Analysis: Do-it-yourself IT support

Used it equipment may seem like a bargain, but getting support cheaply for equipment that's out of warranty may prove a tough battle. For open source software, there are numerous Web-based support resources available. But for hardware, if it breaks, you may be out of luck.

The solution? Buy standard gear and build the in-house skills to support that gear. Don't forget to figure out when it's worth paying for outside support contracts and certifications and when its not.

Self-support "is a growing trend" in the current economy, says Eric Rocco, a managing vice president at Gartner Inc. Hardware reliability is increasing, he explains, and as hardware prices fall it can make more sense to simply replace broken-down equipment than to try to repair it. This is especially true for used hardware, for which support contracts often cost more than they do for new equipment. "It's tougher for service providers to maintain parts and skilled people," to support older equipment, Rocco explains.

One approach to keeping in-house support costs low is to buy only certain standard types of used equipment, as did ISP "We're sticking to a few brands that our competency is built around," explains Director of Engineering Howard Bastedo. "That's been one of our secrets."

A key benefit of standardization with used equipment, Bastedo says, is that "if one goes down, we know it's just like the other one. ... My biggest troubleshooting method is stare and compare." Bastedo will, however, buy support contracts for mission-critical equipment, such as software switches. And in some cases he's leveraged paid support relationships for support on equipment that's not under contract.

Etienne Handman, CTO of online mortgage lender E-Loan, agrees that getting cheap support for used IT gear must be handled on a case-by-case basis, preferably hiring your own trained technicians for key equipment brands. "I haven't found super-cheap external support with the level of reliability I want," Handman says. "If you try to pay someone outside to maintain it they will charge you an awful lot, and probably an up-front cost to certify it."

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