Entry-level servers: Workgroup workhorses

The latest entry-level workgroup servers, 500 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium IIIs, are ideal for small workgroups. These file and print servers are not meant for department -level use or critical data storage. Rather, they are basic workhorses for printing, e-mail and standard file storage, and perfect for use with a primary server - especially because they won't cost you much.

All of the systems the FCW Test Center looked at performed well, and they are worth the money. Nevertheless, if you buy one of these servers, we recommend that you take a couple of steps to make them safer. First, buy two equal-size hard drives so that you can mirror all the data. That way, in the event of a hard drive failure, you won't lose everything. Next, you should order the server with a tape backup drive large enough to cover all the data on the system. Accordingly, we included tape backups in our list of specifications when we ordered these systems.

If performance is a priority, there are a couple of things you should look for. First, be aware that the rotational speed of a hard drive, measured in revolutions per minute (rpm), makes a big difference in overall performance.

A 10,000 rpm hard drive reads data roughly 25 percent faster than a 7,200 rpm hard drive. In this review, the Compaq and IBM systems featured 10,000 rpm hard drives, and it's no coincidence that they earned top scores. The Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, NEC and Toshiba servers came with 7,200 rpm hard drives. You can, however, order the HP NetServer E 60 with a 10,000 rpm hard drive, but it will cost more.

You also will see increased performance in systems that contain two hard drives instead of one, as long as the data on the drives is striped rather than mirrored. With two hard drives, the system can read and write to more disk platters (the disks inside hard drives on which data is stored) simultaneously. So, the amount of data input/ output is larger than that of a system containing one hard drive with fewer platters.

Compaq's ProLiant shipped with two 4.3G hard drives instead of one 9G drive, which helped it earn some of the best performance scores.

Six vendors participated in this review: Compaq Computer Corp., Gateway Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., NEC Computer Systems Division and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. Dell Computer Corp. and SMAC Data Systems declined to participate.

All of the servers in this comparison feature a 100 MHz bus, 128M of RAM and a 10/100 Ethernet controller. The units are all priced to include a 15-inch monitor (except for the IBM, which shipped with a 16.1-inch flat-panel display). The systems are dual-processor capable, though we don't think you would need that kind of processing power for these basic servers. You would be better off buying a higher-end server if you want that much processing power.

The two exceptions in this comparison might be the NEC and Toshiba systems, which are not entry level because they contain enough drive bays for a Redundant Array of Independent Disks. If you install a RAID, you may want another processor. But again, from a cost standpoint, it may make more sense to buy a higher-end server. The same holds true for data storage. The NEC and Toshiba systems might be worth considering if you plan to expand in the future or move to critical data storage, but we think it would be more cost-effective to start off with a higher-end system.

To measure server performance, we ran Bluecurve Inc.'s Dynameasure/File Professional Edition 2.0, a benchmark that simulates users working on networked clients and servers. We reported the results using three measurements of performance: throughput, average response time and transactions per second. Throughput represents the I/O rate for file workloads, measured in kilobytes per second. Average response time is the average amount of time, in seconds, that each client request to the server was acknowledged. Transactions per second represents the amount of work a server can handle in a particular amount of time.

Our results showed the same performance bottleneck we experienced in our March 1999 review of 450 MHz Pentium II dual-processor servers [FCW, March 15]. In all six servers, the performance bottleneck was the disk subsystem. In other words, I/O to the disks was where performance suffered when the machines were stressed.

In all cases, processor utilization was low because of the insufficient disk capacity to adequately "feed" the processors. There was, in short, plenty of processing power but not enough disk power. Because these systems are basic workgroup servers, our tests consisted of a load of only 30 Dynameasure motors, with one motor on each of 30 client machines. Each motor delivers a transaction per second, so we characterize each motor as representing about two users for our tests.

