Can a semi-technical staffer (me) successfully price and evaluate a new file server?

At my workplace, we’re looking to replace a 12-year-old Dell PowerEdge 2900 running Windows Server Standard operating system (Properties dates it as ‘copyright 2007’ … it seems to be neither 2003 nor 2008 but something in between?). It’s on Service Pack 2.

Other high-level specs:

Processor - one single (I think) Quad-Core Intel Xeon 5430 at (up to?) 2.66GHz. These machines are supposed to accommodate two processors … but Properties only lists one.
**Memory **- 8 GB. Not sure how it’s allocated within the twelve available DIMM slots.
Internal storage - 1.4 TB. This model of server was supposed to ship with just over 1.7 TB on six SAS and four SATA drives of varying sizes. Maybe one or more of the stock drives were switched out in the past for smaller drives. BTW – the abbreviations ‘SAS’ and ‘SATA’ mean nothing to me. I can and have Googled, yes.
32- or 64-Bit? - 64-bit operating system

Anyway. We’re looking to replace it with a server of comparable function, but with

(a) an up-to-date, currently-supported Windows operating system (not looking for a Mac or Linux OS), and
(b) more internal storage. We’re growing, and are close to using up the entire 1.4 TB we’ve got. Would like to get at least 3 TB in our next server purchase … 5 TB or more would be ideal if the price difference isn’t too great.

A refurbished server would be fine … it’s just that we want something for which both the hardware and the OS will be supported for a few more years to come. In my mind, I’m thinking around 2014-15 would be about the oldest we’d want to go.

So, anyway … anybody have any advice for how to go about evaluating servers? Comparing the pros and cons of new machines vs. refurbished? How a semi-technical staffer (me) can do a good job of searching for the best balance of function and price possible? I can readily find spec sheets online, but the number of models available from so many vendors … would like a way to narrow the search.

A natural question is “What do we use the server for?”. The answer is “everything” – e-mail, file storage, hosting (?) the VPN, etc. This is still a small business … 12 local employees and a changing number of employees at other sites (typically around total 25-35 employees at any one time). We aim to expand to something around 80-100 (mostly remote) employees in the next 2 to 3 years, so any new server would be hammered more often from remote users than our current server has been.

Making things a little tougher is that I haven’t been given a budget … no number to shoot for. I know that refurbished old servers just like the PowerEdge we’ve got are still being sold and re-sold, going for around $500. That makes me curious as to what we can do for, say, $2,000. My spidey sense is that much more than $3,000 may cause sticker-shock from the higher-ups – but then, maybe a good case at $3K+ can be made for the right machine with the right amount of expected longevity.

[deep breath]

I know this was a lot to read through. Thanks in advance for any advice.

I know it’s kind of dodging the question but I’d refer you to a reseller. CDW, SHI, Insight… and look at Azure or another cloud-based system. I am still very old-school having that many services running on one box is nightmare fuel. A single point of failure that could cripple the business is a no-no.

Thank you for your response, G0sp3l.

We have daily on-site verified backups at the moment. However, we are also looking to move to either a remote-server (dedicated space) backup scheme or to cloud-based backup. There is internal resistance – albeit reasoned and considered resistance – to going with a ‘virtual server’ space on the cloud in lieu of a physical on-site server as our working machine.

We just bought Dell R640 servers to transition us to Azure. Lenovo is making servers now and they are the lowest priced ones I found. We didn’t go with them because they don’t have a large enough market-share to get a read on reliability. You can also save money by going with the SATA drives.

It is actually incredibly important that you give the exact version. This is because for certain versions of Windows Server the licensing model has changed and you can get charged on the core count of the server. You may find that software licensing costs easily exceed $3K.

From your brief description, it’s likely that you have Windows Small Business Server 2008 (possibly Premium). The modern version of that, Windows Server Essentials 2016 does not include Exchange Server or SQL Server, for which licensing fees will apply. WSE 2016 supports a maximum of 25 users.

