Blast from the past: originally published September 25th 2001.

When I originally conceived of this article, I planned for two classes of server; a budget machine of $1500 and something decent for $3000. After researching the manufacturer’s web sites and comparing packages, it became apparent that an entry model in either price range made too many concessions. Hence the focus of a good all around machine for $3000, with a minimum of two drives, decent RAM and whatever features could be crammed in.

To research the various models and bundles available, I did a strictly Internet fact finding tour of the big manufacturers: Compaq, Dell, Gateway, Hewlett Packard ( HP ) and IBM. To the mix I wanted to spec out a “white box” or clone system that could be had from local computer consultants, who specialize in getting small businesses equipped. After deciding on a $3000 Canadian budget, and recognizing this would be without monitor or operating system, I set out to see what value would befall me. Everyone except HP let me take a base server and add or change components to reach my desired budget; on the HP site I selected a model and then added the price of listed options. All the players listed server hardware without operating system, since it would scare away most buyers. As well the proliferation of Linux as a free alternative allows for companies to focus the entire budget on hardware. Let’s take a look at the chart below and compare.

Let’s run down the various specs provided and see what they do for a SME buyer. This is a broad look at the items listed by the manufacturers, so check out the links for specifics.

Compaq Dell Gateway
Specifications ML330 2500SC 7400
Processor Intel P3 933 MHz Intel P3 933 MHz Intel P3 933 MHz
# Processors / Capacity 1 / 1 1 / 2 1 / 2
Chipset ServerWorks III SLC ServerWorks HE-SL RCC Champion LE 3
PCI: 64 bit / 32 bit / 66 MHz 2 / 4 / 0 3 / 2 / 2 2 / 5 / 0
RAM 128 MB ECC PC133 256 MB ECC PC133 256 MB ECC PC133
RAM Slots / Maximum 4 / 2 GB 6 / 4 GB 4 / 2 GB
1st Hard Drive 9 GB Ultra3 SCSI 10k 9 GB Ultra3 SCSI 10k 9 GB Ultra3 SCSI 7200
2nd Hard Drive 9 GB Ultra3 SCSI 10k 18 GB Ultra3 SCSI 10k 9 GB Ultra3 SCSI 10k
Hot Plug Bays: 1″ / 1.6″ 6 / 0 6 / 4
CD-ROM 40X ATAPI 24X ATAPI 48X ATAPI
Video 4 MB ATI Rage XL 8 MB ATI Rage XL 4 MB ATI Rage XL
Tape
Case 4U Tower 5U Tower* 5U Tower*
Bays: Internal / External 2 / 5 0 / 3 1 / 5
Power Supply: Watts / Fans 250 / 1 Redundant 3 x 300 / 4 Redundant 2 x 350 / ??
SCSI Controller Not Listed AIC 7899 LSI 53C1010
SCSI Type Single Wide Ultra2 Dual Wide Ultra3 Dual Wide Ultra3
SCSI Connections 1 ( 15 drives ) 2 ( 30 drives ) 2 ( 30 drives )
RAID Controller
ATA Controller Onboard Onboard ATA33 onboard
ATA Connections 1 ( 2 drives ) 1 ( 2 drives ) 2 ( 4 drives )
LAN Adapter Compaq NC3163 10/100 Intel Pro/100+ Intel 82559 10/100
Data / Fax Modem Compaq 56k PCI Actiontech 56K PCI 56k
Parallel / Serial / USB 1 / 2 / 2 1 / 2 / 2 1 / 2 / 2
Floppy/Keyboard/Mouse Y / Y / Y Y / Y / Y Y / Y / Y
Server Software Compaq SmartStart Dell OpenManage HP Openview ManageX
Insight Manager XE Dell Diagnostics Gateway ServerManager
Warranty 3 Year / 1 Year On Site 3 Year Next Day On Site 3 Year On site
Online Documentation User Manuals, Updates User Manuals, Updates User Manuals, Updates
Size: H / W / D (Inches) 16.8 / 7.5 / 20.0 18.4 / 10.5 / 24.5 17.4 / 8.6 / 28.8
Price (U.S. / Cdn) 2050 / 3235 2077 / 3080 2089 / 3300
Hewlett Packard IBM White Box
Specifications Netserver e800 xSeries 220 Custom Build
Processor Intel P3 933 MHz Intel P3 933 MHz Intel P3 933 MHz
# Processors / Capacity 1 / 2 1 / 2 2 / 2
Chipset RCC LE Serverworks ServerSet III LE Via Apollo Pro 133A
PCI: 64 bit / 32 bit / 66 MHz 2 / 5 3 / 2 / 0 0 / 5 / 0
RAM 128 MB ECC PC133 256 MB ECC PC133 1024 MB ECC PC133
RAM Slots / Maximum 4 / 2 GB 4 / 2 GB 4 / 2 GB
1st Hard Drive 9 GB Ultra3 SCSI 10k 9 GB Ultra3 SCSI 10k 40 GB ATA100 7200
2nd Hard Drive 18 GB Ultra3 SCSI 10k 18 GB Ultra3 SCSI 10k 3x 40 GB ATA100 7200
Hot Plug Bays: 1″ / 1.6″
CD-ROM 40X ATAPI 48X ATAPI 16X DVD ATAPI
Video 4 MB Integrated 8 MB S3 Savage4 LT 4 MB ATI Rage XL
Tape
Case Tower 4U Tower* Tower
Bays: Internal / External 3 / 4 3 / 4 4 / 6
Power Supply: Watts / Fans 300 / 1 330 / 3 400 / 4
SCSI Controller Symbios AHA-7892
SCSI Type Dual Wide Ultra3 Single Wide Ultra3
SCSI Connections 2 ( 30 drives ) 1 ( 15 drives )
RAID Controller Promise FastTrak100
ATA Controller Onboard ATA33 onboard ATA100 onboard
ATA Connections 2 ( 4 drives ) 1 ( 2 drives ) 2 ( 4 drives )
LAN Adapter Intel 82559 10/100 Intel 82559 10/100 2x Intel 82559 10/100
Data / Fax Modem 56k PCI Creative 56k PCI
Parallel / Serial / USB 1 / 2 / 2 1 / 2 / 2 1 / 2 / 4
Floppy/Keyboard/Mouse Y / Y / Y Y / Y / Y Y / Y / Y
Server Software HP Netserver Navigator IBM Director Intel LanDesk
HP Toptools for Servers IBM ServerGuide Server Manager
HP Remote Assistant
Warranty 3 Year On Site 3 Year Parts / 1 Year On Site 1 Year
Online Documentation User Manuals, Updates Manuals, Updates Manuals, Updates
Size: H / W / D (Inches) 17 / 7.1 / 19.5 18.5 / 6.5 / 20.0 20.6 / 8.1 / 18.6
Price (U.S. / Cdn) 2040 / 3220 1976 / 3120 1970 / 3100

