Servers Up

The least visible part of your company's computer network is likely the most vital. It's your server, a high-powered PC that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and provides shared resources or services for employees or customers.

The least visible part of your company's computer network is likely the most vital. It's your server, a high-powered PC that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and provides shared resources or services for employees or customers. Nobody sits in front of a server's screen and keyboard, unless the server is being installed, maintained, or reconfigured. In fact, some servers, called appliances, don't even have monitors or keyboards.

Servers typically provide shared drive space for collaborative projects and data backups, and for managing network printers. They can run specialised communication applications, such as e-mail or groupware software, to keep company employees in touch with one another and the outside world.

Increasingly, businesses use servers to host Web sites for internal access by employees, for controlled access by partners and suppliers, and for access by customers and the general public via the Internet.

Before you start looking at hardware, you have to decide whether you need a general-purpose server running an off-the-shelf operating system (such as Microsoft Windows 2000 Server, Novell NetWare, or a Linux or Unix operating system) or a special-purpose server, called a server appliance, with dedicated hardware and software preconfigured for specific tasks.

The former gives you the most flexibility, but would be relatively expensive, and requires the most time and expertise to set up and administer. The latter-examples of which are Snap Appliance file servers and Cobalt Networks Web/e-mail servers-are less expensive, and easy to set up and manage, which is particularly important if you don´t have an IT department or at least a PC guru interested in learning about servers.

Tower servers are the easiest to work with. If you anticipate buying more than four or five servers, consider those specially designed for installing inside a standard 19in-wide rack. They´re tidier and simpler to wire, but if you decide not to install them in a rack, they can be hard to handle.

Selecting the right specifications for a general-purpose server will be your next challenge. You have many choices, but we´ll focus on the three that make the biggest difference: processors, memory, and storage. As for the other features, unless you have specific needs, stick to the “less is more” philosophy. For instance, most servers don´t need more than one network interface or more than one power supply. You can save a lot of money, without limiting performance, by skipping features you don´t need.

The most expensive option will be the number and speed of the processors. Whatever its function, a processor speed of 800MHz to 1GHz is sufficient. For a file, print, or e-mail server, a single processor in this speed range will be more than adequate. For a Web server, or one that serves up dynamic Web pages, a dual-processor server in this range strikes a fine balance between price and performance. With a database server, a groupware server running Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange, or one handling other transaction software, you´ll need at least two processors, maybe four. Consult the software maker for a recommendation and don´t scrimp on those specs. If you short-change the hardware, the software won´t perform as expected. You can buy a dual-processor-ready server with only one processor installed, but it´s more cost-effective to buy it equipped with both processors right off the bat.

Selecting server storage is more complex. First, you have to choose between a SCSI or ATA drive interface. Then you have to determine the number and capacity of hard drives in your server. SCSI drives are the traditional choice, in part because they used to be the only ones that could be set up in multidrive arrays. They´re still faster than ATA drives but significantly more expensive. ATA drives, the same ones you have in your desktop or notebook PC, can now be set up in arrays as well. They come in larger capacities than their SCSI equivalents, but they´re slightly slower.

Servers intended for handling business-related apps, file sharing, printing, and other throughput-agnostic tasks can generally take advantage of ATA´s cost-effectiveness. Streaming-media servers or those used to share video, large graphics, or heavily accessed databases, however, require SCSI´s speed.

For a file or print server shared by a small workgroup (with fewer than 30 people using it regularly, for instance), get a server with two drives, and get the largest-capacity drives possible. Today, that´s likely to be about 36GB or 72GB each, depending on the server manufacturer. For all other purposes, go for a server with at least three or four drive bays.

When you buy a server with SCSI hard drives, you´ll likely have the option of choosing Redundant Array of Inexpensive (or Independent) Disk (RAID) drives. RAID lets you pool three or more drives into a single virtual hard drive. RAID is available in different levels, each with a different combination of performance and fault tolerance. The best is RAID 5, which spares all your data in the event of a hard drive failure. The downside of RAID 5 is it diminishes the amount of space available for data storage. Whichever level you choose, you´ll need a RAID controller to implement RAID in hardware, and this adds considerably to the cost of your server. Because today´s hard drives are so reliable, unless your server is truly mission-critical (meaning it will seriously hurt your business if you have to shut it down for maintenance), skip the RAID controller.

The final critical option is memory. Here, it´s hard to go wrong because you can always add more later. The minimum amount of memory should be 256MB, which is good for file/print applications. For all other purposes, choose 512MB or 1GB for a single-processor server and at least 1GB for a dual-processor server.

