11:46 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Langa Letter: In Praise Of White-Box PCs

Sometimes, Fred Langa says, an ultracheap, generic PC is just the right tool for the job.

Chances are, you read because PCs are an integral--perhaps even essential--part of your day-to-day life. In fact, there's an excellent chance that you depend on a PC to do your job. Take away the PC, and your job would either vanish or change in a fundamental and probably unpleasant way.

It's the same for me. My business depends utterly on PCs. My work is done on PCs, almost all my communication is via PCs, and my work product exists only in electronic form, intended for display on PCs. Take away the PCs, and I'm dead in the water.

We both need dependable computer systems. That's one reason I spec and buy major-brand-name PCs for my primary workstations. I simply don't have time to fool around with a balky system, and I can't afford to lose work through system problems or unanticipated downtime. In fact, I'm writing this article on a major-brand PC, and I wouldn't want to do it any other way.

Of course, buying a major-brand PC isn't a guarantee of system perfection. However, it does help tilt the odds in your favor. For example, a reputable vendor will have done the proper system integration work to ensure that Component A will work properly with Component B. And there's also the security of having a good warranty and knowing you can get a repair or replacement in short order.

But major-brand systems cost more than no-name systems, and sometimes those extra costs simply aren't justified. There are special circumstances where a no-name, generic, "white-box" system can be a better (and far less expensive) alternative.

The Office 'Food Chain'
Your office probably has an IT "food chain," something like mine. Typically, when we get a new PC, it goes to the person with the most demanding computation needs, replacing an older unit. The old PC then moves on to another station in the office, displacing that machine, and so on. It's a slow-motion domino effect, driven by simple computational need. The positions requiring the greatest horsepower get the newest, fastest systems, and those with lesser needs get the older, slower boxes. (Fortunately, office politics--which in some enterprises can skew resource allocation by awarding PCs as status symbols rather than as work tools--don't play a part in deciding where our systems go.)

But given my earlier statement about the need for dependability, you may be surprised at what's at the bottom of our PC food chain: the LAN server. When a PC is too old and slow to function as a desktop system anymore, it's sent to live out its final years in the server closet. We clean it up, do a minimal install of the operating system, slap in some Internet-sharing/Firewall software, load our shared files onto the hard drive, and then forget about it.

Don't laugh. My business, like 98% of all U.S. business establishments, has fewer than 100 employees. Like most of the rest of that overwhelming majority, I don't need the kind of heavy-duty servers designed for megabusinesses. Those heavy-duty servers are perfect for their intended use, but they're overkill for smaller businesses--or even for many departments and branches within larger enterprises.

You see, for smaller LANs--and most especially in peer LANs--a server's life isn't particularly hard or complex. It doesn't take a lot of horsepower to get the job done. Simple machines, and even older, slower machines, can perform perfectly well.

For example, until recently, our LAN's main server was a cast-off, 7-year-old PC based on a 200-MHz Pentium I clone chip, with 24 Mbytes of RAM. The PC was way too underpowered for today's mainstream office software, but it was more than capable of providing print, file, and Internet access/firewall services to our LAN. In fact, the CPU rarely had to expend more than 10% of its cycles fulfilling its tasks (we monitor such activity). Very heavy Internet activity might drive that computer to 30% CPU use, and extremely large and complex print jobs might cause a temporary higher spike in activity. But the server was rarely, if ever, the cause of any bottlenecks. It simply doesn't take a lot of horsepower to sling bits from one place to another.

And here's the kicker: The system wasn't even a brand-name unit. It was a white-box generic clone I ordered seven years ago in kit form.

I say it was our server because a situation arose recently in which I had to remove that unit from server duty. For software testing, I specifically needed an old, slow system as a benchmark test bed. Thus, I unexpectedly found myself needing another system to act as a server and wasn't ready to shuffle the entire office food chain yet.

The $77 Core PC
The solution: Another generic PC "kit," although calling it a kit seems silly. The only fundamental assembly required was plugging the CPU into its socket and snapping in a stick of RAM. Beyond that, I also added the normal components--a hard drive, network cards, and so on--but the total hardware assembly time was only about 20 minutes.

The core bare-bones case, power supply, and motherboard with integrated USB, audio, and AGP video, cost just $77! The complete basic box, including 128 Mbytes of RAM, a 1-GHz Celeron chip with heat sink and cooling fan, plus mouse and keyboard, cost only $270.

And that wasn't the lowest-cost system available, by far. I could have spent even less on the basic motherboard bundle, except that I needed one particular (and unusual) combination of slots; this limited my choices somewhat. Still, the total package was so cheap that I splurged and actually bought far more CPU horsepower than I need for basic server use. The cost increment over slower chips was so small, it seemed a false economy to get the less-powerful CPUs.

Because our server isn't normally used as a workstation, things that might matter in full-time use--monitor, mouse, and keyboard--are less important. So, we use an old, slightly funky 14-inch VGA monitor for the server and opted for el-cheapo, no-name input devices. The mouse cost less than $2, and the keyboard (a spillproof, dustproof unit that shouldn't suffer from long periods of disuse) was less than $4. I also added a pair of cast-off speakers to the system so I could hear audio alarms or startup and shut-down sounds. But if I'd had to buy speakers, a basic pair would have cost only about $5.

I had drives on hand, but adding new drives wouldn't have cost a lot. You can buy a new floppy drive for less than $10 and a 20-Gbyte hard drive for $55. And although I opted for a motherboard with built-in sound and video (for simplicity, and to save slots), if you wanted, you could buy a separate basic audio card for around $5 and a generic video card for about $10.

In fact, if you bought everything new for this kind of generic system, you'd end up with a total cost of around $350, or about $150 less than the cost of a roughly equivalent pre-built system (such as the Gateway 910C Server, which costs $500). In other words, those 20 minutes of simple screwdriver work save you $150--not a bad ROI at all. (For links to places that sell PC kits and components and sites featuring build-it-yourself information, see the references at the end of the article.)

It's worth noting that I've never had any special reliability problems with the various kits I've built over the years. Take that 7-year-old system, for example. It's still going strong, with no mechanical or electrical problems. That's partly because many kit components use the same commodity items as the large manufacturers. And partly because tasks such as print and file sharing hardly put a strain on the system.

What About Nonserver Use?
White-box and generic systems can serve as full-bore workstations, of course, but the costs go up as you add higher-end graphics, better input devices, superior sound capabilities, and so on. At some point, the costs begin to approach what you'd pay for a name-brand system, so you might as well just go the name-brand route.

And although I have no qualms about using generic systems in simple, light-load applications, I'd hesitate before using a generic system in a high-end, complex, high-demand task. In such circumstances, the peace of mind of having a reputable vendor standing behind the system is worth the extra cost to me.

But for simple, light-load applications, white-box and generic systems can be great choices. They let you invest your money in the components that matter most for the task at hand, while economizing on the components that are less important. You end up with a customized box that's ideally suited for a specific job, at a price far below what you might otherwise spend.

Next time you need a special-purpose PC, think "generic." Your wallet just may thank you!

What's your experience with purpose-built generic or kit PCs? Does your company allow or mandate the use of custom PCs? If you've been involved in building custom PCs, where are the best places for parts and information? What's the lowest-cost system you've built or know of? What's most elaborate and powerful? Let's pool out knowledge in the Listening Post discussion forum!

Selected Hardware Resources
Many more are available via a Web search:

Info On Building PCs And Servers

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