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I'm somewhat new to server hardware, and was wondering if there was any reason to purchase a 19-inch-rack-mountable server as opposed to a standalone (tower) system, or any difference between the two other than form factor.

We're running a small operation, so we will probably never have enough equipment to justify a full rack.

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8 Answers 8

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Form factor is the main difference, and it doesn't take too many servers (5 or 6) before you really want rackmounted gear. You can get telco 'relay' racks for ~$100 or so, and if you've got rackmounted servers then all 6 or 10 of them (depending on height) will fit in one rack, taking up about 3sqft of space... whereas if you try and put 6 full towers in a room, you're going to need a lot more space than that.

Other than space, no, there's no good reason to do so - in fact, rack servers can be a poor fit for an office environment because without a rack to put them in they're kind of awkwardly shaped, and their cooling fans aren't aimed toward low noise at ALL so can best be described as 'jet engine-like' upon startup.

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If you buy tower servers and eventually add a rack, they make shelves you can stack your servers on. Not as effecient a use of space as rack-mount servers, but at least you don't lose the tower servers if you change your mind later. –  SqlRyan May 6 '09 at 22:20
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In addition to rwmnau's comment, some of our Dell tower servers also work sideways on in a rackmount and come with rails. –  Lazlow Jul 18 '09 at 20:00
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If you don't anticipate a rack in your near future, rack mountable servers will just be a waste of money. They're designed with a rack environment in mind (form factor, obviously, but also the cooling and port/button/drive access) and cost more than an equivalent tower server.

Tower servers are generally easier to place and physically work on outside of a rack. The hardware in similarly specced servers will be equivalent, though it can sometimes be harder to find really high-end stuff in a tower form factor. If your operation doesn't need a rack, they probably don't need those super higher-end features.

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Why not look at a HP ML-series server, they come as towers but are easily converted to be rack-mounted cheaply if required. In particular the new ML350/370 G6's (1/2 Nehalem Xeons, upto 144GB mem, 24 disks) are nice-enough machines for the money (http://h10010.www1.hp.com/wwpc/us/en/en/WF04a/15351-15351-241434-241646-241477.html)

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That is similar to some older desktop hardware, where you could rotate the drives for tower or desktop use. –  Brad Gilbert May 7 '09 at 5:43
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Not just HP makes those kinds of convertible servers, most manufacturers have models that does that. –  Oskar Duveborn Jul 18 '09 at 18:47
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When Sun had pretty logos on the top of their 1U servers, a coworker was seriously considering buying one and mounting it on the wall ("bottom" of server mounted flat on wall, rotated so it looked like a diamond) as a home server / art installation. In the end he didn't do it because of the fan noise. Would have looked cool though =).

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+1 for good taste for interior decorations. –  pQd Jun 29 '09 at 22:44
    
At a place I used to work (in a non IT capacity) they had a rack-mount Dell server hanging from a chain on the office kitchen wall. I've never seen anything so ugly and depressing..! –  avstrallen Jul 18 '09 at 20:23
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No-one's really mentioned the big reason you go with rack-mountable servers: the hot-plug, diagnostic and all-round keep-it-working-24x7 of them. For example, a network card failed in one of our HP Proliants recently, I pulled it out of the tower on its rails, looked at the little diagnostic lights, open the top, pulled the card out and pushed a new one in. If it wasn't for my colleague shutting it down when he noticed the problem, it would have started working as if nothing untoward had happened.

Tower system are not built like that, you will often have to shut them down, manhandle them onto a bench (or get on your knees) open the case, remove cards with a screwdriver and generally work on them as if you're rebuilding them.

If you don't mind downtime, then the tower is a good, quieter, cheaper (significantly) option. If you need continuous uptime, then buy the rack server and put it somewhere away from everyone else. If you have to put the server in your office, DO NOT buy the rack-mount one as your ears will not thank you.

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-1: today there's often a 1-to-1 correspondence between (a subset of) rack mount and tower servers. In Dell land you can easily spot them by the first letter - e.g. T310 servers vs R310 servers. Towers usually take advantage of the bigger space (more disks and/or more pci slots) but they're equal for everything else, including motherboard, remote management, ease of maintenance. The same server, as already said, is also usually much more silent in tower form. –  Luke404 Jan 30 '12 at 22:36
    
@Luke404 fair enough, but most people equate an expensive rack system with a cheap tower. They look at the CPU and memory specs and base their comparison on that. –  gbjbaanb Mar 22 '12 at 0:15
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Anything with rack ears on it is usually significantly more expensive than it would be otherwise. If you're planning on adding a rack, then go for it. If not - then you'd really just be throwing money away.

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But 2nd hand it's the reverse. Desktop still sells for an arm and a leg but you get used servers cheap - because business use them for 3 years and only small businesses/startups or private nerds buy them. –  Lothar Apr 11 at 17:05
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Rack mounted hardware is not optimized for noise reduction. You will have to store it in a server room.

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It depends on whether or not you are looking to expand or not. If you are looking to purchase more servers in the near future, it's always blades > rack mounts > tower

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