The biggest fish in the server pond are Compaq, Hewlett-Packard (still in merger talks at press time), Dell, and IBM, each with an array of offerings for both small to medium-size businesses and huge enterprises, with dozens of options for processors, memory, storage, and more. We´ve selected just a few of their models and configurations as examples.

Compaq´s ProLiant family of servers comes in both tower and rack configurations. The DL360 (pricing starts at $5995), which squeezes two 1GHz processors, 512MB of RAM, and an 18GB SCSI hard drive into 1.75 inches of rack space, makes a great Web server. When configured with 1024MB of RAM and six 36GB SCSI hard drives ($54,699), the dual 1GHz ML570 tower can act as a high-speed file server for hundreds of employees, a host for many high-volume Web sites.

Dell´s smaller servers, such as the minitower PowerEdge 1400SC (which for $2578 offers a single 1.13GHz processor, 256MB of RAM, and one 9GB SCSI hard drive), are ideal for setting up an intranet, acting as a print server, or handling e-mail. The tower-shaped PowerEdge 4400 has the same specifications and applications as Compaq´s ML570. Dell´s popular rack-mount server, the PowerEdge 2550, places two 1.26GHz processors in 3.5 inches of space, along with five 36GB SCSI hard drives, for approximately $12,500.

Hewlett-Packard sells well-designed but expensive systems. You can buy some models direct from the company, but for most configurations, you need to go to a dealer. For a workgroup file/print server or a small Web server, consider the NetServer e800 tower, with one 1GHz processor, 256MB of RAM, and one 18GB hard drive, for around $3300. The rack-mounted NetServer LH3000, with dual 866MHz processors, 512MB of RAM, and four 36GB SCSI hard drives, would be a good business-application, file/print, or Web server.

IBM´s xSeries 200 tower server, with one 1.13GHz processor, 128MB of RAM, and a 20.4GB ATA hard drive for $2100, is a good as a small-business file/printer server or e-mail host. At the other end of the scale is the $80,000 rack-mountable xSeries 250 with four 900MHz processors and six 73MB SCSI hard drives.

The marketplace has been increasingly competitive recently as PC makers sought to mine additional profitability lost on the desktop side of their businesses by gaining market share in the much more profitable server arena. But with the collapse of the bubble, the server marketplace has borne more resemblance to a gladiator ring. Not only have the vendors had to compete with each other, they also competed against nearly new servers auctioned off at fire sale prices.

This competition exists across the entire range of server lines, from the new, budget-end Unix servers from Unix market leaders Sun and Hewlett-Packard, all the way up to the latest high-end Unix servers from Sun, HP, IBM and Fujitsu. And the latest Intel server processors-both Foster (IA-32) and McKinley (IA-64)-can just as easily be employed to run Unix or Linux as they can to run Windows.

IBM has announced a new line of servers called the eServer x440 with Enterprise X-Architecture, based on Intel´s Foster Xeon chips, but anticipated to move to Intel´s McKinley Itanium chips within the next year to two years. The new line at present supports up to 16 processors, and can be split into four partitions and up to 64 virtual partitions.

At the high end, IBM´s line of “Regatta” servers, the pSeries 690, with 32 processors competes head-on against Sun´s 64-processor Fire 15K, HP´s 64-processor Superdome, and Fujitsu´s 128-processor Primepower 2000. According to IBM, it achieves approximate parity with the higher-processor count competition through putting two 1GHz+ processors on a single piece of silicon with a high-bandwidth system switch, and a large memory cache and I/O. The higher-speed data transfer this design allows means the performance equals that of competing servers that have more processors. Cost advantages ensue because the licensing deals of some software companies are based on the processor count of the server rather than the number of seats, transactions or system throughput.

The server market will see even more technological changes: large servers will gradually give way, first to rack-mounted blade servers, then to a new generation of “servers on a chip”. And new higher-speed buses-beyond the scope of fibre channel or InfiniBand-will finally get rid of the rack and system cases as we know them today, resulting in the wide-scale adoption of so-called “fabric” computing. In this extension of clustered servers, computing resources are tied together into virtual supercomputers, with the physical location of the resources themselves becoming nearly irrelevant.

