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FEATURE Servers

FEATURE Servers

To serve and protect

Selecting a server to supply to the SME market will depend on the existing focus at your shop. If you are an independent sort of reseller or systems integrator, or even if you are traditionally focused on one or two brands, it won't hurt to know what the opposition might be offering your customers. You may even decide to add another vendor to your armoury. Ian Yates weighs the optionsIf you are a Compaq-only shop, you'll be choosing one from the Prosignia or Proliant range and that is the end of it. Similarly, if you are an HP specialist, you probably won't look beyond the NetServer range. If your reseller arrangements are already solidly locked into one or more vendors, then you probably don't need me to tell you about the range on offer or which ones are best suited to particular customers' needs.

The first thing that struck me when poring over the specifications of the servers targeted at the SME market by nearly all the vendors, was the dismal standard offering of only 32MB RAM. Sure, that might be enough to get a basic NetWare server going, as long as you don't ask it to do too much other than handle file and print duty. Typically SME customers want more than this nowadays, including Internet access and Web hosting, as well as server-based faxing and perhaps dial-in solutions for their roaming staff. With only 32MB of memory, none of these servers will even load Windows NT without a serious amount of disk thrashing.

I presume the vendors are trying to keep the advertised price down by offering such a low amount of memory, but realistically, you and I both know that you need 128MB in an NT server, and NT seems to be the flavour of the moment for the SME market. That means you're going to have to open the server before it gets to the customer just to give it enough memory. Let's hope that the vendor is shipping with 32MB DIMMs or else you'll have to pull out the pair of 16MB DIMMs just to fit 128MB into the (usually) four memory slots available. You could end up with a lot of surplus DIMMS if you're not careful.

Most of the vendors now offer a 4GB ultra-wide SCSI hard drive as standard issue in their base servers, which is quite reasonable for an SME to get started. However, very few offer affordable RAID solutions, for which there is no longer any excuse. In case you've been working too hard to read ARN lately, let me remind you of the newish range of RAID controllers from Adaptec. Starting with a single channel and going up to a triple channel model, these controllers have everything you've come to expect from Adaptec - they are easy to install, work first time and have all the drivers you need to make a system work with NetWare, NT or Unix. They plug right into a PCI slot and come with a pair of cables to allow you to drive up to four hard disks. If you want or need more disks, Adaptec offers a variety of optional cables to make it happen.

The controllers come with a boot floppy that lets you do a one-time configuration of the array, after which you use the provided online utility to manage the drives, if you ever need to do that. Being plugged into the PCI bus gives the controller a good turn of speed and the on-board CPU means that your server is not doing any extra work to support the RAID system. You could add one of these gadgets to a stock server for around $700 ex tax. Throw in two more 4GB drives to match the one delivered with the server, for an extra $800 ex tax, and you have a server that will keep an SME customer happy for many years. It will keep you happy too, since you won't be getting needless support calls every time a hard disk has a flutter. If there is a disk crash, you'll be able to go on-site at your leisure rather than in a mad panic with the customer screaming at you about the lost wages of his idle staff. RAID is good for your business.

While you're choosing servers, try and convince the customer to take delivery of a dual Pentium II model. The incremental cost of a dual-capable server is not too bad now, and the ability to add grunt later will make you very popular when the server reaches the limit. This option will also give you some protection against the customer who doesn't really know how much horsepower they're going to need. Even if you think you've analysed their requirements, there's nothing stopping them buying the latest whizz-bang database from someplace else, and you just know it will be all your fault when the server under-performs. It's much easier to fix if there's a spare CPU slot waiting to be filled.

Then again, if you have a really good sales team, you might be able to just forklift in a new server. Good luck.

Tailoring solutions

If you have discovered that your servers are never the same between one customer order and the next, welcome to the club. Build-to-order is becoming the name of the game in server-land. All the major vendors are either offering it now, or are promising it soon. Once you get into serious build-to-order mode, you might start thinking about supplying non-brand servers - clones. Shock horror! It certainly used to be the case that clones were a very dubious choice for a server. But that was in the days when every clone was randomly different internally from every other clone.

