Standard Server Hardware

by Bob Plankers on July 18, 2008 · 7 comments

in General Rambling

Joe Brancatelli’s recent article entitled “Southwest Airlines’ Seven Secrets for Success” points out one of Southwest’s biggest cost saving practices: flying one type of plane.

Unlike the network carriers and their commuter surrogates, which operate all manner of regional jets, turboprops, and narrow-body and wide-body aircraft, Southwest flies just one plane type, the Boeing 737 series. That saves Southwest millions in maintenance costs—spare-parts inventories, mechanic training and other nuts-and-bolts airline issues. It also gives the airline unique flexibility to move its 527 aircraft throughout the route network without costly disruptions and reconfigurations.

Standardization of server hardware pays off for organizations, too. In the somewhat distant past each member of my team was responsible for specifying and ordering servers for their projects. There was some documentation on how to do it, and some standards, but they were followed pretty loosely. As a result we ended up with servers sporting different disk sizes, single power supplies, different warranties, with or without hardware RAID controllers, and with wildly variable CPU speeds. Each machine is a one-off, and when you’re talking about 500 machines it starts being a complete nightmare. Sure, a project might save $200 by ordering a slower CPU, but that $200 disappears quickly in staff time for documentation and other work that has to be done one server at a time. Nothing is easily interchangeable between servers, and servers are not interchangeable with each other. Ick.

Now my team has two standard server configurations that we order when we need physical hardware. We buy all of our x86 gear from Dell, so we have standard configurations for PowerEdge 1950 and 2950s, where only the number of CPUs and amount of RAM is variable. Everything else is standardized, with two power supplies, hardware-RAID 1 or RAID 5 146 GB 15K disks, 3.0 GHz Intel 5450 CPUs, five year warranty, etc. Dell has even given us a custom page on their web site that allows us to order machines in these standard configurations. An admin selects the type of machine, number of CPUs, amount of RAM, and submits the order. All the standard choices are checked & uneditable.

Despite initial reservations about a one-size-fits-all hardware policy, in practice we rarely need to go outside the standard configurations. Like Southwest, when you’re flying all the same servers you can stock common spare parts. You can even stock spare servers and skip the costly 24×7 hardware replacement warranties, since servers are more interchangeable. With a standard warranty we know exactly what type of service we’re getting and when it ends, and by getting the full five-year warranty up front we don’t have to spend time later renewing warranties.

Standardization like this seems like an obvious idea, but many organizations are like the frog in the soup pot: you don’t notice your demise until it’s too late. When you go from 50 servers to 500 in just a few years it’s easy to focus solely on keeping up with demand. But eventually you need to think about saving time and money. Standardizing wherever possible is a great way to save both.

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