In our throughput test, the Compaq and IBM systems handled the 30-client load without a performance drop-off. They could have been pushed even harder before performance started to suffer. For the Gateway and NEC servers, performance started to level off at about 25 clients, and the Toshiba began its decline at about 20 clients.

In addition to throughput and average response time, we measured the number of transactions per second each server was able to perform. As the number of transactions increases, the server begins to respond more slowly to the calls made from each client. As with average response time, the IBM and Compaq were the clear winners, this time with both systems virtually neck and neck. There was no performance drop-off at 30 clients, which again means that these systems could have been pushed even harder before a decrease would have become apparent. The NEC and HP servers started to level off between 25 and 30 clients, although there was still a gradual increase. The Gateway did well up to 25 clients, mirroring the IBM and Compaq systems, but after 25 clients, the Gateway system's performance dropped. The Toshiba's transactions per second leveled off at 20 clients.

For average response time, IBM and Compaq were the top performers, with IBM barely edging out Compaq. Gateway came in third place. All of the systems did well up to 20 clients, but then performance slowed down considerably for each system except IBM and Compaq.

On the management front, there is good news. High-quality management tools come bundled with the systems, making them fit nicely into an existing networking environment right out of the box.We do have one caveat to add to our management comments, however. When we made technical support calls and asked how to enable and disable the Pentium III serial number, we were distressed to discover that almost all of the vendors were clueless about this feature, which is a unique serial number hard-coded onto the Pentium III processor [FCW, "500 MHz Pentium IIIs: Better than ever," June 14].

Users can enable or disable the serial number through a switch in the BIOS (if the vendor has included it) or by using a software utility. The BIOS method is preferred because it is hardware-based and therefore more secure, but not all vendors supply this feature. In this comparison, those that did were Compaq, Gateway and IBM. Toshiba provides the software utility. NEC does not yet provide a means for enabling or disabling the serial number, but it is aware of the problem and at press time was working to rectify it. HP provides neither method, and we don't know if it has plans to do so.

IBM Netfinity 3500 M10It's not difficult to see why IBM ran away with our Best Buy Award. It turned in top performance scores for throughput (1,823 kilobytes/sec), average response time (0.07 seconds) and transactions per second (28.48). The Netfinity 3500 also was one of the lower-priced systems at $2,986.

IBM earned a very good score for case design, despite its perennially awkward case cover - the same one found on IBM's IntelliStation workstations. You have to pull outward on the notch at the back of the case cover and keep pulling as you slide it off. Access to drive bays is easy, with minimal screws to remove, and memory is very accessible. The only real drawback we noticed was that the fan is noisy.

We rated the unit's setup/ease of use as good. The system includes a well-done quick setup guide, a user manual and a Microsoft Corp. Windows NT manual. IBM includes a full set of diagnostic utilities, including a multitude of CDs to provide system setup assistance, device drivers, diagnostic disk-makers and operating system updates. Additional documentation and driver updates are available on IBM's World Wide Web site. One area in which the Netfinity 3500 could use improvement is expandability. It received a good score but is lacking in certain areas compared with the other systems. After factory configuration, for example, there are no free external drive bays (the tape backup drive we asked for filled the only available bay) and only one free internal drive bay. Three free PCI slots and two shared slots are available. Memory is expandable to 1G.This system ships with IBM's excellent Netfinity management package, which enables users to manage the server from any terminal. This package is extremely comprehensive, and its interface is logical easy to use.

If you're looking for a high-quality entry-level server that churns out top performance and won't break the bank, we highly recommend the Netfinity 3500. This server offers top quality at a reasonable price. Our main concern with this system is its limited expandability, but if this isn't a problem for your agency, you should seriously consider making it your next workgroup server.

