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A Server Upgrade that Makes Financial Sense

Every week, I speak with a large number of customers who have made an investment in servers. These servers are responsible for a variety of tasks, including hosting Exchange email boxes and storing company files. I’ve noticed that many of these duties have been outsourced to the cloud by larger corporations. Large organisations are also more likely to set aside money for hardware upgrades. On the other hand, when I interact with owners of small and mid-sized enterprises, I always hear them ask about strategies to extend the life of their servers. Consider the following steps for performing 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.

Operating System

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 use the most recent version of a server operating system? It’s possible that the new version will have additional features that your organisation will find valuable. Microsoft promotes the fact that each new version is faster and more secure than the prior version in its marketing materials. I tend to agree with what they’re saying. It is not a terrible idea to disable any services that you do not use after you have completed your upgrade. This allows us to employ our memory for tasks that are more urgent. Although not everyone will benefit from changing their operating system, it is worth considering.

Memory

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.

Primary Drive

Every server should be able to accommodate the addition of additional storage drives. Furthermore, while this will provide you with extra raw storage space, it is unlikely to result in an improvement in performance. It should be noted that there is one type of storage update that can significantly improve the performance of your server: Replace the primary drive with a solid-state drive (SSD). The installation of an SSD in place of your primary drive will surely increase performance in both Windows and Linux. Not only will your server boot up in less time, but applications may also operate more quickly as a result of this. Even the slowest solid-state drives (SSDs) are at least five times faster than traditional 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.

GPU

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 them. 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?

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