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Microservers carve out niche in data centers

Energy-efficient petite server systems can be a cost-effective solution for basic tasks or hyper-scaling applications in an enterprise data center.

While rack and blade servers dominate the data center landscape, you shouldn’t overlook the advantages of a microserver in enterprise environments. Microservers are undeniably lean on computing resources, but there are situations where a low-end server may be the most cost-effective solution.

Sizing up the microserver
The way microservers are marketed may be the main reason they have been neglected by enterprise customers. Manufacturers typically present microservers as a solution for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that need a server but aren’t ready to invest in rack servers or blades.

With prices starting under $400, it is easy to assume microservers have no place in the data center. But microservers are more than just a device that fills the gap between PCs and servers. Manufacturers typically provision microservers with server-grade components, albeit low-end ones.

For example, most of the servers in the Hewlett-Packard Proliant MicroServer Series have a dual-core AMD Turion CPU that operates at 1.5 GHz. These servers are designed to be quiet (22db) and energy efficient with a 150 W power supply. Even so, these systems offer server-grade features such as Error Checking and Correction (ECC) memory and a built-in RAID controller with support for up to four SATA drives designed for 3.5-inch large form factor (LFF) bays.

The HP Proliant MicroServer series servers cost between $349 and $899, depending on the amount of memory that is installed — the maximum is 8 GB — and whether the server comes preloaded with Microsoft’s Small Business Server 2011 Essentials.

While HP markets the Proliant MicroServer to SMBs, Dell wants to carve out a place for their microservers in the data center. The Dell PowerEdge C5125 features a quad-core AMD Phenom II processor and 16 GB of RAM, offering a greater range of capabilities than its HP counterpart.

What sets the PowerEdge C5125 apart from other microservers is its form factor. While the HP Proliant MicroServer series servers have a mini tower form factor, Dell’s microservers have more in common with blade servers. The PowerEdge C5125 is designed to be mounted in a 3U rackmount chassis. The chassis features a 1,400 W dual hot-plug power supply and can accommodate up to 12 microserver modules.

Other members of the Dell C series include the C5220 and the C6145. Pricing and options on C-series servers vary depending on options and the number of server modules included.

Putting microservers to work
Microservers are not as powerful as traditional server models, but they are suited for small or temporary jobs without provisioning resources from contemporary high-end servers.

Almost every rack server and blade server today comes equipped with eight or more CPU cores. Having all of those cores is tremendously important if the server is to be used as a virtualization host or if it will be running a high-demand application. There are some server roles — such as Web servers — that do not benefit from a multitude of CPU cores. Micro servers can be virtualized — many are to support live migration, snapshots and other benefits of virtualization — but there is little advantage to hosting multiple VMs on a single petite server.

Dell’s Data Center Solutions Group recently worked with, a large hosting company, to build a data center with Dell microservers. Each microserver has a single CPU and runs a single app. The low price point and small form factor of the Dell microservers lends itself to these types of large-scale deployments. Microservers are also ideal when the server is essentially acting as an appliance.

Microservers could be beneficial in the enterprise in short-term projects. For example, many insurance companies deploy additional infrastructure servers and application servers during open enrollment periods. Given the nature of such deployments, such organizations often opt to provision virtual servers. When you compare the cost of deploying single-purpose microservers to the cost of creating virtual servers on expensive enterprise-grade servers, it may be more cost-effective to use microservers.

Managing microservers
Although there are roles for which microservers are well suited, administrators would be wise to consider manageability prior to any deployment decision. Typically enterprise-grade servers offer hardware-level management based on the Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI) standard. Enterprise-grade servers can also be managed at the software level using a utility such as Dell’s OpenManage or HP’s System Insight Manager.

Granular control and systems manageability are not always possible with microservers, and existing data center management tools may not be fully compatible with emerging microservers. As an example, the Dell C5220 provides an embedded baseboard management controller (BMC) with IPMI 2.0 support through a single dedicated Ethernet port. However, it’s still important to discuss a microserver’s management capabilities with the vendor and test the system thoroughly to ensure it will integrate with your existing management framework.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Brien Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP with two decades of IT experience. During that time, Posey published thousands of articles and wrote or contributed to dozens of IT books. Prior to becoming a freelance writer, Posey served as chief information officer for a national chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities. He also worked as a network administrator for some of the nation’s largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox.

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