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Cheap commodity servers can turn into expensive investments

Installing "cheap" commodity servers turns out to be more expensive than a capacity planning team and a data center equipment procurer plan.

There's a lot of loose talk going around about commodity servers. As tempting as it is to think we live in the golden age of dirt-cheap computers, equipment is more expensive than it first appears:

Capacity planning guy walks into a procurement guy's office. "Our server processor utilization is more than 50%, we need to buy another one," he says.

Procurement guy starts typing into his spreadsheet. "Buy another server. Check."

"Can you get one of those rack-mounted ones? I hear they're cheaper."

"Rack-mounted? Check. At least I think so. I'll put in an order for another rack system, because our current one is close to capacity."

"And we'll need power and cooling for it."

"Right, more electricity into the computer room. I'll requisition an extension cord and a three-prong adapter."

"And let the system admin team know it's got to image the operating system on it. Let's get Linux because it's free."

"We'll get another copy of Red Hat's distribution."

"Oh, and this will be a database server, so we'll need a DBMS [database management system]."

"I'm sure those nice folks at Oracle will sell us another license."

"And we'll need 4 GB of disk for the database instance."

"4 GB. Check."

"And we'll need to hook it up to the SAN [storage area network], so upgrade any of the storage network that it needs."

"SAN upgrade ..."

"Don't forget about the cabling and network equipment we'll need to talk to it."

"I'll let them know."

"Oh, and this is a mission-critical application, so we'll need redundancy for everything that's attached to it."

"OK -- everything times two."

"Right. And we'll need software that will automatically fail over the OS and database instance."

"Veritas. Check."

"Is that everything?"

"Here's what I have: two processors, a new rack, two Red Hat distributions, 8 G of storage, two Oracle licenses, SAN upgrade, network cabling and failover software."

"You got it. Thank goodness processors are so cheap now."

So while all this talk about "cheap" commodity servers may get a lot of hype, buying one is likely to involve more than a single purchase -- or piece of technology. Combined with new software, equipment and upgrades that may be needed, the price tag becomes less attractive than at first glance. So if you're planning a new server purchase, it's important to factor in all elements of the investment so there are no costly surprises.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: For 24 years, Robert Crawford has worked off and on as a CICS systems programmer. He is experienced in debugging and tuning applications and has written in COBOL, Assembler and C++ using VSAM, DLI and DB2.

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