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Dell, HP, IBM and Stratus Technologies won high praise from corporate users for their prompt and efficient after market technical service and support in the latest ITIC 2010-2011 Global Server Hardware and Server OS Reliability survey.

The results came from a broad based survey that polled organizations worldwide on the reliability, security and technical service and support from among 14 of the leading server hardware platforms and 18 of the most widely deployed server operating system distributions.

As we said in an earlier discussion, each poll elicits some surprising and unexpected revelations. In this survey, users reserved their highest encomiums and most critical barbs for the server hardware vendors – both in terms of product performance and reliability and the service and support they receive from their respective vendors.

Among the mainstream hardware vendors with the largest market shares, users expressed the most satisfaction with Dell, HP and IBM service and support. Stratus Technologies, whose ftServer line specializes in high availability, also got customer kudos for delivering superior service and support.

Specifically, the results show that 76% of HP customers rated its service and support as Excellent or Very Good, followed by 72% of IBM corporate accounts who gave Big Blue servers Excellent or Very Good grades and 70% of Dell customers who said their technical service and support was Excellent or Very Good.

Equally important is the fact that only a very small minority of Dell, HP and IBM customers dinged those vendors with negative ratings for their technical service and support. Only three percent of IBM server users rated the company’s technical service and support as Poor and none called it Unsatisfactory. Among Dell users, only a very small two percent minority called technical service and support Poor and only one percent deemed it Unsatisfactory. Similarly, only three percent of HP server respondents called technical service and support Poor and only two percent rated it Unsatisfactory.

The high ratings users gave HP and IBM is perhaps not surprising since service and support is a core competency that represents roughly 50% of each company’s respective annual revenue. The most common complaints voiced about HP support was that updates are difficult to roll out because they come out sporadically and there is a constant need to check HP’s website for the newest updates. IBM customers were mainly satisfied with the alacrity and quality of Big Blue’s support, but some did complain that it “was too expensive.”

Over eight-out-of-10 or 84% of Stratus ftServer customers gave the company’s technical service and support an Excellent or Very Good rating. Significantly, none of Stratus’ customers said the technical service and support was Poor or Unsatisfactory. Stratus, based in Maynard, MA and which is among the last of the small, independent server vendors, won rave reviews from mid-market and enterprise customers for the depth and breadth of its technical service and support and the willingness of its support staff. “In the rare instances when we have occasion to call Stratus support, they are extremely responsive and always willing to do whatever it takes to resolve the issue,” said an IT director at a mid-Atlantic enterprise.

User Support Concerns

ITIC conducted over two dozen first person interviews with IT managers and C-level executives in order to delve more deeply into issues like technical service and support that positively or negatively impact reliability. Based on those conversations, we determined that with rare exceptions the biggest customer complaint was not with the inherent performance, reliability or security of a specific server hardware or server OS platform, but rather in finding a fix and getting technical service and support when an IT department is stymied.

This is especially problematic for enterprises that have large, complex enterprises and multiple remote locations. This means that network administrators spend more time ferreting out the cause of the outage before they can even begin to search for a fix.

Since the underlying reliability and security of nearly all the server operating systems and server hardware has improved, the majority of the more moderate and severe Tier 2 and Tier 3 outages are mainly due to component failures, integration and interoperability issues e.g., incompatible applications or drivers.

Interestingly, the service and support issues that most irked IT managers were the sometimes lengthy waits for replacement component parts for their servers and incompatibilities among the server hardware, server OSs and third party applications. The latter point left many IT managers scrambling to escalate support issues to get the fix in a reasonable amount of time.

An IT administrator at an SMB construction firm and a self-described “Dell fan boy” commented, “I have always found Dell’s support to be good… but over the last year to year and a half I have had some problems getting parts or servers in a timely fashion. I ordered two servers last year that the sales rep quoted 2-3 weeks to arrive. It took almost 3 months to get the servers and only after having to escalate the order more than once.”

The long lead time in ordering and receiving replacement parts was not limited to Dell. Many IT managers voiced the same complaint about other vendors, although there did not seem to be a groundswell of consensus that the lead times to receive replacement parts affected one vendor more than any other.

Network administrators like the manager at an SMB manufacturing firm, lamented the lack of an overarching toolset that could be used for more synergistic security and system monitoring. He noted that while there are some overlapping tools that can be deployed for the server OS, the server hardware and the networking gear, there is “no comprehensive “offering.

“It would certainly be nice to have a common portal to manage & monitor all aspects of security and reliability among all hardware/OS platforms. This may not make sense for large organizations, but for the SMBs, where all of these systems are managed by the same team (or individual), it would be a dream,” he said. “We just don’t have the manpower to keep an eye on everything 24×7. The sooner we can react to issues, the better our business operates,” he added.

A VP of IT and security at a midsized organization in the Northeast observed that size does matter when it comes to technical service and support. “Most of the big server vendors provide adequate support if you have 50+ servers and you can escalate past first level support quite easily.”

So how do SMBs who lack the budgets and the clout of their enterprise counterparts manage? The survey responses and customer interviews reaffirmed the fact that SMBs are heavily reliant on managed service providers (MSPs) or consultants to solve thorny reliability issues.

Survey Methodology

ITIC conducted an independent Web-based survey of 470 corporate IT mangers and C-level executives worldwide from November 2010 through February 2011. The survey’s objective was to poll corporate customers on the reliability of 14 of the most popular server hardware platforms and 18 of the top server OS distributions.

The survey participants came from 23 countries worldwide; approximately 83% of the respondents hailed from North America. The survey consisted of multiple choice questions and one essay question. ITIC supplemented the Web survey two dozen first person customer interviews. In order to maintain objectivity, ITIC accepted no vendor sponsorship monies.

Nonetheless, downtime, regardless of the reason, still disrupts network operations, costs the corporation time and money and raises the risk of litigation. Additionally, any extended amount of downtime (and these days even a 15 or 20 minute outage can be classified as lengthy) will almost certainly cause service disruptions that can have a domino effect on business partners, customers and suppliers.

This underscores the importance of timely and efficient technical service and support, which can make the difference between minutes or hours of downtime. It is not hyperbole to state that technical service and support is one of the pillars – along with product features, performance, security and scalability — that solidifies or undermines the overall reliability of the network infrastructure.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Vendors’ ability to deliver top notch technical service and support – including a quick response with updates, fixes and patches to known flaws and security vulnerabilities – has a direct impact on overarching network reliability. Technical service and support – good and bad – also distinguishes and differentiates vendors from their competitors. How promptly, efficiently and courteously a vendor responds to its customers definitely plays a role in an organization’s planned purchases and upgrades.

Vendors who provide shoddy service, or have been inattentive to their customers’ requests for information on products and pricing or who fail to effectively respond in times of crisis, may find that such behavior backfires. A vendor that ignores its clients needs once the contract has been signed, may find themselves unable to upsell to those users or tossed out of the account completely when the contact expires. At the very least, such vendors can expect that service contract renewals will be imperiled.

Competition is fierce among hardware and server operating system vendors. Users have choices and they know it. In 21st Century networks, time is literally money. Fast action and superior service and support can save or cost a corporation thousands or even millions of dollars for every minute of downtime.

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