Why is it so hard to buy a standard developer workstation?

It’s spring, 2013, and Intel has just released its Haswell processors and chipsets.  Motherboard vendors are touting their new wares and all the manufacturers are announcing new products.  As luck would have it, it’s about time to refresh workstations in our office, too, so it’s a fine time to take stock of the current state of the art for desktop systems.

So, without further ado, if you’re a developer, you want a system along these lines:

  • Intel Core i7 — Haswell is great, but Ivy Bridge would be fine.
  • At least 16 GB RAM.
  • An SSD boot drive – 128-256 GB.
  • Mirrored 7200rpm data drives – around 2-3 TB.
  • Integrated graphics are ok unless you do any serious graphics work.

As an aside, I checked my notes from 2009, and these are almost identical to the specs I put together the last time I looked at systems.  We’ve gone through a couple generations of CPUs and chipsets, and the “sweet spot” for storage buys about double the capacity now, but the rough idea is about the same.  I figure the cost for a system like this is down a third since then, too.

Incidentally, if you’re a professional in a content-generation field (web design, illustration, photography, video), this is a decent starting spot for you, too, though you’ll probably want to toss in a stout video card to help with the graphics.  Although you might be tempted to save a few bucks here or there, every single one of these elements is there because it adds value for a professional who relies on his equipment.  Nothing about this configuration is exotic or surprising.

Despite this, I continue to be astounded that nobody sells systems that look like this.  Obviously, you can build it yourself, and if you know the first thing about computers, I highly recommend this — you’ll wind up getting better parts, and there’s something to be said for knowing your kit is built right.  Some shops would obviously rather buy PC’s than pay people to assemble them, though, and so it is here.  Off to Dell.com, then.

Before I start ripping Dell, I’ve got to point out that I’ve generally been a fan of theirs.  I’ve used something approaching dozen of their PC’s and laptops at work over the years, and I’ve got a Dell laptop at home that’s recently been retired because it stopped charging. I used to have a Dell 1U server in my basement running VM’s, in fact.  Noisy, but a nice little machine.  I’ve got no ax to grind with Dell, per-se.  Despite this, they’re dead to me now.

I’ve always found their product lines to be a bit too complex, and their configurator is just about as much fun as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  I’d forgotten about this, but I shopped their site back in 2009 to see if they could build a system along the lines I indicated up front.  They couldn’t.  Back then, this was disappointing, but not terribly surprising.  Intel’s RAID-enabled chipsets were fairly new, so practical mirroring was fairly novel, and SSD’s were just beginning to trickle down from enthusiast systems.  Today, both of these things should be considered absolutely mainstream.  I honestly don’t understand how both of these features aren’t considered standard equipment for anyone who makes more than minimum wage.

On top of not being able to build the system I wanted, the web site absolutely blew chunks.    As soon as I visited the site, I got one of those “Will you leave your opinion?” pop-ups, and every time I selected a system, the page scrolled over to the top-right, where a “Chat with Dell” window appeared, offering me help.  Offer accepted.  Needless to say, “Brandon” wasn’t able to help me: “…and no workstations that we have will allow an SSD boot hard drive and then mirrored 2nd and 3rd hard drives.”  No kidding.  I also participated in their feedback session.  At the end, they asked if I had any additional notes for them.  I did:

The last time I tried shopping for a system here was 2009.  At that time, I was looking for a Core i7 desktop with around 16GB RAM, an SSD boot drive and mirrored data drives.  I couldn’t find one.  Today, I tried shopping for the same thing, and guess what — can’t get there from here.  This is a standard configuration for developers, and you literally can’t buy it from Dell.  You guys might want to worry a little less about how your buyout is going and more about building PC’s.  Just sayin’.

So, that was Dell.  The good news is that HP fared better.  I opened the site without drama, and found a desktop right off the bat that would support the configuration I wanted. The system I wound up configuring used an Ivy Bridge processor instead of Haswell, but at least I could get something close.  Dell, I know you probably sell far more PC’s to secretaries and call center workers than you do to developers, but if you don’t hold the high ground, you’re going to get your head handed to you on commodity systems.

Anyway, it’s been nice knowin’ ya, Dell.

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3 Replies to “Why is it so hard to buy a standard developer workstation?”

  1. Complete agreement with you on wondering why nobody markets development workstations, and on the pain and horrible design of the Dell web site. One thing about a dev workstation, not sure why you want mirrored drives, I’d just as soon have one spinning and one external for backups. Wish the SSDs were just a *little* more reliable and then I wouldn’t want an old spinner at all. If I have multiple drives, I’d want them independent … unless I want my own SAN box.

    1. I’ve had one of the drives in a mirrored pair die on two or three occasions, and it’s just so nice to pop a new drive in and just keep right on humming — I can even use the PC while the mirror is rebuilding. To me, this beats stopping everything to do a restore from an external drive, and there’s no data lost at all.

  2. I buy my development machines from Puget Systems (no affiliation, just a satisfied customer). They can make just about any configuration you’d want. I like their stuff because:
    1. They will make anything you want. Even if they don’t carry a particular part, they’ll get it if you ask.
    2. They have great customer service and help you design your system
    3. Their configuration website doesn’t suck.
    4. They will do custom stuff like install whatever OS you want. I just sent them a disc and they installed and tested it.
    5. By the time you’re done designing your system, if you add up all the parts and are able to find a similarly equipped machine elsewhere, the price will be about the same…..i.e. they are not more expensive for good machines (if you want a cheap off-the-shelf configuration for your sister-in-law, go to costco)

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