Repurposed Systems Present Growth Opportunity

The rush to the cloud is turning the repurposed systems business on its head. Several trends are at work. Older commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) servers are being replaced by the uniform, cost-effective, minimalist designs the cloud uses. Those in turn are tagged by cloud service providers (CSPs) with a useful working life of three to four years, just two Moore's cycles, and then surplused. This is way down from the traditional eight-year lifecycle of days gone by, but the units still have years of use left.

Both of these trends mean that there will be a lot of used COTS hitting the market. Short-term a glut will do two things. It will feed into the SMB space as a very cost-effective alternative to new gear. A four year old server dressed up with SSD and maybe extra DRAM is still a useful machine, especially for hosting web pages and such. Even with units in the non-traditional packaging that CSPs use are attractive, since they can be stripped down easily and rebuilt as traditional servers.

Taken together, these streams should service a solid flow of gear into less-developed nations, bringing the local compute power up drastically. This has been a traditional path for repurposed gear. Even within the developed world, though, the price of these units and their four or more remaining years of useful life will make them viable alternatives for all but the most demanding applications.

If I were an Akamai, for instance, I'd give consideration to these units as repeaters for websites and media servers. This might be especially viable if the servers come mounted up in a containerized datacenter. There the cost of installation and bring-up is small and the disruption slight — just wheel out the container and plug it at its new home. Containerized datacenters fit overseas shipping, too, of course.

Storage arrays are seeing some different trends. Data has a value for quite a few years more than the three or four year window for servers. In the past, the slow pace of change in HDD technology made long-term use of an array viable, and eight- to 12-year lives were typical.

Now, solid-state drives (SSD) have obsoleted enterprise hard-drives, and a combination of all-flash arrays and fast SSD has taken performance to levels all but a few arrays can't support. The solution is to repurpose those arrays as secondary bulk storage. The sting in the tail is that many users kept data on only a small portion of the drives, in an attempt to speed up actuator movement. This means that the repurposing unleashes a lot of free storage for those lucky users.

With repurposing and the fact that much less capacity is needed for SSD or all-flash arrays, the sales of enterprise storage units have fallen off noticeably. Inevitably, the older and slower gear will be surplused, giving users lower in the hierarchy a chance to pick up top-quality products at low prices.

The longer-term trend in enterprise storage is to use object storage appliances for bulk storage. These will be very inexpensive boxes based on COTS server boards and commodity drives. IT's too early to tell, but there is a strong possibility that these units may be so cost effective that they make the reselling of the “big iron” arrays untenable at any reasonable price.

Networking is at a major turning point. The recession held back refresh of the 1 GbE infrastructure for several years. Pent-up demand is now driving a transition, and 10 GbE has become the new standard. That leaves a lot of surplus 1 GbE gear to flow into the used market. The combination of low-priced new gear and bargain surplus gear will be tempting, but only where repurposed servers are 1 GbE. In other words, the market for this gear is transitory, especially as new infrastructure will tend to be built out with a longer lifecycle in mind.

Any way you look at it, there should be IT hardware bargains. It will be a low-price market, especially as the Chinese original design manufacturers (ODMs) who currently deliver all those cloud servers decide to enter the channel worldwide. From a user's perspective, there will be bargains, while from a reseller of surplus system's viewpoint there will be many opportunities but a very competitive market.

5 comments on “Repurposed Systems Present Growth Opportunity

  1. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 19, 2014

    Repurposed, refurbished servers also have the potential to increase corporate image among other benefits. One company in this space, Server Monkey ( says this:

    More than 50 percent of executives consider sustainability – the management of environmental, social, and governance issues – “very” or “extremely” important.

    • Maintaining or improving corporate reputation
    • Alignment with business goals
    • Improving operational efficiency and lowering costs
    • Meeting consumers' expectations
    • New growth opportunities
    • Strengthening competitive position
    • Leadership's personal interest
    • Regulatory risk
    • Attracting, motivating, & retaining talented employees
    • Meeting expectations of distributors, retailers & others

    are these emelents on the minds of your organization or your customers organizations?

  2. JimOReilly
    September 19, 2014

    Those containers of servers could be useful ways to provide electronic teaching to schools. I like the client-server model for this.

  3. JimOReilly
    September 19, 2014

    Those containers of servers could be useful ways to provide electronic teaching to schools. I like the client-server model for this.

    September 22, 2014

    I see the trend is towards SSD but I do worry about the cost and longevity of that solution.  How long does SSD last as the old fashioned HDD does seeem to last well.

  5. JimOReilly
    September 22, 2014

    @flyingscot, the wear-out issues with SSD are fading away as controllers and algorithms get better. Drives with guaranteed 8+ year life expectancy at high daily transfer rates are common.

    SSD are much more reliable than spinners when it comes to drive failures. MTBF of SSD are being exceeded.

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