In the dingly Dell

Next time you fly out of Heathrow airport, look down (if you have a window seat) at Windsor Castle. A microcosm of the UK we now live in is spread out before you – with one sweep of the eye you can take in a Royal residence dating back to the 12th century, Europe’s biggest city, the world’s busiest airport (by number of international passengers per year) and a patch of countryside that’s so ‘remote’ that a business situated therein has to rely on satellite broadband in order to get connected to the Net.

In the dingly Dell

No, I’m not joking about that last one. I invited myself to visit these chaps after pursuing a few server purchases through eBay. After making my third or fourth purchase, I thought it only polite to take a look at their operation and followed my satnav to a postcode from which I couldn’t see a single streetlamp, although above me, heading dead in line with the country lane I’d been following, was the one-airliner-per-minute stream out of Heathrow. By some bizarre trick of topography, the little farmhouse industrial development where they had their server refurbishment operation lay in a trough of inaccessibility, well beyond the two-mile(ish) limit for DSL connection from their nearest telephone exchange and with no easily visible line-of-sight dwellings that might have helped out with a wireless aerial boosted by a punched-through Pringles tube. (That shiny internal lining to the tube does tremendous things for reception and transmission over longer distances, it seems.)

Ironically enough, I was there to investigate the condition of some servers that this vendor was entirely happy to ship for me to Munich. Rather than take a smallish chance over condition, specification and packaging, I figured the price break on these machines was good enough to warrant paying them a visit: you can see what I was comparing my prices with by taking a look at The Dell 6650 may be a year or two out of date in physical chassis terms, but there’s no harm at all in taking it apart, stuffing in some of the top-of-the range Xeons and taking advantage of an architecture that’s powerful enough to sit in the heart of 280 SCSI disks, six front-end processors and 57,000 users (go and look at that page).

I’m sure Dell will regard this recommendation as some kind of backhanded compliment. On the one hand, I once again find myself recommending Dell equipment. I like Dell servers a lot – one has been running continuously in the basement computer room here since mid-2000, so nobody can accuse me of arbitrary or shallow decisions. But I simply can’t abide the process of dealing with Dell the company. Its approach to selling is so single-mindedly focused on the salesman that any slightly novel requirement meets with a brick wall of unannounced restrictions, extra charges or simply blank incomprehension. So when I needed three servers of a decently flexible starting specification to be delivered within three weeks to Munich, I went back to my successful eBay vendor and pursued matters. No problem, he said, come and take a look and we can arrange shipping to Munich for £127.

Now here was a pause for all kinds of thought. While dealing with lots of different small business networks, I’ve found that the cost of shipping computers from place to place is a major influence on the way the IT service sector is prepared to do business – not because it costs £127 to move 250kg of Dell’s finest steel across Europe, but rather the opposite. Only a few weeks earlier this summer, at another client, we’d been debating the pros and cons of making a trip to Aberdeen to rescue some dead and dying PCs, because (to cut a long story short) it was looking like at least £450 a piece via any of the Big Four courier companies to ship these machines back to base, and that was just one way, not return.

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