I agree that it’s important to avoid a single point of failure, but licensing costs can be steep if you want two servers on the go at the same time. A small outfit is often better advised to buy two servers and leave one sitting in the box so that if the active one goes pop you can simply move the disk drives from the faulty server into the new server. Having the server virtualised makes this easy too. This is really more a business decision than a technical one; it’s a question of how much downtime the business can afford. (Don’t mount the spare server in the rack until it’s needed - if it’s there, whatever took out the active server might also take out the spare)

Also, drives should be mirrored (two drives on the same controller) or duplexed (two drives on separate controllers) so that if one drive fails then the other drive is still there. Again, have a spare drive immediately available.

I understand the resistance to off-site servers. I’ve seen umpteen businesses brought to a halt when a digger accidentally cuts a data cable. Don’t fall for the “We’ll install a backup data line” trick - chances are they go through the same ducting etc once they leave your building and thus be affected by the same digger. Make sure that backup data lines go a physically separate path to separate junction boxes. And bandwidth is not necessarily cheap. A cloud server will not be as responsive as a local server. Also, consider what might happen if Microsoft decided to push an emergency large update to all local clients; a local server could run Windows Server Update Services and obviate that. But again, this is a business decision. Your bosses need to be fully aware of the costs and consequences.

I could go on, but I really need more information and the smell of lasagne is wafting through the house.

OK … I need to figure out how to determine that, then. Thought ‘Properties’ on ‘My Computer’ would tell me specifically (like it does on a laptop) … but I see that it does not.

Just to be clear … there is no rack involved. Dealing specifically with an old tower server, and looking to go with a more updated tower server. ISTM we are very far from needing an in-house rack of blade servers or anything like that.

You currently have 1.4TB and you’re looking to upgrade to 3TB? A 4TB HDD is $100 on Amazon right now. Honestly, I’d just look into putting in a pair of brand new 4TB HDDs in your existing enclosure in RAID1 and call it a day. Hardware performance improvements have really slowed down over the last decade and file servers were never that demanding in the first place.

Can what you want done be done in a NAS or does it have to be a file server? Because the next best option might be to buy a NAS appliance and not have to worry about windows and security and updates and all that.

Gotcha. Please let me know what information would help, and I will offer up whatever I can.

Meanwhile, I got the SAS (small, speedy & expensive) vs. SATA (big, slow, & cheap) thing sorted out. Our existing server has six SAS slots and four SATA. Our IT contractor has it set up to where each of the six SAS slots has a 400 GB hard drive inserted while all four of the SATA slots are empty. Despite the cost premium … I think we’re going to have to go with SAS drives going forward – one of the principals has difficulty abiding any noticeable lag during her computer use.

So far as I know, it has to be a file server, not merely extra storage space. I do not really know exactly why … the current set-up precedes my employment.

I’ll give you examples of the kind of things we’re facing that make us want to replace the server (which is actually performing very reliably with no downtime). All of this info comes from our IT contractor:

[li]We’ve got Quick Books installed on the server. We’ve got three licenses of QBooks, but only one user at a time can use QBooks – this is blamed on the operating system’s limitations (totally over my head).[/li]
[li]In turn, the operating system cannot be upgraded because of the server’s limitations (Too little space remaining, perhaps? Dunno.)[/li]
[li]Also because of the old operating system, a cloud-storage implementation failed last year because (1) the file movement could not be sufficiently automated (:shrug: ) and (2) there were legion file-name issues (wrong characters, etc.) that ground things to a halt (again, :shrug: ).[/li]
[li]The operating system is no longer supported by Microsoft.[/li][/ul]

I don’t have any specific recommendations, but I think it’s important to ask yourself a few questions before proceeding - these should include:

Who is going to support it - both in terms of hardware and updates/configuration? Honestly, if you’ve had 12 trouble-free years of service out of a server, you’re a bit lucky. Hardware failures of various kinds usually start to bite after about 5 years

What is the value of the server to your business? Sticker shock is one thing, but what would be the immediate cost if the server you currently have just abruptly ceased operation? That’s the cost the higher-ups should be weighing against the outlay for a new solution.

