The concept of a network server can mean many things depending on whom you ask. Despite this diversity of opinion, there is a great deal of agreement on what elements to look for, according to those who have purchased servers recently. Why is a network server such a nebulous concept? Several reasons: computer hardware vendors themselves haven't been too clear delineating the differences between a desktop personal computer and one that will share files across the enterprise. Some such as Dell Computer Corporation [Austin, Tex. 800-289-3355] sell souped-up desktop PCs as "network-ready," which really refers to pre-installed networking workstation software and adapters. Others such as AST Research, Inc. [Irvine, Calif. 800-876-4AST; 714-727-4141], NetFrame Systems, Inc. [Milpitas, Calif. 800-852-3726; 408-944-0600], and IBM [Armonk, NY 800-426-3333; 914-765-1900] have machines that are exclusively servers: they contain from two to four central processors, at least 16 megabytes and usually more random access memory and gigabytes of disk storage, and redundant disk drives, power supplies, and other components. Network operating system software vendors have also been unclear about what constitutes a server: for years Novell, Inc. [Provo, Utah 800-453-1267; 801-429-7000] and Microsoft Corp. [Redmond, Wash. 800-426-9400; 206-882-8080] have been telling their customers that they can use a variety of desktop computers as servers to keep their markets as wide as possible and to cover the waterfront from small office networks to those that span the globe and connect thousands of end-users. And users have different needs as well: some want non-dedicated machines that can double as desktops. "Lots of small businesses just want to go peer to peer, and don't need any server," says Louis M. Gutentag, president of Technology Directions, Inc. in New York City. (212 564 9051). Gutentag has worked as an Information Systems manager in several large corporations and has helped a variety of small businesses such as an architectural firm assemble their own networks. "If you are just storing documents or the occasional drawing, you really don't require a dedicated server." Other kinds of businesses that are more transaction-based, such as insurance agencies, medical offices, and the like will need something more potent that they can run their businesses on: "The brain of your network is the server," says Jon Arnold, director of Information Services, Edison Electric Institute, Washington, DC (202 508 5432) . "You should treat it accordingly with conditioned power and place servers in secured areas." Arnold has managed multiple-thousand node networks that span Novell's NetWare, Unix, and IBM mainframes in multiple locations. To make matters worse, many hardware vendors have eliminated the concept of retail pricing. Everyone is willing to negotiate, which means that canny buyers who are willing to commit to multiple-unit purchases can usually cut some deals, according to our interviewees. Given this power of the purse, here are a few shopping tips. 1. Shop service and support first. All of our recent buyers were in agreement when it came to first considering the kind and quality of service -- warranties, maintenance, and response time for repairs -- before even thinking about the actual hardware. "Support is where the hidden costs lie. You should find a provider to take care of this first," says Brian Walsh, senior consultant for Cap Gemini America, Portland Ore. (503 229 3874) who has built multiple-server networks for a variety of large banks and investment companies. "Warranties have a real value over the long haul." Indeed, looking carefully at a vendor's support and service policies can be a very effective way to narrow down the number of machines to choose from. Some of them, such as Hewlett-Packard Co. [Palo Alto, Calif. 800-752-0900; 415-857-1501], IBM and Compaq Computer Corporation [Houston, Tex. , 800 345 1518], have begun to offer three-year on-site warranties as part of the purchase price of the server. This means that if the machine needs repair, the vendor will send a representative to your office to fix it usually the next business day without any additional cost. "The fact that Compaq offered a three year on-site service contract weighed heavily in our decision to buy ProLiants," says Peter Shulkin, a manager of the Electro-Medical group, Siemens Medical Systems, Danvers, Mass. (508 750 7607) Siemens has many Novell and Unix systems and Shulkin is responsible for purchasing servers used for their internal software development projects. Examine these warranties carefully, however. Some vendors, such as Compaq and Dell, offer different warranties for desktops versus servers, and others offer the first year free for on-site repairs but charge for subsequent years. Compaq, for example, offers carry-in warranties for their desktops for the second and third year as part of the purchase price, which can be upgraded to an on-site warranty for a few hundred dollars. If the