WHITE BOXES: Just as good

WHITE BOXES: Just as good

More often than not, the term "no-brainer" doesn't describe a decision as much as it does the person who made it. IT is subjected to an endless parade of supposed no-brainers, from single-vendor solutions to open-source software; the latest no-brainer involves unbranded PCs, also known as white boxes.

The argument goes like this: because every PC is essentially the same, why pay a 20 to 40 per cent premium just because the chassis has a Compaq or Dell nameplate on the front?

I'm not an unbiased observer in this case. I use white-box systems exclusively in my lab and spec them into my IT contracts whenever I can. Unbranded hardware performs beautifully, is as reliable as any big-name system I've ever used, and allows me to keep my lab stocked despite my writer's salary. It's an easy sell to companies that have put off projects because of the cost of the equipment. But white boxes aren't a no-brainer - if anything, buying a PC from a major vendor requires less thought.

For some organisations, the PC from a major vendor dominates because it comes out of the box ready to run. IT or purchasing departments frequently ignore specific configuration requests, establishing standard desktops and entry servers. If your company relies on zero-effort deployment of PCs, then white boxes may not fit in. The VAR or integrator that builds your systems can load them with software and preconfigure them for your network, but those services add to the cost.

Major vendors further tip the scales against smaller competitors by bundling in onsite service plans. Of course that service isn't free, any more than bundled copies of Windows and Office (or WordPerfect) are, but all give IT managers less to worry about. The value of big brands' convenience has to be weighed against the lower acquisition costs of unbranded hardware.

For my money, the primary advantage of white boxes is not their lower initial cost, but the much lower cost of add-ons, upgrades, and service parts. Big vendors hide much of their margin in parts and accessories. Look at how much adding a second hard drive or an extra 512MB of RAM raises the cost of a brand-name system. See what you'll pay to add a second CPU to a Compaq rack server. Then price the same add-ons to a white-box system. I'm shocked that vendors can get away with 50 per cent markups on commodity hardware.

Self-sufficiency is the key to making white-box systems pay their way. Any company that's really serious about saving money with white boxes stocks its own repair and upgrade parts. There are ways to split the difference between branded and white-box PCs: you can buy bare-bones Dells (with no RAM or hard drives) and add off-the-shelf parts, or you can hire an outsourcer to acquire, service and manage your hardware. Just be sure to factor all the costs and benefits - including the intangible benefits such as convenience - into your plans.

Tom Yager is technical director of the InfoWorld Test Centre.

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