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Product Review: HP ProLiant MicroServer Gen8

Typically servers are available in two form-factors: blades for high-density datacentres, and towers which provide maximum expandability. This creates two problems for small business: these units are either expensive, or too large and heavy to be practical.

Hewlett Packard's MicroServer fills a gap in the server market which enables small business to have a dedicated server box with proper server-grade features, but in a physical form-factor and price that is more palatable in many cases.

Specifications & Usage

As of early 2014, the ProLiant MicroServer Gen8 is the latest incantation. The mid-range model features a relatively low-end Intel Pentium G2020T 2.5 GHz processor (two cores) and can only be expanded to 16Gb RAM (using two 8Gb chips). So this means the machine would be inappropriate for, say, running a large Microsoft Exchange store, but it would be perfectly fine to run a website/e-commerce system, host a lot of files, run a database or host some Remote Desktop sessions.

Although a maximum of 16Gb of installed RAM is very little in today's terms, given that many business-grade servers can handle, say, 384Gb, it is substantially more than many of the old servers that small businesses might already have in operation. So for a small business struggling with a 6-year-old box with 4Gb RAM, the power in the MicroServer is far superior and presents an extremely economical way to replace an old server with more power but for not too many dollars.

Hardware

Physically, the MicroServer is a very tidy package. Solid and precisely built, but not too heavy, and easily managed without too many tools. However it is not an end-user device. The MicroServer ships with no hard disks, does not have an internal optical drive (DVD), and has 2Gb RAM by default. So adding the drives and additional memory requires the confidence to open the box and install these components. Additionally, the hard disk drives need to be provisioned into volumes in the storage controller setup. The lack of an optical drive means that you need to be technically-savvy enough to have operating system media on a bootable USB drive, or access to an external optical drive to install from.

Memory Expansion

Undo the case with the two lugs at the rear. The case slips off, exposing the memory slots which are easily accessed.

Storage

To access the drive bays, use the clip on the side (exposed when the case is removed) to unlock the front bezel, which then swings away to reveal the four drive bays. To install the hard disk drives requires removing the drive mounts. This can be a little tricky because it's hard to tell the difference between breaking the latch and simply using a bit of confident force. The clip on the front comes forward, which releases the lever and allows the mount to be removed. Remove the metal placeholders and screw the drive in. Ensure the SATA connector on the drive aligns with the connector at the back of the bay.

We found that some of the screws shipped with these drive mounts are relatively soft and can be hard to unscrew; in fact several times we needed to use a pair of pliers to loosen them first. This requires both force and care, because the drive mounts themselves are made of flimsy plastic.

The MicroServer takes standard SATA 3½" hard disks so it is not necessary to use HP-branded product, but as a server that will be always-on, you'd want to use drives designed for server or NAS usage.

The MicroServer uses the Smart Array B120i controller and software (similar to that used in higher-end Proliant systems), so you can configure various levels of RAID, including RAID 1+0 if you populate all four bays. However, because the B120i is relatively low-end, the storage arrays cannot be reconfigured, say, to change a single-drive RAID 0 array to a two-drive RAID 1 array. Thus you must design and deploy your storage at setup-time, or be prepared to back up, delete all arrays and restore.

Operating Systems & Setup

Operating system support covers Windows 2008 to Windows 2012 R2 and various flavours of Linux.

The server has an on-board wizard for setting up volumes and installing operating systems called Intelligent Provisioning (accessed with F10 at boot), which applies all drivers automatically.

Alternatively, when installing Windows natively, we found that the setup — even using the HP Reseller Option Kit (ROK) media — could not see the drive volumes. So it was necessary to supply the storage controller drivers from a USB stick during setup. However that was the only manual intervention required. Windows detects enough of the onboard devices to be up-and-running, including the network controller and video. After the operating system is installed and updated, download the HP Smart Update Manager (HP SUM). After a lengthy download of packages, apply all the remaining device drivers and HP components.

Security

HP supplies an inexpensive TPM (Trusted Platform Module) chip as an option for its servers, and it is compatible with the MicroServer.

The TPM attaches to the front of the system board, roughly in the middle. It is easier to gain access if the system board has been slid out slightly. Use the clasp at the rear of the server to release the system board and slide it out a few inches. Note, the various cabling attached to the board prevents it coming out any further unless you disconnect them. You may find it convenient to disconnect the power and controller cables, to make more room. Then the TPM chip and the fasteners can be attached. The plastic pin is inserted into the middle of the lug, and needs to push all the way down. This is awkward, unless you take the trouble to remove the system board completely, but the chip can be inserted with care and patience.

Limitations

The only real limiting factor in this unit is the maximum installed memory of 16Gb, which makes it unsuitable for very large databases or mail systems, and possibly high-volume e-commerce systems. And a relatively low-end processor means it's not a good match for websites serving a lot of content via SSL. If the system could accept up to about 32Gb it would be quite a compelling unit for a range of small-business tasks, even high-end ones that might otherwise demand a more traditional workgroup server.

The inability to add additional power supplies or CPUs is not a concern — after all, if you need that, buy a bigger box.

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