For a long time, small businesses were the forgotten step-children of the business technology market. Now it has become the norm for major manufacturers to dedicate themselves to serving the needs of small businesses. One of the biggest needs a networked business has is the right server.
For any system to function properly, all of the pieces must fit and work in unison. In order to centrally manage a group of computers on a LAN, a server is needed. A server is a networked computer that delivers programs and data to all the other computers to which it is connected. Client operating system (OS) software runs on individual computers. Servers need OS software with administration tools to effectively monitor and maintain multiple clients in a networked environment.
Because of the high demands placed on servers, these "beefed-up computers" are configured with faster and more heavy-weight components than the average desktop PC. Expect to pay anywhere between $2,500 and $4,000 for a new server. In the server arena, reliability and performance are the name of the game.
If your business is in the market for a server, your options abound. Today is a true business-buyers' market. Computer manufacturers are taking steps that make it exceptionally easy to buy, configure, and manage servers. They are doing so both in the telephone support and consulting services they offer, as well as with their Web sites. In addition to merely permitting buyers to configure servers, many sites provide useful, in-depth information to educate businesses about networking.
HOW WE EVALUATED
We contacted several of the major PC manufacturers and gathered information about their small business servers. We focused on servers that could be configured with one processor or two, but priced them with a single CPU. In choosing this configuration, our intent was to specify a machine that was not too costly, but which offered adequate growing room and higher-end options. For this piece, no actual testing of the servers was conducted.
In addition, we contacted businesses using servers from these manufacturers. We inquired about their overall experience with the company and the hardware, as well as the customer service and technical support they have received.
WHAT MAKES A SERVER DIFFERENT FROM A DESKTOP PC ?
There are four basic dimensions that affect network performance and reliability and make servers stand out above their less powerful counterparts: processing power, available memory (RAM), the accessibility of data stored on the hard disk, and network bandwidth. Custom configurations depend on specific business needs.
PROCESSING POWER: Most low-end servers are configured with a single processor, which generally is adequate for handling basic server tasks on a small scale. However, for serving applications such as Microsoft Office 2000, adding another CPU can boost a network's performance. Look for servers that can accept a second processor (or support a "two-way configuration") it will leave some growing room and flexibility for the future. If more serious processing power is in order, four- and eight-way machines are also available, but such enterprise-level machines generally exceed the needs and budgets of most small businesses.
RAM: It's not uncommon for a server to be configured with 128MB or 256MB of memory. Most of the servers we looked at for this guide provide 4DIMM sockets, allowing them to handle up to 2GB or more of RAM. If the server will be used to deliver applications to terminals (thin clients) or to act as a database server, plan on configuring it with a considerable amount of RAM (at least 256MB). Servers generally use error checking and correction (ECC) RAM, rather than the less expensive non-error correcting memory found in most desktop PCs. As with most aspects of the computer world, faster is better in the case of memory, so look for machines that accept 100MHz or 133MHz of RAM.
HARD DRIVES: Rapid access to disk-resident data is crucial in Web servers, database servers, and other computers that must manage a lot of disk I/O. In server environments, hard drives must often handle multiple data requests at one time. The regular IDE drives found in most desktop PCs don't deal well with such stress. SCSI-based drives, the norm in servers, are designed to handle such demanding environments. Additionally, SCSI drives are available that spin at 10,000RPM (rotations per minute) and greater, letting them store and retrieve data much faster than the 5,400RPM and 7,200RPM drives in desktop PCs.
SCSI DRIVES: Require a SCSI host adapter to manage data transfer. SCSI adapters are available as PCI cards that must plug into an expansion slot in the computer's motherboard. To conserve these expansion slots for other uses and to keep costs down, most servers (all those we investigated) have at least one SCSI host built into their motherboard. SCSI disks in the system simply plug into this controller, similar to the way the IDE drives in desktop PCs connect to the IDE controller on the motherboard.
