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Drill down to basics with these server hardware terms

Even with software-based data center options, it's still important to know the physical components of a server. Check out these four terms to refresh your memory.

Servers are the powerhouse behind every data center. These modular, boxy components contain all the processing power required to route and store data for every possible use case.

Depending on the size of the data center, organizations use blade, rack or tower servers so that admins can scale the number of servers depending on need, effectively maintain the hardware and easily keep them cool.

Whether a data center uses rack, blade or tower servers, the central server hardware components stay the same and help support simultaneous data processing at any scale. Here's a quick refresher on the basic components of a server and how they help get data from point A to point B. 


This piece of server hardware is the main printed circuit board in a computing system. It functions as the central connection for all externally connected devices, and the standard design includes 6 to 14 fiberglass layers, copper connecting traces and copper planes. These components support power distribution and signal isolation for smooth operation.  

The two main motherboard types are Advanced Technology Extended (ATX) and Low Profile Extension (LPX).  ATX includes more space than older designs for I/O arrangements, expansion slots and local area network connections. The LPX motherboard has ports at the back of the system.

For smaller form factors, there are the Balance Technology Extended, Pico BTX and Mini Information Technology Extended motherboards.


This circuitry translates and executes the basic functions that occur within a computing system: fetch, decode, execute and write back. The four main elements included on the processor are the arithmetic logic unit (ALU), floating point unit (FPU), registers and cache memory.

On a more granular level, the ALU executes all logic and arithmetic commands on the operands. The FPU is designed for coprocessing numbers faster than traditional microprocessor circuitry.

The terms processor and central processing unit are often interchanged, even though the use of graphics processing units means there can sometimes be more than one processor in a server.

Random access memory

RAM is the main type of memory in a computing system because it is much faster for read/write performance than some other data storage types, and because it serves as a path between the OS, applications and hardware.

It cannot store permanent data, which is why computing systems use hard drive or cloud-based storage options. RAM is volatile and makes any data available while the system is on, but deletes the data once admins shut off the server.

RAM is built on microchips and has a limited capacity for consumer devices. An average laptop uses 8 GB. For enterprise-based systems, a hard disk can store up to 10 TB. These microchips plug into the motherboard and connect to the rest of the server hardware via a bus.

Hard disk drive

This hardware is responsible for reading, writing and positioning of the hard disk, which is one technology for data storage on server hardware. Developed at IBM in 1953, the hard disk drive has evolved over time from the size of a refrigerator to the standard 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch arrays.

A hard disk drive has a collection of disk platters around a spindle within a sealed chamber. These platters can spin up to 15,000 rotations per minute, and different motor heads control the read/write heads as they transcribe and translate information to and from each platter. 

Hard disk drive
Components of a hard disk drive

Data center servers also use solid-state drives, which have no moving parts and bring the benefits of low latency and high I/O for data-intensive use cases. They are more expensive than hard disks, so organizations often use a mix of hard drive and solid-state storage within their servers.

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