife asked what the heck it was. "Big computer of some sort, Ma'am," I heard the driver respond. Yes, it's a big computer all right.

Insight Systems Exchange sells tier one off-lease equipment and I've had great luck with them on desktops. It isn't often that educational institutions (particularly K-12) need cutting edge computing technology and where I once turned my nose up at refurbs, Moore's Law has made sure that a well-maintained, rebuilt computer that was cutting edge three years ago is more than adequate to serve educational requirements for another three years. In fact, I now look first at the Insight website before I hit the Dell and HP websites in many cases when designing solutions for clients. Save money, get a full warranty, and keep computers out of an expensive and potentially toxic recycling stream? Sounds like a win all around.

When I first started looking at Insight, among other computer refurbishers, I suggested that servers might be a place where schools could save a lot of money by going refubished. Servers, obviously, are big ticket items and generally serve a variety of critical functions for schools. In some cases, those functions are so critical and the investment so expensive, that schools will be looking for extended lifecycles out of rock solid equipment. Not to say that refurbished servers aren't rock solid, but in these cases, it's probably wise to look at new equipment.

However, in the majority of cases, schools need file server, web servers, LDAP servers, print servers, DNS servers, terminal servers, and the like. With the exception of terminal servers or servers devoted to virtualization and consolidation, the average 3-year old off-lease server that has sat in a climate-controlled datacenter somewhere will probably serve our needs just fine. As with other refurbishers, Insight has a steady stream of workhorse tier one servers that they can customize as needed to meet your requirements. As I found out when I reached out to my sales rep, they have plenty of equipment that isn't necessarily on their website that can also meet more demanding requirements.

Next: The project »

My goal was to evaluate small scale desktop VDI and alternatives to plain vanilla Microsoft Terminal Services. The Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) has matured a great deal and now supports impressive clustering and scalability. Similarly, NComputing and WYSE now have a variety of devices that make deployment of desktop VDI and streaming solutions cheap, easy, and practical, even in schools where there is limited technical expertise. Microsoft's Multipoint Server has the potential to change the way classroom computing works as well through desktop sharing technologies. Is it possible to save enough money on servers by going refurbished that schools can pay for necessary infrastructure upgrades or even deploy larger-scale solutions? This is what I wanted to find out.

And this is where the beast comes in. Insight sent me a demo unit built to my specifications. It's one of those Dell PowerEdge 2900's that most of us have probably deployed in any number of small to medium office applications. It features a quad-core Xeon processor (1.86GHz), 8GB of RAM, 2x500GB SATA hard drives (currently in a RAID 0 configuration for a full terabyte of storage, but with a RAID controller that supports RAID 1 and 5, the latter, of course, requiring an extra hard drive), and plenty of PCI slots depending upon the sorts of testing I'd like to do (for example, can schools use refurbished servers with $50 add-on graphics cards to create a lab of serious workstations?).

A similarly configured, new, low-end tower server (a Dell T110) would obviously be able to leverage slightly faster processors, bus, and memory speeds, but comes in around $2700. The server from Insight would run $1900 and comes with a full 3-year warranty. The specs should be able to support an Edubuntu lab, anything Multipoint can throw at it, terminal services, etc. I'll see just how much $1900 can buy me in terms of virtualized servers and desktops.

I'll be reporting back on a variety of tests, but at a glance, $1900 not only bought me (if it wasn't a long-term demo) a completely refurbished server that's free of dust and has little evidence of wear and tear, but also the backend to any number of school lab situations. The $800 savings over new could buy some very nice switches, great graphics and sound cards, software licensing, or several a few extra thin clients. Over the next few months, we'll see just how much it can take and whether there are any advantages in these use cases to going new versus refurbished.

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