RAID (redundant array of independent disks): If guaranteed data availability is a requirement, look into outfitting a server with a RAID controller and multiple hard drives. While this option adds to the price of a server, having multiple disk drives really boosts I/O performance and ensures high reliability. Adding a RAID controller (a PCI card) costs in the neighborhood of $500 or more, depending on the amount of memory it has, but it buys users security and speed. Luckily, RAID is an option that can easily be added later, as your storage needs grow.
HOT-SWAPPABLE DRIVE BAYS: Another common feature in servers, hot-swappable drives permit the replacement of hard drives while the server is operating without shutting down. These are commonly found in RAID-configured systems, in which uninterrupted delivery of service is a must. Redundant power supplies provide another way to help maximize up time.
A final difference between desktop PCs and servers is that servers generally use some sort of management software. Server management software monitors the status of the server and its subsystems, including disk and memory. If a hard drive shows signs of failing, the software logs the event, and can even notify a system administrator of the problem.
Compaq ProLiant ML350
Compaq's ProLiant ML350 server is aimed at small workgroups or small businesses looking for a starter server with lots of growing room. This unit can be set up with one or two Pentium III processors of between 550MHz and 733MHz. Its Compaq motherboard supports up to 2GB of fast 133MHz of RAM.
The ML350 has six PCI expansion slots as well as a single ISA expansion slot. Integrated on the motherboard is a Compaq dual-channel Ultra2 Wide SCSI controller that controls hard drives, the video chipset, and a T-base 10/100 network controller.
Power for the ML350 is delivered by a single 300-watt power supply. The case has four 1-inch-high drive bays, which can be hot-swappable, depending on the system configuration. There are three externally-accessible, 5-inch media bays, one of which houses a 32X CD-ROM drive. Compaq also includes a 3-inch floppy drive in the system.
Typical of all these servers, the user must select an operating system of choice as an added option. Bundled with the ML350 is Compaq's SmartStart 4.70, which helps out with server installation and configuration. Management is aided by the supplied Compaq Insight Manager 4.70. Optional remote management is offered via Compaq's Remote Insight Board, a PCI card that has LAN and optional modem or serial connections. This board has an on-board battery, which lets it function even when the server itself is having problems.
Suzanna Gaceta of Technical and Office Support Services, a 65-employee firm in Ridgecrest, Calif., recently purchased an ML350 with mirrored 9.1GB drives and 128MB of RAM. "We plan to use it to store personnel and financial data, and perhaps later expand its use," says Gaceta.
Compaq's standard three-year warranty covers parts and labor with one year of on-site service. Also standard is pre-failure warranty coverage of hard drives, memory, and processors. Service is available via telephone or through a reseller. Compaq also offers CarePaq services, which let businesses tailor the level of service they obtain from Compaq to their specific needs. Buyers can choose site assessment (pre-purchase assessment of the PC environment and network environment), product installation and setup, four-hour on-site hardware service, and more. The ML350 is available directly from Compaq or via resellers.
Compaq offers avenues of information support. "We chose Compaq because of the excellent information we found on their Web site," says Gaceta. "Also, we talked to Compaq on the phone and liked the prompt and clear answers we got from them."
Overall we think the ML350 would make a good file or print server for a growing business. Its fast RAM, 64-bit PCI slots, and ability to use Intel's newer Pentium III chips makes this a machine that can grow with a business.
Dell PowerEdge 2400
Dell houses the PowerEdge 2400 in its characteristic charcoal-gray mid-tower case and powers the system with a 330W power supply. For additional peace of mind, hot-swappable dual redundant power supplies are also available. The 2400's case accommodates four 1.6-inch or six 1-inch hard disk drives. There are also three 5.25-inch externally accessible bays, one of which holds an NEC CD-ROM drive, and two available 3.5-inch drive bays, one of which contains a floppy drive.
The PowerEdge 2400 is a workgroup server that can accept one or two Pentium III processors of between 500MHz and 733MHz. It uses the same chipset as the Compaq ML350, which allows it to address up to 2GB of fast 133MHz of RAM in the motherboard's four DIMM sockets.
