Organizations of all sizes rely on servers to support their workloads, and small businesses are no exception. But purchasing a server can be a daunting task, as there are many factors to consider beyond just the server.
Here, we examine these considerations and present 10 servers from Asus, Dell EMC, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Fujitsu, Lenovo and Scan Computers International Ltd.
SMB server basics
The term server can refer to a physical computer or to a software program. Here, we're concerned only with the physical computer, which is made up of multiple hardware components capable of supporting business applications and their workloads.
A server is designed to share resources and accommodate workflows across a network, often interfacing with the internet and supporting remote users. The system typically runs 24/7, processing requests from multiple users and applications, frequently at the same time. In some cases, a server might handle large files or amounts of data, depending on the workloads.
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A server's hardware includes processors, memory modules, internal storage and network adapters for connecting to the corporate network and sometimes a storage or management network. In addition, a server usually includes components or features to ensure greater reliability and security, such as cryptographically signed firmware or error-correcting code protection for bit errors on the memory chips. The exact configuration can vary significantly from one server to the next, which is why it's important SMBs proceed cautiously when selecting a server.
On-premises or in the cloud?
Does the organization need a server or should it consider cloud computing? For many SMBs, the cloud can be a better alternative. A cloud server eliminates the need for an on-premises system and the environment that supports it. Cloud computing also reduces the dependency on IT resources, while providing a flexible and scalable environment for accommodating changing workloads. In addition, cloud services offer built-in data protection that helps ensure data remains available and secure.
In contrast, an on-premises server poses several challenges. First, the organization must have space to house the computer and electricity to power and cool it. In addition, staff must continuously maintain the server, ensure its security, protect it from natural disaster and replace any hardware components that break. All these efforts take time and money -- not just the capital outlay, but also the ongoing expense of maintaining the system in-house.
For many organizations, hosting server operations on a cloud server is ideal, especially when compared to the on-premises alternative. But the cloud isn't without its dark side. An organization must pay recurring monthly fees and it has no access to the server environment nor control over the underlying platform. The cloud provider determines when to upgrade the underlying systems and controls how long it will take to restore or repair those systems. With a cloud server, SMBs are also reliant on the internet for continuous connectivity.
With an on-premises server, the organization has complete control over the environment and the server itself, which is especially important for keeping critical data in-house or expediting upgrades or repairs. Although this investment comes with upfront costs, servers can be less expensive in the long term when compared to cloud subscription fees. Plus, if the organization deploys a server on premises to handle business-critical applications, it can still use cloud services for less sensitive operations such as hosting the SMB's website.
An in-house server can support a wide range of workloads. This includes running an email management program or other business applications, hosting a database management system or web application, serving as a media or file server, providing print services or supporting any number of other operations. SMBs can also use virtualization to host multiple applications, running each on its own virtual server. The key is to ensure that the server the SMB selects can handle the anticipated workloads, regardless of how it plans to implement them.
How to choose the right server
An organization can buy a dedicated server outright, lease a complete system, assemble it or purchase a refurbished server. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, but an SMB's goal is to ensure it ends up with a server that can handle its workloads reliably and efficiently.
The following seven steps outline many of the factors an organization should consider before selecting a server:
1. Calculate the server budget.
- Get an estimate for the server itself, including additional features and optional service agreements. Consider long-range scaling and parts replacement. A less expensive server might be tempting, but it might not be powerful or reliable enough to handle mission-critical workloads.
- Estimate the IT resources it will take to install, configure, maintain and update the server. Don't forget the costs associated with troubleshooting and addressing issues that might arise. Include any costs for training personnel or hiring outside expertise.
- Examine what it will cost to house the server and provide power and cooling.
- Consider the costs associated with licensing the OS, security software, management software and any other software required to keep the server operational.
- Include expenses associated with protecting the data, the server and its physical environment against security breaches, natural disasters or other events that could lead to data being lost, corrupted or compromised.
2. Identify workload requirements.
- List the types of applications and services the SMB plans to run and the requirements for operating each, including processor, memory, storage and network.
- Confirm the number of users per application and how they will be using the application.
- List the amount and type of data that will be processed and stored on the server, including file sizes. Consider both data at rest and in motion.
- Identify how the organization will implement each application -- bare metal, virtual server or container -- and include the hypervisor and container software in the planning.
- Calculate workload requirements for the near and distant future.
3. Identify operational requirements.
- Identify all security, privacy and compliance requirements as they apply to the server.