These days the marketplace has settled down to about three main suppliers of motherboards, namely ASUS, Gigabyte and Intel.

You'd be hard pressed to argue that a board from Intel was junk. You'll find its boards at the heart of quite a few servers from large name vendors.

That means you really only need to find an enclosure that won't embarrass your reputation and you can do your own build-to-order. If you stick with brand-names in the components you choose to roll-your-own server, you should find that you can provide a solution for those SME customers who just won't or can't afford a "real" server.

To give a broader overview, here is what is currently on offer from the major server vendors. Contact the vendors for pricing on specific server configurations.

Apple

If your customer has a predominance of Apple Macintosh PCs, don't confuse them with NT or NetWare. Remind them that Apple makes a fine server that works the same way as their familiar Macs. If they can use a Mac, they can manage an Apple server.

Running AppleShare on top of the standard Mac OS, the G3-based ser- vers look and feel like a standard Mac but are tuned to the needs of file and print handling.

The Macintosh Server G3 builds on the Power Macintosh G3 line by adding capabilities designed to enhance workgroup efficiency, such as high-capacity storage and collaboration, productivity, and reliability software.

The Macintosh Server G3 offers 233, 266 or 300MHz PowerPC G3 processor. A new approach to cache memory called backside cache enables the Macintosh Server G3 to provide better server performance, and it also features a new logic board design with a faster system bus.

The Macintosh Server G3 comes configured with AppleShare IP 5.0, and also includes the Apple Network Administrator Toolkit, SoftRAID, and other server- specific software.

Compaq

the acknowledged king of the PC server market, offers the Prosignia 200 to first-time buyers. This baby server is boring, with its main redeeming feature being that it just refuses to stop. There are users out there who have had Prosignias for five years or more and don't know the meaning of downtime. For workgroups, Compaq offers the Proliant 800 or 1200. I can't see why you'd opt for the 800 when the 1200 is much more likely to grow with your business. Still, if your budget is blown, every dollar saved helps. At the next level, there is the Proliant 3000 and there's still a few servers left in its armoury that are even more powerful. If you want real grunt and have plenty of cash, Compaq will build you a monster.

Dell

Dell will be offering the PowerEdge 2200 to your customers via its online stores. You have to hope that your prospects aren't brave enough to buy their own server. If they do, this is where they're likely to go.

The PowerEdge 2300 is Dell's offering for workgroups, and it goes a bit faster and has more RAM to start with. For departments, it's the PowerEdge 4200 which is a real server with RAID and redundant power options as well as being "rackable". Seriously though, do end users really buy one of these things off the Web and install it themselves? Probably the same people who build their own drag-racing Mack trucks.

Digital

Digital, the vendor that got swallowed by Compaq, offers the imaginatively named Digital Server 500 for newbies. These won't be around long, but with any luck the seriously good service that comes with them will transfer to the new owner. Moving up to the workgroup, the marketing team went into overdrive and came up with Digital Server 1000. Regardless of the dull name, this is a good mid-level server with room to grow and storage to spare. Up in departmental-land you can have the Digital Server 5000, which, staggeringly, seems to ship with 32MB standard. Perhaps at this level they know you'll be ordering lots of RAM so they don't think it matters what is there in the base unit. Otherwise this is a real server with RAID and other options to lust for.

Gateway

Gateway is another dealer-dodging vendor, but it does use the channel at the server end of its range, if asked nicely. Gateway's idea of R&D is similar to your idea of cash & carry. Need a server range? It acquired Advanced Logic Research. It is offering the ALR 7000 series for your very first server experience and its Web site lets you pick and choose the options and see the price on the spot. This site is worth a visit just so you can see how far behind you are in the online game. In the workgroup space it suggests the ALR 8000 which has redundant power supplies as standard issue, and lots of room inside for extra disks. Next level up is the ALR 9000 which looks to be using old technology in the shape of 200MHz Pentium Pros, until you realise that it can take six of them. RAID is standard with this machine, as is redundant power.