warranty is not included in the purchase price, it can be expensive: Typically, these charges can add as much as 15 percent of the initial purchase price per year for maintenance, and a ten percent annual premium can be common. Unwarrantied service calls can vary, depending on what the problem is, but many companies charge at least a $50 hourly fee and include the time it takes to travel to a customer site: with the cost of parts this could exceed several hundred dollars. Other fine print to examine: the guaranteed response time that a vendor specifies. Some service contracts only promise that the server will be fixed the next business day, and offer extra-cost options to reduce the amount of down-time. For example, Compaq charges for some of their least expensive servers upwards of $500 a year to upgrade their warranty response time from next day to four-hour turnaround. The more impatient you are, the more expensive a maintenance contract will be. "Can you be without this machine for a few hours or a few days? I have four-hour turnaround for my servers: this is because we are losing money when people are sitting idle. I estimate that if our network is down, we lose about $100,000 a day as far as productivity goes.," says Arnold. But warranties aren't the only thing to look for. Vendors such as Dell and others offer to pre-install the network operating systems software and ship the machine ready-to-run. And you should also choose the particular outlet -- whether it is a distributor, systems integrator, or dealer -- where you buy your server with a great deal of care. "We prefer local people. Above all, we stick with a major vendor and establish a long term relationship. We are looking for a longer-term commitment so that we do not just get a box dropped off, and we never hear from them again. That sort of support makes a difference," says Shulkin. Many buyers cautioned against buying servers via mail-order for this reason: "Calling an 800 number and talking to a stranger on the other end isn't enough when it comes to a network server. It is important to have someone nearby that you have a relationship with," says Gutentag. But what if you don't live in a major metropolitan area or if your choices are limited? Several of our interviewees recommended developing a long-distance relationship with a dealer in another city, rather than going the mail-order route. "Especially if you are going to be buying more than one machine from the same dealer," said Arnold. The bottom line: "It is going to cost more to support your servers than you'd like. You've got to consider that you will do at least two software upgrades at a minimum over the next three years, and consider the labor costs in keeping your server running as well," says Walsh. What are the typical costs? Experienced network administrators typically have salaries starting around $45,000. Software upgrades for the network operating system can run multiple thousands of dollars per year, depending on how many users and how many servers they cover. For example, the maintenance costs for a 100-user version of Banyan's VINES costs $3,000 a year. That includes software upgrades, patches, and technical support calls, and compares with a purchase price of $10,000 for the original software license. 2. Don't slight security and business interruptions concerns. If you have the type of business that will require a dedicated network server, keeping it running is important. "You should plan how you will solve the security and disaster recovery issues even before you figure out what applications will go on the server," said Walsh. "Don't ignore your infrastructure and low-ball these costs as part of the implementation." "No one would ever think of putting in a minicomputer or a mainframe without having special power circuits, security and sprinklers. You've got to think the same way when you are downsizing your data processing to network servers," said Scott Tompkins, senior consultant, Hewitt Associates, Lincolnshire, IL (708 295 5000). About 18 months ago, Tompkins underwent an exhaustive cost-benefit analysis looking at a variety of server brands for Hewitt. He included the total cost to expand data storage needs and provide these security options. Hewitt is now replacing many of their older IBM model 80s with more than a dozen NetFrames, based on this analysis. To do a better job protecting your data, many buyers suggested that items such as backup power and tape storage should be considered at the time of server purchase. "There is no excuse not to have power monitoring, regardless of how often you use it -- it is good stuff to have," says Arnold. Gutentag agrees: "Every server should have an uninterruptible power supply attached to it." A variety of software products from backup power supply vendors such as Best Power Technology, Inc. [Necedah, Wisc. 608 565 7200] and American Power Conversion Corp. [West Kingston, R.I. 401 789 5735] are available, some for less than $2,000 for smaller models. These work in tandem