Should I just build my own systems?

Last week I built myself a web server from parts. It's nothing fancy (anyone remember the Pentium 4?

Last week I built myself a web server from parts. It's nothing fancy (anyone remember the Pentium 4?), but it was completely free and is quite happily hosting my new website. It sits in my basement running Ubuntu Server 9.10 and, because I'm pretty softcore, even has a snappy GUI (I'm partial to Gnome these days). My point? Although this particular machine was cobbled together, highly functional systems don't have to cost very much and don't need to come from OEMs.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes wrote a great post yesterday on building a $550 barebones gaming system. Replace his fancy graphics card with more RAM and you have yourself a pretty slick server capable of virtualizing web and application servers, desktop environments, running FreeNX or Terminal Services quite well. Components have become so cheap that it would be easy to add RAID and some appropriate redundancy.

On the other side of the coin, building desktops with even a quarter of the power Adrian described gets mighty cheap. TigerDirect sells direct to governments and educational institutions and offers components that are almost ridiculously cheap. For schools using open source operating systems (or who already have valid Windows licenses, CALs, etc.), this can be even cheaper since you aren't paying OEM markups for Windows.

But are you saving enough to give up support, warranties, and the time it takes to build these systems? After all, a really basic HP desktop for government purchasers starts at $349. Of course, that's a stripper with half a gig of RAM and a single-core Sempron. I bet I could do better on TigerDirect for $349 (oh wait, I just did).

What do you really get for support anyway? Most often, you get a lengthy scripted phone call with a level 1 tech who knows far less than you do. If you pay for "premium tech support" then you're going to pay through the nose. The only premium support I've ever been able to justify is Apple's support on our XServes: they go beyond support and well into the realms of serious training.

Besides, using cheap commodity components, these systems are easily rebuilt and replaced in-house for very little money. We all have students, interns, parents, and teachers who will contribute to support efforts and who will probably be more effective than that first tech to whom we speak in Bangalore. Hard drive dies? Who cares? Don't bother with a tech support call, shipping, and hassles. The drive was $25. Just replace it.

As both the prices of equipment and the quality (in general) of tech support decrease, I'm struggling to justify spending even a moderate premium to get a warranty and 1-3 years of support from an OEM. I'm not suggesting that mission-critical servers should be pieced together from a TigerDirect kit (although you can actually build a monster server for cheap there). However, the hardware isn't usually where you need support on these machines. It isn't rocket science to replace a power supply or a bad drive in a RAID array. The support on mission-critical servers is usually needed on the applications they run; the applications don't know Dell from HP from Biostar.

I'm not completely convinced yet myself that rolling your own is the way to go. However, as I price out hardware from now on, I'll be comparing to the costs of kits on Tiger and NewEgg.