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The Best Servers for Business

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The Best Servers for Business

Serve Your Business

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With quad-core CPUs, multiple layers of hardware redundancy, system cooling, and sophisticated management, these workhorse servers will form the backbone of your SMB network.

by Oliver Rist

Servers are the Swiss Army knives of SMB networking. They handle the shared files and folders, directory and DNS duties, e-mail, collaboration, and vertical applications so critical to SMB survival. Maybe you've got a property management system, or perhaps you run a widget inventory-management program that has a bridge to QuickBooks. To handle multiple users, all these run off a central server.

Many SMBs think they'll save money using recycled workstations as servers—25 users won't stress the CPU, right? Wrong. Today's OSs, fast networks, telecommuters, external partners and customers, and massive new apps tax processors more than ever. And when a CPU fails (or a hard drive dies or the power supply fries) your makeshift server bites the dust. But with the SMB servers reviewed here your apps are protected by quad-core CPUs, multiple layers of hardware redundancy, system cooling, and sophisticated management that will warn you of imminent problems.

I asked server companies to send me their most popular SMB workhorse configurations built from standardized hardware, including dual Intel Xeon quad-core CPUs, 4GB of RAM, and at least 200GB of drive space in a managed RAID array. Three vendors chose to participate: Aberdeen LLC (a custom server maker), with its muscular new Aberdeen Stirling 229; Apple, with two examples of its slick Xserve machine; and HP, with the world's best-selling all--purpose server, the ProLiant DL380 G5. Dell and IBM were both invited to take part but were prevented by logistical issues on their end. Don't worry, you'll be seeing products from them in upcoming reviews.

Finally, I checked out Sun Microsystems' new Sun Fire X4150. The review has no score because the machine's configuration didn't fit with the rest of our contenders, and I didn't get to run all my benchmark tests on it, but it's worth a look, if only to see everything Sun has managed to stuff into a mere 1U.—

Those looking to purchase new SMB servers in 2008 should consider several -features. Most important is the CPU. This roundup concentrates on Intel quad-core Xeons (we received X5842, X5365, and X5472 models in this category), but we also got a couple of dual-core X5160s in Apple's first box. The reason we asked for quad-cores wasn't simply because they're the hottest mainstream silicon going—they're also cost- and energy-efficient.

With eight logical CPU cores, via virtualization a dual quad-core machine is able to act as two to four standard servers for mainstream SMB applications. That might include acting as an e-mail server, a Web or collaboration server, a file-print-directory server, or an application server for that one key business program—QuickBooks Enterprise, for example. Applications like these are often critical to an SMB's business process, so you'll need to test performance in a virtual environment. The days of one-purpose servers are over. It's simple economics: Running a single server means less overall capital expense and easier management, which often translates into less staff.

Virtualized servers are also more energy-efficient. Power and cooling are big long-term expenses, even in SMB data closets. Using more energy-efficient CPUs (especially the E and L series), optimized case designs, and smart power--management software is key. But doing all that with a single 1U or 2U server instead of four, five, or six has an even bigger (and greener) effect on your monthly utility bill.

You can configure any of the machines here, except perhaps the dual-core Apple Xserve, to run two to four servers within existing hardware—even with the mere 4GB of RAM I used for testing (though I'd upgrade to 8GB or more). Upping your disk resource to at least half a terabyte is a good idea. You'll pay extra for the upgrade, but it will cost less than buying four separate servers, even in the short term.

For this story, all test machines were Intel-based, but don't count AMD out. I didn't request the company's CPUs in this starter roundup because Intel still leads on most third-party quad-core benchmark tests, and we didn't want this to turn into a CPU benchmarking war. Nonetheless, AMD is shipping quad-core Barcelona CPUs. Intel's may be faster, but they're not that much faster, and AMD-based machines are usually cheaper. Better yet, in late spring AMD will release its Shanghai line—a series distinguished by three times the L3 cache of the Barcelona, as well as enhancements to IPC (inter-process communication, which relates to CPU process execution). That may well boost quad-core execution performance—I'll test using the CPUs as soon as they're available

Drive Configuration

Another important consideration is drive configuration, and the SMB flavor of the month is RAID 6, which many companies offer as a new drive-controller option. RAID 6 affords an extra layer of redundancy at the cost of an extra drive. The RAID 5 rule of thumb is that if you're setting up four hard drives, each with 200GB of space, you'll get 600GB of storage, with the fourth 200GB reserved for redundancy. The RAID 5 array arranges data across the four drives so that if you lose any single one in the array, the other three can pick up the slack without a hiccup—but it will cost you a full drive of space. RAID 6 reserves two disks for redundancy, which means you can lose any two drives in an array simultaneously.

