“Because I Can” vs. “Because I Should”

A client at work had me build him a home media server. The client asked that I, specifically, build the server for him, and that it be a built machine, rather than a purchased one. Why? Because he knew that I’m the kind of person who still prefers a customized, built computer over an off-the-shelf Optiplex with a four terabyte hard drive hanging off the USB port…but then again, he’s the kind of chap who is just fine with spending four figures on a computer that doesn’t have a glowing fruit on it.

My boss and I have a different relationship with Sonicwall routers – he swears by them, and I swear at them. I’ve become a fan of pfSense as of late. It’s what lives at my house, and at least one of my dear readers also has one – not that she’s consciously aware of it in any meaningful sense, but that was one of its selling points. The problem with pfSense is that it’s generally intended for installation on one whatever hardware you’ve got lying around…which is nice for people like me who have old Optiplex desktops camping out doing nothing, but less of a bargain for people who would need to buy things.

I’ve got somewhere I may need to install a rack-mountable router, which has got me looking into doing a custom build for the project. I was happiest with a $600 build I spec’d out today on Newegg, but given that pfSense sells rack mountable, supported iterations of their firewall for $800, it’s not exactly a huge money saver in the context, and the money that’s saved is lost by the fact that their device takes 8 watts of power when running, whereas mine takes closer to 100W. On the flip side, mine was engineered for silence, there’s no way my build doesn’t run circles around them in raw performance, and it’s trivial(ish) to migrate between pfSense, Untangle, and Smoothwall with nothing more than an hour’s time and an external CD drive.

But there’s a reason I filed this under ‘Philosophy and Faith’, in addition to ‘Computers and Tech’ – I started to think beyond the build, and into the bigger questions involved. There was a scene on The Big Bang Theory several seasons back, where the guys were experimenting with home automation in a manner that involved sending a signal around the world to turn on a lamp. When Penny walks in and asks why they would do something that ridiculous with literally no advantage over a simple light switch, their answer, in unison, was “because we can”. They said it in such a matter-of-fact way that gave the sense that such an answer should have been as obvious to her as it was to them. Although I’ve never done that sort of project, I’ve got my own portfolio of things I’ve done under the heading “because I can” – I’d argue that “installing pfSense at home” would reasonably fall within that category, when there was nothing technically wrong with my Asus RT-N56U that’s still serving as an access point.

For an organization who will never need the gargantuan amount of throughput that will be happily shuffled around via pfSense on a custom build that’s at cost parity when power usage is factored in, why am I pursuing a custom build? Is it because I’m treating it like a grown-up Lego set? Is it because of a desire for the sense of personal investment? Is it because I prefer the responsibility of keeping hardware running over the perceived safety of having that task handled by a third party? Has my deep-rooted hatred for Sonicwall, combined with my luck-of-the-draw experience with calling tech support, given me the default stance of “I want something I can fix, because nobody else will”?

Or, maybe the fact that I refuse to be dependent on a third party is the reason I am good at what I do. Perhaps there is value in the de facto requirement that I alone be responsible for its upkeep. Maybe my sense of security comes from the fact that a showstopping problem on a custom built pfSense appliance could be rectified with a set of procedures that start with “install Untangle”, “install SmoothWall”, or “install Endian”.

Then again, perhaps “because I can” is a phrase that doesn’t make sense to most people, for the sole reason that, for the majority of people, “building a custom made router” is not a task that falls into that category.

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