As server hardware has become commoditized over the past decade, it is software that increasingly has dictated what IT professionals can accomplish in the Internet age. But the reality is that selecting the appropriate hardware is what helps mission-critical software realize its potential. This is particularly true in the case of Microsoft’s Windows Server 2008 R2, the dominant operating system used in most local or wide area networks by companies large and small.
There is much at stake: Choose poorly and you can expect significant repercussions ranging from applications that end up running too slowly, causing a company to lose competitive advantage; to hardware budgets spinning out of control and so depriving other parts of an IT operation of cash; to a career-altering failure of a critical line-of-business application.
If, on the other hand, you make intelligent choices, you set the stage for nicely running systems. Picking the right hardware for Windows Server 2008 R2 involves more than just checking off a series of option boxes on an order form. There are several key steps that must be carried out before narrowing the field to a manageable number of candidates, not the least of which is determining what version of Windows Server 2008 R2 you plan to run (there are seven) and what role that server will be taking on (there could be dozens).
Let’s begin by looking at the processor. Windows Server 2008 R2 requires a 64-bit processor; 32-bit support came to a halt when R2 hit the streets in October 2009. This may sound like a limiting factor, but the truth is that the vast majority of existing processors support 64-bit operations. The good news is that any new piece of server equipment will meet the minimum processor requirements. However, the minimum is just that. Consequently, most IT professionals will want to select a hardware-software combination that meets their current and future needs without overburdening the network. Getting by on the minimum should be left to the budget-constrained.
IT professionals considering a new hardware purchase don’t have to make decisions on their own. Instead, they can rely on Microsoft’s hardware compatibility list of recommended hardware configurations for each edition of Windows Server 2008 R2, recommendations largely endorsed by consultants and analysts we spoke with.
Windows Server 2008 R2 Foundation Edition. The Foundation Edition of Windows Server 2008 R2 is the entry-level version and is designed specifically for small businesses. It is the least expensive of the seven editions and lacks some of the functions typically found in higher-end editions, including full Active Directory support and Hyper-V virtualization capabilities. The Foundation Edition also limits some of the features that are included, such as restricting the number of concurrent remote desktop services connections to 50, along with allowing access to a maximum of one processor and 8 GB of RAM. For those choosing to deploy in the Foundation Edition, it doesn’t pay to choose a multiprocessor system of more than 8 GB of RAM.
Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard Edition. Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard Edition is also an entry-level offering, along with Windows Web Server R2 2008. These R2 versions support only 64-bit chips and up to 8 GB of RAM and four processors.
The Standard Edition is targeted at both small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) as well as departments in larger enterprises and is best suited for providing domain, Web, remote access, print, file and application services. There is no support for clustering, and the Standard Edition is not built for fault-tolerant environments, data centers or other larger enterprise deployments. This serves to keep hardware requirements down, which means its hardware requirements are about the same or minimally higher than those of the Foundation Edition.
But if the Standard Edition is deployed to support multiple roles, then multiple processors will come in handy. Forward-looking IT managers may want to build additional hardware capability into their servers, which will carve out an upgrade path from Windows Server 2008, Windows 2000 Server and Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition to Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard.
Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise Edition. Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise Edition provides significantly greater functionality and scalability than Standard Edition, including support for clusters of up to 16 nodes and Active Directory Federation Services. The core operating system contains other higher-end enhancements such as support for up to eight processors and up to 2 terabytes (TB) of RAM.
With the Enterprise Edition, choosing the most appropriate hardware becomes a bit more complex. For instance, IT professionals need to decide how many user accounts the server will support, how a cluster will be defined and how many additional services and roles will be deployed (i.e., SQL Server, SharePoint and other server-based applications). Each of those elements increases workload capacity as well as storage space requirements.
Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter Edition. The Datacenter Edition is the top end of the Windows Server 2008 R2 family and is built to handle mission-critical applications in the largest enterprises, which typically require stability and consistently high uptime. Datacenter Edition can support up to 2 TB of RAM and a minimum of eight processors up to a maximum of 64. Upgrade paths to Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter Edition can be traveled by the Datacenter Editions of Windows Server 2008, Windows 2000 and Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition.
With the Datacenter Edition, IT managers will find themselves in the world of rackmount-based blade servers, storage area network (SAN) arrays and other high-end, rack-mounted equipment. In this environment, support, features and capabilities all play an equally important role. This shifts the hardware focus toward a managed, more fault-tolerant environment.