The pros and cons of brand-name vs. black-box servers

Are servers from brand-name manufacturers worth the cost, or do generic black-box servers offer more bang for your buck? Users should weigh price, features and support options.

As companies decide whether to purchase a brand-name, higher-cost server or a generic black-box server, cost isn't the only consideration. Performance, management features and vendor support levels may also factor in.

The major server manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM and Dell Inc., offer solid hardware features, including redundant or fault-tolerant RAM, out-of-band management modules and built-in RAID controllers. And these servers come with their manufacturers' reputation for quality and service. But on the other hand, smaller manufacturers put together servers using standard motherboards from SuperMicro or Intel, with standard rackmount chassis, and they deliver servers that support a Windows or a Linux OS at lower prices than larger manufacturers. They may also provide better service, since a relatively small-volume order may be significant, while larger manufacturers have little reason to care about a company that buys only five servers.

But black-box vendors offer most of the features you'd expect from major vendors: N+1 redundant power supplies, multiple-gigabit Ethernet interfaces, out-of-band management and hot-swap drives. Even specialized hardware, like blade servers and 16-core systems supporting 128 GB of RAM, are now available from black-box vendors. While there are some sophisticated features such as fault-tolerant RAM that are not available from most black-box vendors, if you're looking for additional installed hardware such as Fibre Channel host bus adapters or hardware encryption modules, you may find small vendors that an install and configure the hardware for you and at much lower prices than the big guys (if they support the hardware you want at all).

The pluses of brand-name servers

Cost and performance. There's no question that if you're simply looking for maximum bang for your buck, black-box servers are hard to beat. They offer the processor support, maximum RAM, bus speeds and other performance features as brand-name manufacturers. As long as you're looking for a server to run Windows or a version of Linux with extensive driver support, black-box servers have few liabilities. Larger vendors write drivers for their hardware to support specific operating systems and can support a wider variety of software than can small vendors, which depend on the motherboard manufacturers to provide a basic driver set.

Management features. Large manufacturers may provide some management advantages. For instance, HP's Systems Insight Manager offers a management platform that can provide both in-band and out-of-band management of servers, storage systems and network hardware. This enables remote monitoring of hardware for failures, turning servers on or off, modifying BIOS settings remotely and, in general, performing any action with the server from a remote location that you might otherwise have to physically access the server to do. While many black-box servers offer an optional Intelligent Platform Management Interface, or IPMI, these are usually only manageable individually and may require additional hardware and software to work.

The pluses of black-box servers

Support. But in the area of support, black-box servers may have some advantage, particularly for smaller organizations buying from a local vendor. A small local vendor may provide better support than a large one for whom you're a small customer. This is true, however, only in the sense of getting replacement parts and getting systems repaired. Small vendors may not have the resources to revise drivers or other software to solve more complex problems. Of course, larger manufacturers, while they have the resources, may or may not be responsive to the need for updated drivers. If your company has servers installed in multiple locations, you may want a larger vendor with support organizations across the country.

Linux support. Depending on the version of Linux you use, black-box vendors may offer an advantage over major-brand servers in terms of Linux support. Large vendors typically offer only one or two enterprise versions of Linux, such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux or Novell SUSE Enterprise Linux. Generally, smaller vendors are more willing to set up other versions of Linux, including free options such as Ubuntu and Fedora, and to get the necessary hardware drivers installed and running correctly. Midsized vendors such as Pogo Linux and Appro can split the difference between the largest vendors and small black-box vendors, offering expertise in Linux clustering, storage, blade servers and other specialty areas, as well as large support organizations at prices very close to the least expensive black-box vendors.

While experienced administrators may be more comfortable with brand-name servers, black-box servers can provide similar capabilities at as little as half the price of servers from big vendors, along with more responsive service for small customers and a willingness to support less well-known operating systems and additional hardware beyond what's built in.

About the author:
Logan Harbaugh is a freelance reviewer, network systems analyst and consultant, specializing in reviews of network hardware and software, including network operating systems, clustering, load balancing, network-attached storage and storage area networks, traffic simulation, network management and server hardware.

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