Server technology guide

Buy the best server with Computerworld's buying advice for small and medium businesses

The fact is there is no onesize-fits-all server for small and medium businesses (SMBs) - there are various pros and cons to any purchase. There are hundreds of choices across a dozen or so brands and far more configuration possibilities. Then there are the different approaches to server spend. Some buy on price, some on technology, some on brand, and some a mixture of factors at varying levels.

Thankfully, there are some general guidelines on how to approach a new server purchase.

Market trends

The SMB market is a focus for many vendors as smaller organisations mimic large enterprise’s adoption of ever-greater infrastructure sophistication. This means a complexity of available choices that is unlikely to dissipate.

“The fundamental characteristics of drivers for server hardware spending remain in place,” IDC industry analyst, Matt Oostveen, explains, adding a combination of factors will drive change in the market.

“New technology capabilities in both software and hardware are changing the way customers are using and purchasing server systems.”

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There is also a strong demand for more energy efficient devices as energy prices in many locations have climbed and some utility grids have maxed out (for example, Sydney technology hub, North Ryde).

“Space constraints have created a need for smaller — and more efficient — form factors,” Oostveen says. “Further, excess compute cycles on existing systems have created a drive to use existing resources more efficiently than ever before.

“Overall, the rapid increase in compute power driven by multi-core processors, along with the increased efficiencies gained using virtualisation on multiple types of server platforms, has lowered the number of systems required to meet demand.”

Oostveen says the trend has been one of migrating away from complex, heterogenous legacy environments to managed blade infrastructures. This he says, helps optimise the environment, reduce cost and provide greater agility.

“Customers will continue to deploy highly dense servers, including blades, based on space constraints and the flexibility inherent in blade chassis,” he predicts. “The shift toward high density, combined with rising energy costs, will result in power and cooling system requirements being just as important as performance and price in terms of purchasing criteria.”

With these market-level trends in mind, we can now look at some more specific pre-purchase considerations.

An evaluation approach

Two of the main characteristics that enterprise organisations look for in their server environment are high availability and performance. These days the same can be said for most SMBs.

Clearly, when you run the majority of your business off just one or two servers, as many SMBs do — in some cases entry-level tower systems — the potential for outages and associated loss is heightened.

If you are looking to update your environment, choosing a stable platform that provides the highest levels of availability is imperative. For IBM System x business development manager, Peter Hedges, one of the first aspects to consider is what kind of workload the server needs to carry.

“That leads us down a decision path around whether you need entry level servers, like tower boxes where you really only have one or two workloads. There are a lot of companies like that, but it’s not a huge proportion of what we would call SMB in this country,” Hedges said.

One could argue that as the digital economy develops and IT infrastructures continue to become more central to SMB life, the percentage of those looking to what is now considered an entry-level server will decline.

What is more common is SMB IT decision makers coming to the conclusion that they need to have servers to support 10 to 50 workloads — which they invariably do after auditing their IT requirements; a must for any organisation. The upper number may seem like a lot but when you factor in things like a database, email, accounting systems, customer invoicing, file and print, and other different workloads, it really isn’t that surprising. And if you do an evaluation of your existing IT requirements and take the time to map out what you will need over the next 12 to 24 months the surprise factor will likely drop again.

Consequently, many vendors point clients towards a blade system as they can give a compact infrastructure with plenty of options to virtualise and support multiple workloads.

“SMBs don’t tend to have a lot of staff and don’t tend to have a lot of dedicated IT people — they just keep the lights on. So something that allows you to integrate the servers, the network and the storage into a data centre in a box holds a lot of value,” Hedges notes.

If you have even more workloads — as some SMBs do — then you might also consider evaluating a rack system that sits in your own data centre or computer room, especially if you have greater demand for storage or data capacity.

In both scenarios, however, it would be prudent to also consider looking at the performance and storage.

“You have to look at the workload,” Hedges advises. “What is the application? What are you trying to get out of that IT equipment? Because those questions will have an impact on your storage as well.”

Increasingly, the size of storage capacity on most servers and in network attached devices is growing while prices decrease. So, although factoring how much storage you need is an important process, it shouldn’t be too strenuous a task from both a practical and budgeting standpoint.

As important is performance of the server.

“Performance can sometimes mean that you need to look at the kind of data you are using – i.e. if you have a database with a lot of entries being made you might need more drives to get the right throughput,” Hedges says. “Drives only support a fixed amount of performance in terms of read and writing at a certain time, so if you need more, you need more drives.”

For example, 50 database transactions a minute would require much more than a tower server can typically handle. So the first steps are often to look at your workloads, map out your storage requirements and ensure the device you have in mind has the right performance capabilities. Then you can look at price, upgrade paths, energy consumption, cooling and other considerations such as support for various operating systems and licensing.

There are literally dozens of factors that could be taken into account and it is always a good idea to go through the due diligence of evaluating them. But a good start is always to look at the workload and determine what it is you want to achieve. What are the business outcomes you want and will the performance and storage associated with a particular server support that? If not, the other factors may become irrelevant. Aside from purchasing your own physical device there is also cloud-based servers.

Find a Server Tool: We’ve done the hard yards sifting through a vast range of servers out there on the market to help cut down the time needed to find a machine suitable for your organisation. Search by business need or technology specification to find a server to suit your needs.

Other options

It is difficult to compare value between a physical server you own and a cloud service you are consuming. But for Gartner analyst, Errol Rasit, there are some considerations IT managers and CIOs can mull over when evaluating cloud-based servers.

“The first thing to consider is how are you going to compare value? If we, for example look at the Amazon EC2 there are a number of bins in their infrastructure as a service offering,” Rasit said. “So maybe: Small, medium, large, extra large, huge and all these sorts of things. You get certain amounts of memory, certain amounts of CPU, an amount of storage, I/O capability and so on.” But comparing these things between a small bin and a large bin to what you would have in the interior of your organisation gets tricky. So, from that perspective the top three customer concerns that Gartner sees starts with performance.

“Can my cloud services perform as fast as my internal performance?” Rasit says. “Security is number two. So, obviously, if you put something out to the cloud, the operational management is still largely skewed towards the service consumer rather than the service provider.

“For example, Amazon will provide your server and storage and so forth. But it is up to the consumer to choose the operating system, put the application on and do all the patch management and ensure the security levels are adequate as well. The security aspect is not only data travelling through the pipes, but let’s say you have a cloud burst and you have a service that you put out to the cloud during peak times then you bring it back in — can you guarantee that your data has been taken off those servers or complies with internal security policies?”

Third on Gartner’s list is reliability and service level agreements (SLAs).

“In most instances cloud computing providers today don’t offer similar levels of availability that most data centre operators are used to. That said, it is not always an issue,” Rasit explains. “What we do find is most customers have a very high awards mark of what their expectations are for applications for what they need to be.”

If you are looking to the cloud for your server requirements you need to really understand what your availability requirements are to make a successful transition from physical to virtual.

Another factor to consider is if you are using cloud providers because you don’t have the capacity in your own data centre, it is extremely difficult to bring the application and associated data back into your environment and push it out again should you choose to cease consuming the service.

You also still need to know when to turn a server off when you don’t need it and the cloud providers may not help out — although third party providers can help here. On the whole, it doesn’t matter whether you are looking at purchasing a physical or cloud server, the first step is always to determine what your workloads are and how they align with your organisation’s goals. If you can map that out first, then you can begin to evaluate the performance levels you need from any particular server and from there factor in all the other elements.

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