In this cloud-centric world, physical servers have settled into the background. Today, it's all about on-demand services where you contract with another company to manage your servers, usually in some form of virtual or shared environment.
While the incremental, scalable, metered nature of the cloud has a lot going for it, a cloud solution is not necessarily the only answer. Every business has different needs. There are quite a few good reasons you might want to own and run your own physical server out of your office (or even home).
Why not cloud
Price/performance: While low-end web hosting might cost $5/month, once you start renting servers with any serious capacity, the monthly cost gets quite pricey. In fact, given the cloud rental costs of a dedicated server or cloud server, a physical server located in your office can pay for itself in a matter of months.
One-time vs. ongoing expense: Similarly, once you buy your server, you own it. You don't need to pay an ongoing fee every month for services. Instead, once your server is paid off, you essentially have the free use of its capabilities. That might have some tax implications, but it's still nice for keeping costs under control.
Bandwidth: If you're doing anything that requires a lot of bandwidth (like video production), the time it takes to move data back and forth from a cloud-based server may be prohibitive. By contrast, a local server can feed data at speeds as fast as 10 gigabits per second.
Privacy and jurisdiction: While most cloud service providers have excellent security operations that protect your privacy, there's nothing more private than having all of your data located on-premises.
Interoperate with local apps: If you have local, legacy applications running on-premises, a local server on the same network may be necessary to extend the capability of those local applications.
Control: Ultimately, if you own your own servers, you control them. You can choose whether you want to add memory or swap out a drive. Everything about that server is yours to manage.
Video: When looking at video and servers, we're really looking at three things: Serving media for consumption, storing and editing video during production, and using a virtual desktop to edit video. While you probably could with the SuperMicro SuperServer below, you really should avoid using virtual desktops for editing video. On the other hand, nearly all of these machines can store and feed video for both consumption and editing.
Of course, that management may be a double-edged sword. For most of the servers we're spotlighting in this article, you're going to be responsible for installing the OS, setting up the various server applications, using floorspace and power, and providing bandwidth to get your data out on the internet. If you're willing to take that responsibility, then a locally-managed server might be for you.
Know what you're using your server for
What server you choose depends entirely on what you're using your server for.
Right now, for example, I have web servers, a media server, and a couple of file servers. The web servers are located in the cloud, because they're being used by people on the internet visiting my sites.
My media server and my file servers are located about three feet from my desk, and they're local because I do a lot of video editing and presentation work, all of which requires access to large image and video files. I need the benefit of local area network speed. Having to download and upload such large files from a remote host would be just too time consuming to get my work done.
As you consider your server needs, you may find that, like me, you need a mix of local and remote servers.
In this article, I'm showcasing a number of server options. Each server is more appropriate for one sort of application and less appropriate for others.
On-premises servers and your ISP relationship
If your plan is to configure a server on-premises in your office or home, how you connect to the internet may be an issue. If you're just accessing some shared files on an internal network, you won't have any special complications.
But if you want to use your on-premises server to serve web pages or email (or any other application) to users on the internet, you're going to have to consider the transition of data requests from the internet, through your firewall, and to your on-premise server.
You should plan on having a discussion with your ISP. If you're using a consumer ISP, you may not be allowed to send data out via certain ports. At one time, when I was first setting up my web server in my apartment, I found that the local cable company wouldn't let me serve any traffic out of port 80 (the standard port for web pages). That effectively squelched my ability to run a web site, and I wound up having to buy a dedicated line.
You'll also need to consider whether you can get a fixed IP address from your ISP, or whether you need to set up some sort of dynamic DNS routing. Additionally, you may have to set up port forwarding and routing on your router to send data to the right machine on your network, particularly if you're serving web pages or email.
Choosing your servers
So now, let's talk about the servers we're presenting in this article. Rather than just list a series of tower-based servers, we decided to present you with a few sample servers in a variety of different server categories.
The idea here is that because there are so many different ways in which you might use your server, there is no one server category that will fit everyone. So, as you look at the servers shown below, keep in mind, specifically, that it's your application that will determine what server or servers you choose.
Traditional SMB servers
Both HP and Dell offer server solutions ranging from those appropriate to small businesses up to those used by giant enterprises. When the general category of SMB server is discussed, it's these machines that first come to mind.
- Basic, entry-level server
- Small number of virtual desktops
- Best for traditional server software (websites, wikis, email servers, etc)
- Not great for graphic-intensive virtual desktops
- You'll need to add your own OS
This is the 2018 edition of Dell's venerable PowerEdge servers. In the $1,669 version we're linking to, you get an Intel Xeon E3-1225 v5 Quad-Core 3.30 GHz Processor (8M Cache, up to 3.70 GHz).
This box also ships with 64 gigabytes of DDR4 RAM, which is the maximum this box can handle. This is a strong RAM footprint for a small business or medium-sized department, but the lack of an ECC (error-correcting) RAM module means you're not looking at what would be considered a high-availability server.
This is far from the top end of Xeon processors, but with a large cache and four cores and a large (but not huge) memory footprint and small number of drive bays, we wouldn't recommend this machine for primary use as a RAID NAS (we'll show some better choices below). It's good for most mainstream tasks like email or CRM hosting.
As shipped, this T30 comes with an 8TB spinning spindle drive running at 7200RPM, which is well matched to the gigabit Ethernet controller. This product does not ship with an OS, so you'll need to supply your own Windows or Windows Server license, or use Linux.
If you have a relatively small number of users, it's also good for virtual desktop hosting, but beware the limitations of mid-level Ethernet and spinning drives. If you're expecting to support heavy graphic desktop use or a lot of users, scale up your choice.
- Supports lots of RAM
- Has 8 hot-swap drive bays
- Good for traditional server software using base RAM configuration
- Ideal for small team bare-metal virtualization with added RAM
- Not great for graphic-intensive virtual desktops
- You'll need to add your own OS
Speaking of scaling up, this box is the 2018 Generation 10 version of HP's classic ProLiant small scale tower server.
This box, as linked to above, is priced at $949, but only comes with 16GB of RAM. However, unlike the T30 above, which maxes out at 64GB of RAM, the ML110 can be expanded to a very nice 192GB of DDR4 RAM.
This machine ships with a Xeon Silver 4108 Octa-core (8 Core) processor, which makes it particularly suited to supporting multiple virtual machines.
We also like that this machine supports up to eight full-sized drives, although it ships with no drives included. Essentially, this is a machine with considerable expansion opportunity that you can build up as you need.
This is definitely a machine that would be ideal as a bare-metal virtualization host for smaller departments and organizations, with room to grow. That said, you're going to need to spend well beyond the listed price, because you'll be adding RAM, storage, and OS to the bare server.
- Supports up to 512GB RAM
- Powerful 12-core Xeon processor
- Ideal for desktop virtualization
- Also ideal for virtual server consolidation
- You'll need to add your own OS
Lenovo's SR570 line ranges from relatively low-end to very powerful. The model we've chosen is pretty much in the sweet spot in terms of power and expandability for small businesses and moderately-sized departments.
It starts with a powerful 12-core Xeon Silver processor. Xeon processors are rated from Bronze all the way through Platinum, putting the Silver pretty much at the start of the performance curve.
The key is the balance of cores to RAM. As configured, this $2,566 machine ships with a workable 32GB RAM, but it's upgradeable to 512GB. This is ideal for an office filled with virtual desktop workers, as long as they're not doing high-performance graphics or video editing.
- Supports up to 2TB RAM
- Supports up to two 22-core Xeon processor
- Powerful, sky's-the-limit workhorse server
- Great for virtual desktops with graphics-related workloads
- Ideal for large database workloads
- Fully-equipped, it'll be expensive
- You'll need to add your own OS
This barebones machine, listed at $2,621, can become an absolute monster. You'll need to add your own processor, memory, and storage. But, wow! Look how much you can add.
This is essentially two servers in one frame. The system has two hot-pluggable processing nodes, each supporting an Intel Xeon E5-2600 family CPU, which can take you from 8 to 22 cores, up to 2TB ECC 3DS LRDIMM RAM, and dual 10 gigabit Ethernet ports. It also has dual, redundant power supplies.
Each node supports up to eight hot-swappable drives, so you're looking at 16 drive bays in this 2U box. If you're really interested in maxing this out, you could drop in sixteen 12TB Seagate IronWolf or WD Gold drives. Of course, that'll set you back somewhere between $6,400 and $7,500, but you'd wind up with a whopping 192 terabytes of storage (minus a bit for redundancy and error correction).
There is no doubt that if you fully equip this box, you're heading well north of $10,000. But if you're looking for a single server that pulls out all the stops, then this may be a good place to look.
Don't fear the rack
Don't let the rackmount form factor scare you. The benefit of rackmount is that you can combine a lot of computing power into a very small space.
While traditional server racks are generally the size of a kitchen refrigerator, this StarTech Portable Server Rack is more mini-fridge in size.
For under $300, you can have access to the entire range of rack-mount gear in a convenient form factor that can sit almost anywhere in your office.
Rack mount accessories
One objection I often hear about racks is that while they allow room for expansion, they often seem empty, especially if there's just one server mounted in the rack.
Fear not, young Padawan, for there are many solutions. My favorites are adding drawers, slide-in monitors and keyboards (like the one shown here), power strips, and even blank spacers to close up the front and make it look all nice and clean.
- Inexpensive basic server
- Not much RAM, relatively weak processor
- Has four hot-swap drive bays in a tiny package
- Good for simple in-house applications, email serving, FTP
- Not good for anything with a heavy processor load
- You'll need to add your own OS
One of my favorite little server boxes is this sweet little cube. It's not meant for heavy workloads, but if you're supporting a small office and want shared email, or to host a private in-house wiki or CRM system, it's definitely a win.
It's also ideal if you need a small machine to do a pinpoint task separate from your other hardware. Because it comes with four hot-swappable drive bays (but no drives), it also makes a very nice small-scale NAS.
As listed, it's priced at $403.65 with a relatively paltry 8GB of RAM. This is definitely not running an Intel Xeon processor, but then again, it's also not based on an anemic Atom processor. It's running an AMD Opteron X3216 dual core 1.6GHz processor. It won't win any benchmarks, but it's enough to do many small server tasks. Here, too, you'll need to add your own OS.
- Tiny, barebones system with lots of horsepower
- Supports up to 32GB RAM
- Could make for a nice in-house application server
- Not suited for a file server unless you have few files
- You'll need to add your own OS
The Intel NUC is one of my favorite tiny machines and it makes an ideal point-of-purpose server. If you want to put a server on your network to do a specific task or run a specific piece of server software, the NUC is a good choice.
I like NUC7i7BNH model in particular because it runs an i7 processor and can support up to 32GB RAM in a box the size of a medium cheeseburger. You need to add your own RAM and SSD, but with the included gigabit Ethernet port, you can have a fast little speeder running on your network for a very affordable price. This model, without RAM and storage, is $443.
It's important to understand that while these machines are very capable storage appliances, they lack the extreme processing and memory horsepower of the rack and tower machines we've spotlighted above. While they can run virtual machines and serve applications, they do reach a limit that the dedicated compute-power servers blow away.
On the other hand, unlike all the other boxes spotlighted in this article, these NAS machines are appliances. They have easy-to-use server software already installed. While you can customize the configuration, all it takes is a few clicks to get these machines up and running.
- Top-rated NAS with lots of applications
- Exceptional management interface already installed
- Turn-key solution that's easy to set up
- Great for file serving
- Don't expect much out of desktop virtualization
This $949 product was our top-rated server in our recent NAS Wars product shootout. There were three key factors that brought this device in for the win: The exceptional user management environment, the solid RAID test results, and the low cost-per-bay. This is definitely a machine where you get a lot and pay less, compared to the competition.
This product fits into the NAS (network-attached storage) category because it is, first and foremost, a storage appliance. However, it's running DiskStation Manager, a Synology-proprietary system that provides a wide range of add-on applications, ranging from traditional server software like mail, wiki, and FTP to applications like ERP and CRM.
