A desktop motherboard is designed to host essential hardware for a single-user computer. It has one socket for the processor or CPU, including a slot for the chipset. There are up to four memory sockets, for as many RAMs, and two to four SATA connectors.
Most desktop motherboards have one Ethernet or LAN port for the internet, one slot for a graphics processor, support for one optical drive, and standard input/output connectors.
On the other hand, a server is designed for numerous real-time users. These users are known as clients, and the server is the host.
A server motherboard can host two processors or more, including as many chipsets.
Most server motherboards have a minimum of eight memory sockets, ten or more SATA connectors, two LAN ports, and Wi-Fi in many models, support for multiple graphics processors, and six or more expansion slots.
Desktop vs. Server
Most desktops in the world run on Windows. A majority of servers run on Linux or Unix-like operating systems. The former is designed to support desktop applications, or software, such as MS Office, Adobe, VLC, etc. The latter is engineered to run enterprise-grade software, such as KVM or other hypervisors.
Hence, the motherboards for desktops and servers respectively have features that can host the requisite hardware.
Server motherboards have six or more expansion slots so that they can be scaled up. Server environments vary too. A database server and a mail server attend to distinct tasks. Likewise, application servers, game servers, and file servers have different dedicated tasks.
Fundamental Differences between Desktop and Server Motherboards
- Form Factor
- CPU Support/Socket
- RAM Type and Capacity
- LAN and I/O Connectors
1. Form Factor
Motherboards come in seven form factors: Mobile-ITX, Pico-ITX, Nano-ITX, Mini-ITX, Micro-ATX, ATX or Standard-ATX, and EATX or Extended ATX.
- Desktop motherboards are usually ATX or Standard-ATX, Micro-ATX, and Mini-ATX.
- Server motherboards are usually in the Extended ATX form factor.
Desktops and servers use different types of central processors. These processors and their chipsets require compatible sockets and slots.
Most desktop motherboards have one socket. Hence, it can only host one CPU.
Server motherboards have dual sockets, so two CPUs can be installed. Some server motherboards have more than two sockets.
A desktop motherboard hosting an Intel Core processor draws less power than a server motherboard hosting an Intel Xeon processor. Desktop processors have two, four, and in some cases six cores.
Xeon processors have more cores and advanced features, such as ECC memory.
The CPU sockets and chipset slots in desktop motherboards can host Intel Core i3, i5, and i7, or AMD Ryzen processors. The sockets in server motherboards support and use processors like Intel Xeon, AMD Opteron, or EPYC.
The type and capacity of RAM used across server boards and desktop motherboards vary a lot. For instance desktop motherboards commonly have 4 RAM slots with upto 8 RAM slots on some selected models.
Whereas server motherboards have 12-16 or even more RAM slots. Consequently they also have more memory channels to support that many slots.
The following image shows an Asus motherboard with 16 RAM slots.
- A desktop motherboard may cap RAM at 32GB per slot and a combined memory of 64GB for the system.
- A server motherboard usually has at least 64GB per slot capacity and a combined memory of 512GB. State-of-the-art server motherboards have sixteen memory slots supporting upto 2TB RAM
Moreover server motherboards support ECC Ram which are better than ordinary desktop RAMs as in they support error correction, which is necessary for critical business and enterprise environments.
4. SATA connectors - storage
1TB of storage is deemed sufficient in desktops for personal use. Most desktop motherboards have 4-6 SATA connectors that are used for disk drives including ssd and hdd, as well have optical drives like dvd writers.
Server motherboards have ten or more onboard SATA connectors and expansion slots allowing them to support and handle multiple disk drives.
Therefore server motherboards can handle large amounts of storage spaces and process large amounts of data read/write operations.
5. GPU and graphics ports
Desktop motherboards support graphics cards on the PCIe slots, but they also have HDMI/DisplayPort and Integrated GPU that enables the hdmi and displayport.
Server motherboards usually do not have integrated gpus, and usually come with only a simple VGA port for graphics output.
Usually graphics options of a server motherboard are not used, since they have managed over network/LAN.
Server processors need more power, and a regular desktop motherboard would not be able to endure that surge, either in electricity or heat. This is why the TDP rating of server motherboards is taken into consideration to know for certain that it can handle the surge in power and heat for a particular processor and chip.
A desktop motherboard generally has provisions for two fans, one for the processor and another one for the cabinet. A server motherboard can have provisions for six, eight, or more fans. A server motherboard also has connectors for pumps. These fans and pumps regulate the heat.
Desktop motherboards usually have two or three PCIe slots. Server motherboards have six or more.
The specific generation of these expansion slots is also more advanced in server motherboards. Desktop motherboards usually have fewer than four expansion slots. Server motherboards have six or more expansion slots.
A desktop motherboard may have only one PCIe x16 slot. A server motherboard usually has two or more PCIe x16 slots. Other PCIe slots in desktop motherboards might be x4, whereas server motherboards begin with x8. Many server motherboards support PCIe bifurcation.