with the network operating system running in your server: so if power dips below certain levels or cuts off completely, these software products will shut down your server carefully and prevent data loss. Another power management feature to look for: the ability to track your power quality over a period of time. "This way you can see where your power spikes and brownouts have been for the past month," said Arnold. "No one should buy a server without a tape drive," says Arnold. "If you have any amount of disk storage you need an intelligent backup system such as from Cheyenne Software, Inc. [Roslyn Heights, NY 800-243-9462; 516-484-5110] or Palindrome Corp. [Naperville, IL 800-288-4912; 708-505-3300] to manage your tape library." These products, available for a variety of network operating systems, copy only the files that have been changed since the last backup and tell you which tapes are required for each backup. "You should also rotate your tapes off site for disaster recovery purposes. This can be as simple as giving them to some trusted employee to bring home. The trick is doing it regularly," says Arnold. "If security is an issue, bonded tape storage companies are available, and they pick up and deliver when we need them," says Shulkin. Another way to keep servers reliable is to look for special built-in management software that can examine various server components and report on their relative health. Compaq's servers, for example, even have the ability to predict future failures such as a bad disk drive or memory block. The software alerts the network administrator that it is time to replace a part. While this has overtones of Hal in the movie "2001," these pro-active replacements are covered under Compaq's standard warranties. Hewlett Packard servers also offer as an extra-cost option management software that is very robust, according to users. The value of this software is especially important for those organizations that intend to place servers in several geographically distinct locations. "Our goal is to support our distributed network in a centralized fashion. We want remote server management, so we can look at the server's console from headquarters and do things as if we are sitting in front of the machine," said Tompkins. "I've been to Europe twice in the last 18 months to deal with LAN issues, and it would be nice to have servers in the field that could be remotely manageable." Hewitt is not using its NetFrames in the field, so Tompkins cannot inspect various server components such as memory and disk drives via communications links: he or a service technician must visit the ailing machine personally. Finally, determine who will add user accounts to the server and keep track of such items as regular backups. Have separate people responsible for mundane administrative tasks, such as making the actual backup, from those who have the ability to view the backed-up files themselves. This will prevent secretaries from being able to review payroll data, for example. Many network operating systems, such as NetWare and Vines, have the ability to do this -- it is just a matter of proper user setup at the time the network is installed. 3. Know your NOS. "The applications should drive the purchase of hardware and software," says Shulkin. Before you buy your hardware, you should have already chosen your network operating system. (See June 93 article on tips on which one to choose if you are starting out fresh.) Find out if the operating system vendor has certified that its software will run on the server that you are interested in. 4. Look at the major brands. All of the buyers interviewed were in strong agreement here: "You've got to have a name brand machine for your server," said Arnold. Compaq and Hewlett Packard are favorites for a variety of reasons: The companies have solid reputations and the machines are very reliable. "Other than a floppy drive problem, we've had no problems with our Compaq ProLiant -- it runs 24 hours a day," says Shulkin. "I like HP: they build industrial-strength computers, some of most rugged equipment in the industry. I can always get support for the equipment, and their failure rate is one of the lowest," says Arnold. While IBM was frequently mentioned as a potential candidate, many buyers have stayed away from IBM servers for a variety of reasons. "IBM's MicroChannel is not the way to go for small business. You lose flexibility and the price of components gets higher," says Gutentag. "I have been disappointed with IBM over the years," says Arnold. "Six months after the product is released, they tell you about this problem in some obscure technical note that has a big impact on server reliability." "We underestimated our requirements by using a IBM PS/2 model 80," said Tompkins, who has replaced most of his IBM servers with models from NetFrame. "IBM's servers today are still a day late and a dollar short." 