[Beowulf] Re: MS Cray

Lux, James P james.p.lux at jpl.nasa.gov
Wed Sep 17 13:12:33 PDT 2008

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Robert G. Brown [mailto:rgb at phy.duke.edu]
> Sent: Wednesday, September 17, 2008 12:08 PM
> To: David Mathog
> Cc: beowulf at beowulf.org; Lux, James P
> Subject: Re: [Beowulf] Re: MS Cray
> On Wed, 17 Sep 2008, David Mathog wrote:
> > Let "a few hundred" = $200, and of course there are 36 months in 3
> > years, so JPL pays the vendor $7200 for each machine, plus
> "support"
> > for this term.  At the end of the lease the vendor gets the
> computer
> > back, and they probably sell it for a few hundred dollars, just to
> > sweeten the already cushy deal.  The office staff may need support
> > once and a while, but one can assume that the average JPL
> engineer or
> > scientist can more than handle all their own PC software
> issues, and
> > at worst would just need to swap a machine if there was a major
> > hardware issue.  In other words, the average support cost to the
> > vendor for the technical staff is but a tiny fraction of
> what JPL pays them.
> >
> > Who's the vendor, Halliburton?
> Brilliantly put.  And yet people buy in!  Why?
> In a typical small business, they may well have no real
> systems administrators.  "Administration" may be done by an
> office manager, a secretary, a staff person with a bit of
> computing in their blood or better than average common sense.
>  In such an environment, the (say) $4200 surplus times 30 or
> 50 machines may end up being cheaper than hiring a full time
> real sysadmin, although this is an extreme example where one
> is right on the margin with these particular numbers even for
> that on the 50 end of things.  Add to that, though, that
> Windows admin isn't terrribly scalable and things break a
> lot, so one admin cannot handle linux-like numbers of boxes,
> so it is still not quite crazy.
> The real question is why an admin-rich environment with lots
> of full time admins would ever buy into such a deal.  If
> you've got a full time admin ANYWAY, paying $150/month for
> support on top of this (beyond the cost of the hardware is
> just insane.

In the model here at JPL, you wouldn't have a full time SA anyway. You'd get the services of one of the instutional SA army for your monthly fee.

If you have a "computing project" (say, building a cluster), and a fulltime SA is part of the project, then you'd not buy the institutional services.  Your private SA is then responsible for all the institutional requirements (which can be substantial).  Such computers are "unsubscribed" computers, and you have to go through a (fairly simple) justification process to explain how it's not actually a desktop. (The cost to provide "desktop" support within an organization has been documented as being higher than from the outside vendor)

The institutional contract is very much oriented towards "desktop" services, not towards "software development support".  We have hundreds of computers that are not subscribed, and which have dedicated SA services, provided by inhouse staff.

I think that rgb is right, though, that there are certain size and structure organizations for which things are different. It's tied to the "granularity" of buying people.

For very small organizations, it's the "office mgr as admin" model, and they might call a consultant in for more complex things (I used to earn my living doing just this.. I'd do the server configs, cabling, etc, set up accounts, etc., build scripts.) I think the threshold for this is when SA duties are down in the few hours/week range.

Then there are very large organizations (like JPL, or Fortune 500 companies) for which standardizing desktops and centralized support make sense.

In between, it's when you have organizations that have enough work to justify about a full time person (or, maybe, 1/2 a person) for their SA job and moving up to a few FTE.  You likely have some SA reserve capacity, so the incremental cost for adding one computer is small (as in almost zero), and in this situation, the choice between delta pay for an SA (zero) and $150/month for a service contract is an easy one to make.

Overall institutional structure has a lot to do with it. Academia, in general, has a strong departmental structure, and individual departments tend to be run as independent businesses.  As a result, they're sort of working like small/medium sized businesses, with the same zero delta $ for SA vs monthly fee.  Some departments are full of technically skilled folks, some of whom for which the incremental hourly cost is very low. If you have someone on salary,  "can you spend a half hour looking at my computer" is free (until that poor SA gets overloaded and burns out, or graduates).

And, small entreprenurial organizations are incorrigble optimists. (anyone in academic research has to be an optimist,.. The bold grant proposal typically wins.) They will willingly accept the risk that something that is expensive to fix won't crop up.  Very small organizations take the risk, because they can't afford otherwise. More than one small company has gone out of business because their computer died, taking all the business records with it. Very large organizations are conservative.

To a certain extent, the monthly fee is sort of like insurance.. You can gamble that no "big problem" crops up that is beyond your inhouse SA capability, and that you can do minimal SA work. OTOH, you can pay the monthly fee, and when a disaster occurs (a virus infects all your computers, or there's a regulatory compliance edict that requires you to do something to all 50 of your computers), the service provider sucks it up and does it. (on the odds that not everyone has a problem at the same time)


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