To conserve expansion slots, Dell integrated SCSI controllers from Adaptec on the motherboard. Also built is an Intel Pro 100Plus Ethernet controller, an ATI Rage PRO video chipset with 4MB of RAM to run the monitor, and a Dell RAID controller (which can be activated for an additional $299). There are four 64-bit PCI slots, one shared 64-bit PCI/ISA slot, and one 32-bit PCI slot, all of which are open.
To help you keep track of how the 2400 is performing and to keep it running well, Dell bundles Dell Server Assistant, OpenManage Resolution Assistant, IT Assistant, and Version Assistant. Fault-monitoring sensors in the case monitor and transmit information about operating conditions inside the box. They also track memory usage and error correction performed by the server's RAM. Dell's Automatic Server Recovery will even automatically reboot and restart the server if the operating system hangs. Finally, there's an option to add a Dell Remote Assistant Card (DRAC 2), which permits remote management of the server.
Mark Fouraker of Headhunter.net, an 165-employee online job-hunter's site based in Norcross, Ga., depends on Dell's 6300 series of servers to serve up data to his clients on a 24/7 basis. He uses rack-mounted 6350s as Web servers, and 6300s and 6350s as database servers. "We chose Dell for their reliability, prompt technical support, and rapid service and delivery," Fouraker says.
Dell maintains a strong direct-mail and Internet presence, making it easy to configure and buy a Dell server. A three-year limited warranty covers both parts and one year of on-site service.
The 2400 holds a generous number of hard drives and externally available drives. Optional redundant power supplies, lots of hot-swappable drive bays, and remote-server-management capabilities make this an attractive box for users who need a hefty server with good expandability.
Hewlett-Packard bundles its LC2000 server with NetServer Navigator, a tool which facilitates system setup and configuration. The company also includes HP TopTools, a browser-based server-management system that can deliver remote management in conjunction with an optional remote-control card. Available as an option is HP's OpenView Manage X Event Manager, which takes care of network OS management in larger networked environments.
We spoke with David Cieslak of Information Technology Group Inc. (ITG), a consulting firm based in Encino, Calif. that sells, installs, delivers training for, and supports client/server accounting software. To support its 50 employees and numerous clients, ITG has one HP server running Microsoft Exchange and hosting its Web site, and another containing a RAID array and 256MB of RAM that is used as the company-wide file server. According to Cieslak, his company has found HP's tech support very prompt and helpful in resolving driver and OS issues. ITG's overall experience with HP's servers has been so positive that ITG recommends HP, without reservation, to its clients.
The LC2000 server works with one or two Pentium III chips of between 533MHz and 733MHz. Like the Compaq and Dell offerings, the LC2000 can access up to 2GB of RAM via its fast 133MHz front-side bus.
Built into the LC2000's Intel motherboard is a SCSI controller, an ATI Rage IIc video chipset, and a T-Base 10/100 network interface port. There are also six PCI slots (two 64-bit and four 32-bit), all of which are available. Typical of many current Intel system boards, this lacks any shared or ISA slots. While seemingly odd, the lack of ISA support isn't critical, since most expansion cards particularly those typically used in servers are now PCI-based.
The LC2000's mid-tower case holds a 3.5-inch floppy drive and a 32X IDE CD-ROM drive. This leaves two 5.25-inch media bays and three 1-inch (half-height) or six 1-inch, hot-swappable drive bays available. Power for the server is delivered by dual, hot-swappable power supply. HP also offers optional RAID controller and disk arrays for the LC2000, which can be purchased with the machine or added at a later date.
HP's warranty provides three years of on-site, next-day parts and labor coverage. Service is delivered directly by HP or its resellers. HP also offers a wide variety of warranty upgrades for more constant coverage.
It's hard not to like the combination of HP's generous warranty and modest price. Its use of fast 133MHz of memory up to 4GB at that teamed with the ability to add 10,000RPM hard drives, makes the LC2000 an excellent value as a general-purpose file or print server.
