In-Depth

4 Dirt-Cheap Workgroup Servers Put to the Test

You can buy a lot for $1,000 these days. We test four bargain-basement boxes and tell you what to expect.

We serve customers of all sizes. More than once in the past decade, I’ve found myself talking to folks at a small business or non-profit about putting in their first network. With five or eight desktop computers already in place, they’re ready to take the plunge into e-mail and information sharing and gain all the benefits of the information age they vaguely realize are out there. But they’re also facing limited budgets.

For this roundup, we set out with a strict budget of $1,000 to see what we could offer these nascent workgroups, small departments or remote offices in the way of a server.

Defining the Problem
Suppose you’re the consultant for one of these small organizations and they’re depending on you to help get them networked. How would you tackle the problem? With a limited budget, you might be tempted to resell one of your own older machines, or to go to a local white-box shop for a desktop machine with reasonable RAM and CPU specs. But such approaches won’t necessarily deliver value. Small organizations often don’t have much budget for maintenance, and it’s critical to get them solid, supported, warrantee-covered hardware. That rules out the used computer, and unless you’ve got a working relationship with a local vendor you trust, low-end white-boxes are out as well.

So, for this roundup, MCP Magazine contacted the top national server vendors, and a few smaller outfits. The parameters were that the computer should cost no more than $1,000 (IBM edged past this by a few bucks), without monitor or software, and that they should pick something offering good value to a small workgroup, department or remote office. The result was the four systems in this roundup, from HP, IBM, Polywell and Dell, which we loaded with Microsoft’s Small Business Server 2003. Of course, there are other national vendors who build servers in this price range. In some cases, schedule conflicts between our deadline and the launch date of new machines, or other factors, kept them from being included. For instance, relative server newcomer Gateway declined to send a unit. Consider this a representative sampling of what you can get for $1,000 rather than an exhaustive list.

HP ProLiant ML110
The charcoal-gray ProLiant 110, as configured, weighed in at 33 pounds. The front panel has the usual power switch and power and hard drive indicators, but no reset button at all. That eliminates the chance of accidentally resetting the machine, of course, but means that you’d better be prepared to power-cycle it in case of emergency.

Two thumbscrews let you pop off the side panel, which has an orientation and parts replacement label inside. There are even DIP switch settings listed here; among other things, you can force the PCI slots to a particular speed. Just about everything you’d want to swap within the case can be handled without tools; even the removable storage devices and option cards are held in by clips rather than screws. The exception is the hard drive cage. To swap hard drives, you’ll need to pop the front bezel and then remove the hard drive cage, an operation requiring a Torx driver. One nice touch is a set of tapped holes in the sheet metal where you can store extra hard drive screws right in the case.

The hard drives are 80GB Maxtor ATA-133 units running at 7200RPM. As shipped, the 512MB of RAM occupies 2 of the 4 slots, but all five expansion slots (two 32-bit PCI and three 64-bit PCI) are open. In theory these slots should take full-length cards, but in practice drive cables will get in the way of one or two of those.

The hard drive bay takes up to four 3 1/2” drives. You can also put in a floppy plus up to three full-size removable storage drives, with front-panel knockouts to match. There are plenty of spare power connectors, though as with some of the other boxes I opened they’re not all that well organized. The drive cables are labeled at every connector, which is nice for those who aren’t constantly swapping drives.

HP’s own two-button mouse is a nice glistening black but otherwise has little to recommend it. There’s no scroll wheel, and the whole thing is very lightweight. The keyboard has a more satisfying heft to it, but offers almost no tactile feedback.

On the motherboard, video duties are handled by the RAGE XL PCI chipset, and the NIC is a Broadcom Gigabit Ethernet unit that supports Wake on LAN. The CD-ROM is Compaq-branded and runs at 48x. After a brief burst of fan noise at the start, the ProLiant runs reasonably quiet; it’s a bit louder than the Dell but not annoying.

HP positions this server as an entry-level box that can be upgraded easily, and it fits that niche well. Apart from the somewhat difficult hard drive replacements, you can imagine talking users through upgrades by having them find the various color-coded tabs and levers that they need to push and pull.

HP’s Internet support site is excellent, offering driver and manual downloads, troubleshooting, and parts and warranty information. When I visited, there was a prominent customer advisory detailing a problem with some SCSI drives and offering a utility to determine whether the customer’s system was affected. That’s the sort of proactive support that I wish more companies would offer. You can also sign up for e-mail alerts of new drivers and support bulletins.

HP ProLiant ML110

HP ProLiant ML110
$942
Hewlett-Packard
www.hp.com
3.0GHz Intel Pentium 4, 512MB ECC RAM, Dual 80GB IDE drives

Summary: A solid starter with good expandability.

