business guides

The Small Business Owner’s Guide To Servers

There comes a time when a burgeoning business must start considering a server to avoid hampering their growth.

Hearing ‘server’ sounds like an intimidating prospect. It evokes the idea of data centres. Dimly lit rooms crammed with ear-deafeningly loud server cabinets in some far-off, undisclosed location. These cloud-based hosting providers are popular – in which you rent a slither of the server’s power – but they’re not the only option small businesses have at their disposal.
A server should empower your business and help it grow ever further, not feel like an obligation to farm out to a third-party. Ebuyer encourages businesses to take servers into their own hands to have on-site control over the business’s data in the present, and in the future.

What is a server?

A server acts as a centralised platform for storing and sharing data, programs and services. Your employees can connect to it, harnessing its power to speed up and consolidate their workloads. It also offers up a place for storing your business’ critical data that’s dependable for years to come. A server is network connected and can be accessed via your business’s local area network (LAN) or remotely over a wide area network. For small businesses looking to smartly adapt to the increased emphasis put on work-from-home guidelines, this is an essential component of as server.

Server Vs. PC

If you’re familiar with the internals of a regular computer – CPU, RAM, PSU and so forth – a server uses many of the same components. However, their build and performance requirements are upheld to a higher standard.

A server is synonymous with specialised, enterprise-grade hardware that’s optimised for continuous, always-on operation. Servers garner their reputation by employing hardware and software features simply not present on a bog-standard PC. This includes hot-swappable components to minimise downtime, dual power supply units to ensure the server stays powered if one fails, error-checking and correcting memory, add-in RAID cards to confidently control a server’s vast amount of data and more.

No one wants a rogue error to unexpectedly crash their personal computer in the middle of a mundane task, but it’s manageable. After a moment of frustration, you hit the PC’s reset and you’re right where you left off. You’re forgiving over a crash on a personal computer as there’s not a lot at stake – the same can’t be said of your business. A poorly timed computer crash could have far-reaching implications. Do you want to entrust all your business’ critical data to an off-the-shelf PC? From loss of productivity to data corruption, a server ensures you’re not subject to the random whims of a computer you’ve grown accustomed to.

Why do I need a server?

No longer is a server exclusive for big-name businesses with a complex IT infrastructure. Nowadays, a server can be a cost-effective option to help simplify and streamline the access of your business’ data.

As you bring aboard more and more employees – each equipped with their own PC – data organisation can get complicated quickly. How do you ensure everyone’s working on the most up-to-date data and nothing is lost due to a mishap out of your control?

For instance, a tight-knit team of three employees may sound manageable, but that’s three PCs to keep tabs on. Or alternatively, three opportunities for failure. This problem is only exacerbated as your business expands.
Rather than sprawling your business’ data over many machines, keep it contained on a server. Accessing data that’s stored on a server remotely makes businesses more productive and organised. The old-fashioned process of ferrying data back-and-forth via email and physical media is inadequately slow compared to a server.

With a server, everyone’s served from the same, centralised platform. No more duplicate and conflicting data or combing a PC’s storage to dredge up an old document requested from a co-worker. This is relevant for teams which collaborate on a project where a lot of data is shared, and for those working remotely who need access to the business’ data.

A server fortifies your business’ security

A major advantage of a server for a small business is the unwavering control and security of your data. Transferring your business’ documents, files and services via physical media, email or a cloud-based service is convenient, but introduces a risk of data going astray. A device’s storage could be lost or irreparably damaged, data corrupted or inadvertently deleted or fall prey to a cyber-attack.

Data on a server is stored securely at an on-site location where it isn’t going anywhere. It is authorised by an administrator who’s got strict privileges over connections to-and-from the server and how the data’s accessed with log-ins and passwords. An administrator at the helm can get a clearer view over all a business’ data and spot potential security breaches before they occur.

Is a server worth the cost?

A server is no small expense for a business. Since you own the hardware, however, you’ll pay less in the long run as opposed to incurring a monthly fee from a cloud-based solution. As your business expands, you’ll grow into your own server at no additional cost, rather than paying a third-party an increasingly high monthly fee.

Having a pin-point location for all your business’ data makes it quicker to source the information you need, saving you time. As everything’s managed through one centralised location, it puts less strain on your IT department, also saving your resources.

Isn’t a server complicated?

By neatly organising your business onto one server, you’re reducing a risk further down the road. A server consolidates a business’ IT infrastructure. Not randomly dispersing it over numerous devices, making it needlessly complicated to keep track of.

Commonly, you control a server over a dashboard graphical-user-interface (GUI) not too dissimilar to your computer’s operating system for a Windows-based server. These dashboards are designed to handle a business’ regular IT duties. For instance, you could use your server for domain control – to send out an urgent security update to all devices connected to it.

