To Clone or Not to Clone?

I’ve written about generic PC clones before. The standard advice usually says avoid clones in an enterprise environment because they’re not trustworthy. Use name-brand stuff, buy a service contract and concentrate on solving business problems.

Over the past few years, we at Scott Consulting have had an opportunity to test that advice. The results are not quite so clear-cut. We bought over 20 computers for ourselves, including Alpha and Intel servers, desktops from Compaq, Digital, Hewlett-Packard, generic clones and an IBM ThinkPad 380D. We also installed HP NetServers, Dell servers and desktops, classic pre-Digital Compaq servers and just about everything else at customer sites. We have enough exposure to identify some trends.

From our experience, there are three important attributes: product quality and reliability, vendor service and price. The trick? Find the best deal that maximizes the sum of all three attributes to the customer’s satisfaction.

By this measure, clones can make sense. We found a little store in Minneapolis that builds systems based on name brand parts. This place looks like the ultimate auto parts store -- except these are computer parts. Our clones include AMD K6-2 300mmx CPU, 32X CD-ROM, 6.4 GB Western Digital HDD, 64 MB memory, 3Com 10/100 PCI NIC, Shuttle sound card, and AOC Spectrum 17- inch, 0.26mm dot-pitch monitor. Total price including monitor -- $1,040. The clone server, for $1,800, has 128 MB memory, two 4.5 GB SCSI disks with an Adaptec 2940 SCSI adapter, and a cheap monitor.

Most of our clone desktops run Windows NT Workstation. One is running Windows 98 and one is running Solaris. Regardless of operating system, we have not needed any funny drivers or special patches for oddball hardware. We’ve had one bad fan, one bad mouse, one bad motherboard, and a couple IDE or SCSI cables incorrectly installed. For service, the store worked with us to fix things each time without hassles. This store, however, does not offer onsite service. When something breaks, we must either bring it in for repair or go get the part and fix it ourselves.

What about the name-brand stuff? One of our expensive Digital AlphaServers had hardware problems in 1996, but it was abused before we bought it. Since the problems were fixed, it has been solid. A power supply went bad in our Digital 486 PC a couple years ago, and the onsite warranty service was very helpful. All of our original Digital monitors, however, are dead or dying. We replaced them with 15-inch NEC or 17-inch AOC Spectrum monitors. These new monitors have been trouble free so far.

I lost count of how many HP Vectra keyboards went bad. I had a DOA HP NetServer at a customer site a couple years ago, but the local HP service was extremely helpful with getting it replaced. I’ve also had great luck with HP telephone support. Our Compaq Deskpros are solid so far, but service was terrible on one unit that was DOA. The unit has been good since we fought with Compaq to get it fixed. My IBM ThinkPad has lots of problems and I’m not happy with IBM’s support.

In summary, our clones are no worse than name brand stuff for quality, although I’ve heard and been a part of plenty of horror stories with other clone situations. And for service, HP and Digital have the edge, and maybe Compaq’s service has improved since it bought Digital.

Therefore we must conclude that clones must win on price. Otherwise, why buy them? But keep in mind, in our experience a good clone may be even on quality, but some name-brand vendors have an edge on service.

If I were running a big IT department with educated users, I would look for a good clone vendor like our little store in Minneapolis. I would seriously think about making a deal in which we buy PCs at their low price and pay an additional negotiated monthly fee for a guaranteed onsite response time. For remote sites with enough volume, I would buy spare parts and hire a technician. For low-volume remote sites, I would make a deal in which the clone store and the site exchange parts overnight. In today’s commodity computer market, this just might work. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is president of Scott Consulting Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at