What Warranty Should You Get?

How to evaluate manufacturers' warranties on information technology equipment


IT equipment for a small business can cost thousands of dollars for the hardware and setup, but its value in operation is many times that. Most other electronic equipment (such as a microwave oven or television) is worth no more than its purchase price. If those things break, you can get them fixed under warranty or buy a new one, and heat your food some other way or read a book in the meantime. But your IT equipment, with invaluable software and data, and all your employees and customers counting on it to work, is something else—downtime can cause significant financial loss.

So what part should the warranties and service offerings from the manufacturer play in protecting your investment and ensuring business continuity? Let's find out.

Manufacturer's Warranties

Whenever you buy new equipment, you usually find yourself deciding between one year and two or more years of "extended" warranties. Many manufacturers and resellers of major equipment (such as servers, network devices, and high-end laptops) also offer various levels of promised response time for onsite service, coverage for accidental damage, and advance replacement.

When evaluating warranties on IT equipment, you should ask these two important questions:

1. Are all potential problems covered?

From your point-of-view, if any aspect of your IT system is not doing what you expect, then this represents a failure. But a manufacturer's warranty will only help when you can prove the problem is not caused by something else on your network, or even how you deployed or programmed the warranted device. This is because a manufacturer's warranty does not support your IT equipment for what you actually use it for. The manufacturer only covers clear-cut physical or functional failures, and all manufacturers of IT equipment specifically disclaim the implied fitness-for-purpose warranty.

This is not to try to cast manufacturers as bad guys; they just don't have the resources to provide expert assistance to figure out what's wrong with your system, or help you configure the covered device for only the price of the hardware warranty. Besides, if you smooth-talk the manufacturer into sending you a new device when you can't figure out where the fault lies, and the problem really was caused by a configuration error or buggy software, then the problem will still be there after you replace the equipment. In the meantime, you've lost more time and money.

So, it is important to understand that a manufacturer's warranty will only address a small portion of what can actually cause problems related to the covered equipment.

2. How do problems get fixed?

Even if a problem on your network is caused solely by a physical failure in a component covered under warranty, the manufacturer's manner of fixing it for you can have a significant impact on your operations. You should know in advance, for example, if you will need to send the bad part back first and then wait for the replacement. Or, whether they will insist you wipe out all your software and configuration files to test the system with a baseline configuration before they send you replacement parts. These, and many other restrictions, can be very costly in time and money.

Even if it seems like the repair procedures will work for you, warranties are often written vaguely on purpose. If it's not clear what their responsibilities are in a given situation, you will usually have no choice but to comply with the manufacturer's preferred way of handling it. Even if you try to push back, the manufacturer has a big advantage when your network is down and you're willing to do anything to get it back up.

Sometimes, the warranty is simply not what it might seem. A good example is the common "Next Business Day" warranties many manufacturers offer. Intuitively, you would think that means if you buy an expensive server, router, or laptop and it seems to have a hardware failure, a technician will be out there the next day to get it running again. However, many users have found the company's policy is to make you isolate the problem yourself first, which may include wiping all the software to ensure it's not something you changed in the configuration since it was new. Until you have the time to do that, the clock doesn't start on the "next business day." Then, once you have helped identify what component might be failing, it can still take a few days before the technician actually arrives with a new part. They've gotten away with this because of the fine print of the warranty, which, for example, might say they will service your computer "usually" by the next business day.

These companies generally make good on their warranties, even if it takes a week or more. But, if your business continuity plan concretely depended on no computer being down for more than a business day, you might regret having depended on a manufacturer's warranty for that.

Even if a manufacturer has a great reputation for fast service, there are countless stories of users who have learned the hard way that past performance does not guarantee future results. And a great-looking warranty on paper almost always has fine print or, as mentioned before, a way for the manufacturer to give you a hard time when you least need to be hassled.

In the end, you must keep in mind that the main goal of manufacturers is to sell their wares, not provide repair service or systems engineering.

So far, you should see the lesson garnered when you ask the right questions: Ensuring continuity on your IT network requires more means of addressing problems than just a warranty from equipment manufacturers, especially if you depend heavily on your equipment to function at all times. So what else can you do?