If you doubt that PC desktops, notebooks and servers have hit the commodity phase, grab the specs for your favourite box. Let’s say it’s a dual-processor Xeon. Do a Web search on your server’s CPU speed. Of the systems that pop up, choose a few at random. “Hey,” you say, “those specs match my first-tier server exactly!”
Vendors use similar - and sometimes the same - sources for engineering, manufacturing, support, and service for volume systems. If you peel open your favourite 1U rack PC and the vendor hasn’t obliterated the original maker’s motherboard logo and part number, write them down and search away. Two systems with the same motherboard are functionally identical. Of course, if a vendor cheaps out on a power supply, cooling fans, or hard drives, the machine is a dud no matter how sweet the motherboard is or how big the system maker is. But the Internet is the only tool you need to check out a vendor’s track record and the buzz on the components they use.
I’m not masquerading as an investigative reporter when I say that vendors knowingly ship functionally identical systems. The yawning sameness of a commodity market is precisely where I wanted the PC to go as soon as IBM chose to free the technology.
Nothing starts out as a commodity, of course. When major shifts in technology occur, as happened with AMD’s Opteron and Intel’s EM64T, the systems vendors that want to be first to market must rely on suppliers closely allied with the chipmakers, an expensive proposition. After the early adopter period, however, overseas manufacturers step in to take over the volume business. Asian manufacturers in particular will engineer and build everything from motherboards to fully assembled servers. The vendors stuff the boxes with peripherals, snap on their signature plastic faceplates and logos, load them with software, and ship them out.
Can this be a good thing, having big vendors quietly stamping their brand on systems they didn’t create, systems that anybody could buy from the very same suppliers the big guys use? It’s nothing but good for all concerned. Vendors love having lots of sources for each component so that they can easily rebalance price, performance, and state of the art. Importing allows vendors to leave the commodity engineering to others while they focus on innovation. And if something in the system design is flawed, it’s not back to the drawing board, it’s a delay of a week or two until a new supplier is found.
My point is that if all vendors can shop the same sources for systems and components, which they do, the priority of familiar IT buying criteria such as technical features, system reliability, and performance will slide toward the bottom of the list. They’re easy targets to hit. Policies, reputation, and other non-technical, less tangible criteria will then rise to the top of the list. And that’s great. After all, when you purchase enterprise equipment, you’re entering into a relationship with a vendor, not just buying metal, so the “squishy” stuff such as responsive service and support matters a lot.
If you’re brand-loyal, you have my blessing, even though all PC desktops and most servers with four or fewer processors have countless siblings cut from the very same cloth. Be glad for lower costs, shorter waits, and the sharper focus on genuinely new technology that commoditisation brings to the makers of the brand-name systems you buy.