Hardware Lights Lit
Keith Burson has
spent a career selling alternatives for HPs customers. The
president of Surety Systems,
Burson sold HP 3000s during the 1980s in the reseller marketplace.
Burson started in the computer business in an era when graduate
Computer Science degrees like his from American University were a
rare thing. Americans computer training was so new the
university awarded its CS grads a Masters in Public
Administration. He had close to two decades of industry experience
saelling systems before he founded Surety in 1988. One year later he
led the Houston-based company into the 3000 hardware support
business, maintaining systems so customers could extend the useful
life of computers, printers and storage devices outside of HPs
range of support. Burson is also chairman of the Greater Houston
Regional User Group, one of the few still putting on annual
conferences with 3000 speakers.
specialty is hardware, from alternatives to the HP-branded line
printers, to the Series 9x7 3000s, to latest-generation system
support and HP-UX systems. The company provides the feet on the
street which the third-party support companies will need to
replace a worldwide organization like HP Services. Surety partners
with another third party firm to provide MPE software support, for
companies that want full service to replace all of HPs support.
But Surety also does hardware-only support business, literally going
the extra mile in some cases to win business from HP. A school
district far down in the Rio Grande Valley is one of Suretys
customers, nearly a days drive from the companys Houston
facility. HP is not much closer anymore, dispatching its service
techs out of a San Antonio facility. Surety got the business by
matching HP on service, and improving on the cost of
As HP eases
out of the 3000 marketplace, customers who must remain on their
systems beyond 2006 are looking at support alternatives. HP
wont support many of the older systems in the field, and third
parties are starting to win support deals on price against HP for
newer systems, too. We wanted to ask Burson how his third party
support arrangements work with 3000 customers, who is signing up this
year, and how the end of HPs 3000 sales is affecting the
prospects for this growing sector of the computers economic
ecosystem. We spoke by phone in the weeks after the Interex West
Coast Solutions Symposium.
Customers who want to reduce their support costs
start by getting a quote. What do you need to know to give them a
We have to know
their complete hardware and software configuration, as well as their
expertise in HP 3000s. We find wide ranges there, from small shops
where there is virtually no expertise they know how to do a
backup, and thats about it to very sophisticated shops
that have lots of expertise. With more expertise, it makes our job
easier, because if theres a problem, we can do a lot with
Youre asking about a customers
expertise, which sounds like something HP wouldnt do at the
start of a support contract. Why?
We want to know
the customer, and what the customer knows. In terms of how we price,
its typically not dependent on what the client knows. If they
need in-depth support, we provide it. If they need lesser support, we
provide that as well.
Knowing how much the customer knows helps us plan how much
resource we must have available to them.
Youre starting to service accounts that are
remote to your Houston-area offices?
We had an account that went down yesterday in the late
afternoon, and we couldnt get them back up over the phone. Our
contract for this customer guarantees next-day response, but if
its a system-down situation, well get there just as soon
as we can. Our engineer caught the last flight out on the night the
system went down, and got to McAllen before midnight. A printer
problem would have meant we would have gotten there the next day. But
we need to give the customer the assurance that if it goes really bad
for them, well get there just as quickly as we can.
How has HPs exit from 3000 sales changed the
customers acceptance of third party support?
openness to looking at a third party approach. Certainly with all the
9x7s, whose support life has come and gone. But also with the other
3000 systems, because the customers know the HP support drop dead
date. Of course, if they are going to homestead, then they have to be
looking at third-party.
important factor was that HP killed the machine. I dont know
that the end of sales was a factor in itself. Its just another
straw on the camels back.
Are you spending more time with the customers than
theyve gotten from HPs support?
Yes. It gives the customers a comfort level knowing that we
will talk to them, and try to affect a resolution regardless of
whether the problem is hardware or software-related. The real
advantage of working with the third-party software vendor which we
use is that were in a non-competitive situation. When a
malfunction occurs, it can be difficult to tell if its hardware
or software. Typically, our customers call us first. If we get
onsite, and cant pinpoint it, we call our software partner.
