Whether a business has five or five hundred PCs, they all need to communicate and share with each other: they need to be able to access shared documents, print to shared printers, access a common database or send emails, to collaborate in short. While it is possible to share data directly between PCs in an organisation, beyond a relatively low number of workstations it becomes much more efficient to employ a dedicated server for these tasks.
And what exactly is a server? A server is a computer or other hardware device that is connected to a network, runs server software and manages network resources for groups of computer users. Put simply, servers hold, manage, send and process data. They make a lot of sense for organisations with five or more staff who work collaboratively on a network and who need a central location for files, shared applications and other frequently used computing resources.
The first steps to choosing a business server
Before investing in a server, take some time to think how your business would make use of the server. Would it just be a file and printer server or would it handle other tasks such as databases and e-mail?
A server for a small office that's only going to be used to share files and run a back-up program doesn't need to be as well-specified as a server that'll also run your database application and your mail server.
Server reliability is crucial because in a client-server network, if the server goes down, the clients, that is, the PC workstations, may find it difficult to get any work done at all. Up time is therefore critical - the more your business relies on the server for day-to-day work, the more robust and powerful it needs to be.
Don't forget that the server hardware is just half of the picture – you'll also need suitable server software as well and this is typically purchased separately.
The different server types
There are several types of servers, some of which are dedicated to a single function. Single-function servers are quite popular for small businesses:
- File servers allow documents and data files to be shared, secured and backed up from one place. Almost without exception, the first server in any small business is a file server.
- Print servers allow you to share a single printer among many users.
- Mail servers move and store e-mail within the business and the Internet.
- Collaborative workspace servers, make it easy for staff to share data and work collaboratively.
Note that some server software, such as Microsoft Small Business Server, lets you run all of the above services on a single server.
Server hardware choices
While it's possible to use an ordinary PC as a server, it's best to use one that's designed and built for that express purpose. From a business point of view it really doesn't make any sense to entrust your business data to 'any old PC', you simply have too much riding on it to take that chance. Here's what to look for in server hardware.
Server systems: blade v's tower
Servers come in all shapes and sizes, but for a small business, the best choice is a dedicated entry-level server in a tower configuration. A tower is economical, easily accessible, doesn't take up much space and doesn't require any special installation hardware. It'll also have room for storage expansion. Most server towers can be fitted in to an equipment cabinet – 'rack mounted' in server parlance.
Organisations that need multiple servers tend to use 'blade' servers. Apart from being comparatively thin, they fit in special equipment racks that provide power, cooling, networking, various interconnects and system management, features that would normally be built-in to each server. This allows blade servers to fit in very slim enclosures and reduces the overall total cost if you're intending on buying multiple servers.
The right mix of processor and memory
For a basic, entry-level file server, it's actually more important to have plenty of disk storage than it is to have a top-end processor connected multi-gigabyte's worth of memory. A good multi-core processor, such as an Intel Core or AMD A or FX series is perfectly adequate though the most powerful servers are driven by 'server grade' processors such as the Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron, which, as you might expect, carry a price premium.