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You’d think that the deep-dyed techies of eWeek Labs would have been pleased by November’s mainstream media coverage of popularly priced desktop supercomputing. Unfortunately, the supercomputer in question was Sony’s PlayStation 3, and that coverage had more to do with stalled waiting lines outside big-box stores than with stalled instruction pipelines in the Sony game consoles’ Cell CPUs.

It’s bad enough to see this kind of computer power reduced to playing games to generate enough production volume to cover its costs of development. The folks at iSuppli, in El Segundo, Calif., have termed the PS3 “an engineering masterpiece.” iSuppli Teardown Services Manager and Senior Analyst Andrew Rassweiler has said, “If someone had shown me the PlayStation 3 motherboard from afar without telling me what it was, I would have assumed it was for a network switch or an enterprise server.”

But mere tech incongruity isn’t the worst part of seeing those waiting lines. The people in those lines were making much the same choice as a too-large fraction of enterprise IT buyers, letting themselves be driven by want rather than need. They’re looking at the top line of computational performance—or maybe the ratio of computational price-to-performance—rather than looking at return on investment, the ratio that matters.

If you’re not getting $600 worth of entertainment out of a high-end PS3, did you really get a bargain just because that’s $240 less than the cost of its components? Even more to the point, is incremental investment versus other modes of entertainment yielding attractive returns at the margin? In your enterprise data center, are incremental investments translating into incremental improvements of performance and customer satisfaction? Does every increment meet the test of marginal return on capital?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then someone’s in the wrong line, seeking fulfillment of an irrelevant promise.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

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