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A beginner’s guide to servers

What is a server?

A server acts as a platform for sharing data (files / images) & applications (email etc.) across multiple users. A server uses many of the same components as a regular PC, but these are usually of a higher grade, designed & built for constant rather than sporadic use.

Many of these components may be duplicated within a server so it remains operational should one fail (power supplies, hard drives, fans, network ports). A server will be accessed via the network, so can ultimately be used from within or outside (remote access) the business.

Why you need a server

Most small business will benefit from having their own server and for medium and larger enterprises’ one, or more, servers are essential.  If you use two or more computers in your business a server can greatly increase efficiency and productivity.

With a server data and information can be easily shared between colleagues.  This is especially useful when you have teams working on projects together or remote and mobile workers who need access to work files.

server netwotk illustration

Having data stored on a central server, makes everything more secure and reduces the need to have duplicated documents being emailed to and fro between workmates.

One of the biggest plus points in favour of having a server is that data is securely stored and access to the network can be strictly controlled through centralised authentication.

Data back-up and recovery

It is a simple matter to put a data backup and recovery system in place so if any files are deleted or corrupted the data can be easily recovered.

Unlike single computers, a crashed hard drive in a server is not a disaster which will cause chaos within your business.  Instead it is an easily managed event.

But, a server isn’t just about storage it is also a tool to help boost productivity.  Peripherals such as printers can be managed so all users on the network have access and the system will queue jobs for printing.

As well as print management, other software such as CRM systems can be shared on the server along with client information, stock control systems and accounting procedures.  In other words the business can be managed from one central location rather than many different, and isolated, PCs.

illustration of pc user and servers

A server can also be used for hosting the company’s website.  This removes the need to rely on third party hosting and makes in-house web development so much easier and convenient.

By the same token, internet usage within the business can be controlled and email can be managed centrally.

Remote management

As we have already discussed just about every aspect of the business can be managed through a server.

Another layer of convenience is added by the ability to remotely manage and maintain the server itself.

Problems with the server or network can then be diagnosed and fixed from external locations whilst routine maintenance and updates can also be carried out remotely.

Security

Apart from streamlining the business the biggest positive in favour of installing a server is the added security it offers.  When a business has a number of mobile workers or is storing sensitive and business critical data it is essential the network is protected.

A server allows anti-virus software and firewalls to be managed securing all data and, with the ability to control access to the network via passwords and user names, security breaches are much less likely.

Dedicated servers

Many smaller businesses will be able to use a single server for all their tasks but for larger concerns multiple servers will be in use with each having a specific purpose.

The most common types of dedicated servers are print, email, web and file servers.  Allocating a dedicated server to a particular purpose allows resources to be channelled to where they are most needed and makes each server easier to manage.

techs in datacentre with server

Home servers

Servers and networks were formerly exclusively used by businesses but nowadays it is more and more common to find servers in the home.  With most families having multiple desktop PCs, laptops and tablets it makes perfect sense to install a server.

Home servers from companies such as HP are now very affordable or an old PC can be easily converted into a server at a low cost.

A home server can be used to link every computer and peripheral in the house but can also be used to manage home automation and CCTV systems or even a home media centre.

Choosing your server

Once you have chosen to install a server the next question that needs addressing is which server would most suit your business?

When choosing your server there are three basic questions that need answering; which form factor will you choose?  What specifications will your server have?  And, which software will you run?

Form factors

There are three distinct form factors to choose from; tower, rack or blade.  The one you choose will depend on a number of factors:

  1. Where is the server to be located?
  2. Is a single or multiple servers required?
  3. Do you intend to virtualise the servers?

Server Virtualisation

This is simply using features within the server software to run multiple ‘virtual’ servers on a single ‘physical’ server.

The processors, hard drives & components within the physical box are intelligently shared out between the virtual servers to make the most efficient use of the server.

Tower

Tower servers are self-contained free-standing units that are ideal for smaller businesses.  They are the size of a normal desktop computer so can fit under or even on top of a desk and offer a complete all-in-one solution.

tower server

A tower server may have room for a considerable number of hard drives, as they often act as centralised storage for the whole business, but the processing & memory capabilities will be usually less than that of a rack server. If greater processing power is required, a rack server is often chosen.

Rack

As the name suggests these servers are stored in racks commonly within a small cabinet or housed in a dedicated data room.

Rack servers have built-in expansion slots and are more scalable than tower models as they can be used with virtualisation platforms or connected to NAS or SAN external storage systems.

rack server

Rack servers will either have a small form factor designed for a dedicated use (web, email or file etc.), or a larger form factor designed for virtualisation – in this latter case, a large amount of processing power & memory may be placed in a single server chassis, with the intention of running many virtual servers on the hardware.

It is also common for rack servers to only use hard drives for their software operating system, and connect to an external storage array shared by multiple physical and virtual servers.

Contained within cabinets with their own cable management system rack servers save on space and are an efficient way in which small to medium businesses can run their networks.

Blade

The most compact of all server types, blade units need less space than even rack models which means of course that more servers can be packed into the space.

Ideal for businesses that process lots of data these servers store data on blades but can also be easily connected to external storage such as NAS.

blade server

Blade servers offer more efficient cooling and use less energy than other types of server.  As components can be shared between servers, everything can be managed from one place.

In summary, blade servers are suitable for larger businesses which need a dedicated data centre or extra capacity.

Server specification

A server uses the same basic components and configuration as a desktop PC though it will typically carry a much higher specification.

For example, a single server will often house multiple multi-core processors.  The processor, or CPU, should have as high a specification as possible.

The faster the processor, and the more cores it has, the faster it can process information and the more tasks it can perform.

The basic rule here is the greater the number of cores the better the performance.

