Server Infrastructure 101: How to Plan

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Server infrastructure is the set of components that comprise your server. This includes, but not limited to, your server’s physical hardware configuration, operating system, software stack (such as web servers), and security measures. When planning this infrastructure, take into account all these factors, so you can scale them effectively in the future.

Server Infrastructure and Server Hardware

Server hardware is typically the main cost associated with running a server. For most applications, commodity hardware (described below) will be sufficient for your needs.

At times, however, you may need specialized hardware such as RAID storage or high-performance network cards to meet your application’s requirements. You may even require modular UPS if your “rack” of servers will be hosting something mission-critical.

Note that you can typically scale up hardware when necessary to meet your application’s needs. One of the most common examples is when an application requires fast input/output (I/O).

For instance, if a database-driven application needs to quickly create or delete records to match new orders in an e-commerce site, it may need an expensive RAID solution to meet these performance requirements.

Commodity Hardware

Commodity hardware is the term used for off-the-shelf server equipment that can be purchased from many different vendors. The term is often reserved for “branded” equipment manufactured by a larger company and sold through a separate vendor, such as a system builder, reseller, or VAR (value-added reseller). You can typically find commodity hardware at your local computer store as well as through catalog and online vendors.

Server Appliances

Server appliances are pre-configured bundles of hardware and software. Examples include web, database, and e-commerce appliances that include a web server (such as Apache or Microsoft IIS), database (MySQL or Oracle), and e-commerce software.

Most vendors will also provide support for their appliances. Server appliances require a separate management server, which you must install and configure.

Virtualized or Physical Servers?

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In the past, companies have been faced with a choice between virtualized servers and dedicated physical servers. In recent years, however, this has changed as more advanced technologies have emerged that allow companies to have the best of both worlds.

The first technology, called a virtual machine monitor (VMM), allows hosting providers to run multiple operating systems on a single physical server. This solution has been implemented by some hosting providers for a number of years and is now being offered as an option by many hardware manufacturers.

The second technology, called a hypervisor, allows companies to run multiple operating systems on a single server while also allocating system resources in the most efficient way possible.

For example, this technology would maximize memory usage by allocating more of it to the virtual machine that has the most need for it rather than splitting up the memory among separate machines. This type of technology is still young in terms of adoption, but it appears to be the next logical evolution in computing.

How to Plan for Your Company’s Needs

When planning your server infrastructure, take into account your company’s specific needs. Consider the following questions:

  • What size and number of servers will I need?
  • How many sites will I have?
  • Will my website(s) be PCI compliant?
  • Do the applications on my server require a larger configuration?

At times, you may need to spend more money upfront for better hardware. In other cases, you may need to spend more money upfront to achieve the proper level of performance.

For most companies, commodity hardware is going to provide an adequate solution when planning your server infrastructure. If this is not sufficient for your needs, however, it may be possible to use virtualization software or other technologies to consolidate many virtual servers onto a single physical server.

Another option is to purchase pre-configured bundles of commodity hardware and software, such as appliances. However, you should be aware that if your company’s needs change, you will likely need to upgrade the entire appliance rather than just upgrading one or two components.

This may not be particularly appealing from a cost perspective, especially for a company where the needs are going to be constantly changing.

Another option would be to develop a custom solution based on open-source software and commodity hardware. This is usually more cost-effective than purchasing an appliance, and it can also allow you to consider more of your company’s specific needs. But the disadvantage compared with appliances is that this solution will require skilled resources for installation and ongoing management.

Each company’s needs are unique. You should carefully consider your business requirements before determining the best approach for your server infrastructure. While commodity hardware can be a cost-effective solution, pre-configured bundles of commodity hardware and software, appliances, may be better suited to some companies’ specific needs.

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