Together we resolve the issue.
Isnt that the way it works with HP handling
software support while you support the hardware?
difficult to do with HP. HP will say things like Prove to me
that its software, and then well talk. And proving
that can be difficult. So we enjoy a real advantage working with
third party software support. The client gets the benefit of
How about a
profile of a new client? What kind of company is signing up for third
We just entered
into a hardware and software agreement with a school district.
Theyve got a 4-way Series 979, loaded with lots of software.
The reason the customer made the change was unhappiness with
HPs 3000 strategy to discontinue. That, and the fact that their
HP service was coming out of San Antonio. In years past, HP had
someone in the Valley. Now they cant get there much faster than
we can. Then there was the financial decision. School districts are
in serious financial crunches now.
When you consider your geographic field of
service, are you sticking to Texas?
We are. Its
a big state, I have to look at my logistics: my manpower, and how
thinly we get spread. Im just not going to take on anybody who
I cant provide a high level of service. Thats
If I get a lead
for someone whos in one of the other support providers
service areas, I will forward the lead.
So people are contacting you from outside the
Yes, and then we
contact the customer and say that we cant really service them,
but heres the name of someone else who can.
Surety has sold its share of 3000 hardware over
the last 16 years. What portion of your business is support by
Id say 65
to 70 percent is support. Youd want your support provider to be
doing a majority of its business in support.
Houstons one of the biggest US cities. How
exclusive and territorial does the hardware support business for
3000s get down there?
As far as I know,
were the only people with feet on the street down here. There
are companies with virtual offices, but I dont know how they
can support customers unless the customer is willing to take next-day
response. There are other companies down here that are capable, but
they choose not to offer 3000 support.
A significant part of hardware service is keeping
up a staff. Hows the 3000-capable manpower market holding up
for you in Houston?
It takes a lot of
energy and effort to find people, but in todays market, it
would be a lot easier. I dont happen to be in the market for
anyone right now. Certainly the manpower is out there, in light of
what HPs done. Theyve let these old-time experts go.
Any desire to get into the software support end of
the 3000 market?
I dont even
have any thoughts about that. I like where we are now. As time goes
by, that could change. We might get into a need for single-source
solutions, where the customer wants one company to do both. As well
as we work with Beechglen Development, I have no incentive to get
into the software support business
parts availability by now? HP tried to warn that parts would be
scarce for the 9x7s.
Parts are not an
issue at all. Of course, were collecting parts, but they are
not a problem.
Are you still in the part of the 3000s
lifespan where parts are getting more affordable?
Thats correct. I dont know if theyll get
more costly. We thought that would happen with the old
Classic 3000 models, but it never did. Theres still
a lot of those out there. The real key to parts is to get them before
people throw out their systems. There is no market for the small 9x7s
anymore. A lot of the used equipment guys have them, and if we need
them, we can get the parts.
Do you believe youve got a role to play for
companies who plan to leave the platform?
The key is to buy
them time. We know we can support these 3000 systems well beyond
HPs end of support life. Several thousand dollars in savings to
support a Series 927 is a lot of money to a small shop. Even if their
application on a Unix machine were in the same price range as their
3000 application, theyre looking at a $30,000 investment just
for that. The small shops dont want to do it, and some of the
mid-sized companies will hang in there, too because of their
investment in their software.
Do you get a sense that people who have 3000s
installed will want to replace them with newer 3000s? Is the support
base going to show a bigger share of newer 3000
The small and
medium-sized customers are going to stay with their 3000 as long as
they can. They just dont have the budget for new application
software and the migration costs. If the customer is able to find a
good third party hardware support company, and a good MPE/iX support
company, they will stay with these machines indefinitely.
really a question of whether the older machines are fully
depreciated. Its a question of whether you have money to buy
the newer system. The Exxons throw a few million at it. But not so
for the small and medium-sized companies. They dont have that
kind of budget. Even the companies that everyone knows sooner or
later theyll have to make a move, will make it later if they