 

With dual 80GB drives, the ProLiant offers ample storage space out of the box. Rather than setting up two drives, for most customers I’d recommend a mirrored drive approach to protect the data. Of course, mirroring only protects against hardware failure, not against human error in removing files, but it’s better than no safety net at all.

IBM eServer xSeries 206
After lugging a few of these systems around the office, I was pleased that the recently announced xSeries 206 includes a handle as part of its physical design. In fact, IBM easily wins the case competition in this roundup. The front offers access to the removable storage devices while putting the swappable hard drives behind a simple access panel. It also has a power switch (but no reset button), as well as power, hard drive, and problem indicator lights, plus two USB ports (all of the systems I looked at have USB, but only IBM has the front access to those ports).

There are no thumbscrews here, either; a flip-up handle on the side of the case easily unlatches the side to lift away. Option cards and drives are designed to be replaced without tools. You don’t even have to pop the side cover to swap a hard drive with this box. A little wiggling of plastic and the drive slides right out the front, along with the carrier. You’ll need a screwdriver, though, to install a new drive in the carrier if you’re swapping.

Our test computer came with an 80GB Maxtor SATA drive. At 7200 RPM, this is a next-generation drive but with only one drive there’s no redundancy. The RAM occupies one out of four slots, and all five of the PCI slots (three 32-bit and two 64-bit) are open. The slots will all take full-length cards, though once again you may have to wrestle with drive cables if you want to load up the box like that. At least the SATA cables are much sleeker than the old ATA cables.

The box will hold three 3 1/2” hard drives (all with swappable frames), as well as two 3 1/2” and two full-size removable media drives. It doesn’t take any tools to mount the removable media drives, but they do require special drive rails that interlock with the case, and the case we got didn’t come with extras for the empty bays.

The mouse supplied with the xSeries 206 is black, has two buttons, and is otherwise unremarkable. The black keyboard is also lightweight and bears no resemblance to the heavy, clicky IBM keyboards of days of yore. Firing the box up results in a quick burst of fan noise, which throttles down to a comfortable purr after the BIOS kicks in.

For video, the xSeries 206 offers an onboard Radeon 7000. Network chores are handled by an integrated Intel/Pro 1000 adapter. IBM also installs its IBM Director software, which ties the computer into a network of other servers if there happens to be one around. Even on a single box, Director can be useful in alerting you about various system events, though it might be overkill for a workgroup. You’ll also find remote power management here—again, useful in the server room, less so in the small workplace.

I’ve never had a lot of luck navigating IBM’s Web site, and looking for xSeries 206 support information was no exception. The problem is that the site is just too large and sprawling. After some hunting, I found a link that should have led to server support, but the link was dead. Google turned up a few more useful-looking pages, but they too were dead. I’m sure everything is out there, but I couldn’t find it when I looked.

IBM eServer xSeries 206

IBM eServer xSeries 206
$1,079
IBM
www.ibm.com
3.0GHz Intel Pentium 4, 512MB ECC RAM, 80GB SATA IDE drive

Summary:
A well-designed server with few compromises.

 

Overall, I’m impressed with the xSeries 206, and I wouldn’t mind having a few of them for my own test server farm. I’m less sure about putting it into a small workgroup, though, where the advanced server features are not as good a fit. But the thoughtful case design and overall performance just might win me over.

Polywell Custom Server
At 42 pounds, this custom-built Polywell system is the largest of those reviewed here. It’s also wider, taller, and deeper than the rest of the systems. What looks at first like it should be a handle on top proves to be a spring-loaded door giving access to USB ports—a curious decision that adds another inch to the height and requires you to think about headroom if you plan to plug anything into them.

The front cover features power and reset buttons (the latter isn’t recessed), plus hard drive and power indicator lights. There are also two separate doors, one of which covers the removable storage devices, while the other hides the swappable hard drives.

It takes three thumbscrews and a pair of latches to pop the side panel. The thumbscrews aren’t permanently contained by the panel, so you’ll need to keep track of them. When you get it open, things are positively cavernous. The nicely wrapped and routed cables add to the feeling of space, but any way you look at it, this is a box you can upgrade. Bring your screwdrivers, though: there are none of those plastic levers to hold things in like you find in tool-less computers.

The hard drive enclosure holds up to three swappable SATA drives. Ours came with a pair of 7200RPM Seagate Barracuda drives. The drive rails slide in and out easily, and seat with a very satisfying snap; they feel much more solid than the ones in IBM’s case.

