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Windows Server 2008 R2 hardware selection tips

Getting Windows Server 2008 R2 to run efficiently takes a little bit of luck and a lot of hardware knowledge.

Hardware has always played second fiddle to software; after all, it is software that truly dictates what someone can accomplish in the world of IT. Nevertheless, selecting the appropriate hardware is probably the most critical element when deploying a new piece of technology. Take, for example, Microsoft’s Windows Server 2008 R2, a critical piece of software for most any local or wide-area network. Make an error here when selecting hardware and admins can expect significant repercussions, ranging from applications running too slow to use to budgets spinning out of control to a complete failure of a line-of-business application.

Picking the right hardware for Windows Server 2008 R2 takes a bit more than just checking off the options boxes on an order form for a server; there are several key steps and important calculations that must be done before narrowing down the selection of hardware to a few candidates. The first step is determining what version of Windows Server 2008 R2 you will run (there are at least five) and what role that server will be taking on (there are dozens of combinations for roles).

Windows Server 2008 R2 has different and specific CPU requirements. First and foremost is the fact that Windows Server 2008 R2 requires a 64-bit processor; 32-bit support went out the window when R2 hit the streets. Now, that may sound like a limiting factor, but the truth of the matter is that most of the CPUs on the market support 64-bit operation. This means any newer piece of server equipment will meet the minimum processor requirements. However, minimum is just that: a minimum! That means you will want to select a hardware combination that will meet your current and future needs, without overburdening the network, and leave those minimal requirements to the budget constrained.

Of course, Microsoft has come up with a list of recommended configurations for each Windows Server 2008 R2 edition:

Windows Server 2008 R2 Foundation Edition
The Foundation edition of Windows Server 2008 R2 is an entry-level edition that is designed specifically for small businesses. It is the least expensive of the various editions and lacks some of the more advanced functionality typically found in the higher-end editions such as full Active Directory support and Hyper-V virtualization capabilities. In addition, the Foundation edition limits some of the included features, such as restricting the number of concurrent remote desktop services connections to 50, and is able to access a maximum of one processor and 8 GB of RAM. So, for those deploying the foundation edition, it doesn’t pay to go with a multiprocessor system or more than 8 GB of RAM – in other words, an entry-level server is all it will take to run Foundation Edition.

Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard Edition
Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard is also an entry-level server offering (alongside Windows Web Server R2 2008 and Windows Server R2 2008 Foundation). The R2 version supports only 64-bit processors and in terms of hardware, Standard Edition supports up to 4 GB of RAM and four processors.

Windows Server 2008 is primarily targeted at small- and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) and is ideal for providing domain, Web, DNS, remote access, print, file, and application services. However, there is no support for clustering, meaning that the standard edition is not meant for fault tolerant environments, data centers or other larger enterprise deployments. That helps to keep hardware requirements down. However, if Standard Edition is deployed to support multiple roles, multiple processors will come in handy. Also, those looking to the future may want to build a little more capability into their servers, as an upgrade path to Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard is available from Windows Server 2008, Windows 2000 Server and Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition.

Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise Edition
Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise Edition provides greater functionality and scalability than the Standard Edition, including support for clusters of up to 16 nodes and Active Directory Federated Services (ADFS). The core OS sports other enhancements as well, such as support for as many as eight processors and up to 2 TB of RAM.

With the Enterprise Edition, hardware calculations become a little more complex. IT managers will need to decide how many user accounts the server will support, how a cluster will be defined, how many additional services and roles will be deployed (i.e. SQL Server, SharePoint, etc.). Each of those elements increases load, as well as storage space.

Other capabilities to be aware of include Hyper-V virtualization, Firewall services, Terminal Services, Remote Desktop, failover, and synchronization – each of which adds to the server burden. Windows Server 2000, Windows 2000 Advanced Server, Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition and Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition may all be upgraded to Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise Edition.

Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter Edition
The Datacenter edition represents the top end of the Windows Server 2008 R2 product range and is targeted at mission-critical enterprises requiring stability and high uptime levels. Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter edition supports up to 2TB of RAM and a minimum of 8 processors up to a maximum of 64. Upgrade paths to Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter Edition are available from the Datacenter editions of Windows Server 2008, Windows 2000 and 2003.

With the Datacenter Edition, IT managers will find themselves in the world of rack-based blade servers, SAN arrays and other high-end, rack-mounted equipment. Here, support, as well as features and capabilities all play an equally important role – which shifts the hardware toward a more managed, more fault-tolerant environment.

Windows Web Server 2008 R2
Windows Web Server R2 2008 is essentially a version of Windows Server 2008 R2 designed primarily for the purpose of providing web services. It includes Internet Information Services (IIS) 7.0 along with associated services such as Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) and Telnet. It supports up to 4 processors but RAM is limited to 32 GB. As with other entry level editions, Windows Web Server 2008 R2 lacks many of the features present in other editions such as clustering, BitLocker drive encryption, multipath I/O, Windows Internet Naming Service (WINS), Removable Storage Management and SAN Management.

The Web Server Edition can run on low-end server appliances or with minimal hardware, making it an inexpensive form of Windows server to deploy. However, since no traditional upgrade path exists – the Web Server Edition can be placed on set and forget it hardware configurations – because, odds are if you outgrow Web Server Edition, you will be moving to a different Web Server platform, with matching hardware to boot.

Looking at it from a basic point of view, selecting hardware is not all that difficult – perhaps the biggest distinction being what it is that you expect from your network, how much growth you anticipate and if there are any upgrade plans in the near future.

Major selection decisions depend on whether or not you are looking to deploy clusters/blades or SANs, as well as the expected activity on the network. For many, the easiest path is to discuss network needs and desires with server manufacturers and then pick a bundle that offers hardware with vendor support that is easy to upgrade and comes with Windows Server pre-installed. That way, sizing is left to engineers, while deployment is left to the hands-on IT staff.

Frank Ohlhorst
 is an award-winning technology journalist, professional speaker and IT business consultant with more than 25 years of experience in the technology arena. He has written for several leading technology and business publications, and was also executive technology editor at eWEEK and director at CRN Test Center.

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