Compaq ProLiant 800Finishing in second place was Compaq's ProLiant 800 with a score of 7.86. It also finished in second place on all three performance tests. Its average response time of 0.08 seconds and its 28.25 transactions/sec nearly matched the IBM Netfinity's 28.48 transactions/sec. Compaq's throughput score was 1,808 kilobytes/sec. The price is about $380 higher the IBM Netfinity's, at $3,367.Compaq's case design, which earned a very good score, features thumb screws for the case cover and easy access to the drive bays. Screws hold in the hard drive cage, which slides out of the unit and then requires removal of four more screws to free the drive. The CD-ROM and floppy drives also are held in with screws and slide out the front of the unit. Memory is very easy to access.

One unusual aspect of the Compaq's case design is its PC Card access. The card slots are located on a separate board that connects to the motherboard, similar to a riser card. But because the whole setup is located within a cage-like contraption, you need to remove the whole thing (and therefore disconnect all cables that might be attached to any of the cards) in order to access one card. We don't see a clear advantage to this arrangement.

We rated the ProLiant's setup/ease of use as good. The system ships with Compaq's SmartStart and a support CD that contains applications for creating disks for diagnostics, utilities and drivers. Additional documentation, drivers and BIOS updates are available on Compaq's Web site.The ProLiant 800 features very good expandability, with two PCI slots, four shared slots, one external drive bay and two internal drive bays free after factory configuration. Memory is expandable to 1G.

The system ships with Compaq's Insight Manager, SmartStart, Integrated Remote Console and Automatic Server Recovery-2, earning it a management score of excellent.The ProLiant 800 is a very good system overall. It's one of the top performers in the review, with scores extremely close to those of the IBM Netfinity, and it features better expandability than the IBM server. The IBM, however, edged out this system with slightly better features and documentation, as well as a lower price.

HP NetServer E 60Our third-place finalist was HP's NetServer E 60, with a score of 7.22. HP landed in fifth place on all three performance tests. The NetServer E 60's average response time was 0.21 seconds and it completed 22.28 transactions/sec. Its throughput score was 1,426 kilobytes/sec. HP's price is the lowest in the review at $2,275.The system earned a good score for case design. Six thumb screws attach the case cover, which comes off in one piece. The hard drive, CD-ROM and floppy drives are all held in with screws. The inside of the unit is neat and clean, and all components are easily accessible. The only real drawback we found is that the fan is noisy. The NetServer E 60's setup/ease of use is good. The system comes with an HP NetServer Navigator bootable CD that provides automated hardware configuration, a guided installation process for the operating system and an application disk-maker for diagnostics, utilities and drivers. Additional documentation, driver and BIOS updates are available on HP's Web site.

The HP server's expandability is very good. After factory configuration, it features five PCI slots and one shared card slot free, in addition to three free internal drive bays. With the inclusion of the tape backup drive, there are no free external drive bays.

The NetServer's management tools - including the HP TopTools package and a remote client manager - earned a very good score. Sorely lacking, however, is a means with which to enable or disable the Pentium III processor serial number. HP lost a full point for that omission. This is a solid system overall that turned in decent performance scores. Considering the bargain-basement price, this server is a good buy for anyone looking to install a good, basic server at low cost. Our biggest concern is the lack of a Pentium III serial number switch, and we hope HP will address this issue in the near future.

Gateway ALR 7200Gateway came in fourth place with a score of 6.85. Its performance was middle-of-the-road. Its throughput score was 1,478 kilobytes/sec, average response time was 0.14 seconds and it performed 23.10 transactions/sec. It was the third lowest-priced server in the review at $3,195.Gateway's case design earned a score of very good. The inside of the system is neat and memory is very easy to access. Access to the hard drive, CD-ROM and floppy drives is a bit awkward, though. You must remove both side case covers as well as the top cover (they are separate) in order to access them.

We gave Gateway's system a good score for setup/ease of use. The system ships with a Gateway Server Companion CD that includes a disk-maker application for diagnostics tools, utilities and drivers. Additional documentation, drivers and BIOS updates are available at Gateway's Web site. The ALR 7200 features very good expandability, with six PCI slots and one shared card slot free after factory configuration, as well as two free internal and two free external drive bays. Memory is expandable to 1G.Gateway ships the system with its excellent, comprehensive management package, InforManager.

