A Small Business Owner’s Guide to Choosing a Server System
Many businesses struggle when it comes to deciding what sort of server to buy or, indeed, if they even need to buy a server at all. After all, server systems tend to take up a fair bit of space and draw a substantial amount of power, particularly in the case of larger and more scalable systems. As such, for many small businesses, the best solution lies in the cloud, since it’s not usually necessary these days to have a server physically located in your office. Nonetheless, if you’ve decided that it’s time to build a more robust and self-reliant IT infrastructure for your business, then either building or buying a server remains the obvious choice.
Server systems usually have very specific roles to play in a company, which we’ll be taking a look at these a little later. As such, it’s often better to configure your own server to suit your own requirements, and this can work out a little cheaper than buying a prebuilt machine. By assembling a server in-house, you’ll be able to enjoy much greater flexibility regarding configuration, although you’ll ideally need to have a developed IT department to take care of any potential maintenance issues that might arise. By contrast, opting for a prebuilt server or a customised one that’s built to order, you’ll have manufacturer-based support to fall back on.
The Role of Your Server
A server is basically a computer designed specifically to share resources and distribute work across a network of client computers, but that’s about the only thing that all servers have in common. Beyond this broad definition, a server can be adapted to fulfil one or more of a huge variety of different roles, such as these:
- File Servers | File servers are among the most basic type, since they are only intended to provide easy access to files and folders to any other device connected to the same network. As such, you don’t generally need a dedicated server system for a file server, since any network-attached storage (NAS) system should be more than adequate. In fact, you can even repurpose an old computer into a NAS system by using the Linux-based FreeNAS operating system. However, a dedicated and scalable file server can make more sense for larger businesses that need a more scalable solution complete with full RAID capabilities and VPN access.
- Application Servers | An application server hosts Web apps, allowing anyone connected to the same network to access and use the apps inside their Web browsers. For small businesses that rely heavily on Web apps, an on-site application server presents the advantage of allowing your team to work without having to rely on Internet connectivity. At the same time, it’s not necessary to have the apps installed on the local machine, thus potentially reducing the hardware requirements for the connected clients. An application server may also be connected to the Web, allowing others outside your local business network to access and use the same apps.
- Computing Servers | Although the most common server roles for a small business are entirely data-related, there are a few niche situations where it’s necessary, or simply more cost-effective, to share other computing resources, such as RAM, CPU or graphics processing. With a computing server, you’ll be able to take advantage of the full potential of the processing power afforded by that machine on any device connected to the network. For example, using streaming technology, you will be able to view 3D rendered or high-definition video content on a device that is not powerful enough to perform such tasks independently.
- Communications Server | A communications server typically exists to handle incoming and outgoing emails. Most small businesses don’t host their own email servers on-site, but still have dedicated email servers for the sake of security and reliability. However, hosting your own mail on-site can make sense if you have the onsite expertise necessary to maintain the system and promptly fix any issues that might arise. For small businesses that regularly communicate confidential or very sensitive data, an on-site communications server potentially presents the most secure environment possible. You can also integrate other tools, such as CRM or sales-tracking software. There are, of course, many other different roles that a server can fill. For example, there are servers designed purely to deliver media playback on devices that would otherwise be unable to support it. Other servers, such as firewall or proxy servers (which may either be software- or hardware-based), exist purely for the sake of security by providing an additional level of protection between a business’s private network and the wider Internet. Large enterprises, by contrast, often maintain entire server farms for handling vast amounts of data or providing extra processing power within or even beyond the organisation.