The RAM occupies two of four slots. The VIA motherboard has four open 32-bit PCI slots, three of which should take full-length cards. The monster case can load up with drives; in addition to the three swappable hard drives, you could put in a 5 1/4” hard drive, a 3 1/2” hard drive, two 3 1/2” floppies (there’s one already installed) and four removable storage devices. A compartment at the bottom of the case holds extra drive rails.

The keyboard and mouse come from KeyTronic, and they’re at least as good as those supplied by any of the big name brand machines. In fact, the KeyTronic is the only mouse in the bunch to include a scroll wheel. Documentation, though, is pretty much nonexistent. There’s the manual for the VIA motherboard and a few driver disks, and that’s about it. The motherboard, by the way, includes integrated sound—an unusual choice for a server.

The Broadcom NetXtreme Gigabit Ethernet adapter is built into the motherboard. Unlike the other systems, though, this one features a separate AGP video card (specifically, an Nvidia Riva TNT2 Model 64). That’s probably more video than an office server really needs, but it’s nice to have built-in flexibility. A 52x Sony CD-ROM rounds out the hardware.

The case fans are definitely the loudest of any in this roundup. This is the one system that you’d want to have in an unused room, rather than next to someone’s desk, based on noise alone.

Polywell custom system

Polywell custom system
$999
Polywell Computers
www.polywell.com
1.4GHz AMD Opteron, 512MB ECC RAM, Dual 80GB SATA , IDE drives

Summary:
A cavernous system with plenty of expansion room.

So long, Kaz! And good luck to ya...
 

By going with a lesser-known vendor like Polywell, you get more system than you do with any of the other choices in this roundup. But there are definite tradeoffs. In addition to the lack of documentation, the Polywell Web site offers minimal support options. There’s a Web form for getting in touch and downloadable driver updates, and that’s about it. There’s a toll-free support phone number, so you can get in touch with a person if you need anything beyond that.

Dell PowerEdge 600SC
Dell declined our repeated requests to send a server for this review. However, one of our editors recently bought a PowerEdge 600SC server, and was persuaded to part with it long enough for me to rip it apart. Just keep in mind that even though it’s comparable to the other systems in this roundup, Dell didn’t specifically configure the system for us. Just before press time, Dell dropped the 600 from its SC lineup, and currently offers the 400SC, which starts at $299, and the 1600SC, which starts at $599.

The front panel of the 30-pound, all-black box offers access to the floppy and CD, as well as a power button and indicator, a hard-drive activity indicator and a reset button. The latter is somewhat recessed and has a stiff spring, but is otherwise unprotected.

Removing two thumbscrews makes it easy to slide the side of the box off. Nearly the entire inside of this side panel is taken up by a label that illustrates the location of the system components, and shows which levers and knobs you can use to remove and replace various pieces. Both the front and back fans can be replaced without tools, and you can also pull out the hard drive enclosure after removing two more thumbscrews. You’ll need a screwdriver to actually swap drives, though.

The single hard drive in our test unit is a Seagate ST340016A— a 7200RPM ATA-100 drive. The RAM takes up two of the available four slots on the motherboard. The cables are all labeled but weren’t especially well-organized. In particular, spare power connectors were hanging loose next to the CPU fan and heatsink.

For expansion, Dell offers four 64-bit PCI slots and one 32-bit PCI slot, any of which will take a full-length card. As with the rest of the systems we looked at, the NIC and video are integrated with the motherboard, so the system ships with all these slots open. The hard drive bay will hold four 3 1/2” drives, and the removable drive bay can handle one floppy and two full-size drives, all of which are accessible through front-panel knockouts.

For network connectivity, the PowerEdge has an Intel Pro/1000 MT embedded controller. Video is handled by a RAGE XL PCI device. You’ll find a 48X Hitachi CD-ROM drive to handle your software installations.

The 600SC came with a standard black keyboard and two-button mouse. While both work fine, a wheel mouse is always nice to have.

The PowerEdge is very quiet when running. While this might not matter in the average server room, small businesses are much more likely to have the server parked under someone’s desk, so the lack of fan noise will be appreciated.

Dell PowerEdge 600SC

Dell PowerEdge 600SC
Dell Computers
www.dell.com
2.4GHz Intel Pentium 4, 512MB ECC RAM, 40GB IDE drive

Summary:
A basic box in basic black.

Alt text here
 

Dell’s Web site is an excellent resource for any system owner. Every system has a service tag and an express service code permanently attached to it. Type in either one at the support section of Dell’s site, and you can get the original product manuals, a list of the hardware in the system (along with replacement part numbers), diagnostic utilities, and drivers tailored to the exact system.

