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I'm purchasing a reasonably high-end server for our lab, and I'm wondering what parts I should simply leave as the default and upgrade after-sale.

At least in Desktop PCs, the conventional wisdom is that it's cheaper, for example, to buy RAM from "the internet" rather than Dell or HP.

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14 Answers 14

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Traditionally nothing, unless you enjoy trying to troubleshoot hardware ^^

Doing enthusiast PCs is one thing, and definitely fun and rewarding as well - upgrading with parts from all over the world getting it to work in unison.

A single server then, one could find that fun to mess around with as well or as a learning experience.

For a bunch of servers? No way. You pay the manufacturer for parts that are thoroughly tested with each other to be sure there's no hidden problems or compatibility problems lurking in the shadows - stealing your valuable time.

If there's something I'd skimp on it would be hard disks for large, slow storage devices that will be used for archival purposes perhaps. Then it might make sense to get cheaper drives from a 3rd party just because you're getting a lot of them and there's a lot of redundancy. But even that could prove challenging, according to the SO server blog posts ^^


(But as it's only a single server for a lab, which doesn't sound all that critical, it's more of a policy and/or philosophical question. I always went a bit custom the first years, only to realize it wasn't worth the time when things went wrong. I've tried skimping on all sorts of parts. Memory and disks are obvious, but these days I'd only buy original parts meant for the specific server revision. I've tried upgrading single-cpu dual-socket servers with the correct cpu bought from a local store and a fitting heat sink, only to miss out on the needed voltage regulators whose extra cost completely swallowed the savings of the cheaper cpu. I've tried adding big name raid cards which at times either clashed with the built-in mobo-controller or just had problems routing cables when there were official options available for not much additional cost...)

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I absolutely agree here. I was amazed when I found certain apps that just did not run right on a white box server that screamed on a nice prebuilt and tested Dell with almost the exact same specs. I have had at least three issues with white box servers that have made me a believer in buying from the big boys for servers. –  AudioDan Jun 17 '09 at 0:04

Rack rails. Never ever ever buy rails from the server manufacturer. There is an entire industry devoted to third party rack rails, and their products are better and as much as 80% less expensive.

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Really? I don't think hp (or Compaq when we started) ever charged extra for the rails, it certainly never occurred to me to ask. One counter-argument is that if you have a Compaq rack and Compaq servers, the Compaq rails work really really well. No messing around to make things fit. –  Ward Jul 6 '09 at 20:15
    
Yes, all vendors charge for rack rails, often as much $150 - $200 each. (This is especially egregious on a $600 1U "pizza box".) It is possible that you have a high-volume account with Compaq/HP where they included the rails for free, but if you John Doe tries order online or by phone they will charge him. –  Portman Jul 8 '09 at 21:32

External stuff. Don't buy the keyboard, mouse, screen, net switches, printers, USB memory etc. All that stuff they try to shove you in, when you're buying server. They'll re-branded stuff, that you can by in any store for half a price, and they don't really heave any effect on performance nor stability of the server. If you need the server, buy only the server.

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Presuming that your "lab" isn't a quasi-data center, skimp on the lights out features (HP iLo, Dell DRAC, IBM RSA), don't buy redundant power supplies or SAS disk.

Another way to save money is to buy promotional "Express" configurations that are ready to ship, buy refurbished or whatever your local reseller has lying about.

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I would skimp on the floppy drive :)

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+1 But only if you run operating systems that doesn't need it at times (ie not a non-prepared Windows Server 2003 looking for your raid-card in vain). An usb-floppy-drive costs more... –  Oskar Duveborn May 8 '09 at 9:00
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I have one USB floppy and one USB CD Rom. Once purchased it will work for all future ones. –  SpaceManSpiff Jun 16 '09 at 23:46

Certainly RAM. Disks are often cheaper also. The RAID controllers you get with servers are sometimes pretty terrible, you might want to look into getting one separate.

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I have to agree with Oskar skimping on server hardware just increases your chances of failure. If you can't afford proper server hardware because you are founding a startup or something I would look at cloud computing options like amazon aws, google app engine, or azure rather than buying your own hardware.

