Choosing The Right Server

How to choose the right server for your needs: We'll take you through some of the key factors to consider before you buy.

November 23, 2003

9 Min Read
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Servers form the very core of any technology infrastructure. We'll take you through some of the key factors to consider before you buy.

Once upon a time, when servers had all of the brains (mainframes) and user workstations were dumb (terminals), servers had all of the glory. Then, along came the PC revolution and the whole client-server paradigm of distributed computing power turned the computing world on its head. Servers just weren't sexy anymore. Rather, it was pushing more computing power out to the workstation that held most people's interest.

But now the pendulum has swung back in the other direction. While workstations continue to advance in terms of power and capability, the rise of the Web and the browser-based thin-client interface has put renewed focus on having powerful, reliable, centralized servers to do most of the heavy lifting. There's even been a resurgence of interest in modern versions of centralized mainframe-like systems, for reasons of capability, scalability, and perhaps most of all, ease of system administration and management. It's much easier to upgrade, apply security patches, or control software licensing and distribution when you can do it all from a single place.

If you're like most school districts, you probably have a mix of server technology from many different periods of time, and may be confused by all of the current choices. Unix or Windows? What about Linux? How do the new OS X Macs fit in? At Fairfax County Public Schools, we tried to find answers to these questions in a quest to replace our aging Web infrastructure with new hardware capable of serving several millions of hits per day. In the end, we purchased a number of Sun 280 R dual-processor servers " but only after doing a lot of homework (for a detailed account, visit www.techlearning.com/db_area/archives/TL/200109/weaving.html). Here, we help you do yours by providing a brief overview of the world of servers, as well as buying tips and tools.

Sun SolarisSolid and reliable, Sun servers powered much of the Internet explosion in the 1990s. Running Solaris, a Sun-tailored variety of Unix, Sun servers have a well-deserved reputation for being rock solid for just about anything you can throw at them. The system stability and average uptime (time between reboots) is generally very high. Sun servers generally require trained system administrators, but once a server is properly configured and running, it tends to run with a minimum of necessary maintenance and upkeep. That said, Sun servers do have higher up-front costs. For example, workgroup-sized servers from Sun are generally twice the initial purchase cost as workgroup-sized servers from, say, Dell. However, the cost of long-term upkeep " especially given that Sun servers have a high level of scalability (which often means a long time between having to upgrade or replace equipment) and require fewer staff to support them " usually gives Sun servers a lower total cost of ownership.

Vendors: Sun (www.sun.com). If you want a Sun server, there's only one place to go " to Sun or one of its resellers. In recent years Sun has made a concerted push into the K-12 marketplace, and has frequently made aggressive price cuts for K-12 institutions.

Once the low-cost price leader, servers based on Microsoft Windows have taken some real heat lately from Linux and other competitors, but are still the mainstay of many small- to medium-sized organizations. Your support staff is likely to feel comfortable with the familiar graphical user interface-based tools of the Windows servers. In addition, today's Windows server operating systems are more stable and capable than past iterations. However, frequent and persistent security woes have plagued Windows operating systems and products (such as the IIS Web server) over the past several years. The almost continuous need to patch, upgrade, and repair Windows servers, as well as recover from hack attacks and intrusions, has put a dent in Windows' reputation as being the easiest kind of server to manage, administer, and maintain. Windows system administrators tend to be plentiful and less expensive than Unix administrators, although be careful " good Windows administrators are just as tough to find as good Unix staff. You can pay up front, or you can really pay later, and there's absolutely no substitute for good technical staff.

Windows servers, while rarely the performance leaders, have historically been a good value for schools. Now they find themselves challenged on price by lower-cost, higher-performance Linux servers, and on ease of use and administration by Apple's XServe line. The biggest hidden danger with Windows-based servers is inadvertently getting locked into the many Windows-only, proprietary technologies and products that are easy to start using but difficult or impossible to change down the line when needed. The bottom line is that Windows servers are generally not the cheapest option currently, nor the easiest to use and maintain, nor the highest-performance, but they may still hit the "sweet spot" for many schools, depending on their needs.

Vendors: Dell (www.dell.com/us/en/k12), Hewlett-Packard (gem.compaq.com/gemstore), Gateway (www.gateway.com/work/products/ed_srv_catalog.shtml), and many others.