Hewlett-Packard

HP, the printer king, wouldn't mind being king of the servers as well, and it offers the NetServer E50 to entice new players to the fold. Not enough RAM but no worse than the others at the entry level, and priced to take it to the leaders and start a war of attrition. For departments, the NetServer LC3 is suggested with one or two speedy Pentium II CPUs, and up to 64GB of internal disk storage. The NetServer LH 3 is suited to the departmental category, but it is not the end of HP's range. The stratosphere, and your wallet, are the limit. At the LC3 level you get RAID and redundant power as standard issue. You also get ECC RAM, but these days you can buy that on a DIMM card and have ECC in almost anything.

IBM

To start you off in the true-blue camp, IBM offers the IBM PC server 330. Obviously at the entry level, no money was wasted on snappy-sounding names.

However, it does come with 64MB RAM which means NT will at least load up, and you can add a second CPU later. This is what entry level is supposed to be. In the workgroup space the marketing team was allowed a share of the funding and came up with Netfinity 3500. I like it. It sounds like a server, and it is, but the base RAM is too low so you'll have to offer extra memory as the first upgrade, before you even deliver it. The Netfinity 5500 also sounds like a real server and is targeted at departments or medium-sized businesses. This one ships with 128MB RAM so you won't need to upgrade the memory until NT 5.0 ships.

NEC

NEC IS at the end of this list by virtue of the alphabet, but it is probably at the end of any list of server vendors, due to its stealth marketing approach. That seems to have changed recently and it is offering a series of servers that are all called Express 5800. The entry level adds 110/ProS after the name, and is comparable to the other machines mentioned above. Moving up to workgroup server category, NEC offers the 130/ProS, which suddenly changes the game. This server stands out with dual-CPU support, enough RAM to get past the POST, and RAID as a standard fitting. Moving up to its departmental server offering, you still only get 64MB RAM in the base box, but you can now have up to four CPUs and a whopping 216GB inside the server. Like the Gateway server, this one is based around a Pentium Pro, until someone works out how to fit more than two of an Intel slot-1 package inside any box smaller than a boardroom.

Entry level servers

This category is suitable for customers buying "their very first server". The emphasis here is on affordability rather than performance, with most vendors shipping product inadequate for almost anything as the base model. To get you really excited, quite a few quote server prices without hard disk, to make them sound even cheaper. If computer vendors move into the motor car business we'll get some really weird special offers.

"Push away, no more to pay" might be a new catchphrase.

Workgroup servers

The vendors all seem to think in terms of selling servers to Fortune 500 companies, so their marketing is based around what makes sense to those customers. This is what I'd call a small business server. Big enough to handle 20 users at a pinch, and also able to host the Web site and e-mail repository. In this space, most vendors are offering 64MB as standard, since having the lowest price here is not seen as directly relating to quality.

Departmental servers

Following through with the Fortune 500 mantra, vendors are starting to offer serious horsepower in this category. Suitable for medium-sized business with real data needs, such as warehousing and big fat online catalogues. These servers are also big physically and many are available in a rack-mount case for those who take their servers seriously. Some vendors had reached their last model on offer by the time I reached this category, but they were still in the price bracket set by the leaders.

Apple

Tel 1300 300 610

Fax 1300 300 561

Compaq

Tel (02) 9911 1999

Fax (02) 9911 1888

Dell

Tel 1800 808 312

Fax 1800 818 341

Digital

Tel 1300 362 525

Fax (02) 8875 0596

Gateway

Tel 1800 500 338

Fax (02) 9641 2694

Hewlett-Packard

Tel 13 1347

Fax (03) 9272 2898

IBM

Tel (02) 9407 9062

Fax (02) 9354 4261

NEC

Tel 13 1632

Fax 1800 802 276


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