The choice of servers available to IT buyers is quite astounding, even if you take just one company - such as Compaq, for example - you will find yourself bewildered by the number of different models on offer.
In this feature, PC Week has decided to produce a technical overview of the entry-level and mid-range Intel-based servers offered by the five major PC manufacturers. One would think that by narrowing down the scope to cover only the low-end Intel platforms you could narrow down the field quite substantially. However, as we found, the choice is still quite staggering.
Another foolhardy assumption would be that because these machines are largely Windows NT servers, they are fairly unsophisticated. Wrong again.
These days the Wintel platform offers levels of availability that previously only expensive Unix enterprise servers could boast. In fact, one PC manufacturer recently claimed to be offering a guaranteed 99% uptime for an NT 4 server.
If the machine is going to be used as a Web server or to house an Ecommerce site, availability is the most important consideration - every minute the server is off line could cost your company customers. Even if you're only using the thing as an office file and print server, any amount of downtime can be frustrating and expensive.
Many of the machines on offer feature RAID controllers which spread your data over several hard drives and significantly reduce the likelihood of terminal system failures and data loss. Surprisingly, even some very low-end servers had redundant fans and power supplies which keep the system up and running during hardware failures. It's common to find machines with hot-swappable hard drives, power supplies, fans and PCI cards which can be removed and replaced without having to bring down the entire system.
Perhaps more importantly than this, many of the systems feature pre-emptive failure warning capabilities. By monitoring things like internal temperature, fan speeds and hard drive performance, the machine can detect when something is wrong and likely to cause a crash. By warning the system manager of potential failures, the problem can be resolved before it escalates and disasters can be averted. Most manufacturers even offer pre-failure warranties for SMART (self monitoring and analysis) hard drives, which means that they will replace them as soon as the drive warns of a degradation in performance.
There are several processors on offer in the systems we've covered.
Most are based on various incarnations of the Pentium II which is currently available as a 450MHz device. The PII is probably the most widespread of Intel's chips, but in servers it has two drawbacks; firstly, it only has 512Kb of level two cache and, secondly, you can only use two of them in a server.
If you're looking for a server which will grow with your needs, then a more likely candidate is Intel's Xeon processor. This can feature up to 2Mb of level two cache, which improves performance considerably, and more importantly can be scaled up to run in four-way server devices.
Some people are still offering devices based on the Pentium Pro, and although this chip has been discontinued by Intel, it does have the advantages of being able to scale up to four-way processing and has been proven over time to be quite reliable in the field - the Xeon is fairly new and is currently suffering from reliability issues when used in four-way applications.
There's also a good chance that you could make considerable cost savings if you don't mind using slightly out-dated processors.
It's a good idea to buy the fastest processor you an afford but remember that an extra dollop of memory will increase system performance far more effectively than a couple of extra MHz. There are two types of memory on offer, EDO and SDRAM; without getting into too much technical detail SDRAM is faster and better because it's synchronised with the system bus.
The hard drive subsystem obviously has a huge impact on the overall system performance and as the intricacies of RAID and SCSI are far too complex to cover here. However, it's worth looking into the subject in some more detail if it's not something you're very knowledgeable about.
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