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Upgrading small business server, advice please!

Last response: in Business Computing
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December 11, 2012 1:56:41 AM

Hi, I work for a small retail store and we are looking at upgrading to a new server as our current one is aging rapidly and often slows to a crawl causing serious problems. I'm not entirely sure how old it is, but my guess is at least 5-6 years based on specs. I had a look at the CPU performance and it's usage averages 60-70%, sometimes ramping up to 90-100% so we want to upgrade before everything bursts into a fiery ball of flames (otherwise known as my nightmare) ..

The current server runs SQL Server (the database is constantly growing as we receive new products), file sharing capabilities and printer services. It also uses Exchange as a local SMTP relay server (we use Google as our e-mail provider now, does this mean the relay just sends our e-mails onto Google? Is this kind of redundant?)
To clarify, I'm their casual IT go-to guy but I have no experience with servers before working here. Everything was setup long before I came along and I have mostly just let the server do it's thing, administering updates and things when needed. I am still a student - studying a kind of mixed media arts/IT degree - so my depth of computing system knowledge varies wildly and networking is definitely something I need help with.

I've had a look at our options but am not entirely sure what I should be looking for. I found the Dell PowerEdge T4xx's appealing but is this overkill? How do the HP ProLiant ML3xx's compare? I've found many threads where people mention they want servers for file sharing capabilities and not much else, the replies have mostly been saying that they should find alternatives to having a server at all; I imagine one of our important considerations is our SQL database, how does this affect the speed/size of the server we're should be looking at?

We run 15 workstations in the store, all of which now use Windows 7. We definitely want to migrate to a newer version of Small Business Server - would you recommend 2008 R2 or the 2011 Essentials edition? I know 2011 Essentials runs on 2008 R2 but with certain updates/features, would these be useful for us? One important function we'd like to have is remote web access.

Finally, are there many problems with the migration from SBS 2003 to 2008 R2/2011? I have told my boss that we would need outside help with this because I wouldn't be capable of it, though I'd still like to know as much about the process as possible.
December 11, 2012 4:26:20 AM

The recommendations of specific parts or hardware necessities for an organization varies greatly based on the kind of work they are doing and the demands they are expecting from their computer systems and network. This is always going to be the case, so for us to just quickly list off recommended servers for you based on a description of what you are currently running will be quite limiting. It truly takes someone who knows your system, your software, your business, to make a true educated recommendation on your computer system. In fact often times when I am consulting with a customer about a new server system or network equipment, it may take several meetings and up to a month of time researching their current system at all levels before I can even make a proper recommendation.

That being said, there are some things that I might be able to help with to at least get you someplace to start.

Personally I prefer the HP server systems over Dell. There are good sides to both, and I have to say my "allegiance" to HP server systems is definitely torn with the newer Gen8 servers which require HP hard drives and SmartDrive caddies which increases the purchase cost of a server tremendously over using other 3rd party hard drives including Western Digital RE4 or other brand SATA/SAS drives.

We just set up a new ML350p G8 server for a customer and I really liked the system. Everything we needed plus plenty of room to grow. Additionally, there is plenty of helpful information online, and if I needed it an HP rep was there on the phone any time I needed to call and get some answers to any questions. But the set up was so smooth it was never needed. There really was not set up actually. Turn the system on and start configuring RAID arrays in the full-featured GUI interface and then on to the OS installation.

Running your SQL database is probably the most demanding task that your server will need to perform. With this workload, it's my understanding that having a faster storage subsystem (your hard drives) is going to give you the greatest performance and efficiency. This means that you should be looking into fast 10k or 15k SAS drives in RAID 1 or RAID 10 for fault tolerance and performance.

You should consider leveraging virtualization to somewhat compartmentalize your different services on the server. It will require a little more horsepower, but it is also much MUCH easier to migrate in the event you need to upgrade or replace servers. You simply have to copy the VHD and paste it on the new computer running Server 2008 R2/Server 2012 and start up the virtual machine with that VHD attached. This can decrease downtime from a server outage from a week or more to under an hour in some cases.

Don't underestimate your server to begin with and end up getting "just enough" to do what you need. You will find out a year down the road that you could benefit from "just a little more" and have to look at upgrading and possibly redoing a lot of work that could have easily been done from the beginning with a little forethought. I've run into this several times with customers before. They have $X to spend and decide they'd like to save a bit so they step down on their storage capacity to just slightly more than what they are currently using. A year later they are almost out of space and have to replace their drives and transfer all the data again, increasing the cost of that server yet again.

I personally do not know a whole lot about the SQL database systems and the Exchange server either, I've never had an opportunity or need to work on them so far. Hopefully others will be able to pitch in their input to help out here as well!
December 13, 2012 9:51:36 PM

Thanks for your detailed reply. Has given me a good place to start and helps immensely :) 

I'll take these things into consideration as I try to find something suitable and will then probably go to a third-party to help us with our final decision.

Thanks again!
December 13, 2012 10:19:38 PM

Yup, virtualization. It can save you problems in the future and if you build and backup your images right you can easily put them on a new server and recover quickly if anything happens. As for the old server depending on what it is you might keep it as a backup server or repurpose it.

Before you get outside help make a list of what you're using the server for and the software running on it. Make a list of what you use the server for and prioritize it. Also back up everything. EVERYTHING.

Like choucove said, storage speed is important for your SQL database. If you have any custom code be sure to make a note of what code is using what database. That code may behave differently when you migrate. If you're using gmail you probably don't need to setup exchange.
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