Control Tower

Small businesses that are looking to bring on-board a server for the first time are faced with several factors to consider. Windows met key regional hardware vendors to find out which considerations matter...

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By  Matthew Wade Published  March 1, 2006

|~||~||~|Home-based companies running two or three PCs can easily function using just ad-hoc networking and one or two external hard disks for storage. But should capacity needs or required network speeds push past this starter level, then a small business server becomes a real necessity. Of course, one approach is to transform an aging desktop into a basic file server - see page 70 - but although this can fit for home or gaming use, in business terms there's nothing to beat the support that a name server vendor can provide. “Most small firms start with a machine for file serving,” adds HP Middle East's product manager for industry standard servers, Ryan D'Souza. “Maybe five to even twenty users can use a P2P (peer-to-peer) network, but if one user doesn't show up for work then you're in trouble. Most small firms don't have the IT skills or budget to host use by server, for instance using one web server, one file server etc., so they tend to use one server for all this.” Dealing with dealers Most international 'name' vendors, such as HP, Acer, Fujisu Siemens Computers (FSC) and so on, sell their servers via regional partners (a.k.a. resellers, or dealers). As this dealer is also the party that will be primarily involved in providing you with server warranty support -keeping your machine running exactly as you need it - dealer choice is, to a degree, as important as server choice. “To me, if a customer goes to server vendors' web sites, prints out specs they think they need and then says to dealers, “Give me a quote,” that's a last grasp attempt,” says Acer Middle East's business development server for servers, Andrew Lamb. “Servers in this class range have become quite commoditised. Everyone can offer something,” he adds. “The difference is not so much in the actual hardware but the service and support that the customer's going to get afterwards.” Spec speak In order to determine exactly what components, redundancy, features and support are currently on offer to small firms in this region, we decided upon three small business examples and then put these to three vendors to find out their server recommendations for each operations. Our three examples were these: Small PR agency Users: Seven or eight (using office apps, e-mail and light image editing work) Server used for: Storage, file and printer sharing Product distribution company Users: 20 users (using office apps, e-mail and company database) Server used for: Running company-wide order/inventory database, plus domain and database backup Design agency Users: 15 (InDesign, Photoshop & video apps) Server used for: Centrally storing image, video files and templates, backups, domain serving, printer sharing. In all three cases, vendors reckon small firms are most likely looking at a tower machine. These are more widely employed at this level than their rack counterparts, although vendors such as FSC do offer both versions of most of their SMB models, plus a rack conversion kit. Sticking with tower machines however, from an entry-level viewpoint Acer's most relevant machine for our first, small PR agency example, is the G320. “This is a Pentium 4 class model and available in either SCSI or SATA hard drive configurations,” says Lamb. “One of its market values, or differentiators, is that it has four channels of SATA on-board, which means that if you want to populate it with all the four hard drives it's capable of taking, then you don't have to go out and buy an additional SATA controller,” explains Lamb. “If you compare that with most of the models on the market, with these - if you'd like to put two SATA drives in you're ok, but the minute you expand to four for an entry class machine, you have to put additional controllers in. That's the major differentiator for us.” At this price level - roughly around a thousand US dollars - much of the hard drive storage on offer tends to be SATA disks. “This is because that, at this level, companies are mainly just using these drives to store data,” Lamb explains. “In the SATA instance, you get much more space for less price. With SCSI, you pay more but get faster performance. It's the ultimate price/performance decision.” Taking our second, product distribution company example next, Rajesh Deepchandani, enterprise product manager at Fujitsu Siemens Computers (FSC) suggests, “You could install the database- let's say a small to mid-sized inventory system - with the OS. For this we would recommend our TX300 server. This gives you a little more functionality than our entry level 200. Because now you're running a database, you're going to want a little more fault tolerance, hot swap hard drives, hot plug power supplies to keep things running, because this machine is effectively running your business if you're a distribution company. It's good practice also, since you're running your DB, to have some type of tape or backup system available. Again the DB and your OS would be mirrored, and the database would be RAID 5.” (For more RAID info, see page 72) RAID safe Elaborating on the theme of which hard disk and RAID configuration such a firm should employ, Deepchandani explains, “Let's assume you'd use two hard drives - for the OS and the application, which is also mirrored. And your database - let's say you're using between three and six hard drives. This way you've got full immunity - you're covered if a hard drive fails. Your OS and your applications keep running, and with the DB you're covered too. Meanwhile your domain server can also be your file server, take care of print serving and so on.” Our third type of business, a 15-user design agency, would likely comprise mainly power users who regularly create very large file types they need to store. HP Middle East's solution at this type of level would be, suggests D'Souza, its ProLiant ML350 server. This single-core tower packs in a minimum of one gigabyte of RAM and is available with RAID-ready SATA and SAS hard disks. D'Souza explains: “This is essentially a file-sharing server since no computing operations occur, therefore data integrity is a must to be maintained (via RAID) with storage availability and performance also key (SAS / SATA). We would recommend also adding a second network card (with teaming) for faster server response times and greater throughput on network transfers. Of course, redundancy features on the server are a must (hard disks, power supplies and fans) as it is critical to the continuity of operation. Price wise, a buyer would probably be looking at between US $1500 and $2500.” Consider this… Before working out the best server for you, a recommended course of action is to approach two or three resellers in your locality - or a recommended nearby multi-brand dealer - for an assessment of your needs (so as to not be tied specifically to one server vendor because a reseller has an exclusive arrangement with them). If a dealer is worth its salt, its team will be happy to sit down with you and discuss both your current server needs and - of course - your company's expansion plans, before you buy. Post-purchase, expect the dealer to install your server on-site. But what then? What if a non redundant (mirrored) component fails or you decide you need to reconfigure your server? Hardware wise, entry-level servers come supplied with - in most cases - warranties of between one and three years. These cover the hardware on-board and are serviced by a vendor-authorised reseller. However, some vendors - such as HP - also offer additional 'care packs', a controversial approach it seems... “Our entry level servers typically carry a one-year warranty, which is for parts and labour, on-site, and a next day fix,” explains D'Souza. “We offer two types of care packs: a warranty extension with the same service level, or a service level upgrade (whereby for instance a server with a one-year warranty would have its warranty upgraded to three years, or a buyer could boost his warranty's fix time - from 24 to maybe six hours. These same upgrade options apply to all servers.” Acer's Lamb however, has something to say about this approach. “We don't do that at Acer,” he confirms. “I believe it should be reseller driven. We don't want that to become our revenue stream; we want it to remain with the dealers - that's our commitment to them. HP for instance is making money off end users by doing that, also their dealers can sell care packs, which again they're making money - a percentage - from. Personally I think that's a little much.” ||**||

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