Micro Memory Bank: Another System i Clone Memory Maker
July 10, 2006 Timothy Prickett Morgan
One of the great things about the X64 server business is that there are many suppliers of servers, which affords companies the opportunity to comparison shop for machines that they want to run Windows, sometimes Linux, and rarely (but still a very large number of machines) a Unix variant. With IBM being the one and only supplier of Power-based machines on which OS/400 and i5/OS run, there is no way to get direct competition for the platform itself.
However, since the advent of IBM midrange machines, there has usually been a number of suppliers who make compatible memory, disk, and tape equipment that adds onto the System/3X, AS/400, iSeries, and System i machinery. Because IBM is a high-volume manufacturer that has to buy big pallets of memory stick and drives–and often uses cutting-edge memory or disk technology in the machines it designs–the company has to buy in bulk and charge in bulk. Since IBM has to have its own products available, it often charges a premium, and this has been especially true for memory cards and disk drives used in the IBM midrange machines. When you call IBM up, it can’t say “Sorry, we’re out of that.” It has to have the electronic components available to ship you the part. This is part of the reason why IBM charges so much money for memory and disks. However, IBM is also a bit greedy when it comes to storage. Because you can’t just plug in a memory card from another server maker–and until recently, not even its iSeries and pSeries machines used the same exact memory components, and even those that do today need to have their code tweaked to they look like IBM parts in these artificially distinct machines.
The upshot of this situation, somewhat paradoxically, is that niche players in the memory or disk market can create compatible components and often undercut IBM on price by as much as 50 percent. Those of us in the OS/400 community have seen a lot of vendors come and go in this business, trying to peddle clone disks and memory, and it is a very tough business. It has been particularly difficult for any maker of clone memory to specialize just in AS/400 or iSeries memory, because IBM can always lower the boom on a vendor by cutting prices, switching memory technologies with new server generations, or putting complex electronics into the memory cards that, on paper, improve the reliability and performance of memory subsystems, but, in reality, have been used just as much as an engineering barrier to entry.
One such vendor that is still in the trenches, and which has a much broader memory business than the typical clone IBM midrange players of the past, is Micro Memory Bank, which is located in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia. The company was founded in the early 1990s by David Sheer, who started out peddling memory on the pre-Internet dialup bulletin boards around the world. (You remember those times? It wasn’t that long ago.) In 1994, he incorporated, made himself president, and within two years, he went from selling memory to being a full-blown manufacturer of surface-mount memory modules, building the SIMMs and DIMMs that are used in laptops, desktops, and servers. In 2001, the company moved into a new 18,000 square foot factory facility with three manufacturing lines. And today, according to Mark Tosti, vice president of sales at the company, Micro Memory Bank has four production lines, 35 employees–including engineers who design the clone memory parts, manufacturing workers, and sales people–and makes approximately $25 million a year in sales. About $3 million or so of that figure is for AS/400/iSeries/System i or RS/6000/pSeries/System p main memory modules.
Interestingly, Tosti says that it is the first memory maker to clone the DDR2 memory modules used in the System i and System p servers that have the Power5+ processors in them, which were announced last fall and this spring. While IBM made it notoriously difficult for the memory makers to clone its main memory in the later AS/400 generations in the 1990s, thus driving many companies out of the market, the move to DIMM technology shared by both the OS/400 and Unix servers should have, in theory, made it easier for memory to be cloned. But, IBM doesn’t make it easy, as none of the server makers do, for the clone memory makers. They all want to protect those profits. “The newest DDR2 memory cards are very hard to build as well,” explains Tosti, “but we got the job done.”
Micro Memory Bank also sells the older DDR1 main memory modules for these machines, as well as a selection of memory cards for Unix servers from Hewlett-Packard (including memory for Digital AlphaServers), Sun Microsystems and X86 and X64 servers from HP (including old Compaq iron), IBM, and Gateway. Tosti says that Micro Memory Bank is an avid buyer of raw memory components as well as memory components from other electronic devices (such as disk controllers) that can be broken down and reused in other memory devices. The company also peddles secondhand and new memory cards from the manufacturers themselves.
As an aside, Tosti explains that all of the memory chip makers and often the server and PC makers themselves will all break down and sell memory on the open markets to help them bolster their numbers for any given quarter. Basically, because companies have to think quarter to quarter to make their financial results for Wall Street, they would rather sell a big gob of memory to finish out a quarter–and to do so at what I presume is a pretty hefty discount–than worry about the effect such a sale has on future numbers.
Micro Memory Bank prides itself on its ability to manufacture older 30-pin and 72-pin memory modules in its factory as well as being able to make the more modern 200-pin memory used in Unix and proprietary servers. And because the company sells the bulk of its memory into the PC and laptop markets and it supports multiple servers, too, Micro Memory Bank is not solely reliant on the server memory business of any one vendor–and cannot fall victim to the capriciousness of any one vendor when it comes to its re-engineering of products.
Micro Memory Bank sells on a wholesale basis through its main Web site, and has two retail outlets for its vendor and clone memory modules, www.1800memory.com is strictly for PCs and laptop components, while memorystore.com has PC, laptop, and server memory modules, including DDR1 main memory for iSeries and System i5 520, 550, and 570 machines. While the newer DDR2 memory cards for the System i5 machines are available now, they are not yet up on the online store, so you can contact Tosti directly through the Micro Memory Bank Web site or by calling him at 215-643-2100 if you want to get a price quote.
Tosti says that, in general, customers can go to Micro Memory Bank to get vendor-manufactured main memory for about 20 to 30 percent less money than the vendor’s list price. And if you are really budget-conscious, you can acquire clone memory for about 50 percent of vendor list. Incidentally, Micro Memory Bank sells its memory to secondhand equipment dealers, who often outfit older machines with denser memory modules to make them more saleable, and has a network of resellers, which for the iSeries/System i5 includes GST, Vibrant Technologies, and Elarasys.