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Hardware Today: SMB Server Selection Strategies

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted May 30, 2006


A longstanding complaint from many small and midsize businesses (SMBs) is that they receive scant attention from server vendors. Traditionally, their needs are an afterthought, and products "tailored" to their requirements in reality are often "lite" versions of the enterprise-class models.

The IT needs of an SMB are anything but small. Storage, performance, and uptime are as critical to the SMB as they are to a Fortune 500 company, and meeting these needs are no simpler.

"It's a mistake to think SMBs are different — they are just smaller," says Steve Duplessie, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "The SMB's data is just a valuable to them as Citibank's is to it."

To his mind, SMBs need things simpler than the big shops because they have limited expertise and are not in the IT business. Yet even big shops, he notes, can benefit from simple.

John Nguyen, worldwide channel marketing manager at Tyan Computer agrees that simplicity is important. He recommends SMBs buy blades, if possible, as such systems have no internal storage. The organization can then buy an external array to meet its storage needs and network it to other servers to create an IP SAN.

"iSCSI is great for the SMB because it's free and doesn't require special server hardware," says Nguyen.

The term SMB has no one standard definition. Some describe a small business as having 20 or less employees, whereas others define it as less than 500 or less than 1,000 employees. Still others define it by revenue.

Pradeep Parmar, a product line marketing manager within Sun's Systems Group, concurs with Nguyen and Duplessie but adds several other important factors for SMBs to consider: performance, efficiency, flexibility, longevity, reliability, and maintenance.

"For the highest performance and the ability to scale the servers as your business grows, choose AMD Opteron processors," says Parmar. "You should also choose systems with low power consumption and heat output, as well as those that can be upgraded easily and inexpensively."

Not surprisingly, he emphasizes the value of the Sun Fire X2100 Opteron-based model, which has a starting price of $745. This 1U, 2-way unit runs all major operating systems, including Solaris, Linux, and Windows, as well as VMware. Solaris, Parmar says, is a great choice for business-critical applications on virtually any server, and it's available for free as an alternative to Linux (http://www.sun.com/servers).

HP strikes a similar chord when asked about the server selection criteria. Blades, in particular, are given heavy emphasis. Krista Satterthwaite, group manager of industry standard server marketing at HP, touts the modular nature of HP BladeSystem for SMBs, such as the ProLiant BL20p. BladeSystem features multiple components, including server blades, storage, and networking within a shared infrastructure controlled by an integrated management system. For SMBs with in-house IT support, however, she recommends rack servers, such as the Proliant DL140 (http://h18004.www1.hp.com/products/servers/platforms/).

"The HP ProLiant family of solutions includes a comprehensive portfolio of rack servers, storage, and management software to simplify the setup and management of SMB IT environments," says Satterthwaite. "This is effective in reducing costs and improving employee productivity."

Big House Alternatives

Tyan's Nguyen stresses that SMBs don't have to buy from one of the big vendors. He suggests three alternatives: They can build the server themselves, buy a bare bones whitebox server and build up from that, or buy a configure-to-order (CTO) system from a supply/assembly house (i.e., an outfit that builds entire systems based on customer spec).

For smaller companies, the first option may involve too much expertise. But purchasing bare bones white boxes requires only the additional populating of processors, memory, and hard drives.

"Many times the barebones suppliers will have tested and qualified components for use with the barebones server so that the customer will be able to get up and running in a minimum amount of time," says Nguyen. "But if the SMB customer is short on time and resources, a CTO system would be the most convenient, as it has everything included, installed, and ready to run right out of the box."

"If you are going to have two or more machines, make sure the storage is external. It will cost you a little more up front, but the serviceability and flexibility it will provide will far outweigh the incremental cost." — Steve Duplessie, Analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group

Tyan offers barebones servers to the channel, which resellers then offer to retailers. Intel- and AMD-based servers are available, ranging from 1U rackmount boxes to mini and full-size tower/pedestal servers ready to be populated with processors, memory, and drives (http://tyan.com/products/html/barebone.html). A typical barebones 1U AMD rackmount server consists of a motherboard, power supply, drive hot-swap backplane, four drive cages, a set of sliding rails, a set of mounting handles, two heatsinks for the processors, and a set of ancillary items (such as CD, manual, cables, and screws). Tyan also offers motherboard platforms for customers that want to build from scratch (http://tyan.com/products/html/systemboards.html).

What to Avoid

On the opposite side of the coin, the various experts have plenty to say on what to avoid in server selection. Duplessie stresses the importance of a storage strategy, even for small businesses. To his mind, there is no point in buying machines with internal storage unless the firm really believes it will never buy another system.

"If you are going to have two or more machines, make sure the storage is external," says Duplessie. "It will cost you a little more up front, but the serviceability and flexibility it will provide will far outweigh the incremental cost."

He also recommends close scrutiny of warranty service programs. All warrantees are marketed as though the service company will pop out and fix the problem in 10 minutes, but the fine print likely says something to the effect of, in practice the SMB will spend the day talking to someone on the other side of the world for hours, then maybe someone will show up in a few days. Thus, it is important to select a supplier with local service abilities.

Nguyen, on the other hand, recommends giving more weight to ensuring the server meets specific application requirements. A customer looking for high-performance servers, for example, wouldn't want to use a single-processor embedded server, as it would be underpowered for the target applications. Like Duplessie, Nguyen feels strongly about service contract fine print.

"If the SMB customer can't find a clear definition of what kind of support and post-sales service is offered by the server supplier or builder, it should look elsewhere," says Nguyen.

Understandably, HP is less enamored with the bare bones or the configure-to-order approaches. Satterthwaite recommends SMBs avoid server solutions that increase the time they would need to spend performing routine maintenance, as this prevents admins from focusing on more pressing business problems. She also suggests SMBs steer clear of server vendors that don't provide manageability to better contain complexity and IT sprawl.

Not Different, Just Smaller

In the end, each SMB must decide for itself which vendor best caters to its needs — based squarely on the value and applicability of the products provided. After all, the SMB market is probably the most misunderstood segment out there, as its requirements are as varied as its constituents.

For one thing, the term SMB has no one standard definition. Some describe a small business as having 20 or less employees, whereas others define it as less than 500 or less than 1,000 employees. Still others define it by revenue.

Thus, a highly hyped SMB server could actually be overkill in some shops. "The SMB doesn't care about speeds and feeds — they want stuff to run their applications and just work," says Duplessie. "They want it simple, and they don't want to have to do a secondary public offering just to buy servers and storage."

He makes the point that small companies don't want to hire IT gurus to run their data center. All they want is to plug stuff in, add to it when necessary, and have it just run.

But such basic requirements are seldom understood, in part because of incorrect vendor perception, and also in part to the way products are designed.

"If the vendor community was really smart, they would design every product for the SMB, and then move them up market instead of the other way around," concludes Duplessie.

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