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we're a school, so "pay for what you use" cloud alternatives doesn't really work due to the way budgeting is conducted. We go before a committee and have to get enough money before-hand to cover all of the year's technology expenses. If we were to go over our budget with Amazon's AWS, we'd be without anything at all. –  lfaraone May 9 '09 at 23:20

Every part is worth checking the price on at the time you buy it. We used to have a hard and fast rule of buying third party memory, but price fluctuations are such that we occasionally get cheaper memory directly from the server vendor. If you're really interested in getting the best deals, you gotta get the current prices when you're preparing to buy the server

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I tend not to buy any optical drives as I just don't use them.

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That's fine if you have never upgrade the OS or CD-based apps or if you can do PXE boot from a local server. If you don't have any of these, then you're better off getting an optical drive just for an OS/application install that won't take until tomorrow just to load setup.exe or its equivalent. If you have lights-out features such as DRAC and don't mind an upgrade taking until tomorrow, then you can skip it. But that's assuming that you have a DRAC for remote systems. –  Kevin M Jun 16 '09 at 21:46
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We PXE our builds, so never need them. –  Chopper3 Jun 16 '09 at 21:55

Before you skimp on RAM, check to make sure you know what memory is compatible with the server you are looking at. Servers are more likely than desktops and laptops to have more stringent RAM requirements. That is, servers are more likely to not work with commodity RAM.

If, for example, the [Crucial memory advisor] says that you can purchase RAM more cheaply than at Dell, HP, etc, then by all means, skimp on RAM from the OEM.

If the OEM charges too much for hard disks, then (unless you are using a hardware RAID controller) feel free to purchase any aftermarket disk.

What else would an OEM overcharge for? Servers often come with underpowered video cards. I've never heard of an aftermarket video card causing problems with a server, which doesn't mean it won't happen. These days, much is integrated into the motherboard, such as video, audio, Ethernet, so there aren't as many add-ons as there used to be.

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Why would a server need a video card? –  lfaraone May 9 '09 at 23:28
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On a test server, there was a program I had to repeatedly install and uninstall. This program did a very simple "fade" from one screen to another during the install process. Flashy, unnecessary, and totally annoying on the server's way underpowered video card. On any other computer, the fade took a fraction of a second. On this server, it took maybe 10 or 15 seconds. The video card also interoperated poorly with VNC. –  Eddie May 13 '09 at 16:17
    
Eddie, I'm voting you up, but just because I feel sorry for you. –  Matt Simmons Jun 16 '09 at 20:50
    
I honestly don't understand the deliberate culture of vastly underpowered video cards for servers. It's not like I'm suggesting people spend $100 on a server video card. –  Eddie Jun 17 '09 at 1:16

What is the purpose for the server? If it is for performance testing, or depending on the nature of the what you are using it for you may want to keep it the same as production.

Assuming it is unimportant then RAM and hard drives are both much cheaper from 3rd party vendors. HP and others will make you pay through the nose to have a hard disk that comes with their proprietary hard disk case thing. Its ridiculous the markup really.

Maybe you don't really want a server for your lab at all and could with consumer grade parts or go with a ultra cheap server vendor. You may be walking the path of most pain though remember its very easy to wipe out your cost savings if an engineer has to spend time fixing faulty hardware - human time is normally your biggest cost.

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We're just going to be hosting a few projects on it, actually. Nothing too "professional", we're a small high school with some bright CS students. –  lfaraone May 9 '09 at 23:29

It's not a great idea to go for third party parts for servers if you want the vendor to make problems go away when something goes bad. At best, they'll ask you to prove the fault with the third party parts removed. At worst, they will declare the warranty void.

I, as a matter of course, do not buy cable management arms and CD/DVD/Floppy drives. These are ease, safe items to remove, assuming you have a method to netboot it, install from USB drive or use CD/floppy redirection via the server's remote management device.

If you have to skimp, perhaps smaller servers are a better option (single CPU/PSU, slower drives - never go without some form of RAID though). Make sure your management either signs off on the possibility of downtime if the server blows it's PSU and/or purchases a spare to cover multiple servers.

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Don't skimp

Yes, you heard right, just buy from a reliable store in your area SuperMicro/Tyan barebone with everything you need - your bill will be the same as if you bought it from the internet.

Say no to Dell/Lenovo/HP/etc extortionate upgrade fees. Almost everybody got burnt from it, and from what I've seen, there are no benefits from going in this route.

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Right Don't Skimp. You needed to support. You don't want to deal with different vendors when your box fails.

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