Buyers' Guide: How to Buy a Small Business Server

Tuesday Jun 15th 2010 by Drew Robb
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Whether it's time to upgrade to a faster small business server or invest in your first, we've got the info you need to make a smart buying decision.

According to research firm Gartner, approximately one million servers in North America should have been replaced in the past year or two but weren’t due to economic concerns.  The likelihood, therefore, is that many small business servers need to be changed out for newer, more powerful models.

Obviously, if your existing small business servers are chugging along and doing everything you ask of them, leave them alone. No matter how enticing the sale pitch, if there is no sound business reason involved, don’t buy. But if any of the following conditions apply, it is time to get a better one:

  • Performance is so slow that it takes an eternity to open a document or serve up a Web page
  • Employees complain constantly about the system over many months
  • No amount of IT fixes seems to resolve your small business server issues
  • Customers complain that your system is too slow
  • You're losing income due to slow servers
  • Business is expanding so much that it's overloading your current servers
  • It's time for your first server for an efficient way of sharing files and other resources

If one or more of these conditions apply, get out the check book. The question is, which servers best fits your needs? Here's what you need to know to ease the selection process.

Small Business Server Advice

For SMBs with little to no experience with servers, McLeod Glass, director of product marketing at HP, recommends working with a knowledgeable and certified reseller -- what he calls a channel partner.

“A certified channel partner will work with you to set up systems and help ensure a smooth transition to new systems or a whole new infrastructure,” he said.

He also suggests HP Financial Services as a resource to soften the financial outlay. It offers leasing as well as trade-in programs for aging machines.  Other large vendors offer similar programs.

You Might Need a Server if You ...

• Want to run business-critical applications on more than one PC
• Want to centralize all your documents in one location or need to share printers
• Have lots of data to store
• Want to host your own email system
• Want to share broadband access
• Want to host your own website
• Want to simplify the backup process
• Have too much data stored on individual PCs and performance is suffering
• Waste time installing applications or patches one-by-one on individual PCs
• Have mobile or remote workers who need access to information at the home office

How about the SMB that has yet to add its first server? There are plenty of firms out there that attempt to get by with a bunch of computers using individual Internet connections and by transferring files via USB drive or email.

One of the big reasons to add at least one server, said Brook Lester, senior product marketing manager for Dell tower servers, is file management. A server lets you store files in one central location where employees can access them as they need.

Another reason is application management. It can take days to upgrade or install new software on every individual computer in an office. A server significantly reduces the amount of time involved with the upgrade process. Further, most applications run better when a server is in control.

"If you want your business to speed up, you've got to ensure that the engines aren’t overloaded," said Lester. "Storing files centrally and moving commonly used applications away from individual desktops, helps your business run faster."

It's more efficient, both in terms of time and cost, to share computer resources among your employees. Case in point: consolidating file storage and management or printing for multiple users.

"An inexpensive server is a much more reliable shared platform than a standard PC -- and it will perform much better as a shared resource," said Richard McCormack, senior vice president of server and solutions at Fujitsu America.

He draws attention to another factor that many SMBs fail to take into account -- the noise level of a server running under someone’s desk in a space shared by many people. Make sure that the model you buy doesn’t sound like a lawn mower.

Latest and Greatest Small Business Server Processors

Advances from Intel and AMD in the processor field are so startling that in some cases, a five year old server is like having a 1960s VW Bug compared to a slick 2010 sports car. Of course, some people like vintage and feel that they perform just fine. But they hardly compete with the newest machines.

Take the case of the latest servers that include the brand new Intel Xeon 7500 Series Server Processor. According to Kirk Skaugen, general manager of Intel's data center group, it marks the largest leap in performance in Xeon’s history.

It is an eight-core processor -- that means that they basically pack eight processors into the same space they used to be able to fit one. If you buy a heavy-duty server with four of these eight-core chips inside, therefore, you can even have up to a TB of memory inside. That’s getting up there close to the supercomputer ranks -- in one small box that can sit under a desk.

 “One server using the Xeon 7500 can replace 20 single-core servers,” said Skaugen. “That adds up to a 92 percent reduction in energy costs with return on investment within a year.”

Of course, not everyone needs all this processing power. The point, though, is that chips are becoming so powerful that one of the latest and greatest servers might be able to take the place of a dozen or perhaps a score of aging "classics." Faced with such a scenario, more and more small businesses are likely to trade in their clunkers for a slick new machine. 

“In Xeon 7500, Intel has provided both its vendor partners and their server customers with a game-changing technology,” said Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT.

Small Business Servers

With those tips in mind, then, let’s take a look at a few of the small business server options available: 

HP

A good rule of thumb when buying a small business server is to look for a small business section on the vendor websites. Two of the best in this regard are HP and Dell. We will begin with a couple of good starter models from HP. And although they represent entry-level models of their small business server lines, they have more than enough juice to fuel the bulk of small business applications.

The HP ProLiant ML330 G6 is an efficient and affordable server aimed at SMBs. It uses the latest Intel Xeon 5600 processor technology for optimal performance. On top of delivering the latest technology, it also incorporates the HP ProLiant Onboard Administrator, which allows you to manage the server from anywhere at any time. Pricing starts at $1,315.

The HP ProLiant ML350 G6 offers excellent performance, expandability and availability. Like the ML330 G6, it uses the latest Xeon chips. Pricing starts at $1,109.

Dell

Dell, too, provides a nice range of choices for small- and medium-sized businesses. Dell's PowerEdge tower servers, in particular, are tailored around SMB needs. They come, for example, with Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2008, which provides an easy-to-use admin interface as well a wide range of function in an all-in-one package.

The Dell PowerEdge T110 is a good first server choice for basic applications such as email, file and print, information collaboration, security and calendar. It includes the Intel Xeon 3400 series processors and comes with up to 16 GB of memory.

The entry-level PowerEdge T110 starts at $449 but you can buy it for less than $300, depending on the current rebate offers. You can upgrade the processor, memory and many more customizable options directly at the site which, of course, increases the price.

The PowerEdge T410 represents the next step up. It offers Intel's 5500 or 5600 Series processors and up to 64 GB of memory. It can increase the performance for up to 75 users. An entry-level PowerEdge T410 starts at $1,149.00.

Best of the Rest

Looking at the Sun and IBM websites, you get the distinct impression that these companies don’t have much time for SMBs. When you read the specifics of the server models, too, the language is quite technical and clearly focused on larger companies involved in sophisticated computing.

IBM is the lesser offender. Its SMB section is buried but does exist -- and does at least include a few tower models. The IBM System x3200 M3, for instance, comes with anything from an older Intel Celeron processor to an Intel Xeon 3400 with up to 32 GB memory. It has a starting price of $789.

What about Sun (recently purchased by Oracle)? It doesn’t even offer a tower server and appears to have no SMB section.

Fujitsu, on the other hand, is making an effort to serve small businesses. While it has traditionally focused on higher-end gear, it has several good alternatives for SMBs.

The Primergy TX100 S1 comes with a choice of four processors, up to 8GB of memory and up to 1 TB storage capacity. Some configurations are sold by Fujitsu for less than $500. 

If you need more power, the Primergy TX150 S7 and Primergy TX200 S5 have a lot more memory and faster processors for a price premium.

 

A Sampling of Small Business Servers

Server Processor
Starting Price 
 
 HP ProLiant ML350 G6  Xeon 5500  $1,109
Dell PowerEdge T110  Xeon 3400 series $449
IBM System x3200 M3 From Intel Celeron to Xeon 3400 $789
Primergy TX100 S1 Choice of four processors including quad-core Xeon $499

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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