How to choose a server for your small business
Products mentioned in this article
Windows Home Server 2011
As you can tell by the product’s name, Microsoft’s Windows Home Server 2011 is aimed squarely at the consumer market. It’s designed for ease of use and has strong media-handling capabilities, including real-time transcoding and integration with Windows Media Center. But the operating system is built on the same code base as Microsoft’s very strong business-oriented server OS, Windows Server 2008 R2, and it could be good for your business if you don’t need to support more than ten PC clients.
Windows Home Server machines are designed to operate "headless," meaning you don’t need a monitor, mouse, or keyboard to manage them. Instead you use the Remote Desktop Connection feature in Windows to connect to the server over your network. A server running Windows Home Server 2011 won't be capable of virtualization, but it is a very inexpensive file-sharing and backup option, and it does support secure remote access. LaCie’s 5big Office is one good example of a Windows Home Server machine tailored for small business. It costs just $599 and includes a single 2TB drive, 2GB of RAM, and a gigabit ethernet interface. It offers four additional drive bays for expansion, and it supports RAID 0, 1, 5, and 5+spare.
Microsoft is expected to release Windows Server 8 between the third quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013 (you can download a beta version now). The company is building the new OS on the same code base as Windows 8, and the product places considerable emphasis on cloud computing and virtualization. Microsoft has declined to say whether it will release a consumer version of Windows Server 8 or if Windows Home Server 2011 will be the end of the line for its consumer-oriented server OS strategy.
NAS is a simple and inexpensive server infrastructure; in that respect, it’s similar to Windows Home Server. But NAS can deliver plenty of bang for the buck to businesses with modest server requirements. A NAS arrangement can be as simple as plugging a USB hard drive into a USB-equipped router, but most small businesses will need something more robust. A high-end NAS can rival a full-blown server, including support for virtualization.
A hardware device, commonly referred to as a NAS box, acts as the interface between storage and clients on the network. The NAS box requires no mouse, keyboard, or monitor, and is controlled by a remote client over the network. A bare-bones embedded operating system--typically Linux-based--runs on the NAS, although the latest devices also provide a front-end interface that makes setup and administration over your network easier (again, similar to Windows Home Server).
You can purchase a simple NAS box with a single 1TB drive, such as Seagate’s BlackArmor NAS 110, for less than $200, with prices rising rapidly as you add capacity, expandability, and other features. If all you need in a server is a device for sharing files, gaining remote access, automatically backing up client PCs over the network, or hosting IP security cameras, one of these budget models will fit the bill. At the other end of the scale, you’ll find devices such as Synology’s RS3412xs ($4000 plus, not including the drives), a rack-mount NAS device that can host up to ten hard drives and even supports virtualization.
Tower servers (and their smaller cousins, micro towers) are the first step up from a NAS. You can easily mistake a tower server for a desktop PC--and in fact, you can press a desktop PC into service as a server. Tower servers cost more than NAS products, but they’re much less expensive than rack-mount systems. They can operate on the floor or on top of a desk, but you can also retrofit them to sit in a rack. Tower servers are generally quiet, because they don’t require a lot of cooling fans. A high-end tower server with a fast CPU, lots of RAM, and a plethora of hard drives can pack a punch, especially when you take virtualization into account (provided that the CPU and operating system support it).
On the downside, you’ll need a keyboard, monitor, and mouse to manage each tower server, or you can invest in a KVM (keyboard, video, mouse) option that enables one set of peripherals to control several machines. (You can control micro towers running Windows Server using Remote Desktop Connection via a client PC.) More important, a tower server provides limited scalability once you’ve maxed out its capabilities. If you anticipate your IT requirements expanding rapidly, a rack or blade server is a better alternative than finding space for a bunch of towers.
Tower servers come with the same operating system choices as rack and blade servers do, including various flavors of Windows Server and Linux. Prices range from $350 for an HP ProLiant MicroServer with 2GB of RAM and a 250GB hard drive (expandable to four 2TB drives) running Windows Server 2008 R2 Foundation to $2500 for a Dell PowerEdge T710 tower server with an Intel Xeon CPU, 4GB of memory, and a single 500GB hard drive. Be aware that not all tower servers include the price of an operating system.
