Each week I speak to many customers who have invested in servers. These servers perform a range of functions, from hosting Exchange email boxes to storing company files. I have noticed that larger companies have moved many of these tasks to the cloud. Large companies are also more likely to budget for hardware refreshes. However, 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:
You need to get another couple of years out of your server.
The server can upgrade.
Your server is running memory or GPU intensive tasks.
The server is no older than five years.
This week I would like to take a look at some of the components that are worthwhile upgrades. Not every upgrade is going to improve server performance. Moreover, in some situations, you’d be better off purchasing/leasing a new server. However, there are some simple upgrades you can make to keep your server running for at least a couple more years.
I am 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 have ever been burned by upgrading your OS, you can understand the apprehension many people feel about this upgrade. For this reason, it is often easier to make the jump to a new OS when you replace your server.
However, 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 is impossible to cover all of them in this article. However, 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 is not a bad idea to disable those services you do not use. That frees our memory to be used for more immediate tasks. Not everyone is going to benefit by upgrading their OS, but it is worth a look.
Memory/RAM is the easiest and often the most effective upgrade you can perform on your server. If you are 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 will 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 useful upgrade.
If all the memory slots on your server are full, you will need to replace them with larger modules. One tip: motherboards can be finicky if you do not use the same brand and model of RAM. Once you have got the new RAM installed it does not hurt to test it using MemTest to make sure you do not have a corrupted stick of memory.
Every server should have the capacity to accept additional storage drives. Moreover, while that gives you more raw storage, it probably won’t improve performance. However, 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. However, SSD prices have come down to the point where upgrading to a 1TB primary drive makes much 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.
Upgrading your GPU is not something many consider, but it can make a huge difference. That is because most server tasks have been memory and CPU intensive rather than relying on the GPU to do much of anything. However, today servers are performing deep machine learning, machine learning and scientific modelling tasks that are specifically written to take advantage of fast GPUs like the NVIDIA Quadro or AMD FirePro line of graphics 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 are 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. However, what upgrades components do not make much sense? Here are a few tips I have learned over the years:
Avoid upgrading the CPU unless you know your motherboard supports it. Most server tasks are not constrained by the CPU so that this upgrade can be costly yet only marginally effective
RAID controllers and network cards are two components you can upgrade, but I do not recommend it. Replace them if they break, but upgrading them seldom results in improved performance
If you have 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?