Micron NetFRAME NF3400
Netbuilding.com, a California-based Internet consulting, development, and hosting firm has two NF3400s. The company uses one as a database server and the other is configured as a Web server. According to Netbuilder.com's Steven Hyde, "We chose NF3400s because of their high-end features and reasonable price. Micron beat the other vendor's price and gave us better capabilities more RAM and faster hard drives," he says. Options on the NF3400s include RAID arrays using 10,200RPM drives, 512MB of RAM, and redundant power supplies. Hyde adds "We had no problems setting up the NF3400s. Since we brought them on line, they have worked really well."
To help customers select the right server for their needs, Micron formed a group called the Network Solutions Team. This group of engineers is available to answer questions about networking over the telephone. Team members work with businesses, analyzing current server needs and suggesting solutions that will meet those needs as well as those in the future.
Micron's newest server, the NetFRAME NF3400, can accommodate one or two Pentium III processors of between 500MHz and 700MHz. Its four DIMM sockets can support up to 2GB of 100MHz, ECC RAM. There are also six PCI slots and a single ISA slot. All of these are available, thanks to motherboard-based (integrated) video, SCSI controller, and network interface card.
Micron chose a sharp looking mid-tower to house the system. It offers six 3.5-inch drive bays (one holds a floppy-disk drive) and two 5.25-inch media bays, one of which holds a 40XCD-ROM. All bays are readily accessible by swinging open the NF3400's front panel. The case also has a tamper-detection switch.
A chip called the Baseboard Management Controller (BMC) monitors system conditions, case intrusions, and other events, logging them in non-volatile memory. The system administrator can monitor the server remotely via a specially configured serial port. If a modem is attached to this port, the software can even page the administrator if a problem occurs or is about to occur.
Bundled with the NF3400 is LANDesk Server Manager, which handles server-management tasks. This is a particularly good package for growing businesses because of its easy integration with enterprise-level suites such as HP OpenView, Tivoli TME, and Intel LANDesk Management Suite.
The NF3400s offers some high-end features for a civilized price. These include a 9.1GB, hot-swappable hard drive and dual redundant power supplies. The NF3400 offers great value with lots of growing room.
NEC Computers Express 5800 LS2400
NEC's LS2400 is a workgroup/small business server that can be configured with one or two 500MHz, 550MHz, or 600MHz Pentium III processors. It can accommodate up to 1GB of ECC and 100MHz of RAM in its four DIMM sockets.
NEC integrates a video controller, an Intel 10/100 Ethernet controller, and dual SCSI disk controllers into the motherboard. This leaves the three PCI, one ISA, and one shared ISA/PCI slot open for other expansion. Additionally, it reduces the cost of the unit, as integrated controllers of this nature are generally less expensive than their card-based counterparts.
The LS2400 is housed in a mid-tower case, and is powered by a single 260Watt power supply. The case has three externally accessible 5.25-inch media bays, one of which holds a 40X EIDE CD-ROM drive, and a single 3.5-inch bay containing a floppy-disk drive. Internally, there's room for four 1-inch high hard drives or three 1.6-inch high drives.
Setup and configuration are facilitated by ExpressBuilder Installation Software, which walks a user through the process. Server management for the LS2400 is provided by ESMPRO Management Suite. This software monitors system conditions, such as processor speed, memory usage, disk usage, and environmental conditions, and provides notification of problems. If ESMPRO detects a potential problem, it reports to the software's console manager, which can notify you in several ways. It provides a Windows-based graphical management console as well as Web-based monitoring. ESMPRO also includes modules to integrate it with higher-end management tools, letting it continue to serve your needs if you move to a larger-scale integrated management solution, such as HP OpenView or Tivoli Enterprise.
NEC relies on its reseller network to provide buying guidance as well as setup of its servers. Service is handled by NEC authorized service providers (some resellers and Unisys).The base warranty covers three years of on-site parts and labor with next-day service.
Chuck Pscholka and the village of Lexington, Ohio, uses an NEC server as a jack-of-all-trades machine. There are 28 full-time employees and usually six to eight part-time employees working out of City Hall at any given time. "It serves up data, e-mail, Internet access, and applications to seven networked PCs in our City Hall," says Pscholka. Kissinger Company in Mansfield, Ohio, an NEC reseller, worked with Lexington and helped them select, install, and configure the server. To date, Lexington has experienced only a few minor problems with the server, all of which were promptly resolved by the reseller. They recently purchased a second server for the Lexington Police Department.
