When is server hardware too old?

Modern server hardware is allowing systems to handle more jobs and last longer, easing capital expenses for many data centers.

How often should a server be replaced? It’s a question that has perplexed data center administrators for decad...

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The good news is that servers are lasting longer, taking advantage of new technologies that can double, even triple, their working life. They can also save an organization a lot of capital in the process.

What’s behind a server’s longevity?
Servers are lasting longer because of server virtualization, combined with significant server hardware improvements that can take full advantage of consolidation. Virtualization extends the working life of application delivery servers, especially as servers evolve to include vastly more processor cores and memory. Only five years ago, the average service life of a typical server was pegged at about three years. At that point, the organization would usually opt to depreciate the system quickly and move up to a superior hardware platform.

Server hardware improvements, including the introduction of virtualization extensions, such as AMD-V and Intel-VT, onto processors with six, eight, 10 and even 12 cores each, has eased the relentless demand for newer systems. The technological shift to 64-bit computing now allows servers to routinely support 128 GB, 192 GB, 512 GB and even 1 TB of RAM, further extending the system’s working life by several years. Servers also routinely incorporate resiliency features like RAID support for local disks, multiple network adapters and redundant power supplies.

Clustering technologies can protect aging servers from unanticipated downtime, removing much of the worry from overworked administrators. Clustering can protect aging servers that may otherwise face end-of-live replacement; who cares if the old server hardware fails? Another node in the cluster will simply take over. The addition of virtualization features, such as live migration, allow fast workload balancing between servers and can offload applications from troubled or overloaded servers onto fast, new systems.

Service contracts are often expensive and grow even more expensive as the server hardware ages. After a few years, many companies find it too expensive to justify service contracts, and this becomes a major argument in favor of a technology refresh. Virtualization and clustering can alleviate much of this pressure in a production environment, but aging servers can also be reassigned to other tasks outside of the production data center. For example, when servers age out of their service contracts, it’s a simple matter to relocate the system in test and development, where a crash won’t affect production. Today, a common system can serve an enterprise for six or eight years–and even until it fails.

When is a server ‘too old’
But there are some caveats to long server hardware lifetimes. Perhaps the most important issue is parts availability. Server hardware faults do occur, and replacement parts can be prohibitively expensive, if they are even available at all. A wise IT administrator will watch service costs and parts availability, perform a basic cost/benefit analysis and make an informed decision when to reassign or decommission an aging server before a fault occurs.

Financial aspects may also influence the server refresh cycle. For example, leased servers have to be decommissioned on a set timetable. Otherwise, the organization may risk expensive or unanticipated lease extensions, or even more expensive month-to-month rental fees for the equipment. If you don’t own the servers, it may make more sense to refresh the equipment within the terms of a prevailing lease.

And finally, the march of technology may necessitate a server refresh. For example, an aging server can’t host as many virtual machines as a newer system, so a server refresh may be necessary to facilitate a server consolidation program. In addition, powerful new processors, advanced processor extensions, especially related to virtualization, and power conservation features can converge to make a strong case for new server purchases.

This was last published in July 2011

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I know this is an older article, but I am back to working with someone who I had previously worked with. Their new IT support is BUCKING HARD for a server refresh yet the existing server is running the same OS as it has all along. There is no need to upgrade the OS and the server is doing everything it needs to do. It may not be running it's best, but I am able to fix that with a few changes.

Aside from that, up in their storage is my old parts server for parts but the only thing we have robbed from that is the memory. The raid controller is not the same as in we could just move the drives as we would also need to move the raid controller, but if the raid controller died, they are still available (used) but also cheap.

I really don't believe they should move to a newer server. This one does everything they need it to do, and we are not talking about a data center as we are talking about a small company with about 10 pc's.

The owner has been convinced that he needs a newer server, but is certainly not ready to do this. I don't even agree with this, but as an IT support person, heck yeah I'd love to work on newer hardware.

So other than the reasons mentioned in this article (which do not apply here) what are the other reasons one should upgrade the hardware / software? My opinion for this network there are none.
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One of the other comments on this piece said if the existing server is running and doing everything it needs to do, then it might not need any changes. I feel the same way. Why mess with older equipment that is working? If your car gets you from A to B, do you need the latest model? If your server is keeping data safe and moving it efficiently, then why mess with it? Too often we want the shiny new things. They're nice, but if the old stuff is working, there's no reason to mess things up with new tech and machinery.
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We just orientated to the newest hardware and understand that 3 years is a long time and that's the right time to change or upgrade a server.
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