OK, I think I got this. From Control Panel System -> About Windows:

Good points, Mangetout. Thank you for your response. We’ve got a meeting with our IT contractor next week, so I can hopefully engage him intelligently about the issues you bring up.

The Quick Books thing (inability to support more than user at a time) is a big showstopper already.

So you have Windows Server 2008. Microsoft’s licensing guide is here and you should examine this PDF. For Exchange, check here.

You say that one of the principals dislikes lag. If so, then you definitely want to minimise any cloud solutions.

Yeah, we will not use a cloud-based ‘virtual server’ as our main working machine. Right now, everyone is used to being able to work on files that are stored on our local server, and being able to work on them at ‘the same speed’ as if they were files stored on their laptops.

We are weighing ‘cloud-based’ backup storage vs. ‘remote, dedicated physical server’ backup storage. Cloud-based backup was attempted here last year (I’ve been here just over 4 months), and something went wrong. So wrong that the whole idea of cloud storage was shelved until recently.

Couple of other things to consider, VPN is pretty easy, off-load that to the firewall, and think about hosting mail outside the building. If you triple your workforce email is going to use a lot of space. Especially if your users think outlook is just more storage space. I dislike Quickbooks but they do have multi-user licenses, you may have a configuration problem.

A lot of stuff depends on how comfortable you are doing the IT work.

Having an offsite backup is a good idea. Think about your site being raided by a gang of thieves and everything being stolen. Dedicated backup is all well and good as long as the backup box works; cloud backup means you don’t have to worry about that. Just make sure the data is encrypted at your end. But it should be in addition to local backup. Multiple layers as budget allows.

You need to progress as follows:

Figure out what you want to do (business level).
Figure out the software (local) and services (cloud and support) required to do it at the required level of availability.
Figure out the hardware required to run the software to the required level of availability.

I’ve mentioned availability twice. Mangetout has also mentioned it. This is a business decision and your bosses may decide that a day or two of downtime is entirely acceptable (“Let them catch up on their timesheets.”) or an acceptable business risk (“The money we’ll lose if it happens will be less than the money we’ll save.”) Part of your job will be to quantify that.

I wouldn’t discount cloud solutions on the basis of lag - I migrated a farm of servers from onsite to Microsoft Azure last year and there’s not very much difference in performance, overall. We did commission a small server for each site which is configured to cleverly cache frequently-accessed documents locally and sync changes with the cloud copy.

Consider that if you have a multi-site setup, and the server is only at one of those sites, the performance that users at the sites without the server is already probably poorer than it would be if they were accessing services in the cloud (if only because it’s going through two internet gateways that are probably less beefy than the pipe into a typical big datacentre)

Quickbooks is available as a hosted online service now - runs entirely in the browser. Your company might not be ready right now for that sort of a change, but in all honesty, I have found these migrations to be a massive relief in terms of support - if you pick the right providers, the reliability of the service can be guaranteed to a level that would be very difficult and expensive to provision yourself.

All I will say is: Don’t allow yourself or anyone else to assume that servers are just something you buy and plug in, and they work forever without any trouble - nothing works like that - if the executives have trouble understanding this, use their cars as an analogy - they probably lease them rather than buying; they almost certainly have a service plan for them, and they probably have breakdown rescue cover.

This is a configuration issue. QB is easily shared on any windows box and has its own internal sharing system. I have set this up dozens of times on half a dozen versions of windows/windows servers. it does require a few ports to be set that it cannot do automatically in a Server OS. Quickbooks has a company file diagnostic tool that will tell you if and which ports it needs.

That’s really, really good.

I’ll be doing very little of it. We have an outside vendor doing the bulk of it. However, the higher-ups try not to lean on our vendor too much.