Planning Your Server Upgrade: 3 Essentials for SMBs

Inevitably, your servers will reach the end of their lifecycle. They cross over the line and become more cost-effective to replace than repair. The cost and effort of upgrading, not to mention downtime, is a daunting one for any business. IT managers often discover that what started out as a straight hardware upgrade becomes more complicated as they look into issues such as: compatibility, licensing, and business growth.

For a small to medium-sized business (SMB) with limited IT resources, it’s tempting to hold on for just a bit longer. To make you feel better about biting the bullet, here are a few tips for planning your server upgrade.
 

  1. Requirements planning

    Do an IT audit and compile a list of reasons why your current systems are no longer adequate. Unless you do, you’ll find yourself facing a difficult decision-making process because you won’t have a specific set of requirements that address current shortcomings or a roadmap for the future. Just because a machine is newer and faster doesn’t mean you’ve made the right choice. Every business is different and your IT environment needs to support a particular mix of users, applications, and networking

    • Out of resources. This is the most common reason for upgrading. A growing user base, increased network traffic, more resource-hungry applications, and incremental software upgrades reduce performance over time, resulting in poor response times and unhappy users.

    It’s about capacity planning, so be sure you have more than ‘out of resources’ as a benchmark. Get some metrics on where you are bottlenecking. There are any number of systems performance monitoring tools out there that will give you a handle on the current resource load; this helps you make some projections for what you need from a new system. 

    When you work on those projections, align them with your company’s projections for growth. It’s tempting so say “let’s just double our capacity” but what if this only carries you through the next 12 months? 

    For example, will you need to support new users or applications?  What about storage? Do you have plans to offer customer-facing apps? Will you need more network capacity? Without capacity planning, you’ll outgrow your new server sooner than you expect or overspend on high-performance systems you don’t really need. 

    Dig deeper when auditing your IT systems. For example, if your system is showing very high CPU utilization, it might not be CPU: your system might be busy swapping pages due to insufficient memory. If application performance is slow, perhaps the database was configured initially for half the number of users it’s currently supporting. If so, you’ll need to optimize database settings before obtaining an accurate, multi-dimensional picture. CPU, memory, disk I/O, network bandwidth, and system software settings all impact performance. 

    • Lack of support for important features. Do your users and applications have specific needs? If virtualization is in your IT roadmap, you will need system processors with Intel VT or AMD V extensions in order to achieve worthwhile levels of virtualization. Sometimes a business goes green or wants to reduce energy costs, in which case energy conservation features should be on your requirements list. 

    • Reliability and maintenance issues. First, systems go out of warranty.Then they become unmaintainable. Even if you rely on a third party for maintenance, after a while they’ll have difficulty sourcing parts and your service contracts will cost more. Downtime and expensive service agreements make it easy to justify new hardware but try not to let things get that far. The lesson here is that when you purchase a new system, make sure its components are at the beginning of their product lifecycle. There’s no point in going through the same pain sooner than you need to.
     
  2. Compatibility planning

    Take an inventory of your current systems software and version numbers: OS, applications, drivers. You want to be sure that the applications that are critical to your business will run on the new server(s). 

    If you want to get the most out of your new server’s capabilities (memory, CPU, RAID drives, or graphics processors) you may need to upgrade the operating system. Put another way, a newer OS will support more advanced hardware features. A classic and obvious example is support for 64-bit processors. You may need to reconfigure services such as applications and databases to take advantage of newer features. And face it: depending on the age of your servers, you may have to upgrade the operating system. 

    When you upgrade the OS, you should review your applications in detail and decide whether you also need to upgrade apps to newer versions. 

    Sometimes you have to stick with an obsolete version of an application. Perhaps the vendor no longer maintains it, or you’re evaluating replacement software and need to keep running the old app until it’s time to migrate. In this case, consider hosting the old OS and app on a virtual server. 

    There are also system management considerations: can you do a simple upgrade and keep all your settings, roles, and data? Or will you need a completely new installation? Will you need to migrate? Does the software vendor provide migration tools? 
     
  3. Preparation

    Anyone who has dealt with a server upgrade will tell you that careful preparation is the key to success. 

    • Clean up your current server. You don’t want to transfer more data than necessary. Remove unused accounts, obsolete backups, temp files. This also helps you calculate your storage requirements more accurately and reduce data migration time.

    • Always make a verified data backup. This is one situation where a healthy dose of paranoia is an asset. Assume that once you’ve powered off your server, it may not come back up again. Or that your new server may prove defective.

    • Learn about upgrading specific system components. Although there are plenty of general best practices for migrating/upgrading systems, always read up on what the vendor has to say. A quick search for ‘how to upgrade XXX server’ will bring up vendor guidelines, release notes, and warnings. Also take a look at support forums to see what others have experienced. 

    • Decide on a migration strategy. At first glance, it may look like the easiest migration strategy is to recreate your existing server environment on the new hardware, test, and then run concurrently with the old system until you’re confident that you can switch. Certainly this is possible but it’s also risky unless you know for sure that having two instances of your apps will not create conflicts or corruption. 

    You could take a hybrid approach; this involves setting up the new server(s) with some of the services, such as database, then synchronizing the servers and making the new database the master. For web-based applications, share traffic between the new and old web servers until you are confident of the new. Then point all traffic to the new server. This staggered migration approach prevents/minimizes downtime and you can always switch back to the old server in case of problems. 

    • Develop an upgrade/migration checklist. Every IT environment is different but there are lots of good checklists available online that you can use as a starting point for your environment. Review the information you’ve pulled together by following these planning tips, and turn them into a checklist of tasks.

    • Update your documentation. In all the excitement, don’t forget to note all the new components: version and serial numbers, warranty status and when warranties expire.

    More complex IT environments can benefit from using a professional hosting provider to assist with an upgrade. With their specialized tools, a data center, and expertise, such IT consultants can offer a range of services from audits and capacity planning to the actual upgrade. If your IT staff is already stretched, adding an experienced outside resource can make life less stressful. Plus, you will be able to discuss options such as virtual machine (VM) architectures, hosting, or cloud services. 

    Whether you opt for an in-house upgrade project or decide on external resources, successful results depend on careful planning. If you are planning to upgrade your servers and want some advice, contact Smartt about our IT Services. Between our consulting expertise, data center for hosting/colocation, and network connectivity services, we have technology and pricing options to fit your business needs.