Buyer's Guide: How to Buy a Server

By Lauren Simonds | Posted September 27, 2005

Once an organization grows much beyond two or three people, the need to collaborate and share files inevitably runs into the severe limitations of disk swapping. Inevitably, you'll hear from friends, family, coworkers — even the UPS guy — that "you need a server." They're right, of course, but what exactly does that mean?

Simply put, a server is a computing device that provides shared applications or other resources like e-mail or a Web site to individual computers over a LAN or the Internet. But of course, nothing about computing is ever that simple.

The biggest source of confusion is that people tend to use the word "server" in three different ways: to describe the computer hardware on which the resource resides ("an HP Proliant server"), to describe the software that provides the resource ("the Apache Web Server"), or combination of the two ("our departmental file server").

Almost without exception, the first server in any small organization is a file server. In this article, we'll describe what makes up a file server, define the different types of file servers, and tell you what you need to look for when buying file-server hardware for your small business.


Hardware Choices
Like all servers, a file server consists of both hardware and software. While the hardware could, in theory, be any general-purpose computer, from a 10-year old laptop to a high-end workstation, it's best to use a dedicated server, one that's designed and built for that express purpose. We'll explain why in just a bit.

As for software, all the popular desktop operating systems—Windows XP, Mac OS X, Linux — supply basic network file sharing. (These operating systems also have enhanced server editions that provide enhanced capabilities such as more simultaneous connections and enhanced permissions and authentication.) No matter the server software you elect to run, your basic hardware choices are similar:

Shared Workstation: Setting up a peer-to-peer network where one person's hard disk is accessible by everyone is easy to do with any desktop operating system. It is a solution, however, that doesn't scale well and that can have a detrimental effect on the productivity and happiness of the person using the shared computer.

Spare PC: Any computer can be a server, so a popular money-saving solution is to dedicate any old PC to the task of sharing files. However, you should seriously think twice about entrusting your critical organizational data to "any old PC." Your data is your livelihood - are you willing to risk it on iffy hardware?

Dedicated Server:The best solution for any organization of 10 or more people —and for many smaller ones — is a computer built from the ground up as a file server. Such computers are built to finer tolerances and have features and expansion options that a desktop PC lacks.

Mike Beltrano, server product manager at CDW — a national reseller with thousands of small business customers — agrees. "The number one misconception among small business owners is that a high-end PC or workstation can act as a server," he said.

"Just because a PC can run the applications doesn't make it the best choice. PCs are optimized to run desktop applications like Word and Excel, and they lack the storage and memory of a dedicated server," Beltrano continued.

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 e-mail system
• Want to share broadband access
• Want to host your own Web site
• 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

"Servers are engineered to manage, store, send and process data 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," he said. "Many offer redundant power supplies to protect data in the event of power failures and hot-swappable hard drives that let you switch out a failed drive without powering down your server, which slows down your business. Dedicated servers are simply more reliable than a desktop."

What to Look For
Once you've determined that dedicated server hardware is the way to go, here are the features to look for:

Form Factor
Dedicated servers come in all shapes and sizes, but for a small business, the best choice is a dedicated entry-level server in a tower configuration. A tower is economical, easily accessible, doesn't take up much space and doesn't require any special installation hardware.

Processor and Memory
For a basic, entry-level file server, it's more important to have plenty of storage than it is to have more than a gigabyte's worth of memory and the ability to add a second processor. But a good single processor and a hefty memory load will give your server the performance it needs to get the job done. Remember though, as your company grows, you may need your server to take on more tasks than just storing files.

"The processor and memory load you buy will depend on the number of people and the kind of tasks your server must support," said Beltrano. "For just sharing files or printers, you'll do fine with a Celeron processor, but if you think you might want to add another task down the road — such as hosting your own e-mail or a Web site — you need to look at a Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon MP processor. Also, buy as much memory as you can possibly afford — it will help you be better prepared as your business grows."


IBM xSeries x100 Express and xSeries 206m
IBM designed its new xSeries servers expressly for small business. The line of entry-level servers, announced today, includes the x100 (pictured above), the 206m (both tower configurations) and the rack-mounted 306m. The servers come in a range of configuration options that include Celeron and single- or dual-core Pentium 4 processors, memory ranging from 256MB to 8GB, RAID support, preconfigured operating systems (Windows Small Business Server 2003, Red Hat Linux or SUSE Linux), hot-swappable hard drives and Symantec's anti-virus software. Pricing for Celeron-based servers starts at $599; Pentium 4 versions start at $699 and the Dual-core Pentium 4 models start at $1,100.

