How to choose a 2U rack server

Don’t put up with old, energy-chewing, space-hungry servers

A cloud server concept

It isn't quite as catchy as the quote from Harold Macmillan, but SMEs looking for their first purpose-built server or an upgrade for aging systems have never had it so good. Intel's extended family of Xeon Scalable processors gives them the biggest ever choice, allowing systems to be tailored precisely to current and future workloads.

Big-name vendors like Broadberry Data Systems, Dell EMC, Fujitsu and Lenovo all offer 2U rack servers featuring these processors, and the general consensus among vendors is that the 2U form factor offers SMEs the best combination of processing power, storage capacity and expandability.

Along with a huge choice of processors, space-constrained SMEs will find these rack servers an ideal solution. Offices are expensive to rent and these systems pack a remarkable amount of processing power into the smallest of spaces, allowing businesses to save cash by consolidating services onto fewer servers.

Heavy metal

The Xeon Scalable CPU family consists of over 50 models grouped into four metal designations - Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. The ones of most interest to small businesses with light to moderate workloads are the Bronze, Silver and possibly some of the more affordable Gold models.

The Bronze family comprises the 6-core 3104 and 8-core 3106 with both running at 1.7GHz and supporting up to 768GB of 2,133MHz DDR4 memory. They support single (1P) and dual (2P) socket servers, but lack Hyper-Threading (HT) and Turbo-Boost capabilities.

The five Silver models range from 4 to 12 cores, offer speeds from 1.8GHz to 2.6GHz and up memory speed to 2,400MHz. Support for HT and Turbo-Boost plus a higher core count and speed makes them better suited to heavier workloads than the Bronzes.

The Gold family is split into the 5100 and 6100 groups where all support 1P, 2P and 4P servers. The main differences are the 5100s have a 2,400MHz memory speed whereas the 6100s top out at the maximum 2,667MHz and have a third UPI (Ultra Path Interconnect) - a high-speed mesh architecture in all Xeon Scalable CPUs that replaces the older QPI.

Thermal concerns

When choosing your Xeon Scalable rack servers, check for any chassis thermal restrictions in TDP as these may reduce your processor choices. This won't be a problem for Bronze and Silver models as they all have a low 85W TDP but anything above a 125W TDP may not be supported due to cooling issues.

With such a huge choice to hand it's easy to get carried away - but curb your enthusiasm, as the higher-end models are expensive. For example, a Bronze 3104 costs around 250 whereas a 16-core Gold 6130 could cost you over six times as much.

A huge bonus of the Xeon Scalable CPUs is they all use the same massive LGA 3647 socket, making on-demand upgrades a cinch. If you think your Bronze CPU is running out of steam, you can simply replace it with a faster, more core-heavy Silver or Gold model.

This does beg the question as to whether Intel's E3-1200 entry-level server CPUs are still a wise investment. They are a much cheaper alternative for small businesses but only support 1P servers plus up to 64GB of DDR4 memory and can't match the huge upgrade potential of Xeon Scalable systems.

Storage decisions

Most servers will be expected to run for years, so it pays to make sure yours are geared up to handle increased workloads in the future. Storage capacity is particularly important and it's worth buying more than you currently need to avoid costly upgrades and downtime later on.

SATA drives offer the best price-to-capacity ratio with large form factor (LFF) models currently scaling up to a mighty 12TB. For greater storage performance, consider Nearline SAS (NL-SAS) or SAS drives - but these will be more expensive and also require a SAS controller or suitable RAID card to support them.

Many blue chips charge a premium for their hard disks and may lock you in with strict warranty terms. However, vendors such as Broadberry Data Systems have no such conditions and expressly allow you to choose and fit your own hard disks without invalidating the warranty

Servers will be storing business-critical data, so it's essential you specify RAID as this is your first line of defence against a disk failure. Most servers have RAID embedded on the motherboard but check that it offers a minimum of RAID1 mirrored and RAID5 parity arrays as some only support stripes and mirrors.

RAID1 is fine for protecting two drives but RAID5 is more versatile as you can start with three drives and easily add more to the array when you want to increase capacity. RAID6 protects against two simultaneous drive failures but it's expensive in terms of lost storage space and some vendors only offer this as a paid-for upgrade.

Backup and manage

Along with RAID, you must implement a business backup strategy to ensure the critical data and applications on your new servers are protected from a system failure or disaster. There are a huge range of products to choose from so check out our list of the best backup software around, as well as the best NAS hardware to use it with.

Remote monitoring and management are also very important as you'll want to know the health of your servers no matter where you are. Most vendors are becoming increasingly aware of how important this is and have radically redesigned their offerings with improved web consoles capable of delivering a wealth of information.

For greater security, look for servers that offer a dedicated management port so you can separate this traffic from general data services. Full OS remote control is also a valuable feature but bear in mind some vendors only provide this as an optional, chargeable upgrade.

The latest Xeon Scalable servers offer SMEs the biggest choice ever and the current crop of systems provide a wide range of processing power, expandability and features to suit all budgets and workloads. If you're looking for some new hardware to boost your business, there's never been a better time to invest.

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