5. Which type of server is right for your uses? Basically, there are three categories: a souped-up high-end desktop PC, a specialized server, or one of the superservers. Median prices for each are about $5,000, $15,000, and $50,000 for each kind of unit. Other than price, what are the major distinguishing differences? First and foremost is the amount of disk storage inside the machine. Desktop PCs typically have room for one or two disk drive units, which can be very limiting. "Anything more and you'd have to add an external expansion unit, which is a pain," said Tompkins. These external units can be difficult to maintain and end up contributing to more server down-time and maintenance. Next is the peripheral bus design: desktops typically use Industry Standard Architecture, or ISA. Specialized servers use either MicroChannel or Extended ISA buses, and superservers have their own proprietary architecture's. The bus design determines how fast data moves in and out of a server, and since the function of the server is to move data, it can have a greater impact on overall server performance than the speed of the microprocessor itself. "One of the keys is that you got to have a powerful enough bus to move data from the network to the disk, and that means either Extended ISA or Microchannel," says Arnold. Other features that distinguish the higher-end servers and superservers include the ability to remove disk drives without powering down the server (called hot swapping) and more reliable error-correcting memory features. "When we first looked at servers two years ago, only NetFrame had error-correcting memory. We thought that was a must-have feature because of reliability reasons," said Tompkins. Now other vendors are beginning to offer it: for example, Dell's latest servers, the PowerEdge SP and XE, offer error-correcting memory as an extra-cost option while Compaq's servers come standard with error-correcting memory. Tompkins also recommends looking at redundant components inside the server, to remove single points of failure. This includes power supplies, disk drives, network adapters, and other circuitry. "You have to look at your business needs: if you've got ongoing software development that need that server, you will want to have at least redundant disk drives." So what to buy? "Most small offices should start off by looking at the high-end desktops," said Gutentag. "If you put too many people on a desktop server, you'll burn them out," said Tompkins. "Maybe if you have an office for two or three people, an ISA bus PC will be adequate. But for anything bigger I'd consider a serious server." Tompkins eventually went with NetFrames because of the error-correcting memory, the hot-swappable drives, and because it was built like a tank. "When you open one of them up, they look more like a 3745 (IBM mainframe front-end processor) than a PC. I liked that: our 3745s run non-stop for years." 6. Don't scrimp on memory and storage. Buyers agreed that you should purchase a server for your needs three years into the future, and consider how your business will change over that time period. "People have a tendency to underbuy, and over time you run out of horsepower and end up replacing a machine," said Gutentag. This means obtaining the maximum amount of memory and disk storage at the time of purchase, rather than adding them later on. "Any server, no matter what operating system, should have not less than 32 megabytes of random access memory: it always costs more to upgrade things later," said Walsh. Arnold thinks 16 megabytes is a bare minimum for NetWare, but recommends more if you have large disk storage needs. Also, make sure your operating system will support more than 16 megabytes of memory in the server of your choice: some machines, such as those with an ISA bus, can't make use of more memory with some operating systems such as Banyan's VINES and early versions of LAN Server. Calculating your disk storage needs is a tricky proposition. "We brought up servers with 70 people and they would overrun 300 megabyte drives in two months," said Tompkins. "The more the better," says Arnold. "Buy twice as much as you think you'll need," says Walsh. "As long as you can expand your storage easily, it's not the end of the world," says Shulkin. "We've just added three gigabyte drives that cost less than a thousand dollars." "One of the reasons we bought the NetFrame was because it supported the amount of disk storage we wanted -- four gigabytes. The IBM PS/2 Model 95 and the some of the Dell servers still can't hold that amount of storage internally," said Tompkins. 7. Minimize the number of vendors whenever possible. Buyers also agreed that the fewer manufacturers, the better. "Try to get as many components [PCs, disk drives, and tape backup units] as possible from a single vendor. The goal is to get a vendor to accept ownership of the entire system, since all that finger pointing can drive you crazy," says Shulkin. "When we bought IBM and Compaq servers, we ended up having a number of different people's hardware in the box," says Tompkins. "Now I try to go with a single vendor."