Storage Options
While IDE hard drives are just fine for desktop computers, they weren't designed to provide the speed or to handle the constant use that a server environment requires.

Look for a server that supports either SATA or SCSI hard disks. A SATA drive uses smaller, thinner cables that improve air flow inside the server and decrease heat build up, so they make a better choice than do IDE drives. Still, SCSI is the best, albeit more expensive, option, because it's much faster than either IDE or SATA drives.

Choose a SATA or SCSI system with built-in support for RAID, a technology that provides varying levels of data protection. RAID 1, for example, writes the same data to two hard disks so if one drive goes bad, your data is safe on the other.

RAID 5 uses a parity-check system that lets the server reconstitute the contents of a drive that goes bad. Hardware-based RAID systems are pretty expensive and may not be necessary if your organization can live with the downtime it would take to restore your date from backups. No matter what disk options you choose, you must also provide a backup and restore solution — tape, removable hard disk, or optical disk — for your data.

Server Buying Tips
  1. Buy as much memory as you can afford and ask if the server has memory expansion slots for adding even more in the future. Adding memory improves application performance.
  2. Don't be stingy with storage. You might need only 120GB today, but will that be enough next year? Studies show that business data nearly doubles every year. Make sure the server has sufficient available drive bays for expansion. Otherwise, you might have to buy a whole new system.
  3. Look for a server that comes with easy-to-use management tools.
  4. Make sure the server is using server-specific processors, which boost performance and data throughput that distinguish basic servers from advanced desktop PCs. Examples of these processors include Intel Celeron, Intel Pentium 4, or AMD Athlon MP server processors.
  5. Insist on at least one Gigabit Ethernet port. These adapters provide transmission speeds of one billion bits per second. You might not need that speed now, but these adapters can also operate at slower standard speeds, such as Fast Ethernet.

Expandability
No matter how much hard-drive capacity you buy, you'll inevitably run low on hard disk space. Migrating to a new server can be a pain, so the best solution is to buy expandability in your current server. Look for lots of internal bays and ports that will let you add SATA or SCSI drives externally.

"Don't ever scrimp on storage. Even though you're buying today, you need to plan for tomorrow," said Beltrano. "Buying 120GB of storage might be plenty for now, but will that be enough for next year? If, for example, you currently have 60GB of files, figure out how long it took you to accumulate that and forecast out to project your future needs."

Forget about USB or FireWire drives. Although they're great for expanding desktop storage, USB and Firewire transfer speeds are unsuited, i.e., too slow, for use as file-server storage in a server environment. "Be sure to get multiple port connections with at least one Gigabit Ethernet connection," said Beltrano. "That will give you options to connect more PCs, expansion devices, provide faster output to storage or to another server (remember: growth) or to printers."

Service and Manageability
Don't scrimp on the service options for your server, either. Most manufacturers offer faster service guarantees for servers than they do for consumer or commercial desktops. If such an option is within your budget and you need high-availability, buy it.

"Always look into the warranty — you're not buying a toaster," Beltrano said. "Buy an enhanced warranty that a provides a fixed guaranteed response and repair time — four-hour response, next business day — whatever best suits your business needs."

Keep in mind that a server's management tools should be easy to use. "You should be able to use them on any PC desktop," said Beltrano. "They let you see traffic patterns on your server and see when people use it most. Knowing when the traffic's high let's you make adjustments and devote more processing power to the server at peak use."

Closing the Deal
If you're business is too small for a dedicated IT staffer and you're too busy to get into the technical minutiae of servers and server software, your best bet is to buy your server through a value-added reseller. They can answer all your questions and advise you on the processor speed, amount of memory, storage capacity and other hardware configuration options you need to fit your specific business needs.

Alternatively, you can buy directly from a manufacturer and either hire a consultant or take a stab at the setup yourself. Your own honest appraisal of your organization's needs and your own abilities will make this decision for you.

Either way, you will be far happier with a computer ready-made to be a server than with one that began life as a standard PC. If your company's data is at all important to you, it is the only way to go.

Bob Ryan works in IT in higher education. He has been writing about technology for over 20 years, including editorial stints at inCider, BYTE and FamilyPC.

Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of SmallBusinessComputing.com

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!


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