There was a time, very early in my career, where entire hardware platforms were designed from scratch. We designed processor boards and power supplies, bent sheet metal , did all the environmental testing, and secured agency approvals. These products worked very well and were extremely reliable but the development cycles were long and costly, and product costs were very high.
Sometime in the mid-nineties, computer companies such as Sequent and Data General figured out that high performance symmetrical multi-processing computers could indeed be built around 80386 processors and eventually Pentium class processors. Very soon thereafter, Commodity Off The Shelf [COTS] servers became the vehicle of choice for appliance companies.
I recall thinking how pleased I was to leave the custom hardware business behind. Most appliances of that time could be built on COTS servers, or when necessary, the custom hardware became a plug-in PCI card.
Little did I realize that I had just traded one set of problems for another.
Startups, for obvious reasons, are obsessed with Bill of Materials (BOM) cost. But for reasons I’ve never fully understood, they are often oblivious to the true cost. I think the logic goes something like this: if we buy a chassis from China and a motherboard from Taiwan and memory from here and disks from there and fans from someplace else, then assemble it all in a local contract manufacturer, look at all the money we’ll save! Invariably, one of the following items gets missed:
- Proper thermal management
- Worldwide agency approvals for safety, hazmat and electromagnetic interference
- Sufficient qualification to make sure all the components play nicely together
- Any semblance of ‘end of life’ management
The results are often disastrous. Systems overheat and fail after a few months of use. They can’t be shipped internationally. Critical memory and disk errors go unreported and components go end-of-life with zero notice. The cost of resolving these issues is significant, if they get resolved at all.
Currently 100% of Axcient’s appliances ship on server-class hardware from HP. At every turn I’m reminded of reasons why this is indeed a great decision:
- HP’s thermal engineering is impressive, even measured against the custom designed hardware from 20 years ago. Crack the lid and you’ll see a beautifully engineered heat pipe that conducts heat from the processors to the fans.
- I can ship one anywhere in the world without a second thought. They have every agency approval I have ever heard of and then some.
- While the disk drives are the same disk drives that can be bought through distribution, the firmware running the disk drives is proprietary to HP. As a result, the HP designed RAID controllers deal gracefully with all disk errors and the predictive failure functionality works flawlessly.
- When processor chipsets and such reach end-of-life, we get six months heads up, and a ‘last time’ buy.
All in, HP servers aren’t the lowest priced alternative for an appliance platform, but they deliver real value for Axcient and Axcient customers.