Real Servers vs White-Box

Many people think that white-box machines (IE the cheapest no-nam PCs you can buy) are suitable for use as servers. There are several factors that make white-box machines totally unsuitable for use as a server (and IMHO unsuitable for any other task).

Firstly white-box machines are not designed. A set of parts are designed, some combinations of parts are tested, but most aren’t. For example a motherboard manufacturer will test their latest motherboard design with the current video cards and a video card manufacturer will test their new cardss with current motherboards. If you have a new video card and a new motherboard then there has probably been little testing of the combination. This compares to a name-brand machine where the entire unit has been tested and found to work together.

White-box assemblers (they aren’t “designed” or “manufactured”) will often use different combinations of parts for each machine that they assemble. If a video card manufacturer sells two cards with the same part number that have different chips then they may be installed in two machines with the same description. So taking an image of one white-box machine and installing it on another that was described as being identical might not work.

For these reasons I have ceased using white-box machines as desktop machines or as low-end servers (EG internet gateway machines). I use second-hand name-brand machines for low end servers and for desktop machines.

When comparing servers the case for name-brand systems is even stronger. Real servers have ECC RAM as a standard feature, it is possible to get white-box servers with ECC RAM – I have seen such a machine on one occasion. But the vast majority of white-box machines lack such features. See my previous posts about getting ECC RAM in a cheap machine and desktop machines with ECC RAM about some of the issues in this regard.

Another feature of servers is better storage options. There are white-box server machines with hot-swap hard drives, but they are significantly more expensive than regular white-box machines – if you are going to spend that much money then it’s better to get a refurbished HP server machine at auction (HP seems to be selling a lot of almost-new server gear at auction at quite reasonable prices with warrantee). A cheap machine (typical white-box or a very low end server from a company such as HP) will have hard drives that don’t support hot-swap. Lack of hot-swap means that a hard drive failure requires that the machine be disassembled to swap the dead disk – it also means that there is sometimes difficulty in identifying which disk has the problem (the error light on a hot-swap drive is quite handy). Then the process of swapping the disk will take at least 10 minutes of hardware work before the machine can be booted up again. With hot-swap disks you can identify the failed disk via a flashing light, remove it while the server is still running, and then initiate a RAID rebuild after installing the new disk. Hot-swap disks cost more and the mounting brackets etc are also expensive, but it’s a good option to have – especially considering that disks are more likely to fail at busy times which is when down-time is least acceptable. These features make disk expansion particularly expensive for servers, people often miss the benefits of servers and say “I just bought a 3000G disk for my home PC for $2, why can’t you just do the same for the server” (I am exaggerating slightly).

Another advantage of name-brand servers is remote access. There have been a variety of remote access cards that you could install in a white-box PC and also a variety of devices to digitise a VGA signal for remote KVM access, but they are all rather expensive and remove the price advantage of white-box hardware.

A final benefit of name-brand hardware is that you will be running the same hardware as other people. If I was to experience a problem running Linux on a HP DL380 G4 server then I can enter that text in to Google and get many hits. If I was to experience a similar problem with a white-box machine then I would need to perform searches on each of the parts that might have a problem – which would be particularly inconvenient if I couldn’t determine some of the part numbers through software and needed to disassemble the machine first!

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