For the price-conscious customer who values a lot of expandability, this is a good, solid system. The low technical support score hurt this server the most.

NEC Express5800 MC2400The NEC was one of the two servers (the Toshiba is the other) in this comparison that we don't consider entry-level. It offers a total of seven hot-swappable external hard drive bays, which allows for a RAID configuration. The price of $4,989 reflects this capability, but it also hurt the system's score because it went up against systems with much lower prices. The system came in fifth place with a score of 6.48.The Express5800's performance scores fell in the middle of the pack. The NEC had an average response time of 0.17 seconds, a throughput of 1,503 kilobytes/sec and performed 23.49 transactions/second.

The NEC system's case design earned a very good score, with thumb screws securing the case cover. Access to the hard drive, CD-ROM and floppy drives is extremely easy. They simply snap out once you swing open the front bezel. The unit's setup/ease of use earned a good score. A simple quick-setup guide is included, but NEC does not include operating system CDs or manuals unless users request them. Setup utilities and drivers for the system and peripherals are included on the Express Builder CD. The user guide and a network operating system configuration guide also are on a CD. Additional documentation is available on the NEC Web site.

With all of the RAID-capable drive bays, it's no wonder the Express5800 MC2400 earned an expandability score of excellent. After factory configuration, there are two PCI slots, one shared slot and one ISA slot free, as well as two external and five hot-swappable drive bays. Memory is expandable to 1G. This system also supports dual power supplies. The hot-swappable drive bays and dual power supply support are not generally seen on entry-level servers.

NEC's management earned a very good score. The system ships with the ESMPRO Server Management Suite, which enables users to manage the server on a network. At press time, the server lacked a Pentium III serial number switch, but NEC is working to rectify this problem.The Express5800 is a good system with good performance, but we don't consider it an entry-level server. It lagged behind in this review because it was not in the same league as most of the other servers in the comparison.

Toshiba Magnia 3010Like NEC's system, the Toshiba comes with RAID capability and is not an entry-level server. Its high price of $4,505 caused it to lose points, finishing in sixth place with a final score of 6.20. Another factor that hurt this newcomer to the server realm was performance. In all three performance tests, Toshiba lagged. It turned in an average response time of 0.27 seconds, a throughput of 1,271 kilobytes/sec and performed 19.86 transactions/sec. The unit's case design earned a very good score, with thumb screws providing easy case cover removal.

Drive bay access is easy and the hard drive, CD-ROM and floppy drives snap out. The hard drive bays are hot swappable and all internal components are easily accessible. This was the only server in our review to feature tool-free PC Card removal.Toshiba's good setup/ease of use includes a CD with setup and configuration procedures, as well as utilities and diagnostics. Additional documentation and the latest drivers are available through Toshiba's Web site.

Toshiba's system expandability earned a score of excellent, thanks to the Magnia 3010's four hard drive bays. After factory configuration, there are two free PCI slots, one free shared slot and one free ISA slot. One external and two hot-swappable drive bays also are available. Memory is expandable to 1G, and the system offers dual power supply capability. Toshiba ships the system with the newest version of Intel's LANDesk management software, earning it an excellent score.

Unfortunately, Toshiba relies on the software utility for the Pentium III serial number - a less secure method. Toshiba is a newcomer to the server marketplace, and although it has made a good effort, it seems Toshiba still has a lot to learn. The company is on the right track but needs to step up performance. As with the NEC, the higher price point hurt this system, which we don't consider to be an entry-level system.

ConclusionThis year's crop offers quality systems at low prices. But watch out for systems that include more than you need - such as RAID configuration capability. Specify the operating system you want when you order, as most vendors leave it up to the resellers. Some of these servers are Linux-compatible, so check before you buy.

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