- Expensive, but fire and flood-proof
- Same great UI as Synology
- Also a turn-key solution
- Great for file serving, basic server apps
- Don't expect desktop virtualization from this
The ioSafe 1517 is the next-generation model of the top-performing ioSafe 1515+ we reviewed last year. The difference is that last year's model sported an Intel Atom processor while this year's model has an ARM chip.
The $1,750 ioSafe is considerably more expensive than the Synology box, even though it runs the same DiskStation Manager software and sports only five storage bays, rather than eight.
That's because the ioSafe is armored against fire and flood. The key reason you should buy this machine compared to any of the others on our list is that it is, essentially, a full armored safe containing your data and your hard drives. If you're concerned about that sort of protection and are willing to pay extra for it, the ioSafe is pretty much your only safe bet.
- Most apps of any NAS we tested
- Hybrid bays meant for a mix of spinning platters and SSDs
- Solid, pre-installed OS and user interface
- Great for serving media
- Not meant for virtualization or server consolidation
- Might have trouble with Mac files based on our testing
We were very impressed with the Qnap TVS-473 we tested last year. It lost a few points because it had difficulty transferring some Mac files, but otherwise was a solid performer. The Qnap had a solid web-based user interface with the most applications of any of the NAS appliances we tested.
The $849 Qnap TVS-951X takes last year's performance and amps it up. We are particularly intrigued by the hybrid form factor that allows for nine bays in the space that would normally support just five. The way Qnap accomplishes this is by dedicating some bays for smaller form-factor drives, with a specific intent that they be much faster SSDs.
This hybrid structure allows for tiering of storage, with more active, hotter data located on the SSDs and colder data located on spinning platters. Combine all that with a ships-from-the-factory 10 gigabit ethernet port and you have the makings of a serious network appliance.
- Top performing RAID recovery in our testing
- Total set-it-and-forget it system
- Extremely easy to set up
- Great for file serving
- Not great for anything else
- Few apps
When it comes to RAID recovery and rebuilding, nothing we tested beats the Drobo. It is about as simple a set-it-and-forget-it storage appliance as you can get.
Let's be clear here. While the Drobo does have some apps, they're not really worth talking about. If you want a NAS because you want to run anything other than file sharing, you want a device other than the Drobo. The Drobo also lost points because it doesn't offer a web-based management console. Instead you have to install a Windows or Mac application (there's no Linux support at all).
That said, for very simple RAID performance, with exceptionally clear status indicators and about an easy an operation as any RAID could possibly have, the $499 Drobo 5N2 is a winner.
A discussion of SMB servers would not be complete without discussing the opportunity afforded in picking up previous-generation refurbished servers. Many enterprises have been doing server consolidation, going through upgrade cycles, and as a result, they've been discarding or selling what were once enormously powerful and expensive servers.
Because there are so many older machines available, you can pick up what were once incredibly powerful machines for bargain prices. You need to know your workload profile, of course. If you need absolute processing power, you probably don't want one of these older machines. But if you want solid hardware at a low price, and you're willing to do some fiddling around, you may find yourself rocking a powerful machine at a very low price.
Example: DELL PowerEdge R710
- Older machines great for basic email, FTP services
- Great for file service dependending on storage needs
- Great for saving money
- Ideal for internal web apps with lots of memory and predictable loads
It's incredibly unlikely this particular machine will be available by the time you read this article. However, it is indicative of what's available in the enormous market of refurbished servers.
The machine I'm linking to is $399, and for that you get two 2012-vintage Xeon quad-core ES540 (about half the performance of the Xeons spotlighted with currently-produced products). You also get six bays, each containing a 1TB drive. The big win here is 72GB of RAM.
Traditional pre-built tower PCs
For years, many small businesses have used traditional tower PCs as servers. While they're not built with the redundancy and robustness often associated with servers, they are relatively easily available. However, as more non-gaming consumers are turning to mobile devices for connectivity and communication, the bulk of the high-performance pre-built PCs are generally gaming PCs.
This means that those pre-built PCs with enough power for server operations are filled with expensive high-end graphics cards generally unnecessary for servers (unless you're doing cryptocurrency mining).
