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Snickering at the Emachine

For several years, I administered a command and control system for the U.S. Air Force. I sat in a datacenter, surrounded by racks jam-packed full of servers, and they kept the building at 64 degrees year round. I quickly learned to keep a jacket handy. I did several things, but mostly patch management.

Our system consisted of a diverse collection of Dell 1U and 5U servers, HP blades, and a couple of Sun SPARC boxes. It was a professional-looking setup, and except for the times we were doing massive system upgrades, the system generally worked as well as it looked.

Then we got a neighbor.

I didn’t notice anything about them at first–it was just a row of racks full of rackmount servers, the same as dozens of others in the building. But one day, I noticed something different in one of the racks. Something green.

I stopped dead in my tracks and looked at it again.

There was a big lowercase green “e” on a desktop computer stuffed into that rack. They didn’t even bother putting it in sideways to try to make it blend in a little. Just a minitower sitting centered on a shelf, with standard rackmount machines above and below it.

Yes, sitting amongst these 5U servers that cost $20,000 and up–apiece–was a $349 consumer electronics staple. Who knows what the $349 junker was doing. Hopefully nothing important. I knew people who advocated using desktop-grade PCs as domain controllers to save money, since domain controllers generally shouldn’t be used for anything else, and DCs fail over by their very nature so it’s not a catastrophe if one does happen to fail. But at least they had the decency to use business-class desktop PCs for that purpose. Using a $349 Emachine for a domain controller takes that practice too far. (I wouldn’t recommend that practice today–it’s more cost-effective to put your DCs on virtual machines instead.)

But I didn’t think of any of that right then. No, I went back to my office and told everyone I could find.

They snickered.

An Emachine. In a datacenter. A government data center. An Air Force datacenter.

For months afterward, any time I had to walk over to our servers, I made sure to wave at the Emachine. And snicker.

Then one day, the Emachine was gone, and I never saw it again. I wasn’t surprised. If you happen to buy the right model at the right time, they can do a good job for you at home. But they’re generally inexpensive machines built using components from whoever happened to be the lowest bidder at the time. As such, I can’t think of anything good coming from sticking one in a datacenter and calling it a production server. That just seems like a recipe for BSODs to me.

But, come to think of it, that out-of-place machine did brighten my day from time to time for a while. So I guess there was one good thing that came of it.

I’m not 100% certain the Air Force Emachine was what we call Shadow IT in the private sector. But shadow IT does happen in the DoD too, even though its governance tends to be better than in the private sector. Maybe it was the military equivalent of shadow IT.

4 thoughts on “Snickering at the Emachine”

  1. There are some segments of humanity that consider other humans to be Emachines.
    This is an excellent insight into the mindset of that elite.
    Thank you Dave for pointing this out.

    1. Well, I hope I didn’t insult anyone.

      Here’s another way to look at it. I own a few Harbor Freight tools. I use them once a year or so for simple one-off weekend projects, and they’re fine. Would one of the workers building the new bridge across the Mississippi River here in St. Louis use Harbor Freight tools to do it? Not on your life. The tools would break sometime in the first week. Would those workers snicker if they saw a Harbor Freight tool somewhere on the job site? Almost certainly. They’d probably snicker at a Black & Decker too, for that matter.

      I’ve seen big-name $20,000 servers to break under the load these systems had to carry. If there was a flaw in any machine, these workloads would find it. A $349 Emachine isn’t going to last long under a load that can crush a server that cost 50 times as much, and was actually designed to carry that load.

      You can call it elitist, but I prefer to call it prudent.

  2. For some reason your story tickles my funny bone, too. I remember those bloody eMachines — it was always the power supply that went out and it was proprietary, IIRC.

    1. Yes, those power supplies were very failure-prone, although there are aftermarket boxes that will fit now. The danger of course is whether that power supply took something with it when it failed. If you needed to replace the power supply, you could be replacing the motherboard next.

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