New Years Bring New Servers

Many of you have sent messages to my BackOffice mailbag asking about appropriate server hardware for BackOffice Server 2000. This question couldn’t come at a better time. It’s a new year, and your business might have a fresh operating budget with some capital to improve your computing infrastructure. The first, and proper, place to look is your server.

When you look into the future, many of the advanced capabilities in BackOffice Server 2000 will require substantial increases in hardware, especially if you plan to migrate from BackOffice Server 4.5. Consider the requirements for BackOffice Server 4.5:

  • A 200MHz or faster Pentium Pro processor
  • 128MB of RAM
  • 2GB of hard disk space

Contrast that list with Microsoft’s requirements for BackOffice Server 2000:

  • A PC server with a 300MHz or faster Pentium II processor
  • 256MB of RAM
  • 4GB of hard disk space

The differences are significant. BackOffice Server 2000 is based on Windows 2000 Server, which has more overhead than Windows NT does because of Win2K Server's support for Active Directory (AD) and standard DNS. BackOffice Server 2000 uses both of these components and requires that you load them before loading other applications. This approach increases the memory requirement somewhat. In addition, Microsoft’s estimates for minimum requirements are notoriously unrealistic. Often businesses go 20% to 30% above Microsoft’s specification, using performance analyses and benchmarks to select the proper configuration.

Many businesses have desktop computers that are more powerful than the minimum requirements for BackOffice Server 2000. Why invest big bucks in a server when you can simply commission a desktop computer to do the same? Primarily, designers, vendors, and IT people tune servers for specific functions. A file server includes high-performance disks, host adapters, and a powerful network interface—sometimes two. An application server has a sophisticated processor with lots of memory and cache. Desktop computers are good overall workhorses that let users run applications and access their disks equally, so vendors don't optimize one subsystem over another. Also, desktop computers tend to include components that are cheaper and less reliable than a server includes; inferior sound cards, video cards, and power supplies come to mind.

This discussion of servers over desktops begs the question of whether you should build or buy. Each choice has advantages and disadvantages. Often, servers that you buy from major vendors come with technical support, onsite service, and a warranty. These features can be extremely important in an emergency network-down situation if you don’t have time to troubleshoot the problem yourself. However, if you buy the server, you usually don’t have any control over which components are inside, and altering the hardware configuration might render your right to technical support null and void.

Alternatively, building a server yourself can be an attractive option in some situations. The most important advantage is that you control your configuration. You can choose a specific high-performance SCSI adapter or purchase a motherboard with the particular feature you need. Also, it usually costs less to build a server, although you probably won't save more than $200 to $300. Many businesses, however, are wary of putting custom-built servers into the line of fire because of the lack of technical support, onsite service, and an overall warranty. Also, if the server goes down, having the finger of guilt pointed at you isn't a pleasant experience.

With those caveats in mind, I'll spend some time in the next few columns discussing the server end of your network. I'll start with the homegrown server. (I'm building my own server right now, and I've posted all the trials and tribulations I’ve gone through in my online journal. I'll cull that down to relevant portions in this column, but if you’re interested in the thought process that went behind my choices, check out my journal.)

In the next column, I'll walk you through configuring and purchasing BackOffice Server 2000 components. Then in February, I’ll build the server with you. Next, stay tuned for a review of manufacturer-built servers. At this writing, I’m lining up units from Compaq, Dell, and IBM. Last, but not least, Happy New Year!

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