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.
A server can never have too much memory plenty of memory and anything above 2GB is to be preferred, especially when a gigabyte of RAM can cost as little as £30: 8GB is not a bad place to start. More memory directly translates into better server performance.
Your server storage options
You'll be using your server to store your all of your business data, so storage is very important. At the very minimum buy a server with a minimum of 500GB of storage. As your company grows, you may need your server to take on more tasks than just storing files. Luckily servers are built to take multiple hard disk drives, so expanding your storage if you run out of space shouldn't be a problem.
Most servers support drives with high-speed Serial ATA or SATA interfaces – if you're looking for the ultimate in hard disk performance you'd want a server that supports Serial Attached SCSI or SAS drives.
SATA and SCSI systems typically have built-in support for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks or RAID, a technology that provides varying levels of data protection. RAID 1, for example, writes the same data to two hard disks so if one drive goes bad, your data is safe on the other. RAID 5 uses a sophisticated error-checking system that lets the server reconstitute the contents of a drive that goes bad.
Finally, it doesn't matter what disk options you choose, it is essential that your server has a reliable data backup capability. This used to be dominated by tape cartridges but today external hard drives are preferable.
Network Attached Storage as an alternative to a server
Network Attached Storage or NAS is, put simply, an external hard drive with a network interface. Unlike, say, USB external drives, NAS drives are not reliant on a host PC to make them visible on a network, they operate independently of PCs, which makes for a simple life.
Most external drives are fairly dumb and offer little more than extra storage capacity. But over the past few years NAS drives have gradually become smarter and smarter and the latest versions come complete with relatively sophisticated server software, offering much of the functionality of heavy-duty servers but a fraction of the cost. You effectively get a file server, print server, mail server, ant-virus, web server and FTP server, all for next to nothing – basically you only pay for the hardware.
Not only that they are designed to be simple to manage and operate as network appliances – they 'just work', in other words. Another bonus – NAS boxes tend to be very compact, some no bigger than a shoebox, so they'll fit just about anywhere.
Getting the right ports for your server
All servers will come with at least one network port – typically a Fast Ethernet (100Mbps) or better still a Gigabit (1000MBps) Ethernet network port. You won't find frivolities such as FireWire ports on a server but aside from the usual mouse, keyboard and display ports you should find USB 2.0 or 3.0 ports (with some at the front).
If you're going to backup a lot of data to an external drive look for an eSATA port – these can offer 6Gbps bandwidth to suitable drives, considerably speeding up backup tasks.
Choosing an operating system for your server: Windows, Apple and Linux
The vast majority of business servers run a Microsoft Windows operating system. Linux dominates the web server and super-computer market segments but despite being extremely capable and essentially free, only enjoys a relatively small (but growing) presence in the business sphere.
Apple does have a server offering – ever since OS X 10.8 MacOS incorporates built-in server support, though you do need to buy a low cost Server App to administer the server elements. Needless to say, it only runs on Apple hardware. Windows on the other hand runs on cheaper hardware from a number of vendors.
Most businesses should consider one of two Windows Small Business Server 2011 configurations; Standard and Essentials.
The Essentials version handles up to 25 users and requires minimal PC knowledge. It includes automated backup of PC computers on your network as well as its own storage. Essentials doesn't include Exchange email server and SharePoint portal and collaboration server – Microsoft expects users to subscribe to its cloud-based offering, Office 365, which provides online versions of these features. The Standard edition can handle up to 75 users, but doesn't include the PC Backup that is found in Essentials.
If all of this sounds daunting then there are professionals available who can help you make your decision and most are just a click away. Remember your business will be run from this server and everyone in the business will have access to it, so any downtime is going to have a significant effect on your business.