[Beowulf] Third-party drives not permitted on new Dell servers?

Mark Hahn hahn at mcmaster.ca
Tue Feb 16 02:08:32 EST 2010


> Drive markup isn't a factor in configurations.  Stuff working correctly is. 
> Suppose Dell buys 50M drives per year.  Shaving $1 per drive will net them 
> $50M more to their bottom line.  Which, in the larger scheme of things, 
> doesn't do much to their bottom line.  Far less than 1% motion on their P&L.

"working correctly" is, as you point out, difficult to prove (proving a
negative versus "so far so good".)

the real issue here is several-fold:
1. the markup is vastly more than $1/drive.  I don't know Dell prices as well
as another vendor where the markup is O(300%) (es.2 750G 408 $Cdn after
public-sector discount, versus $135 from newegg.ca.  ironically Seagate's
warranty on this is 5 years; the vendor's is 1 year...)

2. big-name vendors are incredibly slow on their feet: usually lagging 
at least one whole disk generation.  I understand that the bigger the supply
chain, the more momentum and reluctance to stock new products.  and testing
takes time, but this is a huge disadvantage to customers - especially in a
domain like storage which is on as steep price-performance curve as GPUs.

3. the main issue is still whether it's defensible to cripple a controller to
refuse to interact with products that don't come through the vendor's supply
chain (even if identical in make, model, fw rev) (yes, vendor-specific fw is
a way to wiggle out of this...)

> balance sheet is drastically negatively impacted by support issues ... yeah, 
> you are going to do all you can to minimize this liability side.  You can't 
> impact the drive costs much, but by careful selection of drive units you sure 
> can reduce your support liabilities.

I'm curious: you imply that vendors have no recourse to force the 
_disk_ vendors to supply parts which work right (as defined by standard).
is that really true?  I'd be surprised if Dell doesn't get pretty emphatic
cooperation from their disk vendor(s).

>> make itself more neutral in this exercise by just naming one or more
>> compatible, validated drive-models rather than trying to sell those
>> themselves after re-branding. That creates an obvious conflict of
>
> They do make margin on drives.  If you object, you can always buy the unit 
> bare, and perform your own validation.  Which means you buy your own test 
> drives, and spend your own time and effort to do this.  Which means spending 
> your own money to do this.

the fact is that disks are incredibly cheap and getting moreso.  sure,
replacing a bunch of them is noticable, but as a fraction of the the systems
they support, they're a pittance.  even as a fraction of the storage
subsystem, they're very small (reading off the same public-sector price-list, 
I see a 10 TB SATA-based storage system for over $30k - that's not a premium
product from this vendor and I can't see any way that the disks would cost
more than $5k.)

I think the real paradigm shift is that disks have become a consumable
which you want to be able to replace in 1-2 product generations (2-3 years).
along with this, disks just aren't that important, individually - even
something _huge_ like seagate's firmware problem, for instance, only 
drove up random failures, no?

but it also begs the question: what's really so different about disks?
is the disk protocol really that much more subtle and prone to problems 
than, say, PCI-E?

> Support costs money, and they are seeking to keep those costs under control.

sure, the free market is all about finding ways to make money; that doesn't
imply that customers, the market and the society as a whole has to permit
every possible way ;)

>> interest. It makes it difficult to deconvolute monopoly-pricing from a
>> genuine desire to promote reliability.
>
> Hmmm .... Dell only has a monopoly if you let them.  If you want to buy 
> servers from other companies, by all means, buy them from other companies.

few markets are free; any individual purchasing decision is almost certainly
under a massive market asymmetry.  no project/consortium/university can
actually require change in policy from an entity as large as Dell/HP/IBM/etc.

> Many universities I am aware of have signed agreements with Dell, HP, Sun, 
> etc to buy exclusively from them.  Whether or not these are legal in the face 
> of universities requirements on maximizing value on their purchase is a 
> completely separate discussion, one you ought to have with your purchasing 
> departments if you feel that you are not getting the value you need from

hah.  purchasing departments are interested primarily in survival like 
any organism.  unfortunately, they tend not to have natural predators.
but funding organizations often effectively require use of BigCo;
even if not, there's always the no-one-got-fired-for-buying-IBM
sort of institutional conservativism.

> their actions.  My old research group used to write sole source memos for 
> every purchase, so that we could get what we wanted, and not what our 
> purchasing department wanted to buy.

right, but did you succeed in changing how BigCo handles its supply chain?

>> I'm not sure how much of a price markup there is on the approved Dell 
>> drives.
>
> You should be able to calculate it by configuring units with various numbers 
> of drives.

many vendors also publish price lists (though the cost will be different
when calculated these two ways.)
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