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Use branch office servers to support infrastructure expansion

A remote office setup requires infrastructure that meets performance, cost and space demands. Depending on the vendor, a microserver will likely provide the best compromise.

If your organization is ready to expand, branch office servers from a microserver vendor can provide the best set of features for the most practical cost.

Remote access and virtual private networks, despite some limitations, often work well enough for offices with just a few people. As branch and remote offices expand in size and need, however, more advanced infrastructure will be necessary, and it likely won't be as easy as purchasing, mounting and cabling a rack-mounted server.

Data at the remote location won't exist yet, and if the remote office is a rented location without a data center, air conditioning-equipped wiring closet or 208 voltage setup, there might not be enough space for a typical IT infrastructure deployment.

Branch office servers prompt a different perspective on infrastructure

Remote and branch offices require a different way of thinking. Rack-mounted servers or hyper-converged infrastructure platforms will be too loud if the office doesn't have the space to isolate them or the power to run them. Even if you can address those issues, the heat such a system generates still poses a problem.

Remote and branch offices require a new perspective because the environments are fundamentally different. You must transition from a controlled, spacious environment to a closet or a shelf. The areas you usually want to avoid become the ones you have to embrace.

A common strategy is to use a hypervisor on high-end desktops that can run at the new office. This isn't a good idea. Desktops might be able to run hypervisors, but they simply don't have the hardware for server use. They don't offer the ability to hot swap drives, they likely won't perform well enough and the power supplies might not be rated to handle the additional load. Enhanced desktops are still desktops -- not servers. If you need a hypervisor at a remote office, you need server hardware.

Fortunately, many traditional hardware vendors sell microservers designed for branch and remote environments. These microservers offer reduced footprints, but they also have reduced specifications that require further evaluation.

Storage is a key advantage that makes microservers fit well as branch office servers.

To start, microservers often only have a single CPU. Depending on your workloads, this might not be a concern because its CPUs are still multicored. However, it does mean you have to be more diligent when you allocate CPU resources.

Licensing poses a more immediate problem. VMware licensing works per CPU, but Microsoft Data Center uses a two CPU base, so it might be better to license per guest. Microsoft's memory is fairly consistent, but you have less capacity. Rather than hundreds of GBs, it's closer to 32 GB or 64 GB. This is still enough to run multiple VMs, but not an entire data center in a box.

Storage is a key advantage that makes microservers fit well as branch office servers. Microservers have higher-tier RAID controllers that can support more disks. Depending on the vendor, your microserver could have four to six disk bays for higher output. This means you can still use spinning disks if you're looking to save on costs or go with a solid-state drive and retain a higher capacity. Depending on the vendor and the model, the drive might even enable you to hot swap it. You can also use external storage or small network-attached storage (NAS) frames for shared VM storage. These lower-powered frames can still deliver enough IOPS to run multiple VMs without performance lag.

Microservers require compromise

Two traditional server expectations won't apply to all microservers.

The first is redundant networking connections. Some vendors and models have dual networking connections, but many models don't. Dual network connections might sound good, but keep the needs of your environment in mind. These branch office servers are most likely for environments that don't have dual switches, so the value might be limited.

Dual network connections into the same switch protects against a port or cable failure, but not a card or switch failure, so the value is debatable. However, if you run a small NAS, that second port can isolate storage traffic.

The second aspect absent from most microservers is dual power supplies. The enclosures aren't large enough to house dual supplies -- not to mention the heat and noise an additional supply generates. This limitation can leave branch office servers at risk in the event of a power supply failure, but you must make some concessions with the reduced footprint. Of course, you should still protect that single power supply with an uninterruptible power supply.

Branch office servers don't need to be at a large scale or use repurposed desktop equipment. Modern server vendors have products that compromise on redundancy but still provide remote and branch offices with a capable platform for virtualization that doesn't break the bank or produce too much noise.   

This was last published in January 2019

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