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I'm a programmer, so I have no real experience with buying servers. In order to make a solution work, my customer needs the most cost effective server. I used to work for an IT support company, so I know how easily servers can end up costing thousands, but price is really a deal breaker here.

However, I don't want to go down the "build your own server" route, since I want to spend as little time as possible supporting the server, and more time supporting the applications that end up on the server.

Is it a good idea to buy from Dell's website (or similar), or are there alternative options?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

First off, you have two conflicting requirements: you don't want a do-it-yourself approach, but you want it cheap. You need to figure out which of those two is more important.

What's this server needed for?

If it's feasible to host it off-site, you could look at leasing a box at a datacenter (Rackspace, Cari, etc.) You could even get a fully managed server so you only have to worry about the application itself. Of course this extra service is more costly. For the super-cheap start-up route, you could even use Amazon EC2. However, EC2 is going to be more expensive in the long run and you're going to get yoru hands dirty managing it.

If it's not feasible to host it offsite (it's also functioning as a file server for the office, etc) then yes, buying a server from Dell (or similar) would be your best bet.

The cheapest that you'll likely be able to find a server for sale is from your local off-lease reseller, Craigslist, or Ebay. You can find really nice, recently decommissioned servers for awesome prices. Be aware though that they don't normally come with support though, so once again you'll be on the hook for that.

Edit: If you're purchasing used gear, be sure that everything is in order with the OS licensing. If the OS came with the hardware (OEM version), you should be ok. However, larger corporations will sometimes purchase the OS separately from the hardware (MS Open Licensing). That type of license would not be transferable to you when you purchase the box.

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Though MS volume licenses need an OEM or retail license base anyway... at least as far as I recall. – Oskar Duveborn Mar 1 '10 at 17:32
+1 Nice answer, thanks. – nbolton Mar 1 '10 at 17:58

I'd probably be looking at the Dell(*) outlet website if price was important to me. Cheaper to buy a basic server there, and add third party disks (don't forget to source disk caddies) and definitely cheaper to use decent 3rd party memory.

Of course this will require some time spent installing these upgrades unless you find a server on the outlet site that's near enough to what you need to make no different.

(*) I'm sure other vendors have similar outlet sites, but I'm familiar with the Dell one.

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Are you sure you need metal-actual-hardware in this case? Consider instead renting a virtual private servers instead. The host takes the cost of allocating the physical resources and spinning up a VM rather than you having to deal with that, and all the other uptime concerns.

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The reason Dell have done so well over the years is because they're 'good enough' at everything; not the best or worst products/support/prices etc - they're the Ford/GM of IT.

You should prioritise your requirements - they're usually one or more of the following; lowest cost, fastest performance, best support - you can't have all three but Dell are a decent balance of them.

For this reason they're a good place to start, set a budget and get looking, here are a few tips;

Lowest cost - if you have the skills then building your own can save on even the cheapest machine but remember that it's you that has to fix every problem it might have during its lifetime.

Highest performance - these are always the big guys; HP, IBM, Sun etc. but you really need to understand what type of performance you want (single/multi-threaded CPU, memory, IO, disk speed).

Best support - this includes resilience too, if you want the best support then you're probably going for one of the big companies too but you'll get remote management, dual PSUs, memory protection, bulletproof RAID, sensors and lots of local parts/engineers for when something does go pop.

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Purchasing from Dell is a decent option, and you can get support contracts from them for onsite repairs if necessary and/or parts delivered very quickly for repairs.

The best way I've seen to get these servers is to find a sales rep for your area and deal with them; they can sometimes get you deals or breaks that you wouldn't find on the site.

There is a retail area on the website that sells servers at a discount systems that were misconfigured or returned or refurbed and can save you a decent amount of cash.

On the other hand, if you're not dealing with a number of prospective orders, you might not have room to haggle or deal with a live sales rep, since they may not be quite as interested in your business after you say you want just one server and might get another one in three or four years. Doesn't hurt to try though.

Another alternative depends on where you live; if you can find a company or consultant that will offer a cost-effective support contract, you can effectively outsource the hardware bit to a local company. You'll have to do your own due diligence though on their reputation and reliability.

Generally if you only want to deal with the software side, I'd say don't even dip into the hardware part, because the moment you're selling or bundling it together you're going to be expected to cover any and every issue with that hardware from upgrades to support for the OS to whatever gremlin sneaks into their network. You might be better off just offering an outline of requirements and have the customer get their own hardware from their own supplier.

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