Overview: A Crop of Entry-Level Servers

Friday Jul 25th 2008 by Drew Robb
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Small businesses have a wider selection of entry-level servers available than ever before. See what's ripe for the picking.

It wasn't so long ago that buying a server was a hefty investment. Then component prices began to tumble, vendors got very competitive and servers suddenly became affordable.

You'll find plenty of choices available in the sub-$1,000 category (and sometimes sub-$500) from the big vendors such as Dell, HP and IBM. “All of the major vendors are creating SMB-friendly products in both blade and tower form factors,” said John Enck, an analyst at Gartner.

You'll also find new kids on the block such as FileEngine by Server Partners LLC, which has introduced a novel set-up plan. Rather than forking over the cash in advance and hiring an IT staff to look after their operations, some small businesses may find FileEngine's monthly payment plan more appealing.

“FileEngine is a server appliance designed for companies with five to 25 PCs that need to protect, share and control the information they store on their computers,” said Kim Brand, CEO and founder of Server Partners.

“The flat-rate price of less than $8 per day ($235/mo) gets you a new server, standard shipping and installation, monitoring, off-site backup, self-serve-restore, disaster recovery, unlimited support and remote administration, maintenance (including updates) and the confidence that someone else is worrying about your server so you don't have to,” said Brand

FileEngine is essentially a Linux-based file server with extra zing. It doesn't handle e-mail, database or Web hosting for the very good reason that most businesses with fewer than 25 employees don't really need such services. Those that require e-mail hosting can go elsewhere to find a hosted Microsoft Exchange provider for less than $10 per account per month.

“FileEngine is the cheeseburger of file servers – not fancy, just reliable and affordable,” said Brand. “Resellers push small businesses to Microsoft Windows because they can make a living maintaining it. We want to change all that.”

Of course, there are always cheap servers to be had from the usual suspects. Fujitsu has come out with the TX120 server, which it heralds as the smallest and quietest server in the world. The company makes use of smaller components to reduce power consumption to 175 watts.

The basic idea is to eliminate noisy servers from small offices. This particular machine is aimed at companies with anywhere from five to 20 computers. It takes up about a quarter of the space of a traditional server.

“We developed a cooling method to keep the server cool without all the attendant noise of heavy duty fans,” said Richard McCormack, senior vice president of marketing at Fujitsu. “This produces a noise output of 32 decibels when operating and 28 decibels when idle. This is well below the background noise in a typical office.”

Typical applications would be: a file or print server for up to 50 people; a mail server for 200 people, an application server for 20 employees; or for other basic server tasks. Pricing starts at $1,058. But if you want top-of-the-line everything, that price can stretch as high as $3,666.90.

Dell also has plenty of choices in this category. The PowerEdge T300 comes with a choice of different processors. This includes quad-core, dual-core and single-core chips and a healthy amount of memory. The T300 can also pack plenty of internal storage – up to 4 TB. This machine has a starting price of $699.

“The T300 server helps companies handle memory-intensive applications by offering up to 24GB of memory – three times the memory capacity of competitive systems,” said Armando Acosta, senior PowerEdge product line manager for Dell. “The T300 means that small and medium businesses no longer have to sacrifice server performance or reliability for an affordable price.”

Pricing on the PowerEdge T105 (with an AMD processor), currently available at the Dell Web site, starts at $349. That offer may have expired by the time you read this, but it covered a dual core AMD processor, 1 GB of memory and two 360 GB hard drives.

"Dell's business strategy thrives on standardization and mass volumes of one- and two-processor servers," said Jed Scaramella,” an analyst at International Data Corp. (IDC). 

HP offers several models for less than $1,000. The HP ProLiant ML 110, for example, starts at less than $600. And even when you configure it with the best processors, plenty of memory and even Microsoft Small Business Server software it still costs less than $1,200.

IBM, meanwhile, sells its x3200 server starting at $872. This buys you an Intel Pentium dual-core processor, 1 GB of memory and no hard drives. If you want an Intel Xeon dual core processor, 2 GB of memory and a 160 GB hard drive, it costs $1,642.

Sun Microsystems also offers a few low-end options The Sun Fire X2100, for instance, starts at $1,138. That buys you a dual-core Opteron processor, 1 GB of memory but no hard drives. You can customize it by adding more powerful processors, up to 8 GB of memory and up to 1.5 TB of storage.

Acer focuses mainly on PCs and laptops, but it recently branched into the server market with economically priced models. The Acer Altos G330 offers an Intel Pentium processor with 1 GB of RAM and a 250 GB hard drive. It costs $840. With a dual-core Xeon processor, 2 GB of RAM and two 250 GB hard drives, the price goes up to only $923.

As you can see, there is quite a difference in price based on the type of processor you choose. Obviously, the better the chip, the better the performance. But there is a way to get the best of both worlds.

Sabine Waterkamp president of for ACSLA, a provider of IT services for SMBs, advises small business owners to buy a marginally slower processor. “Purchase one notch under the fastest CPU available," she said. "The fastest model usually carries a premium on price."

A Low-End Revolution

According to numbers supplied by IDC, a revolution has taken place in the computing landscape over the past decade, deeply affecting the SMB space in particular. The installed base of high-end servers in this country actually dropped one-third from 33,000 in 1996 to 22,000 in 2005.

During that same time period, low-end servers grew nearly seven-fold from 1.47 million to 9.89 million, and the gap is growing. IDC stats for 2007 show that 7.6 million lower-end server units shipped last year (out of a total 8 million servers), an 8.3 percent rise over the previous year. More and more of these units end up in the hands of small businesses. And the good news is that despite vendor consolidation, there are still loads of choices out there.

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

This article was first published on ServerWatch.com.

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