Small Business Server Review: WD Sentinel DS6100

by Joseph Moran

WD's latest small business server packs features typically found in an enterprise-level server into a box that's compact and quiet enough to sit on your desk.

Virtually every small business would benefit from having a server, but countless small firms—say, those with one up to a couple dozen employees—do without one under the misguided impression that the benefits don’t justify the cost and effort it takes to buy, run, and maintain a server.

If that describes your company, you may want to take a close look at WD’s new Sentinel DS6100 small business server, which packs a full-featured Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials operating system and gobs of redundant storage into a powerful and moderately-priced box that’s barely the size of a toaster.    

Under the Hood: Server Hardware

On the front of the Sentinel DS6100, just below a two-line LCD status display, sit four hot-swappable drive bays accessible behind a locking door. On the back, you’ll find plenty of ports—four USB 3.0, two USB 2.0, and a pair of Gigabit Ethernet ports.  Actually there’s a third Ethernet port, which is currently inactive. WD says this will provide IPMI support (for remote control and monitoring of the serve—even if it’s turned off or the OS is not functioning properly) following a spring software update.

WD Sentinel DS6100 small business server

Figure 1: The WD Sentinel DS6100 packs a quad-core Xeon, 16 GB of RAM, and 8 to 16 TB of storage into a decidedly compact package.

The DS6100 comes in three different storage capacities—8, 12, and 16 TB. We tested the midrange version ($3,960 MSRP), which sports four 3 TB 7200 RPM SATA hard drives. These drives are enterprise-class (read: high reliability) and hot-swappable, which means if a drive fails, you can pull it out and replace it without turning off the server. You can configure the storage (which supports iSCSI) via conventional RAID methods—0, 1, 5, and 10—or with Microsoft’s Storage Spaces feature, which creates virtual storage pools from two or more hard drives. 

Unlike many other compact servers, the WS6100 uses a separate 2.5-inch boot drive for the OS so it doesn't consume any of the main storage capacity. Actually, it has two of them, set up as RAID 1 for redundancy.

Hard drives and Ethernet ports aren't the Sentinel DS6100's only redundant features. It also comes with two power supplies to keep the server running in case one goes south. The power supplies are external bricks rather than internal units, which facilitates easy replacement in the event of a failure.

You’d think a server that measures a mere 8- x 9- x 6-inches might come up short when it comes to hardware features like CPU, RAM, and connectivity, but the Sentinel  DS6100 doesn’t skimp in these areas. Its CPU is an Intel Xeon 2.5 GHz quad-core, backed up by 16 GB of RAM. Better yet, the presence of two open slots let you expand the DS6100 to 32 GB without chucking any of the existing RAM.

Incidentally, the Sentinel DS6100's less expensive sibling, the DS5100, comes in 4 and 8 TB versions. Although the two models share many similarities, the DS5100 makes do with a slightly slower dual-core Xeon CPU, less included RAM, a single boot drive instead of a mirrored pair, and only one power supply (although it supports two).

Small Business Server Software

The Sentinel WS6100 ships with Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials, which is pre-installed on the server and supports a maximum of 25 users or 50 devices. Unlike other versions of Windows Server, you don’t need to buy an access license for each connected user or device.

Sentinel DS6100 WDS Dashboard

Figure 2: The Sentinel DS6100 runs Windows Server 2012 Essentials R2, with a Dashboard that offers wizard-driven access to common administrative tasks.

More capable than the custom operating systems typically found on network attached storage (NAS) devices, Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials includes a comprehensive set of small business-friendly features, including automatic daily bare-metal backup of all networked computers, Remote Web Access for browser-based access to files and folders, as well as remote desktop control, and a VPN.

There’s also integration with a number of Microsoft cloud services; from the Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials Administrative Dashboard, you can manage Office 365 accounts and keep server and service passwords in sync, or link to a hosted Exchange email provider so that newly-created user accounts on the server automatically spawn a corresponding mailbox. The server can also supplement its own backups with cloud-based backups via Windows Azure (those backups cost extra). 

The WD Sentinel DS6100 Small Business Server Setup

When you first power on the Sentinel DS6100 (you supply your own monitor, keyboard and mouse), it launches a basic setup wizard that requires minimal user input or interaction. After you specify a company name, administrator account name and a password for same, the small business server proceeds to set itself up in an unattended process that takes 20-30 minutes and involves several reboots.

WDS Sentinel DS6100 dashboard

Figure 3: Use the Dashboard to monitor the status of various hardware and software components.

Incidentally, the amount of noise and heat the Sentinel WS6100 emits while operating isn’t much more than an ordinary desktop PC, so you don’t need to locate the server away from your main workspace (although for security reasons you may still want to—you can practically walk out with this thing under your coat).

Once the initial setup is complete, you handle additional configuration tasks such as adding user accounts, creating shared folders, and activating various server features (such as backup, remote access, etc.) via a number of independent wizards.

Although many of the wizards are relatively straightforward to navigate (WD provides inks to detailed online help), the overall process of getting the server fully configured isn't a DIY affair for non-technical business owners or managers. Thus many firms will want to obtain assistance from a VAR or knowledgeable consultant to get the DS6100 operating at its full potential as smoothly as possible.

Case in point: the WS6100’s main storage ships unformatted, so you must initialize it as either a RAID or a pooled Storage Space before you can use it. But by following the setup wizards in the order they’re presented, you’ll set up shared data folders before configuring the storage, thus inadvertently creating them on the dedicated OS drive (though it’s relatively simple to relocate them later).

Once the initial server setup is complete, the DS6100 should not require excessive hands-on care and feeding. The Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials Dashboard provides easy access to information about the status of server hardware and software components, and a daily (or hourly) emailed health report keeps you advised of any brewing problems.

Operating Systems Support

On the client side of things, the Sentinel DS6100 supports Windows 8, Windows 7, or Mac OS x 10.5 or later (the DS6100 supports Time Machine backups). Downloading a Connector app from the server onto each system joins it to the domain and optionally imports data and settings from existing Windows profiles to the user’s new domain profile. The Connector also includes a LaunchPad app, which provides convenient access to shared folders, remote access features, and backup settings.

WDS Launchpad app

Figure 4: A Launchpad app (available for Windows or Mac) connects computers to the WD Sentinel DS6100 and provides access to shared folders.

If you're concerned about potentially bumping up against Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials 25 user/ 50 device ceiling, there is an in-place upgrade path to Windows Server 2012 R2 Standard, but it comes with caveats. You need to buy client access licenses (CALs) for each connected user or device, and you will lose some Essentials-specific features, but it may still be preferable to a more complicated migration upgrade.

While somewhat pricey on a cost-per-GB basis, the DS6100's price tag seems reasonable given the server’s considerable horsepower and features.  All things considered, the WD Sentinel DS 6100 is a small business server that punches well above its weight.

Price: $3,440 MSRP (8 TB)

Pros: Impressive hardware specs with redundant power supplies, Ethernet, and storage; pre-installed Windows Server OS doesn’t require user licenses; includes automated full backup of client computers and remote control of desktop PCs.

Cons: Expansion beyond 25 users or 50 devices results in the loss of some features; pricier than other servers with comparable storage capacity.

More small business server companies: Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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This article was originally published on Monday Dec 9th 2013
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