Bring DIY Systems to Work

Custom-built systems bring the same benefits to the office that they provide for home users.

Like a lot of technology geeks, I like to build my own systems. Theres a real sense of satisfaction from using a system that youve built yourself, component by component.

And aside from that sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, there are a lot of efficiencies and cost benefits that come from having a do-it-yourself computer system. Right from the outset, its generally cheaper to build a system than to buy a similarly configured one outright.

But the best thing is that you can continually keep the system up-to-date and performing at a high level for an average of a couple of hundred dollars a year or less. In theory, Im still using at home the same DIY system that I built in 1998, but the only components still in there from the original configuration are the floppy disk drive and the case itself. And over that time, the system has never been more than a step or two below the top-performing systems commercially available.

I bet a lot of you IT folks out there are nodding your head as you read this, thinking about your own home-brewed system—how well it runs and how much you love the ability to fix and upgrade it easily.

But I have a question for you: If your custom-built home system is so great and offers so many benefits and savings, why dont you do the same thing at your business? I know that most of you arent building systems for corporate use. Ive been in a lot of offices and data centers, and I can count the number of custom-built systems Ive seen on one hand.

And I think you really might want to consider building your own enterprise server system. In a business, the cost benefits and ease of upgrading are even more apparent. Fixing broken components becomes much easier and quicker. In a custom-built system, every component is standardized, unlike server systems from many vendors that use nonstandard components and arent easily upgraded.

Also, pretty much any server you can buy can be custom-built, and Im not just talking about tower cases. Those interested in DIY servers can buy 1U (1.75-inch), 2U (3.5-inch) and 4U (7-inch) rack-mount cases; you can even get blade cluster enclosures. A very nice 1U rack-mount server can be built for less than $1,500; a high-end blade cluster, for less than $5,000.

I know what youre going to say. If you buy a server from a major vendor, itll provide you with service and support, giving you peace of mind that the system will be taken care of if something breaks. But things are just as likely to break in a commercial server as in a DIY system, and, for the cost of a standard service contract, you could probably buy two backup components for every piece in your server.

I find it just a little funny that many companies dont feel comfortable building their own systems, while these same companies often seem to think its perfectly reasonable to write their own enterprise software.

So let me get this straight: Youre comfortable writing some complex application to tie together your CRM, ERP, portal, databases and mail server, something that in commercial solutions often sells for more than $100,000—and something that will be impossible to support if the lead developers ever quit. But youre not comfortable building a server system yourself, even though it will work from the get-go and use standard components that any competent IT person can maintain and repair?

Im not trying to say that DIY systems are a good fit for all corporate use. I wouldnt deploy a DIY system to all my employee desktops (although I do think small, Mini-ITX-type systems make sense in many corporate environments). And I also wouldnt use it for mission-critical, high-end server tasks, especially those that require high redundancy.

But in most cases, there is no reason not to consider building your own server for corporate use. You get all the performance, reliability and form factor of a commercial server product, without the high price and quick obsolescence.

And, of course, you save money, both today when you build it and tomorrow when, instead of having to buy a new server, you simply pop a new CPU or motherboard into your existing one. ´

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at

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