HOW SERVERFAULT DEALS WITH SHOPPING QUESTIONS
Should I deploy Windows Server or RHEL?
What’s the best hardware firewall on the market?
Which monitoring solution should I deploy?
What cabling should I go with?
Which CLI tool is best for this?
Which hosting provider is the cheapest for my VMs?
These questions may seem tolerable at first glance. Isn't it our mandate to help our fellow users? Consider the voluminous amount of information you need to even begin properly answering a shopping question:
What is your budget?
Where do you live/work?
What are your preferences?
Which alternatives will you consider?
When do you want to buy?
Is there existing infrastructure it has to coincide with?
Does your company lean more toward one OEM or VAR over the other?
Are you the decision maker or just an influencer?
Let’s say the person asking the question provided all of that information and we were able to provide the perfect, ideal shopping recommendation to them. Even if that was the case, technology moves so rapidly that the best shopping recommendations can quickly become obsolete, even in the sysadmin world. Plus, the recommendation is often based on the information the OP gave at the time. If someone else asked a question that was 90% the same but the budget differed by $10k, the answers would differ drastically between the two questions. What’s the point of a bunch of labor intensive questions that provide only temporary benefit to a limited (some might say Too Localized) audience? There isn’t any. That’s what we concluded, and we explicitly disallowed shopping questions in the ServerFault Help.
Another key reason that most Shopping questions are considered Off-Topic can be summarized via the blog post Gorilla vs. Shark where Jeff illustrates what often happens with shopping questions. They simply aren't precise enough to only have a definitive answer.
So are ALL shopping questions Off-Topic on ServerFault?
The short answer is MOST LIKELY.
The long answer is...you have to redefine your question...moving from a "Shopping" question to a question where you are focused on what to look for in a product/service a sysadmin would utilize in their job.
Let's take an example of a classic sysadmin shopping question:
Q: What firewall do you recommend for a small business?
This would get closed...quick.
However, a possible way to reword the question so that it possibly stays open (I say this because ServerFault users can still be fickle about what stays and what goes) would be:
Q: What should someone responsible for a small network with under 50 employees look for in a firewall? Are there specific features that are universally appealing? Are there existing requirements that have to be met on a network before implementing a firewall?
The former question is simply a "let the most voted answer win!", popularity is the name of the game.
While this MIGHT be what the asker is looking for...a sort of Amazon Reviews consensus from other sysadmins...where the most votes is "good enough" and the OP walks away with something akin to "nobody got fired for buying Cisco". The problem is that it is very time constrained and localized (budget/country/etc.) and it also is very subjective. An answer from a member with 70k rep might get more upvotes on their answer vs. the member with 500 rep, simply because the high rep user is who they are.
The latter question may take some thinking, but its answer will be valid forever … or at least until firewall technology somehow shifts beyond as we know it today. Thus, when it comes to shopping questions, don’t ask us what you should buy — ask us what you need to know to make an informed decision on your own or with your VAR.