- Detail reliability and availability requirements as they apply to data delivery and ongoing server operations.
- Identify short- and long-term scalability requirements.
- Check network connectivity requirements, including management and storage networks.
- Calculate the total number of users who will be accessing the server, how often they will access it, how long they will connect to the server and any other work patterns that could affect server usage.
- Identify the environment in which the server will operate, along with any limitations, such as power, cooling or noise concerns.
4. Choose the OS.
- Examine the server OSes currently available, such as Microsoft Windows Server 2019 Standard or Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
- Determine which OS will best meet the organization's workload requirements. From this choice, select the best version and edition to meet those requirements.
- Identify the level of in-house expertise for working with a particular OS.
- Consider how much training it will take to get IT personnel up to speed with a particular OS or whether the SMB will need to bring in outside expertise.
- Evaluate if the organization has the in-house development expertise and availability for taking advantage of an open source OS, if that's being considered.
- List the administrative tools the SMB currently uses and if they're specific to a particular OS.
- List other servers the organization currently maintains and the OS running on each.
5. Choose the server form factor.
- Evaluate the server form factors -- including tower, blade and rack -- against known limitations of space, power, cooling and other environmental considerations.
- Consider the environment in which the server will operate in terms of its effect on other people, such as placing a noisy server in an office corner.
- Factor in other servers or IT equipment running in the environment, such as a router or uninterruptible power supply.
6. Evaluate the available servers.
- Limit the search to only servers available in the organization's selected form factor and servers that have been certified to work with the OS the SMB selects.
- Determine each server's physical dimensions or rack space units.
- Evaluate each server's ability to support the SMB's workloads, in terms of processor, memory, storage and other resources, including virtualization requirements.
- Verify each server's ability to meet the SMB's operational requirements, such as reliability and scalability. Assess the type of security that's built into the server components and firmware that's included as software.
- Determine the number and types of available ports, expansion slots, network cards, storage and media bays, and storage controllers. Also, verify the availability of standard or optional drives such as DVD or DVD-RW.
- Confirm the type of power supply and its wattage.
- Verify the level of redundancy built into each server.
- Evaluate the warranties, service contracts, maintenance contracts and level of technical support available to the server.
7. Make a decision.
- Eliminate from consideration servers that can't support the organization's workload and operational requirements or that are more powerful than needed in the near or distant future. Be careful not to underestimate or overestimate future needs, as either scenario can result in unnecessary expenses.
- Prioritize the remaining servers based on which ones best meet the SMB's workload and operational requirements. For servers that offer comparable services, prioritize them by cost, considering additional fees for service or support contracts, as well as software licensing.
- Determine which vendors are considered leaders in the selected category of servers and familiarize yourself with their reputation for delivering quality products and following through on service agreements.
- Learn what customers and reviewers are saying about the servers that made the final cut.
Selecting the top server hardware for small business
The following overview examines 10 popular servers. The list focuses on tower servers because they're often best suited for SMBs that don't have data centers or server rooms for housing IT equipment.
1. Asus TS500
The Asus TS500 is a dual-use computer that can operate as a workstation or a server. It includes an Intel Xeon E5-2600 processor, up to 512 GB of memory and four 3.5-inch hot-swap Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) hard disk drive (HDD) bays, which can be upgraded to eight bays. The TS500 also includes six PCIe expansion slots -- two PCIe 3.0 -- three media bays, two 1 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) ports, one management LAN port and an Intelligent Platform Management Interface 2.0-compliant module. The system also provides several components to increase durability, including 12k solid capacitors that can withstand up to 12,000 hours of high ambient temperatures.
2. Dell EMC PowerEdge T40
The smaller design of this entry-level server is well-suited to workloads such as file, print, mail or messaging services. It comes with a quad-core Xeon E 2224G processor and can accommodate up to 64 GB of memory. The T40 also provides three 3.5-inch SATA HDD bays and a single 1 TB HDD. It includes four PCIe expansion slots -- three PCIe 3.0 and one 1 GbE port -- along with embedded Intel Active Management Technology 12.0. The server also comes with cryptographically signed firmware, Intel Software Guard Extensions, Secure Boot and Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 2.0.
3. Dell EMC PowerEdge T140
This server is a step up from the T40, although it's still considered an entry-level server. It's compact and designed to run quietly. An SMB can choose a processor from a wide range of Intel Celeron, Pentium, Core i3 and Xeon products. The T140 supports up to 64 GB of memory, includes four 3.5-inch SATA HDD bays and provides a 1 TB HDD. It comes with four PCIe 3.0 slots and up to four 1 GbE ports. The server also includes the OpenManage software suite as well as security features such as cryptographically signed firmware, Secure Boot, Secure Erase and Silicon Root of Trust. TPM is available for an additional cost.
