Saturday, April 13, 2013

OEMs Aren't Always Right...

OK, the title is obvious. Who hasn't grumbled at the default system settings on a new computer, or immediately uninstalled all the clutter placed on a system by the manufacturer? To me, it's another argument for building (or at least designing) your own systems. But I digress... on to the post.

The dumbest thing I have done in a while is trust that the company that sold a server knew what was best when they set it up. By doing so, I decided to not make any changes to the overall system configuration before passing the "point of no return," where I would have to reinstall the entire system to change things.

I was helping a friend set up a server for his small business. Initially, I was thinking about getting a Windows 2008 server and setting it up as a Domain Controller and file server. When we were looking at systems, Microcenter had a server with SBS 2011 and decent specs for less than their basic Windows 2008 server system, so we decided to go with that. I won't get into the relative merits of SBS vs. other server options here, other than to say that I think that SBS can be a decent choice for a small business depending on their needs. But SBS isn't the problem. The problem is that the people at Microcenter seemed to feel that using RAID 5 was the best configuration for the HDD. After using the system for the better part of a year, I beg to differ.

As per Wikipedia (and everywhere else, but that is where I grabbed the short definition from), RAID, or Redundant Array of Independent Disks, is a storage technology that combines multiple disk drive components into a logical unit. RAID has several different configurations, designated by numbers. At the most basic level (RAID 0), it means that you can have, say, two 500 GB disks and set it up so the system sees it as a single 1TB disk. RAID 1 would take those two disks and provide fault tolerance by setting them up so the system sees a single 500 GB disk, with the data being mirrored on both drives, so if one fails, the system keeps operating and nothing is lost.  RAID 5 requires at least 3 drives, and allows the system to see 2/3 of the space (or more, depending on number of drives) as a single entity while providing fault tolerance in the event of a single drive failure.

While RAID 5 sounds great on paper, in practice, it can be painfully slow. This is because writes can  require several operations to calculate the parity bits used for fault tolerance. For small writes, this can use significant amounts of disk activity, reducing system performance. In some instances, this is fine, but with SBS, this lag it can be really noticeable - especially when trying to do things like perform maintenance that involves a lot of writes to the disk.

So now I am stuck as the part-time IT guy for a company that has a server that performs OK for the mundane day-to-day stuff (DNS server, file server, etc.), but takes forever when I actually need to do maintenance. I should have done what I briefly thought about doing during setup  - pull one drive to keep as a replacement in case of failure, and set the other two up in a RAID 1 configuration. Instead I believed that the people at Microcenter knew what they were doing, and that the RAID 5 was the best. And I can't change it unless I want to rebuild the system or try to figure out the best way to clone, shrink, and restore partitions. Since the system works fine for day-to-day, instead I have decided to grin and bear it, with each maintenance period serving as a reminder to do my research and follow my instincts as I move forward.

Do you have any experiences where you trusted the OEM when you shouldn't have? Let me know in the comments.

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