My one concern with the PowerEdge system as configured is the size of the hard drive. A few years ago 40GB seemed like a lot of space, but it’s smaller than we got in any other system. A quarter of that will be eaten just by installing Small Business Server 2003, and that’s before you start to add e-mail and shared documents. When you buy a server, don’t cheap out on the drive, but spend a few dollars for a bigger disk. You won’t regret it. The other problem here is that a single drive doesn’t offer any data protection against hardware failure, and without a tape drive or CD burner, there’s no easy way for your customers to back up their data, even if you can persuade them to do so.

Making the Choice
All the systems reviewed have more than enough power to handle typical small office/remote office needs, so the performance of all of the machines is more than adequate. In fact, 512MB of RAM is plenty to run all SBS’ components, and the load on the server is likely determined by how fast your staff can work, not by what applications they’re using. There should be no problem serving e-mail, intranet, and light database needs from any of these boxes.

All systems made some compromises to keep within our $1,000 budget. They’ve all got CD-ROM instead of DVD-ROM drives, uninspired keyboards and mice (the KeyTronic mouse being an exception), and RAM that takes up more slots than it should. Even though you can expand the RAM of any of these computers to 4GB, you’ll have to throw away the existing chips to do so.

Take into account that you’ll also have expenses beyond the base system. If you don’t have an old monitor around, you’ll need to buy one—though a workgroup server probably doesn’t need an especially good monitor. Depending on your tastes you may also want to replace the keyboard and mouse. I’d also recommend thinking about backups; the easiest way to manage this may be to purchase an external USB CD burner.

As for the four systems at hand, choosing the best one for a particular workgroup depends on the customer’s needs.

For most of the small businesses I’ve worked with, I’d go with the HP ProLiant ML110 if I were limited to choosing between these four. It’s got plenty of power, redundant drives and is easy to upgrade if the customer outgrows it.

The Dell PowerEdge SC600 is a somewhat less attractive choice, with its single drive, but there’s a factor that always makes Dell worth considering: Their frequent pricing specials make it possible to get a real bargain on a system with extra RAM or a larger hard drive if your needs coincide with the sale. You might want to check out the specs on the 400SC and 1600SC at Dell’s Web site.

The IBM eServer xSeries 206 is also an impressive computer with a good selection of components, but I worry about that single drive and think that most of my small business customers would find the preinstalled Director software a bit threatening. So while I’d happily toss it into a server room as a database or mail server, it’s not clear that small workgroups are best served by spending money on server features like swappable drives.

Finally, there’s the Polywell system. With this one, you get plenty of computer for the money and unrivaled expandability, but that’s at the cost of buying something put together from separate manufacturers’ parts rather than designed by one company as an integrated unit. This is likely to make support tricky if anything goes wrong, and might not be a smart risk to take if you’re picking something for a customer who won’t have a computer pro on site.

But the bottom line is that $1,000 is a surprisingly good starting price point for a workgroup server. If you’ve been around this business a few years, you probably saw that initial budget and thought it was way too low. Competition between hardware vendors and advances in components have worked to benefit us all.

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Reader Comments:

Tue, Dec 7, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

Great

Fri, Jun 11, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

klko

Fri, Jun 11, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

very useful article. A comparison grid would have been great. Useful for us consultants to share with clients.

Tue, Jun 8, 2004 Seth Montgomery, AL

When it costs around $200 to upgrade to SCSI, I can't imagine all the 5-star ratings you people are giving for junk. The failure rate of IDE in a server environment is nothing less than quick. Also a respectable "white-box" shop doesn't sell a server with no means to back it up. All these "servers" are are desktop pc's in nice cases.

Mon, Jun 7, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

I have been in discussions with a non-profit for several months (off and on). They're having a hard time believing that a "good" server is as low cost as I've said. Well, I'm going to show them your article. Very well said....and done!

Vince

Fri, Jun 4, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

excellent info to have.

Wed, Jun 2, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

I agree with Anonymous 5-31 -- the real question is whether a 5-10 person office can be well served by a single CPU, 512 MB, single drive server running SBS 2003, or whether dual processors, 1 GB RAM, and RAID 5 are worth the extra money in this type of environment.

Mon, May 31, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

Nothing about actual performance, so how were they "Put to the Test"?

Sat, May 29, 2004 Dave KC

If you watch the “hot deals” sites you can get a stripped down Dell 400SC for around $300. Then upgrade the HD and RAM yourself

Fri, May 28, 2004 Marc Chicago

Interesting, as we are researching cost effective servers.

Thu, May 27, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

A budget rack mount review would be SWELL!

Thu, May 27, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

very useful. would appreciate something similar in rack mount.

Thu, May 27, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

Good Review

Thu, May 27, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

Great article

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