How to Buy a Server
Servers can help to streamline a network, especially an expanding one. Sure, you can build your own, but businesses typically need the warranty and support that comes along with a vendor server purchase. Here’s how to pick the right for your small business.
Why is a server necessary? When a network starts to grow, either in number of users or in the amount of data that’s kept on it, a server can help a business stay organized and efficient. But there are a wide variety of servers available, all of them highly configurable.
First, you need to understand what servers are good at. Servers can be used to house files and manage printers. Better yet, they can manage which users on a network can access which resources. They can serve as machines handling a company’s website, email, databases, remote access and other tasks. Servers can range from simple, inexpensive tower PCs to sophisticated rack mounts designed to handle heavy workloads and provide disaster recovery with backup, data redundancy and fault tolerance. Sifting through the vast options in the server market need not be a headache, if you have a good understanding of what your business needs are, how scalable you need a server to be and how critical it is to have that server stay operational in the event of a disaster.
Here is a breakdown of key considerations when shopping for a server for your small business:
Price: Of course, your budget is going to have a lot to do with which server you select. Small business servers typically range from $500 to $5,000. Pricing depends on the configuration of a server. If a business has simple server needs, for example, requiring only a file and printer server with backup capability, remote access, and some limited disaster recovery capabilities, then a lower-end server would be fine. Keep in mind, however, that cheaper servers are often not as scalable as they usually have one drive (two at most)—limiting total storage capacity and fault-tolerance capabilities. They are also not designed for heavy workloads. Just as with desktops, higher-priced server configurations give higher-end options like multiple drives, more memory, and a faster processor. If you have a lot of data processing going on in a business—users accessing billing systems or databases—you’re going to want to look into the highest-end system you can afford and not skimp performance, especially if the server will be running mission-critical applications.
2. Day-to-Day Operations
Day-to-Day Operations: Understanding your company’s day-to-day needs is crucial. Does your company need to run a database on the server? Will employees need remote access? Perhaps the server will handle e-mail—if so, take into account the number of user accounts that will access the server. Remember, a specific server can come in different configurations for different business purposes. For example, Lenovo’s ThinkServer TS200v ranges in price from $299 to $1,000 depending on what feature you choose. Light server needs would do fine with a lower-priced ThinkServer while businesses that have anticipate highly-trafficked websites, many database transactions, or any other resource intensive workloads would be better served by the higher-end configuration.
Scalability: Have five or fewer employees in your business currently? A server that might suit that small number of users will not be as efficient in supporting twice as many. If you expect to add users and data, especially large data like images, video, or database record, opt for a server with scalability. This means maximum storage capacity, support for multiple drives (drives that can be added as a business scales), room for expansion inside the chassis (for memory upgrades and cards) and a capable processor. Dell’s PowerEdge T110 II is a fine example of an expandable server.
Virtualization: Many businesses, even smaller ones are discovering the benefits of consolidating multiple physical servers in virtual machines housed on one physical server. Check to ensure the server you are interested supports virtualization, if that is your goal.
5. Data Redundancy/Fault Tolerance
Data Redundancy/Fault Tolerance: Some businesses cannot afford any interruption in productivity due to server problems and downtime. Or, maybe complete data loss would mean complete ruin for a business. Others may have more forgiving data requirements. Data redundancy and fault tolerance are ways to keep data intact and servers functioning in the event of a disaster such as disk drive failure. Fault tolerance and data redundancy are achieved through a server technology known as RAID.
Lower end business servers usually are capable of performing basic RAID: RAID level 0 for disk striping which aids only in slightly boosting performance of a server and does not provide fault tolerance and RAID level 1 which does provide fault tolerance though mirroring—copying data from either one logical volume on a single drive to another; or from one physical drive to another. Higher-end servers can perform more complex levels of RAID such as RAID 5 and 10—best for organizations that need a high-level of fault tolerance without too much hit on performance. A beefy small business server that can provide the maximum RAID levels that an SMB would need is the Dell PowerEdge T310 server . For more detailed information on RAID check out our guide to understanding RAID levels.
Space: Many smaller businesses don’t have dedicated server closets. Be cognizant of what space you have available and the dimensions of the server you are interested in, as well as the form factor. You cannot run a server designed to fit inside a server rack (like the HP Proliant DL380 G5 on top of a desk and expect to run optimally. Air flow and temperature considerations need to be taken into account as well. Even a tower desktop server—which is usually a bigger version of a desktop machine, works best in a well-ventilated and temperature regulated room. Consider, too, that servers can be quite noisy when you’re picking one out. If it has to live in a workspace, you’ll want a quieter one.
7. IT Expertise
IT Expertise: Whether you have IT staff on hand or not can also influence your server choice. Many servers have remote administration and power-on capabilities—perfect if you have the occasional remote IT support call. If you are going to tackle it alone without much help outside from a vendor or seller, an easy to administer server like the Apple Mac mini with Snow Leopard server or the Lenovo ThinkServer TS200v would be good choices.
Environment: Have an office where everyone is using a Mac? Then your server choice is easy. Keep administration simple by deploying the Mac mini server (if you have a smaller organization). Used to Windows? If you have a small business with no more than 25 users and machines, Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentialswould be a good fit. For larger outfits, Server 2008 R2 offers enterprise-level capabilities. Also, if your business lacks a dedicated server closet and your server will run on top or under a desk in your office, you want to factor in server noise. Servers can be noisy machines. One of the quietest SMB servers we’ve tested is the Dell PowerEdge T110 II.