While all the machines come with one processor, most allow for a second to be installed. Will this double CPU performance? Unfortunately the answer is no. To take advantage of the second processor, the operating system and applications must be multi-threaded, allowing tasks to be split amongst available CPUs. A second processor should give upwards of a 20% improvement; all server operating systems take advantage of multi-processor configurations.

The chipset is the heart and soul of the system; highly under appreciated but critical. It allows for communication amongst the various parts and defines what the system is capable of. ServerWorks is the leading manufacturer of server chipsets, thus it’s inclusion in all systems.

PCI ( peripheral component interface ) comes in various flavours, which only show up in server or workstation class machines. The basic 32 bit 33 MHz PCI slots we’re used to from desktop machines have a peak transfer of 132 MB / second. 64 bit 33 MHz PCI slots peak at 264 MB / second and 64 bit 66 MHz PCI slots at 528 MB / second. While it may seem like overkill, once you get a few Affiliate Network adapters and a RAID controller going, your available PCI bandwidth is rapidly filled.

RAM is the lifeblood of a server. More is always better, and servers use ECC ( error correcting code ) RAM. Looking at the number of slots, available slots and maximum amount gives a good of how big you can go. RAM is at an all time low price right now, so be sure to bulk up. Looking at the prices the big boys charge for upgrades, you’re better off ordering and installing it yourself.