LinuxThere's been a lot of press about the Linux Operating System in recent months, and for good reason. Linux, a Unix-based operating system, is arguably the most visible and successful of the open source software projects, developed by no one company, but rather by an army of mostly volunteer programmers who tend to be motivated more by pride in their work than financial compensation. This model is a genuinely new paradigm in software development. In the past, the key weakness of Linux had been that you had to be a serious Linux geek to install and maintain it " support was on a strictly self-serve basis. That all began to change when dedicated Linux distribution and support companies like Red Hat were formed, and well-established companies like IBM, noting which way the wind was blowing (and the potential to make a lot of money in support offerings), began to make Linux a cornerstone of their strategy.Today, Linux is exploding in popularity on the server side, and countless server software packages are available on Linux. In some ways, Linux offers the best of both worlds " you get the stability and standards-based approach of Unix, along with the ability to run on cheap, commodity hardware from traditional PC vendors. Support is still an issue, as system administration for Linux servers is not as simple or GUI-based as that on Windows or Apple OS X servers. A Linux administrator needs the same skills as a Windows administrator, including knowing how to set up and configure the server, install the operating system, create and administer users, and deal with security issues. If you've got the staff to support it (or some who are willing to learn), Linux can't be beat for the price/performance ratio.

Vendors: Dell (www.dell.com/us/en/k12), Hewlett-Packard (www.hp.com/wwsolutions/linux/index.html), IBM (www-1.ibm.com/linux), and many others.

Historically, Apple has had easy-to-use workstations but not much to offer, performance-wise, in the server arena. That has all changed with the release of OS X and the XServe line of rack-mountable servers (see glossary). Running the Unix-based OS X, the servers offer a potentially winning combination of solid Unix underpinnings; excellent interoperability with Windows, Macintosh, and Unix workstations, servers, and network infrastructures; and perhaps the most easily usable and configurable system administration tools available. For file and print services, XServe should hold its own against offerings from Sun, Dell, Compaq, and others, and OS X is an excellent desktop and server operating system. Smaller districts that have limited support resources may find the XServe to be a particularly good fit for their needs, requiring a minimum of staff. If you have a significant number of Macintosh workstations, XServe's support for Mac as well as PC clients is unparalleled.

Vendors: Apple (www.apple.com). Apple's OS X-based products are available only from Apple and resellers. The initial purchase price will likely be moderately higher than Windows or Linux-based servers, although some Apple server add-ons, such as the XServe RAID storage array, are an extremely good value from any perspective, and will work with any server you choose.

Of course, the actual server you buy is only part of a complete and capable IT infrastructure. As important as what servers you select are the many other components that make up your enterprise architecture " desktops and terminals, cabling, switches and routers, data backup procedures and devices, firewalls, uninterruptible and backup power supplies, disaster recovery plans, and so on. Many smaller schools get by with a minimal infrastructure, while some larger districts have a data center rivaling what you'd find at a Fortune 500 company. Other schools outsource their hosting to a hosting provider, which can provide a cost-effective alternative to having to buy and maintain your own computing infrastructure.

Bottom line, the servers you select have to meet your particular needs, and don't let any vendor tell you that its offerings are "one size fits all." Among your considerations should be the short- and long-term costs of upkeep, including an on-site repair and maintenance package for at least your most important equipment (if not, don't depend on your servers " they will fail, and at the worst possible time). Also include the real costs of maintaining your in-house support staff, both salaries and ongoing training, in your IT budget. At some large schools, the costs of patching and doing frequent security fixes on servers can run into the millions, and staff will need access to training for whatever new technologies you bring in.Finally, applications can largely drive your choice of servers. If you need server-side applications that run only on Windows, your operating system choice (at least for those particular servers) is made for you.

If what you need on the server is heavy-duty Oracle database services, it's likely that you'll be running Unix for reasons of performance and stability. If you need to offer basic print, file sharing, and network services, any of the types of servers we've covered here will do it for you, at differing levels of cost, complexity, performance, expandability, and stability. Take a look at our included decision tree, which may help you down the road to server nirvana.

Even More OptionsWhile this article covers common server operating systems you might encounter when contemplating a new server purchase, there are a number of other choices for educational environments. They include varieties of Unix, both vendorspecific (IBM AIX, Hewlett-Packard HP-UX, etc.), and non-vendor-specific, such as FreeBSD. Novell NetWare is another choice for running on Intel hardware, and Apple's previous operating systems, particularly OS 9, are still found in many schools. In addition, there are less common options: IBM OS/2, IRIX, and even minicomputers and mainframes, such as AS/400 and OS/390 machines.

Richard Hoffman former Web technologies coordinator for Fairfax County Public Schools Division of Information Technology, is an educational consultant based in New Hampshire.

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