If you anticipate the need to run several servers, either right away or in short order, consider moving up to rack-mount models. These types of servers come in a standard width (to fit in a 19-inch rack) and a standard height (a multiple of 1.75 inches, or 1U; a standard rack is 42U high). A rack permits you to fit many servers into a relatively small footprint, and typically it includes a cable-management system to keep your installation neat.
Most rack servers are highly expandable, with sockets for multiple CPUs, copious amounts of memory, and lots of storage. Rack-server systems are highly scalable, too; once you have the rack in place, you won’t need floor space for additional servers until the rack is full. Although they typically cost more than tower servers, they’re cheaper than blades.
Since rack servers operate in very close proximity to one another, they require more active cooling than tower servers do. The fans in these servers can be quite loud, and you’ll need a climate-control system to keep a full rack cool. For those reasons, most businesses isolate their rack servers in a dedicated room. Rack servers can be more difficult to maintain, because they must be physically pulled from the rack for servicing. And like a tower server, rack servers require a KVM arrangement for setup and management.
An entry-level rack server in Lenovo’s ThinkServer RD230 line includes a dual-core Intel Xeon E5503 CPU; four 3.5-inch hard-drive bays, with support for RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10 (no drives are included); and 2GB of memory (with seven additional slots for expansion) in a 1U enclosure. It sells for about $1000.
Prices escalate quickly as you add CPUs (or CPU cores), memory, hard-drive bays, virtualization capabilities, and other features. When you compare the prices of rack servers, be sure to include the cost of an operating system and any embedded hypervisor (for virtualization) that you might want, as these elements are not always included in the base price. You should also consider the price of the rack and the mounting rails you’ll need to install the server.
The primary distinction between a rack server and a blade server is that several blade servers operate inside a chassis. Adding a new server is as simple as sliding a new blade into the chassis. You can install other network components, such as ethernet switches, firewalls, and load balancers, alongside the servers in the same enclosure, and you can install the whole assembly in a rack. Since the chassis provides the power, cooling, input-output, and connectivity for all the devices inside it, you don’t have to deal with new cables when you add something. Blades are neater and can pack more computer power into a given space than any other server ecosystem, yet their upfront cost is higher because you must also purchase the enclosure.
Blade servers do have their drawbacks. Typically they provide fewer expansion opportunities because they aren’t equipped with as many PCIe slots and drive bays as tower or rack servers are. On the other hand, businesses deploying blade servers usually have shared storage, such as a storage area network, to support their blade servers (and some blade chassis can accommodate SAN storage right alongside the servers). As you’ve probably guessed, housing all those components in such close proximity generates a lot of heat. Blade systems, like rack servers, require plenty of active cooling (usually augmented by fans mounted inside the chassis).
The Bottom Line
If all you’re looking for in a server is file sharing, client backup, and limited remote-access capabilities for a small number of employees using computers (ten or fewer), a Windows Home Server machine or a NAS will satisfy your requirements with an extremely modest investment. A larger small business that needs just one or two more-powerful servers would be better off with towers. They don’t take up a lot of floor space, and they don’t require elaborate cooling systems, but they’re easily expanded, and high-end models can support virtualization.
Once your IT requirements grow beyond what a couple of servers can do, it’s time to consider moving up to a rack server. Dozens of these machines can fit in the same footprint as a couple of towers, and this server architecture is quite scalable. Blade servers are even more space-efficient and scalable. If you need more servers than will fit in a rack, you’ll be happier with a blade ecosystem.
An entry-level IBM BladeCenter S chassis, which can accommodate up to six one- or two-processor blade servers (or up to three four-processor models) and provides two disk modules and four switch modules, costs about $2700. An IBM BladeCenter HX5 server equipped with an Intel Xeon CPU, 16GB of memory, and two hot-swap disk bays (drives not included) is priced at $6227. As with the other types of servers I’ve discussed, list prices don’t include an operating system or virtualization capabilities, and prices climb rapidly as you add features and components.