Build Your Own or Buy Built

Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

Build Your Own or Buy Built

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I'm not much of a hardware guy. Oh sure I have built a few systems and I can add and replace hardware with the best of them. I've installed hardware since back in the days when installing software meant bringing a tool kit so you could connect wires and cables and all sorts of things that aren't even included in computers today. So I can do it. It's just not something I think of as fun. So I buy my computers "off the shelf" with most additions added at the factory. More on that later.

Now not everyone feels the same way. My friend Max had a great Max Builds a PC series on Channel 8. It was very interesting and he got a lot of great feedback about what parts to use. On paper the system looks wonderful. It's probably pretty good in real life as well. But while it works for one of a kind systems how well does it scale?

Build it your self systems are very tempting as a way to save money. They and their close cousin the "white box" are some of the things that some companies and more and more schools are looking at to save money. Take for example this post by Christopher Dawson. He suggests that by putting his students to work (free labor) and buying parts he can build computers for his school at a much lower cost than he can by buying complete systems from a hardware company. The traditional "white box" vendor follows pretty much the same model but without the free labor. The lack of engineering and other costs (marketing, shipping, etc) lets them sell for less. It all seems so good.

I'm skeptical though. Not because I have any great love for the big hardware companies or because I have a careless attitude about money. No, rather it is that I have had some bad experiences in my short 35 year career and they leave me gun shy. That and because I have worked first hand at a number of companies who design and make computer hardware I have some appreciation for what goes into their boxes. It's not as easy or as simple as it appears. There is some real value in having professionally engineered computer systems.

When I first started teaching high school the school had built a lab out of "white box" computers. They had saved a lot of money. Unfortunately we had a lot of problems with them. Not just the usual early life failures but some of the pieces just didn't seem to work together well. The systems never really became reliable and I was happy to see them go a few years later. The time and effort we (staff) spent and the lost opportunity costs of students not having working computers really seemed to me to exceed the value of the money that (in theory) we saved. I've heard good stories and bad so your mileage may well vary.

Computer hardware is complicated and things do not always work as well together as one might think. How many people build their own Apple computers from scratch parts? Not many. Apple keeps tight control over the computers that are supported under their operating system for some good reasons. First among those is that it allows them to better control the quality of the user experience. PCs don't have that same tight control. The big companies on the other hand do have engineers and testers who do a strong job of making sure the components they use work together. That has added value to me. Perhaps not as much as the cost to everyone but it works for me. Because I do not want to spend my time fooling with hardware I buy off the shelf. Its a matter of priorities.

Now money is tight in schools and nowhere is it more tight then in technology. So building your own is doubly tempting. What I did when I was a school technology director was to buy top of the line off the shelf hardware for key applications - the things we absolutely needed to work everyday. The servers were designed and engineered as servers because a number of people who ran servers for businesses recommended that there was a lot of difference there. That worked out great for us. The business manager had a top of the line off the shelf name brand. Getting receipts in, payments (especially payroll) and managing the business of education was key.

In the labs and for many of the others we went down a notch. We didn't build our own (employee time was valuable and we paid students for their work - rightly so I think) but we didn't go with the most expensive brand names. That worked as well. We did maintain a spare parts inventory - mostly disk drives, keyboards, mice and some optical drives - and that let us repair most systems pretty quickly. But we started with professionally engineered systems and I think that was the way to go.

I imagine that in a vo-tech or other school with a computer hardware program building more computers from parts might work out. There are always trade offs though. I wonder how many of them build their own school buildings and school busses with student labor and in the school shops.

  • I think getting the students to build their own PCs in a computer lab is an awesome way of teaching them, not just about hardware, but about design methodology - don't just give them hardware, give them a budget, a basic minimum specification, and have a project to firstly choose components, identify possible problems, and draw up a plan of what hardware/OS etc.

    THEN, let them build their own systems. They'll learn, not just about the hardware, but how drivers hang together, about the necessity of patches (some hardware combinations don't work without certain patches)

  • I completely agree about that being a good learning experience. I'm not sure about that being the way to build out a lab though. :-)

  • If the districts paid for an engineer then the schools/district could just use there specs with free labor. They may also be able to take advantage of volume pricing as well.

  • I appreciate your thoughts- Build it your self systems are very tempting as a way to save money

  • Alfred, I agree strongly with you points here. I did not build my TVs, nor my washing machine, nor my car. A computer is an appliance. It needs to be reliable and supported. While there are some times that I could see myself building out a PC for a specific purpose, I can only thinks of a few instance where I would want to have hand-builts in a computer lab (special gaming/modeling machines for instance).

    I have white boxes around and have built them on and off throughout the years but...

    They do not cost much less than computers from major suppliers. My discount on 100 video cards would look nothing like Dell's discount on 100K cards.

    To get hardware equivalent to commercially produced machines, you spend a lot of money. A cheap case and power supply can be had for $50. A case and PSU that will stand up to use over 4 years is more like $200.

    They are more difficult to support - there is nothing more frustrating than tracking down the right drivers, bios updates, firmware updates and hot fixes for a particular configuration. With my Lenovo notebook for example, I have one utility that does all of that automagically. With my Dell desktop, there is one page that I go to to get all of the updates for my system.

    Commercial machines come with a warranty and support.

    I think that overall while it seems like a good idea to save a few dollars becoming your own manufacturer of PCs the reality down the line is much much different - leading to a real cost that is nuch higher.

  • Clint Rutkas here.

    Most people are overlooking warranties / repairing.

    Being someone that builds his own high end desktops, I know you can save money on this front, but not terribly too much.

    Most schools will buy the low end machines which you just can't build for the same price point.

    If you custom build, you have 10 different parts you then must keep track of and diagnosis the failures on your own.

    Plus, what about the operating system?  You’ll have to buy on top of that.  I’m not sure what most schools’ licensing deals but that may not be included.

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