If your goal is look for these specs And check out these systems
Small department file/print, low-volume e-mail One processor; one 18GB or 36GB drive; 256MB RAM Compaq DL320, ML330; Dell PowerEdge 350, 300SC, 500SC; IBM xSeries 200, 300
Large department file/print, low-volume Web, small databases, groupware, medium-volume e-mail Two processors; two 36GB drives; 512MB RAM Compaq DL360, DL380, ML350; Dell PowerEdge 1400SC, 1550, 2500, 2550, 4400; HP NetServer e800, LC2000, LH1000, LH3000; IBM xSeries 200, 300, 220, 230, 240, 330, 340
High-volume Web server, larger database, accounting, business transactions Four processors; four 36GB drives; 1GB RAM Compaq DL580; Dell PowerEdge 6400, 6450; HP NetServer LH6000; IBM xSeries 250, 350

The May 2002 issue of ZDNet Australia's Technology & Business magazine contains information about some of the servers on the market in Australia. For subscription information, visit Technology & Business.

Vendor Compaq Compaq Compaq Dell Dell HP HP IBM
Model Proliant
ML330 G2
e 200
e 800
Type Blade Rackmount Tower Tower Rackmount Tower Tower Tower
Base Price $4195 $3495 $1895 $1509 $2835 $1899 NA $2099
CPU(s) PIII 700MHz PIII 1.13GHz PIII 1.13GHz PIII 1.3, 1.26GHz, or Celeron 1.1GHz PIII 850MHz or Celeron 850MHz PIII 1GHz PIII 933MHz PIII 1GHz
Memory (standard) 512MB 128MB 128MB 128MB 128MB 128MB 128MB 128MB
Memory (maximum) 1024MB 2GB 4GB 2GB 1GB 768MB 2GB 1.5GB
Expansion slots — 5 PCI 5 PCI 5 PCI 2 PCI 4 PCI, 1 ISA 7 PCI 5 PCI
Storage controller Ultra ATA/100 Ultra ATA/100 or Wide Ultra2 SCSI Ultra ATA/100 or Wide Ultra3 SCSI Dual Ultra ATA100 EIDE Dual Ultra ATA100 EIDE SCSI Dual Ultra2 SCSI ATA100 EIDE
Hard drives 30GB ATA 10GB ATA - 18.2GB SCSI 18.2GB - 40GB 40GB - 120GB IDE; 18GB -36GB SCSI 20GB - 120GB IDE 72GB (SCSI), 60GB (IDE) 36.4GB 20.4GB
Maximum no. of drives 1 1 5 3 2 4 4 1
Software Insight Manager Insight Manager,
Insight Manager XE,
array config. util.
Insight Manager,
Insight Manager XE,
Management agents,
array config. util.
OpenManage OpenManage — HP Netserver Navigator, HP Toptools for servers —

The May 2002 issue of ZDNet Australia's Technology & Business magazine contains information about some of the servers on the market in Australia. For subscription information, visit Technology & Business.

Vendor Compaq Compaq Dell Dell HP HP IBM
Model Proliant DL360 Proliant ML350 G2 PowerEdge 4600 PowerEdge 1500SC netserver lc 2000 netserver lh 3000 xSeries 232
Type Rackmount Tower Tower or rackmount Tower Rackmount Rackmount Tower
Base Price $5995 $4095 $7479 $3519 $4668 $3203 $4899
CPU(s) PIII 1GHz PIII 1.13GHz Xeon 1.8, 2, or 2.2GHz PIII 1.13, 1.26, or 1.4GHz PIII 933MHz or 1GHz PIII 933MHz or 1GHz Pentium III 1GHz
Memory (standard) 128MB 128MB 512MB 128MB 64MB 128MB 256MB
Memory (maximum) 4GB 4GB 12GB 4GB 1GB 4GB 4GB
Expansion slots 7 PCI 6 PCI 7 PCI-X 6 PCI 6 PCI 8 PCI 5 PCI
Storage controller Integrated smart array controller Dual channel Wide Ultra3 SCSI adaptor Integrated dual channel U160 SCSI, single Ultra2 channel Integrated dual channel U160 SCSI Dual channel Ultra2 SCSI Dual channel Ultra2 SCSI U160 SCSI
Hard drives 36.4GB 36.4 GB - 72.8GB 18GB - 73GB SCSI 18GB - 73GB SCSI 36GB 36.4GB - 73.4GB Max. 660.6GB
Maximum no. of drives 2 6 10 6 8 8 8
Software Insight Manager, SmartStart, array config. utility Insight Manager, Insight Manager XE, Management agents OpenManage OpenManage HP Netserver Navigator, HP Remote Assist, HP Toptools for servers HP Netserver Navigator, HP OpenView-X, HP Remote Assist, HP Toptools for servers ââ,¬"

The May 2002 issue of ZDNet Australia's Technology & Business magazine contains information about some of the servers on the market in Australia. For subscription information, visit Technology & Business.