Database Server Provisioning: Items Of Concern Using Commodity Servers

There were series of requests for info directed at me lately from clients and acquaintances on how to best deal with their need to come up with the right server specification for their SQL Server based applications.

Upon some substantial researching, I came to a conclusion that preparing a new environment for our SQL Server isn’t an exact science. It almost always followed by lots of questions where answers are hard to come by easily. The complexity of coming up with a sound specification is heightened by the lack or low frequency of our exposure to the task at hand. I mean, how many of us are tasked to come up with a new server for some new SQL Server based application on a daily or even weekly basis?

So I thought of compiling what I have stumbled upon the Web, the online fora, and from interactions with various hardware vendors. This compilation of information would probably serve as a starting point to coming up with sound configuration of a machine that would run our SQL Server and would also serve as my guide and reminder of the things that I need to be concerned of.

Today, we have so many options to choose from. But I only need to focus on those that will affect SQL Server’s performance using commodity servers. So what is in the market today that needs our attention?

CAUTION: I’ll only assume that the server will be configured as dedicated only to SQL Server. I won’t cover virtualized scenarios here.

Processing  Unit

  • 64bit. Going 64bit is the way to go in most of us. This should allow us  to go beyond the memory addressing limits of a 32bit system. SQL Server need not task itself too with the extra memory handling posed by 32bit.
  • Speed. Faster core speed would generally give us better performance. So I’d say buy the fastest per core speed processing unit your money can have.
  • Cache. Larger cache are better. Cache allows the CPU to keep frequently used data nearer and faster to the processing unit. The more it can accommodate, the better.
  • Thread. Today’s processing units offer flavors that have multi-threading in the cores. Extra threads allow us to have more ‘processors’ (logical) than what we actually have (physical) to work on a given task. SQL Server takes advantage of this. In fact, the maker of SQL Server states that the compute capacity of the 2 logical processors in the hyperthreaded core is greater than the compute capacity of the same core with hyperthreading disabled. So go for the processors with threading.
  • Cores. Today’s staple are from commodity servers have 4, 6, 8 cores per socket. Go for the highest numbers your money can buy. Be aware though that starting with SQL Server 2012, the number of cores that you have comes with licensing implications, so you need to check on these concerns too.
  • Sockets. Today’s commodity servers have 1, 2 and 4 sockets. Though your application may need only 1 single processor, it is sensible to factor in growth and future expansion options. You may opt for a server with spare sockets for growth. However, do take note that you may have difficulties acquiring additional processors for your server if you decide to expand after several years. It also make sense that if you have enough money to fill the spare sockets with the processors you need. Be aware though that starting with SQL Server 2012, the number of sockets that you have comes with licensing implications, so you need to check on these concerns too.

Memory

  • Size. More is better. Period! 🙂
  • Density. Go for the denser memory modules so don’t quickly fill the limited number of memory slots meant for expansion. E.g., If your server has 4 memory slots and can handle up to 32GB max and you need 16GB of memory, it is better to get two 8GB modules than four 4GB modules so you still have two slots for expansion. Expanding to 32GB will render your 4GB modules unusable.

Storage and Related Components

Probably the slowest components in your server, choosing the right combination of storage and related components can lead you to a better, performant SQL Server database server.

  • Capacity. In SQL Server terms, server storing capacity isn’t disk size. SQL Server has various ways of utilizing storage. You can have multiple file groups across several arrays or disks in multiple enclosures. Size is really dictated by what your application needs. Determine first your size estimates and have enough buffer for growth. If you can expand size in the future without having to shut down and reconfigure your system, that is for me is the most sensible path to take.
  • Disk Size. Individual disk size may or may not affect SQL Server. But do note that size can relatively affect seek speed. Go easy with larger disks. Heads can travel longer in larger capacity drives. So if you are building an array of multiple drives, you may prefer building it with smaller capacity drives.
  • SATA, SAS. To make things simple, SAS drives are faster but are more expensive than SATA drives.
  • SSD. Solid State Drives are the future but it is here now. Though I have not personally tried this yet in a production server, vendors and customer testimonies tout SSDs are superbly faster in a lot of cases and increases significantly the server’s performance. There are still reliability issues that I have read but things are getting better each day. I’d probably want to utilize SSDs for my tempdb.
  • RAID. There should be more than enough information on RAID and SQL Server on the web. It is one piece of component an SQL Server DBA need to be concerned of and familiarity is the key. There are plenty of storage/server options that allows you to have multiple RAID controllers and build various array types. It is just impossible to have it covered here in this article. I’d say it is always better to check with your vendor. However, I have the belief that in SQL Server, the more RAID arrays you have spread across several controllers using the fastest, most reliable and less dense disk drives are the way to go. This way, you can freely spread load such as separating transaction logs, tempdb, data files to their own arrays. You may check on other blogs on this matter.

Ethernet Ports

  • Bandwidth. Servers with 1Gbps ports are now a norm but I have seen some server models with 10Gbps ports. However, you can only take advantage of these high volume ports if your network (cabling, switches, etc) supports it. I would assume that within the datacenter, or the least within your servers’ rack/enclosure that you have the fastest links. SQL Server will take advantage of whatever bandwidth you have in your box.

Blades, Storage Area Networks, NAS and External Storage options

These types of options present a bit different set of concerns to an SQL Server DBA as compared to standard/commodity servers.  But the nuances of the common components I have mentioned above can still be applied on these options. I would love to expand this article to cover these options. This is all for now!

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IMG_0103_whiskered_treeswift
Whiskered Tree-Swift, 𝘏𝘦𝘮𝘪𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘤𝘯𝘦 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘢𝘵𝘢 (female)
Photographed in Mt. Palay Palay, Cavite

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Toto Gamboa is a consultant specializing on databases, Microsoft SQL Server and software development operating in the Philippines. He is currently a member and one of the leaders of Philippine SQL Server Users Group, a Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) chapter and is one of Microsoft’s MVP for SQL Server in the Philippines. You may reach him by sending an email to totogamboa@gmail.com

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