Busi­ness Fo­cus: Tower servers

Dave Mitchell ad­vises what to look for when choos­ing a tower server, and sub­jects four op­tions to real-world test­ing

PC Pro - - November 2017 Issue 277 -

Dave Mitchell ad­vises how to choose a tower server, and re­views four likely op­tions.

Cloud ser­vices may be all the rage, but the tra­di­tional tower server still has a key role to play. Run­ning es­sen­tial ser­vices in-house brings ad­van­tages in terms of data se­cu­rity, per­for­mance and avail­abil­ity – and get­ting set up doesn’t have to be ex­pen­sive, with en­try-level mod­els start­ing at un­der £600.

Space-sav­ing de­signs al­low th­ese com­pact servers to fit into the small­est of of­fice en­vi­ron­ments, and the lat­est mod­els have enough power on tap to han­dle the most de­mand­ing small busi­ness’ ap­pli­ca­tions. They’re ideal for grow­ing mi­cro-busi­nesses look­ing to up­grade their legacy PC-based net­works with a pur­pose-built server. They can also be a good choice for larger busi­nesses that need to de­ploy on-site IT ser­vices to staff in re­mote or branch of­fices.

This month, we test-drive four en­try-level tower servers, each with the power and flex­i­bil­ity to han­dle all of your on-premises IT re­quire­ments. We re­view their fea­tures and put them through their paces in the lab to help you make the right buy­ing de­ci­sion.

Which CPU?

Un­less you to plan to run heavy-duty busi­ness ap­pli­ca­tions (such as huge data­bases), a server with a sin­gle CPU socket will be eas­ily up to the job. As to which model, we rec­om­mend In­tel’s Xeon E3-1200 series – and the sup­pli­ers of this month’s re­view sys­tems ev­i­dently agree, as all of them chose pro­ces­sors from the lat­est Xeon E3-1200 v6 range.

The fam­ily com­prises eight mod­els, with clock speeds rang­ing from 3GHz up to 3.9GHz. It might be tempt­ing to go for the fastest vari­ant, but that’s prob­a­bly overkill: the en­try-level E3-1220 v6 is per­fectly ad­e­quate for a typ­i­cal small busi­ness, and step­ping up to the top-end E3-1280 v6 will add around £500 to your shop­ping bill.

All CPU mod­els have four cores, but for processor-in­ten­sive tasks, choose a model that sup­ports In­tel’s Hy­per-Thread­ing tech­nol­ogy, as this al­lows it to process eight tasks at once. Avoid the mod­els whose model num­bers end in “-5” – th­ese are aimed at work­sta­tion roles, and come with em­bed­ded In­tel P630 HD graph­ics chips that you don’t need to pay for.

If your bud­get is tight, you can save money by choos­ing an older E3-1200 v5 model – this will still be more than pow­er­ful enough for a typ­i­cal small busi­ness server, but you’ll be miss­ing out on sup­port for faster 2,400MHz DDR4 mem­ory. The v6 mod­els are also more power-ef­fi­cient, which will have a small im­pact on your en­ergy bills.

Power and noise

Even en­try-level tow­ers are de­signed for al­ways-on busi­ness use, and have

fea­tures you won’t find in most PCs. Manufacturers fo­cus on min­imis­ing power us­age, and you’ll see a choice of power sup­ply units (PSUs) with rat­ings rang­ing from 80 Plus Gold to Plat­inum. Th­ese in­di­cate how ef­fi­cient the PSU is at con­vert­ing AC to DC, with Plat­inum mod­els de­liv­er­ing the high­est 92% ef­fi­ciency. A high rat­ing trans­lates to lower power us­age, less heat gen­er­a­tion and hence less fan noise, so choose the best you can af­ford.

Sys­tem de­sign­ers also pay a lot of at­ten­tion to in­ter­nal air flow, which again helps tower servers run cool with­out the need for large, noisy fans. To mea­sure noise lev­els, we use the ex­cel­lent SPLnFFT Noise Me­ter iOS app, which is avail­able for only £3.99 from the App Store.

