By Joel Montgomery // 10 May 2009 // Related Categories: Tips

Buying a new server for your office can be one of the more difficult IT decisions you have to make. Servers are used for a variety of different purposes, from storing files and delivering mail to hosting a website. How do you know which configuration will best address your business needs?

My first and most important piece of advice is to ask for help from an expert. Call up Dell on 1300 303 248 or your nearest IT supplier (e.g.Harris Technology on 1300 13 9999) and listen to their advice. No doubt they will present you with a number of options, so here is a straight forward buyer's guide to equip you with the knowledge you need to make an informed decision.

The basics of what you need to know:

Form factor (tower, rack or blade) - If you're just starting off then buy a tower server. The cost of buying a rack to house your rack/blade servers can be significant and the space-saving and heat dispersion benefits only start to kick in when you're running more than a handful of servers.

Processor type & speed - If you intend to use your server for the sole purpose of sharing files across a small network then you'll be fine with a low-end processor such as Intel Dual Core E2220. If you intend to use the server for application sharing (e.g. database/CRM or web) or you expect to have more than a few employees accessing files at any one time, then consider the Intel Core 2 Duo range (my favourite is E8500) or for maximum performance the Intel Quad Core Xeon processor range.

Memory (RAM) - I recommend no less than 2GB memory, but preferably 4GB minimum if you're hosting applications. Memory is relatively cheap these days so if you're expecting more than a handful of concurrent users then you should consider upgrading to 16GB RAM.

Hard drive - SATA drives are cheaper and generally do the job for file sharing and web servers, but if you are hosting applications such as email or a database for a growing number of staff (say more than five) then you should consider SAS drives. The size of your hard drive depends on how much data you think you'll need to store and when you do your maths I suggest estimating your 3-year storage requirements and then doubling them. Another option is to offload the task of data storage which will be explained later.

Operating System -If you know a bit about managing servers then you may want to consider a Linux platform, but if you're just starting off and you want a plug-and-play experience then go with Microsoft Small Business Server (or Enterprise Business Server if you have more than approximately thirty employees). When buying a server you may be able to get the Operating System included with the hardware as "OEM" (Original Equipment Manufacturer). While OEM is the cheaper option you will not be able to transfer the license to another machine so if and when you decide to upgrade your hardware you will not be able to use that operating system on your new server. Consider the Microsoft Open License program instead if you have more than five computer users.

Warranty - I strongly suggest a minimum 3-year manufacturer warranty, with next business day on-site support or possibly four-hour on-site support if your system is mission-critical. Don't risk being without your server for hours let alone days or weeks.

Advanced options

Beyond the purchase of your first server you may find that you start to push the limits of a basic server configuration. Here are some further considerations.

Beefing up performance

The better the processor and the more RAM you throw at your server the better it will perform (within limits). Here are some other considerations for cranking up your server speed:

Network cards - When you start to stress a server's disk access performance over the network then the first bottleneck is usually your network card. You can anticipate this by upgrading to two (dual) Gigabit Ethernet cards with load balancing support.

Virtualisation - This has been a hot topic for a while now. "Virtualising" your server essentially separates the Operating System from the underlying platform so you can run multiple instances of your server on the once piece of server hardware. Virtualisation can give you more performance out of your multi-core processors and can use your server memory more efficiently.

Separate out your storage - Consider taking the burden of file storage away from your server and give it to a dedicated device. Storage Area Networks (SAN) and Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices are fast and secure alternatives to storing your data.

Security & Availability

The data residing on your server is likely to be very important to your daily business operations and will probably contain confidential information. Make sure your server is located in a secure part of the office and if you don't have a dedicated, lockable room for your server (e.g. a data centre) then check that the server chassis is lockable so the hard drives cannot be stolen by a disgruntled employee. Install security software that is designed specifically for your server platform and consider that you may require a different virus scanner for your mailbox & SQL information store than for your information files.

If you need your server to be up-and-running 24x7 then here are some additional considerations:

Redundancy - Two of everything sounds re-assuring, doesn't it? Consider dual network cards with fail-over support, two power supplies, hot-plug redundant hard drives and hot-plug redundant cooling. Consider server clustering or a storage area network (SAN) for an enhanced (and significantly more expensive) redundancy solution.

RAID - Another popular way to achieve redundancy is RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks). RAID protects your data in the case of disk failure and can also improve performance depending on which configuration you choose. RAID 1 is the cheaper option and is a lot better than nothing but RAID 5 allows you to use your hard disk space far more efficiently.

UPS - Don't risk a black-out. Buy a Universal Power Supply (UPS) which is essentially a big, intelligent battery that kicks in when you lose power. Depending on which UPS you buy your server(s) will run for minutes or hours without mains power, giving you enough time to get your generator to kick-in or to shut down your server without losing valuable data.

Remote management - If your server does go down or suffers performance degradation then you'll want to be notified immediately and be ready and able to take action. Make sure your server provides secure, remote management tools so you can diagnose and remedy any problems.

Additional considerations

Before you hand over your credit card for a new server, let's think a bit "outside the box".

Expandability - Are you buying a server that can grow with your business? Consider if your server chassis and motherboard can support multiple network adapters, a sufficient number of CPUs and an adequate memory configuration (DIMM slots) for your future needs. It's much more economical to add a pair of RAM chips, a new CPU, and a pair of hard disks to an existing chassis than it is to purchase yet another new server.

Back-up - No matter what server you buy make sure you consider how you will back-up your data. You should back-up regularly, preferably daily, to a separate drive. Consider off-site back-up to avoid a situation where your whole office gets wiped out (flood or fire).

Network Attached Storage - If you're planning to use your server for the sole purpose of file storage then maybe you should consider a stand-alone Network Attached Storage (NAS) device instead of a server. NAS is specifically design to provide fast data access without any unnecessary components, and you'll find many are much cheap than your average server.

Cloud computing - With Cloud Computing you may not need to buy a new server. Your data and applications can be accessed through the Internet from a server environment that is "hosted" and owned by another company. You usually pay a monthly fee to access the server and you'll be pleasantly surprised with the security and speed of most services. The considerations, however, are that you need to always be connected to the Internet to access the server and you need to get your head around the fact that you are essentially trusting your data with another company.


Do you have any comments about this buyer's guide? Anything to emphasise, or any other tips? Please share them with us.

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