Hardware optimize

Component upgrade vs. replacement: What would you do?

Westminster College needed to move from 32 GB of RAM to 48 GB of RAM in each of its three vSphere hosts. Scott Lowe runs through their upgrade options, explains why he chose their solution, and asks what you would have done.

Technology equipment has a relatively short lifespan, measuring anywhere from three to five years depending on the organization. At Westminster College, we basically stick to that range, but sometimes we have situations in which we need to make a change mid-course, and we have to take a hard look at whether it makes more sense to upgrade a component or replace it altogether.

We recently needed to move from 32 GB of RAM to 48 GB of RAM in each of our three vSphere hosts. We've moved more services than originally anticipated to the virtualization platform, and we also decided to start moving our Microsoft enterprise applications (Exchange, SharePoint, and SQL Server) to vSphere as we migrate to Exchange 2010, SharePoint 2010, and SQL Server 2008 R2. For our original goals, 32 GB per host was more than sufficient.

Upgrade options

Our vSphere hosts consist of Dell PowerEdge M600 blades, so I stated looking at options for what it would take to upgrade these systems to 48 GB of RAM. Unfortunately, since all of the RAM sockets in each server were already filled, I needed to rip and replace all of the RAM. Here are the upgrade options I considered:

  • Buying RAM from Dell: I quickly changed my mind about this course of action when I saw that it was very, very expensive.
  • Trying third-party alternatives, such as Crucial: I was concerned about the impact that the third-party memory would have on my system warranty. I looked at pricing, and I found that I could replace the RAM in the machine with enough modules to get me to 48 GB, but at a cost of around $3,900, which was more than I budgeted.
  • Adding an additional vSphere host to the resource pool: vSphere licenses aren't inexpensive, particularly when you figure in annual maintenance costs. In reviewing our performance logs, I've found that we're barely touching the processing resources included in the pool, but we do tax the RAM resources.
  • Checking out Dell's refurbished outlet store: I was stunned by what I saw. I managed to pick up a dual quad core M610 blade (the next generation of our current blade) with Xeon 5500 series processors, 48 GB of RAM, RAID, and everything else we needed for a paltry $2,500. The decision became an easy one, particularly since I'm a big believer in Dell's refurbished product. One drawback to the outlet store is that you can't customize the machine configurations. I have been looking for another deal like the one I found, but one hasn't come around yet. So, I contacted my Dell sales rep for a quote on two more blades identical to the one I had just picked up, and we're able to get them for just over $4,000 each, or around $100 more than just buying third-party RAM. If I go this route, we'll be able to move to 48 GB RAM in each host and move to Xeon 5500 series processors, which provide significantly more capability in the virtualization arena. And, we'll be able to do it for less money than we would have spent by simply buying RAM and upgrading the existing equipment. If I had upgraded the RAM without considering alternative options, I would have ended up spending more money and not being positioned as well from a technology perspective.
  • Adding the new server to the existing vSphere server pool rather than replacing the servers: In this case, we'd need to purchase an additional vSphere dual socket license along with service and support. At academic pricing, this isn't horribly expensive, but it is an additional annual expense. One more benefit is that the loss of a single host would have less impact. Although we can currently withstand the loss of a single host and the virtual machines move to other hosts, that fourth machine gives us a little more breathing room.
  • Replacing one of the servers with the new $2,500 unit and then seeing where we are before I buy anything else: Although I'm worried that we might push resource limits a bit with this option, it's still a possible choice.

What would you have done?

If you had been in my shoes, which option would you have chosen? Take the poll to let me know.

My decision

I decided to add the new server to the existing resource pool and buy another vSphere license to bring us to four vSphere hosts. Although we don't currently need the processing power, adding a single server with 48 GB of RAM has the same overall RAM effect as upgrading/replacing each of our current 32 GB models with 48 GB varieties (16 GB difference in RAM in each x three servers = 48 GB). On top of that, we get the additional node in our vMotion cluster. Further, as we continue to virtualize significant applications, we will have more wiggle room. Finally, from a cost perspective, our vSphere academic licensing, even with service and support over the life of the server, will be less than buying two new $4,000 servers.

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About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

12 comments
andrewgauger
andrewgauger

Probably go with a new vSphere host to host the Microsoft infrastructure so I could run parallel for some time. Proportion around 64-96GB of RAM on the machine in preparation for the increase in utilization of this host. I'd begin to move guests around more throughout the pool, upgrade one of the blades with the 2,500 box, but start next fiscal with a new vSphere host for the Microsoft Enterprise.

foss.paul
foss.paul

My opinion is you made the decision based on your budget. You have one license and good server almost for the price of the RAM.

foss.paul
foss.paul

It all depends on the company situation. I would be inclined to buy new server to handle the future loads. But given your budget, that was good decision.

Little_Erik
Little_Erik

I have never heard any Server Admin say "I have too much RAM". SQL Server is a memory hog as is most Microsoft poducts. Should leave a slot or two open for growth, just a good practice, may not always be practical for every shop but it certainly avoids having to buy a new server and getting new VM license. When I built Blade Server configs I either left empty slot(s) or filled it to the brim with RAM, depending on what customer was going to be doing with it. I have found it best to add a little extra RAM, CPU, Time to the Project, Money to what I think it will cost because we 99.999% of the time go over whatever we think we need.

coolmark82
coolmark82

Are you crazy? 48GB of RAM? I am running okay on most of my computers running my 2GB RAM standard and you guys are buying servers with that much memory? If you really want memory, buy an Xserve, they go up to 96GB of RAM.

steve6375
steve6375

What is the cost of running an extra server each year in power bills and UPS + may need extra cooling /air con costs?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

RAM is relatively inexpensive right now compared to historic prices. Jam it full right out of the box and forget it.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

'We recently needed to move from 32 GB of RAM to 48 GB of RAM in each of our three vSphere hosts." The machines in question are virtual host servers. They're probably each supporting multiple virtual guest servers. Scott, I've had good luck with RAM from both Crucial and Kingston. I make a point to NOT 'mix and match'; all RAM in a box will be the same type from the same vendor. Maybe I'm just paranoid. Dell's Outlet is good stuff. My last two home systems came from there.

rwatters
rwatters

Just as an example, looking in my vSphere Client at one of my ESX hosts, it is currently using ~9.2GHz of processor and ~41GB of memory. I'm looking at adding more ESX hosts to my cluster as I'm running a bit high on VM count per ESX host. When you're buying hardware to support 20 servers in one box, you need quite a bit more resources than a standard machine. The benefits of virtualization are pretty insane though. Buying physical servers for remote offices costs me about 5k. My beefy ESX hosts cost me about 11-12k, but I'm running 20 servers on that one physical box. Toss in Datacenter Server licenses, and the licensing for VMware and I'm still way ahead of the game as far as costs go with a virtual environment.

docebarnes
docebarnes

Well to answer your question, Lowe is in an academic environment, that translates to lots of users with lots of needs. Secondly, i hope you read his post very well, how do you expect to run (Exchange, SharePoint, and SQL Server) achieve and efficiency with 2GB of ram in his setup?. Virtualized servers need more resources especially RAM in order to run efficiently. I like the approach he took in addressing his problem.

gavin142
gavin142

our entire office (servers, printers, switches, workstations) come from Dell's "scratch 'n Dent" store. We've only had one reliability issue in the past 5-6 years, but that was due to their infamous faulty capacitor issue.

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

And don't forget about "overhead" in the form of being able to support moving VMs to other hosts when one host fails.