All of the servers we tested this month im­pressed us with their quiet­ness, with noise lev­els rang­ing from 35.5dB up to 38.7dB. Th­ese mea­sure­ments are so low, it’s safe to say none will be no­tice­able in the av­er­age of­fice en­vi­ron­ment.

We ad­vise against lo­cat­ing your new server on the floor or un­der a desk, as it’ll suck up all sorts of grot, in­clud­ing car­pet fi­bres. If you have no op­tion, make sure you clean the fans, drive bays and CPU heatsink ev­ery few months, oth­er­wise there’s a real risk that your server will clog up, over­heat and even­tu­ally fail – with cat­a­strophic re­sults.

Stor­age space

An in-house server can be a very use­ful cen­tral data store, of­fer­ing more space and faster ac­cess than a cloud ser­vice. Think ahead when choos­ing hard disks for your server and en­sure there’s plenty of head­room for fu­ture de­mand. Large-form-fac­tor (LFF) SATA drives rep­re­sent the best value as they’re get­ting in­creas­ingly cheap and are now avail­able in sizes up to 10TB.

Re­mem­ber to fac­tor in stor­age re­quire­ments for your op­er­at­ing sys­tem, too: both Win­dows Server 2012 R2 with a GUI and Server 2016 with the Desk­top Ex­pe­ri­ence re­quire around 40GB. Your busi­ness ap­pli­ca­tions will quickly eat up space, too. To avoid prob­lems down the line, we rec­om­mend a min­i­mum of 1TB for your sys­tem drive.

For in­creased op­er­at­ing sys­tem and app per­for­mance, con­sider us­ing solid-state disks for your boot drive. Choices range from SATA drives, which can be used as drop-in re­place­ments for reg­u­lar LFF disks, to high-per­for­mance NVMe M.2 SSDs – check out our lat­est SSD group test in is­sue 275 for more de­tails.

“All of this might sound like a lot to con­sider, but se­lect­ing your first tower server re­ally needn’t be a daunt­ing task”

Pro­tect and serve

Choos­ing a server with room for three or four hard disks al­lows crit­i­cal data to be pro­tected with a RAID ar­ray. A RAID1 mir­ror is fine for pro­tect­ing a sin­gle drive; if you’re us­ing three or more disks then RAID5 is more ver­sa­tile, as you can eas­ily add ex­tra drives to the ar­ray when you want to in­crease ca­pac­ity.

All four re­view servers come with em­bed­ded RAID con­trollers on their motherboards. Whether it’s Dell’s PERC S130, HPE’s Smart Ar­ray B140i or In­tel’s C236 chip, they all sup­port mir­rors and RAID5 out of the box, which should be all a small busi­ness needs. The only caveat is if you want to uses SAS drives: th­ese pro­vide greater stor­age per­for­mance and lower fail­ure rates than SATA mod­els, but they’re much more ex­pen­sive, and few en­try-level servers sup­port them as stan­dard, so you may need to bud­get for a stand­alone SAS con­troller card.

Also de­cide whether you need hot-swap hard disks. Cold-swap sys­tems are cheaper, but re­quire you to take the sys­tem off­line to per­form disk main­te­nance. If you need your server to keep run­ning while you’re re­plac­ing or up­grad­ing the disks in a RAID ar­ray, then choose hot-swap.

All of this might sound like a lot to con­sider, but se­lect­ing your first tower server re­ally needn’t be a daunt­ing task. The four mod­els we’ve tried this month pro­vide ev­ery­thing you need to get started. We’ve cho­sen them to fit the small­est of bud­gets, but also to pro­vide a good com­bi­na­tion of ca­pac­ity, power and ex­pand­abil­ity: read on to see which is the best fit for your grow­ing busi­ness.

BE­LOW Server and OS re­mote con­trol are valu­able sup­port tools but may be of­fered as op­tional ex­tras

ABOVE Dell’s iDRAC8 man­age­ment chip even tells you what’s hap­pen­ing on the front of the server

LEFT Fu­jitsu’s very handy Sys­tem Mon­i­tor runs on the server and in­cludes email fault alert­ing

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