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How To Choose The Best Processor For Your Server
In today's ever-evolving tech space, one thing seems to be certain. Our dependence on technology to support critical IT operations, home-lab setups, or any other server application simply isn't going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, it seems to be accelerating!
As new computing platforms, apps and servers are released on a seemingly daily basis, it makes one consider if they are picking the right server and server specs to perform today and far into the future. At the core of this exponential growth in computing power is the processor, also known as the CPU or Central Processing Unit.
The CPU is the engine driving all of the sophisticated computing processing to home servers, applications, virtual machines, and the like. Each year, we see a plethora of processors released that deliver cutting-edge specs, making last year's predecessor look like a dinosaur. It makes deciding on a processor even more challenging.
To help support that decision process, and to clear up any misconceptions before making that plunge into a new CPU purchase, it's best to outline what specifications to look for in a server processor, understand how those specifications influence the greater computer ecosystem and understand what processor might be the right fit based on your tech needs.
Of course, this is a critical decision as the CPU is going to act as the foundation of your computing platform, acting as the engine that drives the computing capabilities and either allows or disallows you to perform those key operations you are looking for in your server.
A Quick Overview of the Server Processor
When looking at purchasing the right processor for your server, there are some key specifications to consider: clock speed, cores, threads and cache. As a high-level overview, let's give a brief rundown of each spec before illustrating other processor considerations.
Clock Speed. Clock speed is a critical processor specification. Measured in gigahertz (GHz). clock speed denotes how quickly your processor can complete computing calculations. The higher the clock speed, the faster applications will run, thus allowing you to run more complex applications.
Cores. Processor cores are individual processing units within the multi-core central processing unit. These cores are what actually handle the individual processing task. Traditionally each core will process computing operations in a serialized manner, so instituting a multi-core processor – the most common implementation today – allows the processor to process multiple computing instructions in parallel.
Threads. Threads can be thought of as the number of processors a chip can handle at once. Not to be confused with cores which are the physical processing units in a chip that facilitate computing processes, threads are virtual components that manage tasks at the software level.
similar to the number of cores. Importantly, a single core can create multiple threads allowing for more virtual processes to happen in parallel, thus improving the computing capabilities of the physical chip.
Cache. The cache is a fast access memory area that enables quicker data retrieval over the standard process where the processor retrieves data from RAM. There are three types of cache that serve varying functions.
- L1. Usually part of the chip itself and is the fastest cache type
- L2. Is larger than L1 cache but is also slower
- L3. Is the largest cache type, but slower than the above two
Specifications of a Server Processor
Now, both competitors (and other chip manufacturers in the space) release a series of chips, packed with different specs such as processor cores, cache size, clock speed, threads ect.
Today, processors can still be broken down into the following categories:
- Entry Level. SMB ready, perfect for smaller VM footprints, home labs, and enthusiasts
- Mid-Level. This processor is more suited for mid-range organizations and is well-tailored for solutions that require decent computing capabilities
- Enterprise Level. Top-of-the-line processors suited for today's most computationally intensive applications like AI/ML/crypto mining.
Both the companies (AMD and Intel) now offer several lines of processors that differ in:
- Number of cores
- Clock speed
- Varying cache
- Host Bus speed
- With various other characteristics and special features supported
To drill down what specific processor is going to be the right fit for your unique use case, it's best to start by outlining the scope of your project. Ask yourself the following questions.
What will you be using this server for? Will it be for a PlexLab? Are you running virtual machines? If so, how many? Will you be doing any crypto mining or other computationally intensive processes? In the latter instance, although crypto mining is traditionally GPU-intensive, it still takes quite substantial CPU resources.
Once you've outlined what's important in the short term, it's important to outline how your project scope may change over the next one to three to five years. After you've built a strong outline of both of these use cases, our suggestion is to simply match spec requirements for your project against the processor that you’re considering purchasing. You'll want to compare clock speed, number of cores, cache of the given processor and the suggested specs in the given project. Keep in mind that servers are always evolving. If you start with one processor today and need to upgrade your server down the road, you always have that as an easy option.
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