Server memory

As the processing power of a server increases, more memory is required to support the greater workload. Servers capable of taking two or more processors will require additional memory to support these extra processors.

Server hard drives

Another way in which a server differs in specification from a normal desktop PC is in the number of hard drives it has and how it uses external storage.

A hard drive in a server will typically be more resilient and faster than a desktop PC and a server will often house multiple hard drives to cope with the larger number of files it needs to store.

Another significant difference is server hard drives are designed for around the clock 24/7 use.

server hard drive

These hard drives can, depending on the server, be combined into a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) system.  RAID is an efficient storage system as it saves data across a number of drives rather than on just one but its key function is to prevent data loss in the event of a drive failure.

All about RAID

RAID is a feature found within many server or storage devices, and is a system for governing how data is written to the hard drives.

Numbers are assigned to differentiate between the types, and although there are many versions this guide will concentrate on the most common ones, as these offer protection for the data which is vital in a server environment.

RAID1 requires two disks and simply mirrors the data written from the first to the second disk. This provides an identical copy of the data, so a spare is retained should one drive fail, although the server would need to be powered down to retrieve the data. This type of RAID is most often used for mirroring the operating system of a server.

RAID5 offers a greater degree of data security than RAID1. It works across a minimum of 4 disks, and stripes the data across all 4, rather than using a mirroring technique. The striping is done in such a way that a parity block is created on each disk, so if one is removed, the data from this disk can be rebuilt using the parity block from the remaining disks.

It is common when using RAID5 to deploy ‘hot-swap’ disks in the server, as these offer the ability to remove a disk from the array without powering down the server. This is key, as if a disk in a RAID5 array were to fail, not only is the data protected due to the striping, the disk can be replaced with a new one, without any downtime to the server, and the array will be automatically rebuilt.

RAID6 is essentially RAID5+1 – a combination of striping of the data & mirroring of the parity block. This works the same as RAID5 but offers further protection in that two disks can fail simultaneously and the array can be rebuilt with any loss of data or downtime to the server.

External Storage

For enterprise users the storage capacity of servers can be greatly increased by using external systems.  NAS (Network Attached Storage) offers storage which can cope with massive volumes of data and can greatly increase productivity.  You can learn more about NAS here.

Control and power

An important component in a server is the Network Controller, also known as Network Interface Card or Network Adapter, which manages the connection to the server.

Another difference you will find between a server and a desktop PC is that a server will need a larger power supply.  More wattage, or power, is needed to ensure efficient and reliable operation because a server will have more components and a higher specification than a normal PC.

Software

Like any other PC a server needs an operating system but the software used differs.  But, like desktop PCs, it is Windows which is the ‘go to’ software for servers.

windows server 2016

As you would expect from Microsoft, Windows server software provides many benefits and advantages over other versions.  You can find the latest versions of the software right here at Ebuyer.com.

Where can I get more advice about which server I need?

If you would like to talk to our specialist team about servers or your network infrastructure call the Ebuyer Solutions Team on 01430 433671 or drop them an email to solutions@ebuyer.com

FAQ & Jargon Buster

What is the difference between a server and a desktop PC?

Although they share many of the same components and similar looking cases servers have a higher specification and are used for processing data rather than a PC which performs tasks and runs applications.  A server can also be massively expanded with multiple additional processors, hard drives, and more memory.

Does my business need a server?

Most businesses will benefit from having a server with the exception of one man bands.  Certainly when there are more than two or three colleagues in a business a server to enable file sharing would make a lot of sense.  Remember a server can do much more than simply store data it can help manage your business.

What is a system board in a server?

It’s simply another name for a motherboard.  The system board houses and connects all the main components of the server including the processor.  The system board will also house all the expansion slots and I/O ports.

What does server memory do?

Memory, or RAM, is where a server temporarily stores open files for fast access.  Having insufficient memory will cause the server to run slowly so the more RAM installed the better.  All servers have RAM preinstalled but most will be capable of being expanded with more memory.

How much memory does a server need?

To say as ‘much as possible’ is an easy answer but it is true nevertheless.  Most units are scalable and easy to upgrade so adding extra server memory is a straight-forward process.

What is RAID?

RAID stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks.  RAID enables multiple hard drives to be combined into one unit.  Data is then stored across the different drives and, should one drive fail, the rest will still function preventing data loss.

What is the difference between internal and external storage?

It may seem obvious but internal storage is storage contained within the server itself whilst external storage are systems outwith the server.  A server will have internal hard drives but enterprise users and data centres will also link to external storage such as NAS (network Attached Storage).  This greatly increases the amount of storage space available to the network.

Which software do I need for my server?

Ebuyer recommends the latest version of Windows server software.  There are different versions of Windows for enterprise business, small business and home users.

What are the main advantages of having a server?

For businesses there are many positives including greater data security, increased production through easy information sharing, and access to essential files for mobile workers.

What is virtualisation?

When a number of servers are working together some may only be using a fraction of their capacity.  Virtualisation is a software powered system that maximises the processing power of a network by virtually creating more machines on each server to optimise efficiency.

What is centralised authentication?

A server can manage many different tasks and offers a high degree of convenience.  One function it can provide is centralised authentication in which it stores all user names and passwords to control access to the computers in the network.

Using this process employees within a business can use any computer in the network and by logging in with their stored details will see their own desktop no matter which machine they are using.

With centralised authentication, access to the network, or any part of the network, can be easily controlled.

What is a multi-core processor?

Most severs will have a CPU or processor with multiple cores.  The cores are the number of processors within the processor itself and typically there will be either two or four cores.  Each core can handle different tasks thereby enabling the server to run faster so the higher the number of cores the better.

What is clock speed?

The performance, or speed, of the processor is measured in gigahertz and is referred to as ‘clock speed’.  Again, the advice is the faster the better.

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