Hard drive space is the next big item for servers, mostly for file and application serving. SCSI is the defacto choice for this market, as a SCSI controller can handle transactions from all devices simultaneously. These systems ship with a boot drive and additional storage drives. This is where “hot pluggable” and “hot swappable” come into play. For externally accessible storage, the server has removable hard drive modules. These modules contain a hard drive and connect to a SCSI backplane, which in turn is connected to a SCSI controller. Hot pluggable drives can be removed from the system while it’s running and replaced, but won’t be recognized until the system is rebooted. Hot swappable drives can be removed and replaced while the system is running, and will be accessible immediately without rebooting. Unfortunately hot swappable drives must be connected to a RAID controller, which is an option on all servers but not standard in this price range.

All systems ship with a CD-ROM, for installing software and drivers. On a server it doesn’t get much use, and interestingly all manufacturers chose to save some money and use IDE CD-ROM drives.

Video is handled by an onboard chip with minimal RAM. For a server, it’s only handling 2D graphics and basic video tasks. No manufacturer includes a monitor in the price; they assume you’ll be using a KVM switch or pick up a cheap 15” monitor on your own.

I included a tape category even though no manufacturer ships one at this price point. Backup is a key component of any business, unfortunately a tape backup of decent size will cost the same as the server.

The case holds everything, and a server case has to allow for easy access and swappable components. All cases in this roundup are tower models, most allow rack mounting via an extra kit. The “U” rating indicates the amount of rack space the case will take, and is derived from the spaces between screw holes. Bays indicate the total number of 3.5” and 5.25” drive bays externally and internally usable.

To run everything in the case you need a quality power supply. Since servers generally operate nonstop, manufacturers include redundant power supplies. Two or three power supplies are connected, and if one fails the other takes over. With a three unit design, the failed power supply can be removed and replaced since the other two are operating as main and backup. High quality is a must, and 300 watts is a minimum for the multiple processors, drives and controllers you may be operating. Cooling is also an important concern, concentrating on the processors and drive bays. Most servers have removable fans to cool key components and direct airflow in the chassis.

Storage connections are key, and all servers utilize both SCSI and ATA interfaces. Each SCSI controller can operate between 7 and 15 devices, while ATA controllers operate 2 devices. SCSI comes in a variety of interfaces and speeds, but the most common are Ultra2 ( 80 MB/s ) and Ultra3 ( 160 MB/s ). ATA controllers operate between ATA33 ( 33 MB/s ) and ATA100 ( 100 MB/s). This determines the number and type of storage devices within your server.

External connections via ports, Ethernet and modem are necessary and a basic component of any server. Most manufacturers include one Ethernet adapter for LAN connections, and a modem is always a good idea for remote diagnostics or failsafe internet access.

Server management software is critical to any small to medium enterprise. It monitors the system and alerts you to any hardware problems so immediate action can be taken. Most vendors have their own software, and cover the gambit of features.

Last but not least, look at the warranty offered. Will you need immediate service, or will next day suffice? Replacement of failed components, telephone support and onsite technicians all effect the cost of the warranty, so choose your options carefully.

We’ve looked at the specifications of the machines offered from the “big five”, and a general run down of what does what. Let’s talk specifics regarding pros and cons.

Some basics befall all the big players and form a common platform. All use a motherboard based on a ServerWorks chipset. The Compaq, Gateway, HP and IBM list three different names on their sites for the chipset, but some digging around revealed they’re all using the ServerWorks ServerSet III LE. Dell used the next model up, the ServerSet III HE model. All servers use onboard SCSI, LAN and video; this keeps costs down and allows for less clutter in the system. For the price range, all came with Intel Pentium III 933 MHz processors; ServerWorks chipsets only support Intel processors. As well they all came with a 9 GB non swappable OS or base drive and an ATAPI CD-ROM. The days of SCSI only are behind us.

After that they begin to diverge. For that kind of money I expected a hot swap bay to be included; unfortunately only Dell and Gateway complied. With RAM pricing so cheap, I expected to see 512 MB for peanuts; on average an extra 128 MB of RAM costs $120 from these big name companies.

The servers from Compaq and HP represent the lease amount of computer for the money. Both are small tower cases with limited upgrade ability and only 128 MB of RAM. Following on their heels is the IBM machine; a step up, but no leap from the bottom wrung. Second choice falls to Gateway; they use common OEM parts ( an Asus motherboard and CasEdge housing ) and put it all together for a very aggressive price. Top pick for the $3000 SME server goes to Dell with the 2500SC. Hot swap drives and the ServerWorks HE-SL chipset give this machine room to grow. Throw in redundant power supplies and a great case to come up with a solid winner.