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Four entry level servers for businesses on a budget

Four entry level servers for businesses on a budget

Small businesses need server solutions optimized for their needs. Most often, small organizations start out by running a desktop machine as the "server", but as your business grows, this sort of jerry-rigged solution cannot hold up. This is when you need to start looking at a dedicated server. We tested four entry-level servers from IBM, Wipro, and Acer. These machines are meant to run 24x7, and are designed to hold up to the rigors of a work day. With all four costing less than Rs. 50,000 (US$1,184), a small business can buy a couple of these without causing too much damage to the annual budget.

The difference between these servers and an assembled machine goes deeper than just the build quality or superior features. The biggest factor is support. When you buy a machine from Wipro, IBM or Acer, you expect a certain level of support that your neighborhood assembler cannot provide. All these brands have specialized support lines for their server operations, and quick turnaround times on any issues or problems.

Design and Features

The four servers tested are the IBM x3200 M2, Wipro Netpower Z2501R (SAS), Wipro Netpower Z2501R, and the Acer Altos G330 Mk2. Of these, the two Wipro machines were identical in configuration, except for the addition of a SAS (Serial Attached SCSI) card and a drive in one of the machines. All four are standard tower form factor, but are bigger and heavier than a usual desktop tower.

The two Wipro Netpower servers came configured with a Quad Core Intel Xeon E5300 clocked at 1.6 GHz, with 8 MB of cache. This processor is built on a 65nm process, and runs on a 1066 MHz FSB. This processor is also dual processor capable, and the motherboard has an empty slot for another processor. You could actually get another processor and have eight cores of processor power. They have 2 GB of RAM, which is a decent amount for a small server. These are FB-DIMMs, so upgrading can be a costly affair.

The motherboard is an Intel S5000vsa, and has two PCI-Express connectors, along with two PCI-X slots and one PCI slot. There are two gigabit Ethernet ports on the motherboard. The cabinet is well built, but isn't completely tool-less. You need a screwdriver to open it up, but once it's opened, you don't need any tools. A serial and parallel port are included, and there's one serial port for remote management. The cabinet has a lockable door that covers the front. One of the two servers comes with a standard 250 GB SATA drive, and the other comes with a 75 GB SAS drive.

The SAS drive is quite special--even though it's only 75GB, it spins at 15,000 rpm. For applications where a lot of calls are made to the server--such as a database server or a server for a busy website--this drive provides superior throughput. The drive is hot-pluggable, and there are three empty bays where you can plug in other drives. Wipro has provided the required drive caddies, and the SAS card on the motherboard, so all you have to do is buy more drives. The card supports RAID 1 and 0, and the combinations thereof. This server would be ideal for a fast database server or a file server where your files aren't too big. Power consumption is quite high for these two machines though: they consume 160 watts under load and 130 watts at idle. Even when the machines are powered off, they still consume 40 watts. This is quite high, but it's an inevitable consequence of the powerful innards of the machine.

The documentation supplied with the server is not of the highest quality, but it's enough to get you running. All the drivers are provided, and Wipro also gives you a subscription to CA eTrust Antivirus. You also get a copy of Power DVD and Nero. These come along with the DVD-writer that is included with both Wipro servers. A keyboard and mouse complete the standard equipment. Curiously, the keyboard has a full set of multimedia keys.

The IBM x3200 M2 server takes a different approach to Wipro by choosing a Dual Core Xeon E3110. This processor is built on a 45nm process, and is clocked at 3 Ghz. The FSB speed is higher as well, at 1333 MHz. This processor has 6 MB of cache. Based on the newer Penryn (or Wolfdale) core, this processor is almost similar to the Core 2 Duo E8400. It runs much cooler than the older processors and consumes less power as well. Under load, the machine consumes 90 watts, much less than the two Wipro machines. At idle, it averages around 60 watts, and when the machine is switched off, it consumes 25 watts. The motherboard is a custom IBM board, and has some nice features like a Baseboard Management Controller that lets you control some aspects of the server remotely. A PCI-Express slot, one PCI-X, and two PCI slots provide for future expansion.

