Server hardware decisions are not a game of Top Trumps

Making server hardware decisions for virtual environments can turn into a product features battle. But it’s the operational and business aspects that should matter to you.

Choosing new or additional server hardware for a virtualised environment should be a simple and straightforward process, and there’s a wide range of software out there to assist an IT team in selecting and building their server hardware.  Vendor software like VMware Inc.’s Capacity Planner or Microsoft Assessment and Planning (MAP) toolkit are readily available from your local reseller. Software vendors such as Lanamar, however, take a wider view of its available virtualisation technologies instead of through the reseller route.

Either way, good choices for software are out there to assist an IT team in building a server hardware requirement that is based upon existing server/storage performance facts that remove the need for an IT “best guess”. In addition to performance data, these programs help produce the required configuration and shopping list. And that’s where the fun begins. 

Clearly, server hardware vendors are competing for your business and will offer purchasing programmes and promotions to reduce your capital expenditure. Some will assist by offering 0% leasing programmes to excite your finance department by moving the purchase over to operating expenditure. Dangle a competing quotation in front of Dell and their previously quoted prices drop like a stone. Mention a “knock out” opportunity to Hewlett-Packard, where it has a chance to replace Sun, IBM or Dell with a shiny new HP kit, and a virtual team appears like magic to assist in any technical area requiring attention.

In theory, that is all healthy competition, but producing a final requirement based on a particular vendor product set can be fraught with difficulties and frustration.

Example: Adding server hardware in a virtual environment
I was recently invited by HP into a discussion with a midmarket company that wished to add virtualised email, remote user access and file/print data centre for an overseas office. To complete the setting, the remaining offices, which were mainly overseas, had deployed local virtualised platforms. Everything was being managed from an office in England. At face value, this is a fairly simple and straightforward requirement.

My invitation, as a reseller, came after a fellow reseller struggled with the concept of Level 3 switching, correctly specifying the shared storage. HP was losing the battle with Dell, which had presented a very good solution with the correct switches and an EquaLogic SAN for shared storage. The IT manager had clearly been impressed by the feature set Dell offered and was knowledgeable to the point where he could have been mistaken for a Dell pre-sales engineer.

And therein lies the problem. Making server hardware decisions involves assessing hardware features, but it is only one consideration. Reducing expenditure at the beginning of the ownership cycle is important, but so is costing the whole ownership cycle. In this situation, the Dell salesperson had beautifully highlighted the technical performance features and clearly overlooked the ownership costs for this customer’s situation.

Within 30 minutes of the initial conversation, I had to halt proceedings and state that my involvement, as a value added reseller (VAR), was to help find a suitable business solution and not play “Top Trumps” on server, storage and switch features. Once I had stifled the excitement caused by the endless array of Dell features and examined more closely how a centralised IT department from an English office could more efficiently manage a small remote data centre, the HP solution moved from being second fiddle to being the solution of choice. Dell’s response? They dropped their price by 10%.

Which vendor and which approach?
What matters here is the approach taken by the individual people involved. Prior to my involvement, the discussion had been a features battle with both sides competing on I/O or IOPS or whatever suited their cause at the time. The customer had become embroiled in this and had started to overlook the cost of ownership as it applied to his company and the situation he faced.

The differentiator for HP on this occasion was the benefits that their Insight Control product could bring to this situation. Implementing Insight Control across his HP solution would provide a single portal to manage server hardware, virtualised machines and storage, which, if implemented correctly, would reduce the IT administration and associated costs for the customer’s remote environment. Are the benefits of Insight Control unique to HP? No. Dell has solutions that can achieve the same results. The only difference here was approach. 

If this sounds a little simplistic, consider this. How can you apply common sense and justify VMware Storage VMotion when you have multiple SANs with both network and hardware RAID configured across all available storage nodes?

Companies today listen to VMware explain the virtues of Storage VMotion and then listen to their server hardware vendor explain the benefits of network RAID across SANs. With all those lovely features, surely a company needs both, doesn’t it?

The CIO is then faced with a dilemma. Ensuring that a purchasing decision is made on the basis of a comprehensive assessment of the solution’s components has to be the favoured approach. If needed, CIOs can seek a more independent view from eager consultants willing to assess the technology landscape and draw safe conclusions. Many of the conclusions are often common sense.

Independently thinking VARs will make the technical and commercial resources available that allow a more panoramic assessment to be made. They are often in a better position to secure the appropriate resources from the vendors under consideration too. Most important, the VAR that takes a more consultative approach can often produce a balanced assessment under pre-sales justification incurring little or no cost to the end user.

The overall point is that buying any product can turn into a “Top Trumps” features battle between vendors, which is as unproductive as not understanding the product’s details.

The features are important but form only part of the technical elements of a decision. Cost of ownership and the operational and business aspects of the decision are just as important if not more so.

Andrew Cross is the sales director at reseller Sol-Tec Ltd. and a contributor to

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