The University of Pennsylvania's Online Computing Magazine

PENN PRINTOUT April 1993 - Volume 9:6

[Printout | Contents | Search ]

Unix workstation maintenance

By Susan Mallet

By late 1992, the University was spending an estimated $500,000 annually on the maintenance of Unix workstations. Individual Schools and departments were negotiating their own maintenance arrangements with vendors, and the University was not realizing the cost savings and other advantages an institution of its size could command if it pursued a coordinated maintenance purchasing strategy.

To address the immediate problem, Director of Purchasing Robert N. Michel and Vice Provost for Computing Dr. Peter C. Patton convened a University-wide task force to study the need for campus-wide Unix maintenance agreements. Participants in the task force were Abe Ahmed (Cochair, Purchasing), Michael F. Eleey (ISC), Dr. N. Ben Goldstein (SAS), William Magill (ISC), Susan Mallet (Cochair, ISC), Roy K. Marshall (ISC), Dr. George McKenna (ISC), Robert N. Michel (Purchasing), Carl Ostermann (Wharton), Dr. Peter C. Patton (ISC), Dr. Albert Shar (Medical School), Drusie Sheldon (Wharton), Ira Winston (Engineering), and Dr. John H. Yates (SAS).

The Unix Workstation Maintenance Task Force was charged with soliciting bids from vendors, developing evaluation criteria, and choosing the best possible mix of vendors to recommend to the University. The selection process and the results are presented below. As a result of this endeavor, discounts ranging from 25 to 75 percent of previous pricing were negotiated. The expected cost saving to the University has been estimated to be at least $200,000.

The sponsors envisioned the Unix Maintenance Task Force as a pilot effort to leverage resources by combining forces campus-wide, thus providing significant savings to individual Schools. Their hope is to streamline the process the Task Force developed and apply it in other situations where there is a potential for saving money through collaborative effort.

The process

The Task Force prepared a detailed request for quotation (RFQ) that was distributed to a list of qualified vendors. These included Bell Atlantic Business System Services, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), GE Computer Services, Hewlett-Packard (HP), International Business Machines (IBM), NeXT, Silicon Graphics Incorporated (SGI), and SUN Microsystems. DEC, HP, IBM/Grumman (combined bid), NeXT/Motorola (Motorola services all NeXT workstations in the Philadelphia area), SGI, and SUN/Bell Atlantic (combined bid) responded with written bids. Each vendor was subsequently invited to campus to discuss the details of its offerings. The final step was a formal evaluation to select the vendors to recommend to the University.

Evaluation criteria

The Task Force evaluated the vendors using a set of weighted criteria that reflected University needs and priorities. The following are the most important of these:

  • Pricing and discount offerings.
  • Prior experience at the University, including the quality of service provided and adherence to promised response times.
  • Variety of service options (e.g., a range of guaranteed response times, from four hours to one week).
  • Availability and pricing of time and materials options.
  • Willingness to take responsibility for paperwork--for maintaining inventory of University systems and peripherals under contract or purchased, notifying customers of agreements about to expire, maintaining warranty information, and sending invoices directly to customers. (A primary objective was to reduce paperwork for the University.)
  • Strategic directions.
  • Presentation of the proposal and follow-up.
  • Outside references.

The results

To provide Schools and departments with maximum autonomy in their decision making, the Task Force decided to recommend two maintenance vendors for each workstation manufacturer (see below). Both vendors were rated good or excellent in each of the categories listed above. Note that because of its high ranking on all manufacturer's workstations, DEC would be the vendor of choice for "across the board" maintenance in a multivendor environment.

  Machine Maintenance vendor

   DEC        DEC and SUN/Bell Atlantic

   HP         HP and DEC

   IBM        DEC and SUN/Bell Atlantic

   NeXT       DEC

   SGI        SGI and DEC

   SUN        SUN/Bell Atlantic and DEC

   Vendor    Contact          Phone
   DEC          Tim Platt or     (609) 273-2009
                Peter Brown      (215) 542-3468

   HP                            (800) 428-2500

   SGI          Jerry Allen      (215) 638-3707

   SUN/Bell     Bob Dixey or     (609) 231-5725
   Atlantic     Jim McCrossin    (215) 962-5571 

While working on the Unix maintenance agreements, the Task Force also achieved some unintended, though extremely useful, results:

  • The Task Force negotiated three-year warranty options for new equipment from DEC, IBM, SGI, and SUN/Bell Atlantic. Because of the budgeting structure of the Uni-versity, it is far more cost- effective for a School or department to purchase a three-year warranty with a new system.
  • The team began building an inventory of the Unix workstations on campus, including their specifications and locations. The ISC now has the beginnings of a single source of information on University Unix workstations, useful as a reference for the University community, as a mailing list for Unix-specific information, and as a foundation for future dealings with workstation vendors. The information is maintained by Academic Computing Services (ACS).

Choosing a vendor

Maintenance for Unix workstations is expensive and should not be dealt with casually. The Task Force recommends that you consider the following when you select a vendor.

In some instances, you may choose to compare the two recommended vendors for each brand of workstation, then select the one that best fits your needs. Be sure to examine all the options: pricing for both time and materials and yearly contract, service offerings, etc.

In other instances, it makes sense to choose the primary vendor of a particular system to provide maintenance for that system (e.g., choosing SUN to provide maintenance for SUN workstations), even if that vendor is not recommended by the Task Force. It may be important to maintain good relations with the vendor from whom you are currently buying equipment, especially if you foresee the need for special services in the future (you might, perhaps, need a loaner in an emergency). Often the primary vendor knows the software of that system better and feels a greater responsibility to fix "design" errors. The primary vendor may also have better access to spare parts and could obtain them from the production line if they were in short supply.

Schools and departments that have workstations from different manufacturers may realize reduced administrative overhead and increased quality of service by choosing to deal with only one vendor. DEC is the recommended vendor for single-source maintenance. A single vendor has the additional advantage of providing "one-stop shopping"--there is only one phone number and one contact to keep in mind.

The Task Force recommendations are the result of an in-depth study and should serve as an aid in the selection of an appropriate service. You should also work closely with the computing director in your department or School to determine the best choice for your system. Ultimately, however, the choice of maintenance vendor lies with the owner of the equipment.

For more information

For additional information on the maintenance vendors and their offerings, call Abe Ahmed, Purchasing Department, 898-4282.

SUSAN MALLET is Project Manager for the Computing Resource Center.