The motherboard supports 8 GB of RAM, but the machine came configured with only 1 GB. This is a little low for a server, but since it uses standard ECC-RAM, upgrading it is reasonably easy. The cabinet is very well built, and is completely tool-less. Keys are provided to lock the side and front panel, and these keys are much more secure than the usual computer locks, that can mostly be opened with a safety pin. Once opened, all the slots are carefully labeled. Moreover, IBM has even marked where you are supposed to grab hold, by adding blue stickers to such points. You can optionally configure a SAS card and get hot-swappable drives, but this particular machine came with a single 250 GB SATA drive. The DVD drive isn't capable of burning DVDs. The documentation that comes with the server is of the highest standard, and IBM really shows everyone else how it's done here. There's a proper paper manual that explains the server in detail, and has various troubleshooting techniques. The manual even has an index. Besides this, there is a complete set of documentation on CDs and software to configure, diagnose, and install an OS on the server. A good quality keyboard and mouse round off the contents of the box.

The Acer Altos G330 Mk2 server is the simplest server of the three. Besides being physically smaller and lighter than the other three, the configuration is more suited to lighter workloads. It comes configured with a Dual Core Xeon 3040 clocked at 1.86 GHz. This processor has 2 MB of cache, and supports 1066 MHz FSB. The processor consumes the same amount of power as the IBM x3200, even though that machine is almost twice as fast. The motherboard is manufactured by Gigabyte, and there are traces of the desktop origins in the PCI-Express X16 slot. It also has two PCI slots, and one each of PCI-Express X8 and X4. This machine came configured with 1 GB of RAM and a 320 GB SATA hard drive. A DVD-reader is also included. The front of the cabinet has four drive bays, but they aren't hot-swappable. Acer provides software to quickly install various versions of Windows Server, and also includes a copy of eTrust antivirus and BrightStor ARCserve backup software. There's no printed documentation to speak of, but manuals are included on the CDs. Acer also provide software for server management that's quite useful. A keyboard and mouse are provided as standard equipment.

Performance Testing

To test these servers, we set them up on a dedicated gigabit switch, and installed CentOS 5. This Linux distribution is practically identical to Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, with the only real difference being the name and the lack of support from Red Hat. We tested the servers for their web-serving performance with ApacheBench, and used Iozone to get an idea of file system performance. The Wipro Netpower SAS server and the IBM x3200 traded first place across the different tests. In ApacheBench, IBM took first place, thanks to the extremely fast processor. Our test consisted of pulling one million requests of a webpage with one hundred concurrent requests and timing how long the server took to complete the tests. The IBM x3200 finished this test in 918 seconds, ahead of the Wipro SAS server which managed to finish it in 999 seconds. The other Wipro took 1, 140 seconds, while Acer brought up the rear with 1, 279 seconds. The fast processor on the IBM took it to victory here, but in the file system tests, Wipro won handily, thanks to the extremely fast 15,000 RPM SAS drive. It was ten to fifteen percent faster than IBM at all the tests. Besides the Wipro with the SAS drive, all the other three were very close to each other, since they all used similar hard drives.

All across our performance tests, we noticed a trend: where pure CPU performance was important, the IBM pulled ahead, but where multithreaded apps, or disk intensive apps were used, the SAS-powered Wipro edged ahead. Acer wasn't able to compete on these metrics, but it comes with the biggest hard drive of the lot, so using it as a low-load file server isn't a bad idea. Wipro also has an advantage if there's a need for eight-core computing, since you can buy another Xeon and drop it in. However, in this target market, it's unlikely that four cores would be saturated, leave alone eight, so this remains more of a theoretical brownie point for Wipro.

Conclusion

The old saying of horses for courses has some relevance here. We've seen how IBM and Wipro excelled at particular benchmarks, and your choice of which one to buy will largely be determined by what application you are intending to run on the server. However, besides the performance, IBM's excellent design, superlative documentation, and reasonable price took it to the top. In second place, the Wipro Netpower Z2501R(SAS) stood out as a very fast file server. The SAS drives really add value to what is already a very fine server. The non-SAS version took third place, and Acer came in fourth. Acer has created more of a simpler, all-purpose server, and it is the cheapest of the lot, so if you don't envisage pushing your server to the limit and need large amounts of storage, it is a good bet. In the end, we have no losers, but we do have four servers that are well equipped to handle your business needs.


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