Amazingly enough, you can find PowerEdge 600 servers on Dell's Web site selling for as little as $399. Before you get too excited, however, you should note that all you'll get for that is a case, 128MB of RAM, a 40GB hard drive, and a CD-ROM drive. To make that box truly useful as a server, you'll need to add components liberally--which is what we did, ending up with a fully configured 600SC costing about $1,800. But while that machine performed surprisingly well in our data-transfer tests, its closed design makes a chore of upgrading or adding such server-specific features as hot-swappable hard drives. Dell is one of the few server vendors that emphasize usability even before you buy. The server section of dell.com provides a link to a list of preconfigured models, grouped by the tasks you want your machine to perform (file server, print server, e-mail server, application server, and so on). Click your choice, then configure your machine on the site.
Unfortunately, the PowerEdge is considerably less configurable once you have it in the office. As with most Windows-based servers, setup and usability are more a function of the server OS than the hardware. That said, we found the PowerEdge's case less accessible than others in its class. While it featured setscrews at the back for easy access, it offers no such convenience on the face of the unit. In contrast, some other servers feature a handy, doorlike front panel. Thus, it'll be harder than necessary to swap drives in and out of the 600SC. Since we recommend that you upgrade to swappable drives as soon as you can after purchasing, if not as part of the initial configuration, this is an unfortunate flaw. The PowerEdge 600SC we tested came with a 2.4GHz Pentium 4, whereas some others in this class use the (theoretically) more powerful Xeon chip. However, the Pentium offers an unintended benefit: Because the Xeon requires a stronger cooling system than the Pentium, servers using it tend to be noisier than those using a Pentium. The 600SC, on the other hand, ranks as one of the quietest servers we've seen. That might seem like a picayune detail, but if you're working in a small office and don't have a separate room for your server, fan noise can become a real issue.
Our PowerEdge 600SC came stocked with two 80GB ATA hard drives, already arranged in a RAID-1 configuration and therefore capable of performing data backup duties for clients on the network. In addition, the machine included a 20GB tape drive--Dell is clearly serious about data safety.
If you want SCSI-based storage, the 600SC's 584GB maximum comes in a little shy, but you can scale up to a full terabyte with SATA drives, so you'll have no problems there. Expansion slots are somewhat sparse however, with only four 64-bit and one 32-bit PCI available. The 600SC does use the ServerWorks Grand Champion SL chipset, Broadcom's well-regarded and well-tested server-specific design.
Dell includes a utility called Dell OpenManage Server Administrator, which lets you check the details of your hardware and your operating system--in effect, replacing and augmenting your server's BIOS setup utility. You can set the boot order of your hard drives and other devices from here, for example, and you can get details about each of the fans inside your system, along with a graphic display that lets you set the fans' warning thresholds. The Storage screen offers diagnostics for your tape, floppy, and hard drives, as well as your RAID controller (if you have one). You can also schedule automatic diagnostic testing, selecting from a range of specific tests for each system component.
At this level, data-transfer rates tend to reflect processor speed, with Xeons outperforming P4s by a noticeable if not dramatic margin. That's why the results for the PowerEdge 600SC took us a bit by surprise: It proved to be one of the fastest low-end servers we've tested, transferring a 1.5GB folder from a single client to the server almost as fast as a Xeon box would. Moreover, it was almost exactly as fast as a Xeon when transferring that same folder simultaneously from three clients to the server. It lagged only slightly when transferring from five clients while the server downloaded large files continually from the Internet.
The Dell took roughly the same time to log on to the server from clients and to log in to an Outlook Web client as others we've seen. Again, these functions tend to relate more to the Windows Server OS than to the systems themselves. Dell has built a reputation on service and support, and the company carries through here. With the 600SC, you get 24/7 hardware support, a one-year limited warranty, and a year of next-business-day onsite labor and parts replacement. You also receive 30 days of support for getting started--a nice program for small businesses with their first server.