Build or Buy: Thoughts on PCs and Servers for MSPs and VARs

Build or Buy: Thoughts on PCs and Servers for MSPs and VARs

January 9

During the summer of 2003 I decided to build my own computer. I’d owned several Dell computers, and my last PC had been assembled by a small company just down the road from the Microsoft campus in Redmond called Hard Drives Northwest. I was general happy with each computer, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could assemble a PC without injury to my home or myself.

I began by researching each component from the case to the power supply to the CPU. I spent weeks going back and forth on my selections based on what I’d gathered from the reviews on Newegg. The possibilities were endless, and each time I asked a friend for advice, I came away confused and unsure of my selections. Eventually I decided to pull the trigger. The parts arrived, and I spent the next few evenings assembling my computer. Getting the wires running from the front of the case to their proper slots on the motherboard required a little trial and error.

I learned a lot from that experience, and I ended up with exactly the PC I wanted.

Today I work for a custom PC builder just south of Seattle called Puget Systems. We build a range of computers from basic desktops to workstation and even a number of high-end servers. We tend to leave the bleeding edge gaming PCs to our competitors and instead focus on the most stable and reliable configurations.

This week I’d like to look at three options MSPs and VARs have when sourcing computers for their customers: a large manufacturer (such as Dell or HP), a custom builder (such as Puget systems), or building your own. Each option comes with its own set of benefits and possible challenges. Let’s dive into the details.

Large Manufacturer

Dell, HP, and Lenovo would fall under this category. Each offers hundreds if not thousands of SKUs, so there’s no shortage of choice. Large companies often like to do business with other large companies, so it’s not uncommon to find offices filled with desktops and servers from a single vendor such as Dell.


  • One Stop Shop – With so many products, MSPs can often find everything they need from a single source.
  • Enterprise-Grade Support – This is big one for MSPs who sell solutions to customers, but outsource the support of the hardware. It’s not cheap, but it’s often the deciding factor.
  • Financing and Leasing – This can be a huge benefit for smaller MSPs and companies. Leasing allows for your equipment to grow right along with your business.
  • Competitive Pricing – Building large quantities of PCs provides a company like Dell purchasing leverage, and they will often pass the savings along to the customer and rely on higher margin service contracts to make up the difference.


  • Take It Or Leave It – To reduce complexity, HP may offer one brand of RAM or hard drive. That’s great if you’re happy with that brand. They will be less likely to accommodate your off-brand drive or rare RAID configuration.
  • Support – While they offer some of the best support for business customers, their consumer support isn’t exactly setting the world on fire. I spent weeks trying to get Dell support to help me replace a faulty motherboard when all they cared about was selling an extended warranty.
  • Limited OS Choices – You may be limited to whatever operating system they to offer on the model you want. Want Ubuntu Linux on that desktop? You might be limited to Windows 8.

Custom Builder

thermal imaging

Puget Systems uses thermal imaging to ensure proper cooling.

Custom builders range from local mom and pop shops to better known companies such as Falcon Northwest, PC Laptops or Puget Systems. This type of company tends to focus on building high-end computers along with providing personalized sales and support. Those looking for the most advanced gaming systems or workstations tailored to a specific task such as rendering 4K video often select a custom builder for their support and access to the latest hardware.


  • Personalized Sales and Support – One of the main differentiators is that you can call and consult with a person to make sure you get exactly the system you need. My job at Puget System is to call every customer after they take delivery to make sure they have been cared for and answer any questions the customer might have.
  • Customized Configurations – If you use Adobe products you know they work best with NVIDIA cards. Custom builders know this and can tailor a computer that will best match your workload.
  • Wider Array of OS Options – Want a server with Red Hat Linux instead of Windows Server? A custom builder will usually offer more choices when it comes to the operating system. Some will even build a PC without an operating system, much to Microsoft’s chagrin.
  • Reliability – Most custom builders favor higher grade components. Of course, you pay for that quality, but they tend to be more reliable than the off-the-shelf computers.


  • Higher Prices – Custom computers generally cost a bit more than those you build yourself or you find at Dell or HP.
  • Build Times – Because each PC is custom built, it’s not uncommon for the build and testing process to take a couple of weeks. For those who need a new server by the weekend, a custom build isn’t the optimal choice.
  • Lack of Leasing Options – Makes sense when each computer is custom built.

Build Your Own

There are still a lot of people who love putting their own computer together. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and provides the greatest amount of flexibility. As an MSP, you may find that your time is better spent selling solutions than assembling computer components, but it’s always an option.


  • Total Control –You may have a customer with a very specific need (surveillance systems come to mind) that requires a small case that can hang on a wall. Your only choice may be to build it for them.
  • Cost Savings – Since you are providing the labor, you will probably save some money by building your own. You can also scour the internet in search of the lowest price on that hot SSD everyone else is selling at a premium.
  • Enjoyment – Some people enjoy building computers. You’ll also be very familiar with the system if you’re one of the MSPs that support their own hardware.


  • Support – If something goes wrong with your Dell or Falcon Northwest PC, you call them and they help you solve the issue. If you build your own PC, you’re also on the hook to support it.
  • Testing – This might not be a big deal when installing a single PC, but building and testing a dozen PCs can be time consuming. People who build PCs for a living know what to look for and which tests to run. At Puget Systems, we test each system with a thermal imaging camera to make sure each system is properly cooled.
  • Access to Drivers/Firmware/Patches – These are often rolled out to OEMs before consumers. It means you might have to wait a bit longer to download a BIOS or driver.

Whether you select a large builder such as HP, a custom builder, or decide to build your own equipment, it’s wise to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each option. Building servers and laptops are a much larger task to take on. Both servers and laptops are often designed around a specific chassis and motherboard, making it a challenge to use anything else. Both also require very specific cooling solutions that require extensive testing.

MSPs and VARs have a number of choices when it comes to sourcing hardware. The choice may come down to what you do best or how you want to allocate your time. Choose wisely.

Photo credit: Claus Rebler via Flickr