Although RAID 6 sounds safer, the odds of two drives failing at the same time in an array of four is minimal—and sacrificing, say, 400GB out of an 800GB array is a high price. While only you can say how much you're willing to pay for increased security, I'd recommend sticking with RAID 5 and keeping data backed up off-site to guard against a catastrophe that could take out two drives at once. Our server companies agreed, sending only RAID 5 units—the most popular SMB configuration
Power Consumption

Power consumption should also be an important factor in your server purchases these days. Intel's new 45nm "Harpertown" CPUs (found in our Aberdeen Stirling 229) as well as the 65nm "Clovertowns" are both designed for decreased power consumption; Intel's E and L series are even more energy-efficient. But servers are more than simply CPUs. Greening your server means monitoring its usage levels over time, then rolling up your sleeves and tweaking the hardware -thresholds manually.

To monitor hardware, you'll need a sophisticated, accurate software package—one that reports on which parts of the system get hit hardest, and when. At those points, obviously, the machine draws the most power. It's when usage dies down that you'll need to put your thinking cap on. When is it best to put either the CPU or the disk system to sleep? When can you do both? And if you're doing both, is a graceful shutdown the better option?

Apple and HP build in software that's capable of managing this kind of analysis, as well as the manual power-adjustment controls you need to really go green. Value servers like the Aberdeen have pieces of this equation bundled as part of the base kit, but you may need additional software to handle the whole show

Operating System

Your last consideration comes from the rainy Northwest. Migrations to Microsoft's new Windows Server 2008 operating system are unlikely to ramp up until 2009. If you're buying now, you'll probably get a Windows Server 2003 R2 machine, but that doesn't let you off the Server 2008 hook. Microsoft has yet to publish recommended SMB hardware specifications for Server 2008, but the machines in this roundup should have the horsepower to run the new OS.

The most important thing is to buy CPUs capable of 64-bit operation. After that, it's all about RAM. The 4GB tested here would be serviceable, but for long-term performance—especially if virtualization looms in your future—I'd double that, even for offices of 50 or fewer users.

The servers in this review cover a range of SMB options. HP's ProLiant DL380 G5 sets the bar. Apple's Xserve machines have much to offer, but SMBs not entirely Mac-centric will have to think hard before going this route. Companies like Aberdeen not only give better hardware-to-dollar value but ship servers in very specific configurations, which could be key for SMBs running resource-hogging vertical apps. For a head-to-head comparison of server features, see this table; for more in depth scores, go here. And for side-by-side performance comparison, look here. Finally, check out the How We Tested page to get a handle on our new server benchmarking suite.

Aberdeen Stirling 229
The Aberdeen Stirling 229 2U is a hardware Clydesdale with excellent benchmark test numbers, a five-year warranty, and a 30-day money-back guarantee. But while all the management basics are there, this SMB server has a little ways to go in terms of overall polish and day-to-day management.

Apple Xserve
This 1U box is a bit on the pricey side and still doesn't behave all that smoothly with Windows clients. But, once configured, the Xserve has a lot to offer an SMB, whether it has a Unix heavyweight or a tech generalist on staff.

HP ProLiant DL380 G5
The HP ProLiant series has been the standard in servers for over a decade, and the DL380 G5 upholds that tradition. Elegant design and excellent management capabilities combine to make this the best value overall for small and midsize businesses looking for workhorse hardware.

Sun Fire X4150
I had to take a trip to the snowy wilds of New Hampshire to get my hands on this gleaming example of hardware goodness, where it had just been delivered to a production network environment, the admin of which owes me favors. But it was worth the trip. This unit doesn't get a scored review, because this was a seriously souped up version that puts it way out of the league of the other servers reviewed here, however.

Aberdeen, the company behind this server for the small-to-midsize business, is itself a smaller-tier value vendor, but it's been around for 16 years and offers certain benefits to SMBs with specific server needs. For one, it will configure a server to almost any specification (even if you're ordering only one): from 1U to 5U, as a general file server, a high-performance storage server, or anything in between, and with a variety of Linux or Windows operating system flavors. That flexibility may interest only SMBs with specific technical needs, but here's something that will interest everyone in the market for a server: The company offers the only five-year server warranty (strictly mail-in, though) I've ever heard of. It also has a program called Aberdeen CARES, which allows customers to purchase a custom-built server, try it out for 30 days, and return it for a full refund if not completely satisfied. Only Sun Microsystems has a similar return offer. And, make no mistake about it, the Aberdeen Stirling 229 I tested is one powerful beast.

Serve Your Business - Aberdeen Stirling 229 - Reviews by PC Magazine
Serve Your Business - Reviews by PC Magazine
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