- Virtualisation for Small Businesses | Server virtualisation is essential for small- to medium-sized businesses that need to reduce and improve efficiency when it comes to improving their IT departments. This process involves running multiple virtual servers on a single physical server machine. As such, each individual virtual server can have a different role, such as serving apps, handling communications or providing access to data. Additional, each virtual machine can run its own operating system, which effectively allows you to have a single physical server computer running as many different guest operating systems as you need all within a single host operating system. Although server virtualisation has been around for over a decade already, recent hardware improvements have made it far more viable for smaller businesses that need a server to perform multiple functions simultaneously. Other major advantages of server virtualisation include the ability to allow for redundancy without needing additional hardware and the greater ease of migrating between different operating systems. However, to take full advantage of server virtualisation, you will need a powerful machine with a processor that supports virtualisation. You may also need additional network interfaces to prevent bottlenecks.
- Server Operating Systems | Technically, you can run a normal consumer version of Windows or any other operating system on a server. However, specialised server operating systems exist to provide improved network access and security and take advantage of various other features that are exclusive to server systems. As is the case with desktop machines, Microsoft Windows enjoys the biggest market share, although Linux is also very popular for use on server systems, much more so than it is on desktop computers. In fact, the versatility and adaptability of Linux makes it the preferred choice for the vast majority of the world’s supercomputers. Choosing the right operating system is vital, not least because there are different operating systems designed for different types of servers. For example, FreeNAS is ideal for file servers, thanks to its enterprise-grade RAID support, while any of the popular Linux distributions can perform a wider range of server-related tasks with ease. If, however, you prefer the more familiar Microsoft approach, then Windows Server Essentials, which is designed for small- to medium-sized businesses, is the option you’re looking for. However, Windows Server Essentials can accommodate no more than 25 simultaneous users, whereas Linux is free and unlimited.
- Server Form Factors and Hardware | While a basic server can be something as simple as an old laptop repurposed as a network-attached storage system, purpose-built server machines typically come in three different varieties. The oldest and still one of the most familiar of these form factors is the tower case, which is, to all intents and purposes, a particularly large desktop computer. A step up from these are rackmount servers, which are installed into a specialised chassis. The newest form factor, however, is the space-saving blade server, which also fits into a standard-sized chassis. As is the case with any other kind of hardware, the best solution depends on your budget and requirements. Tower server systems, despite the name, actually come in many different shapes and sizes from the tiny cube-shaped barebones Dell PowerEdge T20 to the hulking HPE ProLiant ML350. To all intents and purposes, a tower server is basically a desktop computer albeit with server-optimized components, such as dual-CPU motherboards, Intel Xeon processors and support for vast amounts of memory. Like any normal computer, a tower server needs to have its own monitor, keyboard and mouse. As such, they take up a lot of space and are best suited to serving single, specific purposes in smaller environments where scalability is not a major concern. Rackmount servers are a major step up from tower servers in that they are far more scalable and take up less space. The most common type of server found in data centres, rackmount systems use an industry-standard 19-inch-wide chassis that can hold multiple server systems with one stacked on top of the other. As such, a rackmount setup presets the obvious choice if you need to consolidate multiple server systems into a single computing powerhouse while taking up less space. On the downside, however, while rackmount systems do help to keep things neater, there’s always a morass of cabling required to make everything work properly.
If your business is rapidly growing and has rapidly increasing computing requirements along with it, then the scalability of a blade server system is undeniably your best option. By far the most compact, scalable and tidy form factor, a blade server features a modular design consisting of a blade chassis and multiple blade servers, which are basically stripped-down server computers featuring one or two CPUs. Just like a scalable data storage system, you can add more blades to the chassis as needed, and all cooling, power, I/O infrastructure and cabling will be taken care of, making maintenance and installation vastly less complicated.
These days, it often doesn’t make sense for smaller businesses to invest in on-site server hardware when they can use cloud-based services and remote dedicated servers instead. Nonetheless, it is important to weigh up the pros and cons of each, particularly with regards to the total cost of ownership. After all, in spite of the hype, cloud computing is not necessarily the be all and end all for every situation, and it doesn’t always work out cheaper in the longer term either. However, buying the first server for your business is no easy task, and choosing the wrong solution can leave you with a severe bottleneck to overcome.