What Makes A “Business Class” Server?

If you have a successful business to run you know it didn’t get that way by accident. You’ve put a lot of energy into making sure

  • Things are happening on time.
  • A method exists to assure quality
  • Staffing levels are appropriate
  • Products and/or services are delivered on time
  • Customer expections are exceeded

If you have a successful business – you’re running a “business class” operation and you are not playing.   A business class server doesn’t play either.

What is a Server?

Dell T410 Server

A server is a computer

A server is a computer that dishes out information to all the computers in your office. Information which is centrally located (on the server) so that it can be worked on simultaneously by many people yet remain in that central location for backup.  Servers are used for sharing files (data), databases (data), printers (hardware), faxes (images), telecommunications (audio “voice mail”), etc …  the list goes on and on.  If your business is a small business; chances are you have at least one server and it’s probably a combination “file & print” server.

“Oh 0kay, a server is a computer that makes sense.  Why are they so expensive?”

Although a server is just a computer there is more to it than your average run of the mill pick-it-up-at-computerworld computer.  It’s special.  Because so many people rely on it every day in the course of business it has to have characteristics which make it far more reliable than just a run of the mill computer.  Yeah, it’s been fitted with data backup in case of disaster but it also has “redundancy”.  Redundancy is the existance of backup systems to ensure that a component failure does not bring the whole server down.

How much redundancy and what type of redundancy makes the difference between a computer, a server or a “business class” server.

Disk Redundancy

When information is stored locally it’s stored on a hard disk.  If it helps, you can think of hard disks as the old fashioned records we used to play on our record players – except they can be written and over-written many times.  They are just storage.  When we turn a computer off they hold our information in a way that prevents it from being lost.

What happens if the hard disk becomes physically compromised or completely broken in some way?  A “business class” server solves this question by providing redundant copies of the disk on other companion disks – called RAID.  RAID is an acronym for “Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks” and can be configured to spread your data over several different disks in many different configurations or RAID can be as simple as having two disks only – each an exact copy of the other.

 

Hot-Swap RAID Disks

A "Business Class" Server has redundant hard disks which are "hot-swappable" (shown here sticking out the front - partially removed)

There are many types of RAID but “Business Class” Servers use hardware RAID and hot-swapable drives.  There is dedicated hardware, called a RAID Controller which makes sure all the data is updated on all the disks so that everything stays in sync.  Whether your data is spread out across 5 disks or mirrored across two the controller makes sure this is happening in real time.  With hot-swapable hard disks when one disk fails an alarm is set off and the disk can be pulled out while the hardware continues to run.  Push in a new disk and the controller brings everything back into sync.  In the meantime work continues uninterrupted.

Power Redundancy

A “Business Class” Server needs to be up 24 hours a day.  During the day it’s being used by the staff in its mission critical role as both gatekeeper and keymaster – catering to all of your businesses needs.  At night it’s being backed up in preparation for a disaster that will hopefully never happen.  The “Business Class” Server has to be the solution but never the problem.  You’ve got a lot of your success riding on it.

Back of Dell T410 with one power supply removed

Two power supplies ensures the server continues to run if one fails

Redundant “hot-swapable” power supplies make sure the server continues to run.  In case of a power supply failure either one of the two power supplies are capable of keeping things running.  Because they’re hot-swapable the failed unit can be pulled out and a working power supply can be substituted – with zero downtime.

 

 

Network Redundancy

The local network is a busy place.  All the computers on your network are in constant communication with each other and with the server(s).  Sometimes you’re putting new information into your server and sometimes you’re looking up something that’s already stored there.  If your server is a domain controller it’s performing authentication to make sure people have access to what they need and no access to that which they do not.  Everyone’s hitting this thing – it’s constantly in use.

Network Cables Plugged into Separate Adapters

Two separate network connections bonded to enable instant fail-over protection

As you can imagine the network adapter which actually connects the server to your network is towing a heavy load.  For this reason a “Business Class” server solution will often share a network load across several adapters – not just one.  This is called ethernet “bonding” or “teaming” and it can take many forms depending upon configuration.  Just because your server has only one address on the network and it never changes doesn’t mean it can have only one working network adapter at a time.  Several scenarios exist to allow two or more network cards to share the burden of sending and receiving information.  Round-robin allows the adapters to take turns. Adaptive load-balancing might be used instead to evenly distribute the load.  Bonding provides options.

The average small business network has a load that’s quite manageable with one network adapter.  Most servers however, have more than one network adapter available.  For this reason we may not decide to load-balance traffic but instead configure the additional adapters as “fail-over” adapters.  With fail-over, in the rare case where the principle network adapter fails, a second or even third adapter can be configured to automatically switch into action.  The “Business Class” server solution leverages all available means to ensure your business continues to run smoothly by minimizing points of potential failure.

Raw Compute Power

Because the “Business Class” Server has so much riding on it’s performance additional energy is put into assuring it has the horsepower and torque needed to plow through reams of information.  It must be able to present it in a timely manner to many different recipients concurrently.  For this reason it has tons of memory and more than a single processor.  There is no time to wait around for one request to complete before beginning to service the next.

Inside the T410 showing two CPUs

Inside the "Business Class" Server you'll find multiple multi-core processors and lots of memory

The “Business Class” of servers are purpose built to handle the 24 hour a day punishment that’s thrown at them.  Added attention is payed to the issues of air flow and heat dissipation.  The mainboards are thicker.  The capacitors are higher quality.  The ducting is designed to keep as much air as possbile moving through the server when needed.

Conclusion

I hope after reading this you can appreciate some of the additional safeguards taken to ensure that businesses can rely on their computing environment.  Servers are far too important to chance costly downtime by saving money on the front-end with mere consumer grade equipment.   Hopefully you’ve also learned something about what makes a reliable solution different from an unreliable solution.  Backup is essential and should never be skipped but robust and reliable hardware is equally important to business continuity.  In this competitive world, solution providers have to be nimble to stay alive and there’s always a temptation to cut to the bare bone.

Penguin Computer & Telephone Solutions is watching.  We’ve got your back.

This entry was posted in Hardware and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *