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A Server Upgrade that Makes Financial Sense?

Each week I speak to a number of customers who have invested in servers. These servers perform a range of functions, from hosting Exchange email boxes to storing company files. I’ve noticed that larger companies have moved many of these tasks to the cloud. Large companies are also more likely to budget for hardware refreshes. But when I speak with owners of small and mid-sized businesses, they always want to know what they can do to extend the life of their servers. Let’s take a look at how to do a server upgrade that makes sense for you!

Many factors play into how I answer that question. Assuming your server can be upgraded, here are a few scenarios where it makes sense to upgrade:

This week I’d like to take a look at some of the components that are worthwhile upgrades. Not every upgrade is going to improve server performance. And in some situations you’d be better off purchasing/leasing a new server. But there are a number of simple upgrades you can make to keep your server running for at least a couple more years.

Operating System

I’m going to start with the only non-hardware upgrade on the list because I talk to so many people running older versions of their OS. If you’ve ever be burned by upgrading your OS, you can understand the apprehension many people feel about this upgrade. For this reason, it’s often easier to make the jump to a new OS when you replace your server. But there are instances where it makes sense to upgrade your OS as long as your hardware can handle it.

Microsoft offers so many licensing options that it’s impossible to cover all of them in this article. But I can tell you that many licensing plans include upgrades to the latest Microsoft products. Microsoft has even put together a matrix for those interested in upgrading to Windows Server 2016.

Why would you want to run the latest version of a server OS? Well, the new version might include new features your company finds useful. Microsoft touts that each new version is faster and more secure than the previous version. I tend to agree with them. After you upgrade it’s not a bad idea to disable those services you don’t use. That frees us memory to be used on more immediate tasks. Not everyone is going to benefit by upgrading their OS, but it’s worth a look.

Memory

Memory/RAM is the easiest and often the most effective upgrade you can perform on your server. If you’re running memory intensive tasks such as hosting a SQL database or crunching numbers or hosting virtual machines  you’ll probably benefit from a memory upgrade.

Before you upgrade the RAM, check your RAM utilization in Task Manager when the server is under load. You’ll notice if the services running on your server are running out of memory which is a good sign because this is a simple and cost effective upgrade.

If all the memory slots on your server are full, you’ll need to replace them with larger modules. One tip: motherboards can be finicky if you don’t use the same brand and model of RAM. Once you’ve got the new RAM installed it doesn’t hurt to test it using MemTest to make sure you don’t have a corrupted stick of memory.

Primary Drive

Every server should have the capacity to accept additional storage drives. And while that gives you more raw storage, it probably won’t improve performance. But there is one storage upgrade that can drastically increase the performance of your server: Replace the primary drive with an SSD.

Replacing your primary drive with an SSD will undoubtedly improve performance in both Windows and Linux. Not only will your server take less time to boot, but applications may run faster as well. Even the slowest SSDs are at least five times faster than mechanical drives.

The downside to this upgrade is that you may need to reinstall your operating system. It also works best if you run the operating system on your primary drive and store data to secondary or tertiary drives. But SSD prices have come down to the point where upgrading to a 1TB primary drive makes a lot of sense. As with any other component, make sure to purchase an SSD from a reputable company such as Intel or Samsung. Both make enterprise-grade drives in various capacities.

GPU

Upgrading your GPU isn’t something many consider, but it can make a huge difference. That’s because most server tasks have been memory and CPU intensive rather than relying on the GPU to do much of anything. But today servers are performing machine deep learning, machine learning and scientific modeling tasks that are specifically written to take advantage of fast GPUs like the NVIDIA Quadro or AMD FirePro line of graphic cards.

Unlike CPUs, which have seen incremental updates for the past few years, GPUs have experienced major performance jumps from one generation to the next. So if you’re doing any machine learning tasks that take advantage of your GPU, it might be worthwhile to upgrade to the latest versions from NVIDIA or AMD. The upside is that replacement is a simple affair. The downside is that the latest GPUs, such as the P100, are difficult to find because they are in such demand.

How NOT to Do a Server Upgrade

So the OS, primary drive, RAM and GPU are worthwhile server upgrades. But what upgrade components don’t make a lot of sense? Here’s a few tips I’ve learned across the years:

  1. Avoid upgrading the CPU unless you absolutely know your motherboard supports it. Most server tasks aren’t constrained by the CPU so this upgrade can be costly yet only marginally effective
  2. RAID controllers and network cards are two components you can upgrade, but I don’t recommend it. Replace them if they break, but upgrading them seldom results in improved performance

If you’ve invested in a quality server there’s a good chance you can upgrade it. Companies such as Dell, IBM and HP can provide you with parts and upgrade advice. They may also want to sell you a new server but don’t let that deter you.

What upgrades have you made to your server that provided the most bang for the buck? Are there any upgrades you regret?

Categories: Uncategorized
Tags: serverserver upgrade
Brett Nordquist: Brett spent nearly a decade in various roles at Microsoft and currently runs his own consulting company called Red Mountain Research. Brett attended the University of Utah where he earned a degree in German. When not at his computer, he enjoys spending time with family, cycling, and playing basketball.