4. Fujitsu Primergy TX1310 M3
This server comes in a compact, screwless chassis. It includes HDD quick-release capabilities and is built to reduce noise levels. An SMB can choose the server's processor from a range of Intel Celeron, Pentium and Core i3 products. The machine supports up to 64 GB of memory and includes six 3.5-inch SATA HDD bays. Fujitsu offers an assortment of HDDs for the server, ranging from 500 GB to 10 TB. The TX1310 M3 also includes four PCIe 3.0 slots and provides up to two 1 GbE ports. It also comes with Fujitsu's Cool-safe Advanced Thermal Design technology.
5. HPE ProLiant ML30 Gen10
This server is designed for small offices such as remote and branch locations. It supports a single processor, which can be a Core i3-9100, Pentium G5420 or one of several Xeon models, some of which provide six cores. The ML30 Gen10 supports up to 64 GB of memory and includes two 1 GbE ports and four PCIe 3.0 expansion slots. An SMB can configure the server with either four or eight hot-plug HDD storage bays, with support for up to 64 TB of storage. It comes with HPE's Integrated Lights-Out (iLO) and Silicon Root of Trust.
6. HPE ProLiant ML350 Gen10
This server, which is a significant step up from the ML30, offers a dual-socket machine that an organization can configure with a wide range of Xeon scalable processors. The ML350 Gen10 can support up to 3 TB of memory and up to 24 hot-plug HDD drive bays, making it possible to store as much as 192 TB of data. It also provides eight PCIe 3.0 expansion slots and four 1 GbE ports. The ML350 comes with iLO and a variety of other security-related features, such as Server Configuration Lock, Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) Secure Boot, FIPS 140-2 validation and Common Criteria certification.
7. HPE ProLiant MicroServer Gen10 Plus
Like the ML30, this server targets small office settings, providing an entry-level machine that's the most compact to date. The computer can be configured with either Xeon E-2224 or Pentium G5420 processors and includes 32 GB of memory. It also provides four SATA HDD bays, one PCIe 3.0 expansion slot and four 1 GbE ports. This server supports HPE Systems Insight Manager and comes with several security features, including UEFI Secure Boot, iLO Silicon Root of Trust, FIPS 140-2 validation and firmware rollbacks.
8. Lenovo ThinkSystem ST250
The Lenovo ThinkSystem ST250 targets workloads such as business and retail applications, but with a focus on small offices. The server includes a Pentium G5400 processor with up to eight cores. It can support up to 128 GB of memory and up to eight 3.5-inch SATA or Serial-Attached SCSI (SAS) drive bays, making it possible to store as much as 32 TB of data. The ST250 provides four PCIe 3.0 expansion slots and two 1 GbE ports. It also integrates seamlessly with Lenovo's XClarity management system and comes with Intel's Software Guard Extensions for protecting application code and data.
9. Lenovo ThinkSystemST550
This is a much more powerful machine than the ST250, making it suitable for private clouds, server virtualization and workloads such as virtual desktop infrastructure. The ST550 can be configured with up to two Xeon Platinum processors, up to 768 GB of memory and up to 16 drive bays. The bays incorporate Lenovo's AnyBay design, which lets the SMB choose the drive interface type, whether SAS, SATA or U.2 NVMe PCIe. The server also comes with six PCIe 3.0 expansion slots, two 1 GbE ports and up to two Nvidia GPU cards.
10. Scan Computers International Ltd. 3XS SER T7X1
This single-processor system is built on the Asus Z11PA-U12 motherboard and supports a range of Xeon processors with up to 192 GB of memory. The number of available drive bays varies and depends on the storage controller the organization selects. The base model includes a 250 GB NVMe solid-state drive, with options to choose a different SSD or HDD. The server also includes four PCIe 3.0 extension slots and two 1 GbE ports but can be upgraded to a network adapter card that provides one or two 10 GbE ports. The Scan Computers server comes with a recovery USB flash drive that includes diagnostic utilities.
Choosing server hardware for small business
The key to selecting a server for an SMB is to find the system that best meets the organization's requirements. This means carefully identifying its needs and then evaluating the available products and the vendors offering them. Any shortcuts to this process are likely to cost more in the long run, something few small businesses can afford to have happen.