What is a server (and why would I want one)?

July 4 2007

What is a server?

From a hardware perspective, a server is just a souped-up version of your everyday desktop computer. In terms of how your business functions, however, a server is much, much more. Changing your network over to a server-based system impacts not just how your computers work, but how you company manages information overall.

In a nutshell, a server creates a centralized core for your company's informational resources. Instead of having your information spread on a number of different individual systems, a server gives you a centralized system for holding, managing, processing, and sending data. It serves as the heart of your information-technology structure, pumping resources outward to your workstations and receiving data back for processing and storage. As such, it also improves your ability to centralize functions such as virus protection, back-ups, access to data, and more. In this age of telecommuting and multiple jobsites, server-based systems also give you a simple and secure portal for remote access.

What are some specific advantages I get with a server compared to just connecting my computers together? If you're just starting out and have only a handful of computers, connecting them directly (through what's called a "peer-to-peer" network) may work fine. As your business expands, however, you are likely to have IT needs that can't be met through this simple network environment. Functions you might want include:

  • Centralized back-ups of your data and system settings, on- and off-site.
  • Greater control over security and virus protection. Servers allow you to restrict access to files and data.
  • Freer flow of information between workstations in the main office and even in remote locations.
  • "Scaling" capacity so your network can grow as your business does without any loss of performance.
  • Extra reliability provided by the specialized hardware that goes into a server.

The engineering that supports these powerful functions is housed in a box that looks much like any other office computer. Many people try to save money by loading up a good-quality desktop PC with server software rather than buying an actual server machine. You can do this, but, in the end, you're likely to pay. That's because computers that are built as servers have numerous features that aren't included in even a high-quality desktop computer.

How does a server differ from an ordinary PC?

Business owners should be aware of the differences between a true server computer and a personal computer that is configured as a server. True servers offered by quality manufacturers such as Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM have features not found in personal computers. These features are critical for assuring data integrity, system performance and reliability -- all of which save businesses large amounts of time and money. True servers feature the following hardware not found in personal computers:

  • Redundant components. Unlike desktop computers, servers have duplicate sets of critical components to prevent downtime. Hard drives, for example, are common sites of failure on desktop PCs. When your hard drive goes down, you lose any data not backed up elsewhere. Servers, however, feature duplicate hard-drive technology (called "RAID," short for "redundant array of independent disks"). Even if one drive goes down, your system continues to function. In addition, server systems have redundant power-supply capabilities so that an outage won't result in loss of data or labor.
  • Built-in diagnostics and monitoring of all major components. Most servers keep track of their own inner workings and can notify you by e-mail if part of the system is in trouble -- before it goes down.
  • Enhanced performance. Servers typically run with more than one processor or with a faster processor than you would find in a desktop computer. This speeds up performance at your workstations.
  • Expandability. Servers are designed for growth. They offer more internal space with a chassis and motherboard designed for expandability, making it easy to add on memory and new devices. As your business grows and your IT needs expand accordingly, you have the option to upgrade rather than buy a replacement machine. Much cheaper!
  • More shapes and sizes. Servers can be either rack-mounted or desktop. Most server rooms are the size of big closets and space is at a premium. Servers can be set up to fit efficiently on racks or shelves.

In short, a server is more than a super-charged desktop system. Even if a desktop sports the same processor speed, memory, and hard-disk space, it'll be missing the key engineering that makes a server a server.

Why should I spend the money on a big-name server when anything will work? Remember the old adage that "You get what you pay for"? This definitely applies to network servers. Some vendors cut corners by using "consumer grade" parts to lure customers with a lower sticker price.

In contrast, reputable server manufacturers orient their business line of computers toward concerns for the total cost of ownership (TCO). Even though the initial purchase price will be higher, these machines will cost you less over their lifetime because their high-quality components last longer than those made for home or workstation users. Quality vendors use parts rated to meet MIL-SPEC requirements, the electronics specifications created by the U.S. military. In addition, these manufacturers maintain a pool of spare parts for their computers, extending the years of service you will get from your purchase.

So, do you need a server? Server benefits not withstanding, you don't want to buy technology unless it will benefit your bottom line, facilitate key business processes, or otherwise make your life easier. No single litmus test can determine whether you need a server, but some general guidelines apply.

If your office only has three or four staff members who share files across networked computers, surf the Web, or send e-mail, you may not need a server at all. However, once you have five or more employees working together on a network, a server will provide a central location for your important files, shared applications, and other resources you use regularly, like project documents, databases, or even an image library. In addition, if you want to implement any of the following systems or applications, you'll need a server:

  • File and print server
  • Microsoft Exchange system or other e-mail server
  • Firewall or other security system
  • Web site or company intranet
  • Database
  • ERP or CRM solution
  • E-commerce solution

And these are just the tip of the iceberg. In general, if you need to put a computer system in place that performs the functions we now expect from our systems -- processing, sharing, and otherwise managing data -- you'll be glad you chose a server.