The LS2400 offers a relatively inexpensive way to get into the server arena. We appreciate NEC's inclusion of installation and server-management software. However, the 1GB of RAM (versus 2GB in most of the other servers noted here), relatively small power supply, and single PCI channel seem to limit its expandability.
WHAT WE THINK
A server will have a major affect on your company network's well being, and potentially on your bottom line. Because of a server's cost, you'll probably end up living with your purchase for a while, so it pays to gather the best information you can before you buy. Our best advice is to consider what you will need the server to do. Remember to leave room for planned growth as well as unexpected demands. After you do this homework, you'll be in good shape to begin making buying decisions.
The greatest differences among these servers are in the technical details, such as the speed of the RAM and the data path between the CPU(s) and RAM, the number of available expansion slots on the motherboard, and the number of hard-drive and media bays in the case. These specifications will affect a server's performance. Granted, much of this stuff is pretty arcane. If you aren't comfortable trying to evaluate a server based on its technical merits, seek advice from your IT group, resources offered by the various server manufacturers, or local resellers in your area.
The other major differences among these servers are related to availability, service, and support. Hewlett-Packard and NEC are sold only through resellers, whereas Dell and Micron favor the direct (Web and telephone order) channel. Compaq machines are available through both channels.
If you are a novice to networking, and want the support that a local reseller can provide, Compaq, HP, and NEC are the way to go. If, however, you have an IT group or can make do with distance support for a new server, direct-only vendors offer a good alternative.
Among the servers we looked at, Hewlett-Packard, Micron, and NEC all offer three years of on-site service (parts and labor) as part of their standard warranty. Of these three, Micron extends the coverage to five years on CPU and RAM. Compaq and Dell offer one year of on-site service plus another two years of parts and labor. All five manufacturers offer assorted options for upgrading to 24/7 and, in some cases, even three- and four-hour on-site service.
When shopping, take advantage of manufacturers' telephone and Web-based resources. Some of the companies don't have any retail presence other than via the Web and the telephone. While this sort of remote approach may turn off some potential clients, you may be surprised by the quality of help and guidance you can get remotely. Other manufacturers sell exclusively through resellers, believing that a local reseller will get to know clients and in this way provide sound buying advice and better service. Either way there is a lot of good information available to assist you with your decision.
WHAT WILL THE SERVER HAVE TO DO?
This will help you decide what components must be heftier than others. For example, do you need near 100 percent up-time, redundant and hot-swappable power supplies, or a RAID array. If rapid data access is critical, RAID again may be the answer, but you'll also want to know about integrated disk controllers and the ability to add more controllers and drives to the server.
HOW MANY EXPANSION BAYS ARE THERE IN THE CASE FOR HARD DRIVES, CD-ROM DRIVES, OR OTHER REMOVABLE MEDIA?
If you want to add a drive array, an internal SCSI tape backup, another CD-ROM, or other sort of optical drive or peripherals, you will need to consider whether there's adequate room in the server's case.
HOW FAST CAN THE CPU ACCESS DATA THAT IS IN RAM (I.E., HOW FAST IS THE SERVER'S FRONT-SIDE BUS)?
Faster is generally better. This is most significant when running applications that require manipulation or analysis of a great number of files.
ARE THERE ENOUGH PCI EXPANSION SLOTS ON THE SERVER'S MOTHERBOARD TO ACCOMMODATE THE CARDS THAT YOU ENVISION ADDING?
Each PCI card requires its own expansion slot. Initially, you may not need to add much, but over time you may find you need additional disk controllers, modems, or other PCI peripherals.
WILL YOU NEED MORE THAN ONE CPU AT FIRST, OR SHOULD YOU WAIT TO ADD A SECOND PROCESSOR?
This goes back to question number one. Figure out what your needs are for the server and get advice from the manufacturer or reseller about what will best suit your needs.