8. LAN and I/O Connectors
Desktop motherboards have one LAN or Ethernet port. Server motherboards have two or three LAN ports, and some models are Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enabled.
Desktop motherboards usually have only one input/output connector or port for standard hardware components such as the monitor, keyboard, mouse, speaker, microphone, etc. Server motherboards can have multiple ports and connectors for these.
9. USB Ports
Desktop motherboards can have 6-8 or more usb ports on the backside I/O panel. However server motherboards usually have fewer usb ports, only about 2-4.
The reason is obvious, that server motherboards do not need to connect to multiple devices. They server host services over a network or internet.
Comparison of Motherboards for Desktop and Server
The top five motherboard manufacturers are Asus, Acer, Gigabyte, Intel, and MSI. Intel is the largest as per revenue. Asus is the most popular.
Let us compare a Gigabyte desktop motherboard and an Asus server motherboard.
1. Desktop Motherboard | Gigabyte GA-A320M-S2H
- GA-A320M-S2H from Gigabyte in its Ultra Durable series is a Micro-ATX form factor motherboard featuring 1 x AM4 Socket, compatible with AMD A320 chipset.
- GA-A320M-S2H (referred to as GA hereon) has 2 x DDR4 DIMM memory sockets, for a combined capacity of up to 64GB.
- GA has 1 LAN port.
- GA has 6 SATA connectors and a total of 3 expansion slots.
- GA has 2 fan headers respectively for the system and the CPU. There is no provision for pumps or more fans.
- It supports RAID 0, RAID 1, and RAID 10.
2. Server Motherboard | Asus Z10PA-D8
- Z10PA-D8 from Asus is an ATX form factor motherboard with 2 x Socket R3, compatible with Intel C612 PCH.
- Z10PA-D8 (referred to as Z10 hereon) has a total of 8 memory slots, 4 for each CPU, with a combined capacity of up to 512GB.
- Z10 has 3 LAN ports.
- Z10 has 10 SATA connectors or a combination of 9 SATA connectors and 1 M.2 connector. It has 6 expansion slots.
- Z10 has 8 fan headers.
- It supports RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 5, and RAID 10.
Desktop Gaming Motherboard
A comprehensive study of desktop and server motherboards would be incomplete without considering the prevalence of what may be classified as hybrids, such as gaming motherboards.
Gaming motherboards are a midway between desktop and server. They can serve both functions to a large extent. A desktop gaming motherboard can double up as a server motherboard due to its advanced specifications.
Let us consider one of the bestselling gaming motherboards of the year, ROG Maximum XII Hero made by Asus.
- ROG Hero is a Wi-Fi enabled ATX form factor motherboard for gaming. It has an Intel Socket 1200 that supports 10th Gen Core processors, Pentium, or Celeron. It has an Intel Z490 chipset slot. There are 4 DDR4 RAM slots offering a combined memory of up to 128GB.
- The motherboard supports Integrated Graphics and multiple GPUs. There are 1 HDMI port and 6 expansion slots. There are 6 SATA ports and 3 M.2 slots. The motherboard supports RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10. It has 3 LAN ports, 17 USB ports, Bluetooth, 6 fan connectors, 1 thunderbolt header, 3 power connectors, 1 thermal sensor connector, and 2 pump connectors, among others.
- ROG Hero has many software and special features from Asus, such as Mem Tweakit, RAMCache III, GameFirst VI, Sonic Radar III, Armoury Crate, Aura Sync, AI Charger, FlexKey, Extreme Engine Digi+, Q-Design, Thermal Solution, and more.
- ROG Hero comes with many accessories as well, including but not limited to an LED extension cable, 4 SATA cables, 1 MOS cooling kit, 1 Q-Connector, and 1 Wi-Fi Antenna. The motherboard is compatible with the Windows 10 (64-bit) operating system.
This desktop motherboard from Asus can function as a server for real-time multiplayer games. It supports all common desktop applications for a single user.
The multiple fans and provision for pumps are a collective cooling system, as gaming motherboards tend to get superhot in a very short span of time. All server motherboards are designed to have provisions for better cooling, something that is unavailable in most desktop motherboards.
Comparatively, a desktop motherboard has basic requisite features, whether it is for processor or memory, storage or graphics, and every other significant hardware. Server motherboards are readily scalable and more fault-tolerant.
The above guide should have given you some basic idea of how and why a server motherboard is different from a desktop motherboard. Most consumers would ideally go for a desktop motherboard only for home or office use.
However there are scenarios when you might need to evaluate a server motherboard setup. For example if you are setting up a small data center or data server at your office that needs to support lots of users in parallel and store data onto lots of storage devices like SSDs.
Server motherboards also need a different kind of casing called server case or server chassis and different type of power supply units as well. So the entire setup of a server motherboard would be quite different.