As you can see from the examples below, pre-built PCs with 32-64GB of RAM and very fast, overclockable CPUs are quite costly. Let's look at two examples.
Our first example is a liquid-cooled machine running a 4.2Ghz (probably over-clocked) i7-7700K processor, 64GB DDR4 RAM, a 5TB hard drive, and a 500GB SSD serving as a boot drive.
Since this machine also has a GTX 1080 Ti graphics card, as well as various unnecessary-for-a-server RGB color features, you're looking at a $3,229 machine.
It would certainly serve as a server, but you're spending a lot more than you would need to.
This example is also liquid-cooled. It has a slightly beefier processor, an i7-8700K, but only 32GB RAM. In this configuration, you get a 3TB hard drive, a 480GB SSD, and a high-end graphics card. It's priced at $2,059, but for that, you get some spiffy colored lights.
You can see that while these machines might be ideal for a gamer, they're moderately light on storage and heavy on bling. That's not the formula you should be looking for if you're trying to equip a small business server.
Build your own
I recently did an article and video discussing why, given the maturity, price/performance, and overall quality of appliance NAS boxes, I would buy a NAS rather than build one. I got pushback in the article's comments and, especially, in the YouTube video. Many readers and viewers strongly believe building is the way to go.
In the past, I've built many of my servers. Even today, if I were building a compute or virtualization server, I would definitely build my own. By building your own, you can find the exactly right combination of features and resources, spend on what you need, and avoid spending on unnecessary features. For example, most servers don't need expensive graphics cards, so you can avoid those expenses.
While there are an unlimited number of choices and options for building your own servers, all of them revolve around your choice of motherboard. To help inspire you, I've chosen two impressive motherboards that can give you an idea of what's possible.
- Kickin' server motherboard with all the fixin's
- Expandable up to 2TB of RAM
- Supports up to 16 SATA drives
- Supports dual Intel LGA3647 sockets
- Depending on how you build it, good for virtual desktops and traditional server workloads
- Not great if you want to save money or are uncomfortable building your own
- It'll cost a lot to build a high-end server around this
If you want to build your own high-performance server, this mobo is definite a place to start. With dual Intel LGA3647 sockets, you can power your server with high-performance Xeon processors.
The board comes with 8 RAM DIMMs, which allow support for up to 2 terabytes of RAM in a variety of configurations, including robust ECC error-correcting memory. It's also got space for dual M.2 SATA SSDs for very high-speed server OS operations.
Add to that on-board support for 16 SATA ports, you can fill your server with as many drives as you need. While this board does not offer 10GB Ethernet support, it does provide four 1GB Intel Ethernet LAN ports, which should work for most needs. Given the PCI-E x16 and x8 expansion slots, you could always choose to add your own 10GB card later.
This isn't a cheap board. It's $465 on its own, and you need to add everything else around it, including your processors, RAM, storage, case, and power. Even so, if you want an epic server foundation to build upon, this is definitely a good starting point.
- Very low cost motherboard with potential
- Can support more inexpensive AMD processors
- Supports building an inexpensive powerful machine
- Not great for virtual desktop use
- Best for traditional server roles
One of the advantages of building your own server is that you can go the budget route, but with substantial power. This AM4 motherboard is only $65, but instead of being an Intel board, it's designed for the AMD Ryzen chipset.
If you pair this with an inexpensive Ryzen 3 2200G processor, you can still have quite a lot of performance, at a very low cost. What's nice is that if you later want to upgrade your performance, you can swap out the Ryzen 3 for a Ryzen 7, still using the same mobo, and see a huge jump in performance.
This low cost system still supports up to 64GB of DDR4 RAM, has slots for M.2 NVMe solid state drives as well as more traditional SATA drives.
What are you going to do?
So now that you've seen the breadth of choices, what sort of server are you going to set up? Are you going to start with a pre-built box, add your own OS, configure all your apps and build a powerful beast? Or will you buy a NAS appliance, go for the easy setup, and serve a bunch of files? Or will you build your own machine from the motherboard up, picking and choosing each individual component with great care?
Ultimately, it's up to you. But no matter which path you take, be sure to let us know in the comments below.