Without a server, this would quickly devolve into a complicated mess of manual, in-person support. Extend this to administering security policies, credentials, anti-virus and more. At first a server can be intimidating, but you’ll soon realise how it makes your business’ IT management way easier.

What does a server do?

A server is not pigeonholed to a particular category – it can be configured to perform numerous roles to support the business accordingly. However, the main uses of a server for a small business commonly are:
• Back-up Server
• Printer Server
• Hosting Server
• Application Server

What is a printer server?

Straight out the box, a printer rarely works as you’d expect. An unintuitive interface, out-of-date software and a connection which never seems to work reliably. Who knew printing a document could be such a source of frustration? This is partly down to a printer’s networking performance not being strong enough to support the demands of a business.

To alleviate this burden, you can off-load the networking from a printer to a printer server. When you go to print a document, the request is re-routed to the printer server instead, as it can handle all the queued-up requests in an orderly fashion and relay them to the most appropriate printer. Through the server’s dashboard you can configure business-wide printing policies – quotas, limit certain printers to certain users and more – to get the most out of your printing.

This concept can also be applied to a business’ customer relationship management (CRM) system, stock control system, client information, accounting procedures and more. A server lets you control all a business’ integral components from an overarching host. To access one of these components, you can go straight to the server and start working on it immediately, rather than having each component haphazardly strewn over many isolated PCs.

What is a hosting server?

A hosting server is for your business’ own email, website and so forth. Most small-sized businesses rely on cloud-based services to provide these – think Microsoft 365, WordPress, Squarespace and more. It’s a saturated market, so you’ve got an abundance of choice at your disposal. A cloud-based service is a tempting proposition when you’re first starting out as they can help you get your business’ online presence up-and-running quickly and easily.

You may want to embrace a server’s ethos and do it yourself – for the same reason as owning an on-site server in the first place – to avoid paying a monthly fee to a third-party. The initial price tag of these services is inviting to newcomers, but as your business expands, the costs increase accordingly. In the long run, you may end up paying more for a cloud-based service than hosting your own email or website server from the beginning.

An email server is a server for sending and receiving email from one destination to another. At a surface-level this may appear simple enough. However, email is the backbone of many businesses – small and large – so it’s imperative to have greater control over it. In an age when ransomware runs rampant and can cripple the world’s biggest businesses, this is very relevant. Would you rather a hands-off approach and delegate your email to a third-party? Or have control over your own email – to set up and customise your anti-spam filter, security policies and more. This goes hand-in-hand with privacy, too. You – and only you – will be able to look at your emails. A server can also be used for hosting your business’ website, removing a reliance on a third-party host.

Bringing your website in-house makes web development so much easier and convenient. You’ll be able to rapidly test new developments and push them live as soon as they’re ready, to stay ahead of the curve, without having to go through a third-party’s convoluted procedures.

What is an application server?

An application server is a server for execution of an application deemed vital for your business’ function that’s needed for round-the-clock operation, or an application too hardware-intensive for your employee’s computers. For instance, let’s take a rendering server, as it reveals the value of a server.

Video, 3-D animation, AI simulation and more – these rendering tasks are notoriously strenuous on an average PC’s hardware. To prevent crashes in the middle of a time-sensitive render you need a copious amount of RAM and a high-end graphics card to accelerate the application. You could equip each of your employees with their own super-fast local machine, but this incurs a cost – a sizable one. These PCs aren’t cheap, and their lower-quality construction – compared to a server – may incur costly maintenance to keep them up-to-date with the latest hardware and software.

Most importantly, this is only a band-aid solution and doesn’t resolve a larger issue at hand – productivity. Regardless of how fast a PC is, rendering is going to consume all the PC’s resources for an unavoidable amount of time. It’s so hardware-intensive it bogs down the PC to an unusable level for the entire duration of the render. Idly watching a render’s progress bar tick up is a waste of everyone’s time and resource, which could’ve been spent cracking on with the next project. Doing it entirely on a local machine introduces congestion to a workload.

Rather, you could off-load these laborious chores to an application server that’s dedicated to rendering your employee’s projects twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Server-grade components are a lot more powerful, with ridiculously high core count CPUs and masses of RAM. AMD EPYC CPUs – targeted squarely at the server and embedded system market – have up to 64 cores and 126 threads and support for up to 4TB of RAM, far outstripping any desktop-grade CPU. Over time, the cost of one high-performance, but always-on server may end up saving you more money and aid productivity. You’ll spend less configuring and maintaining local machines and external users can remotely harness the power of the server.

What is server virtualisation?

Though software, you can divvy up a server’s physical resources – CPU cores, memory, storage – into multiple ‘virtual’ servers. Each of these virtual servers can be assigned their own task to carry out. Servers are on the leading-edge and are first to receive the latest and greatest technologies. Rarely will an individual task demand the entire power of a server. Virtualisation makes sure no unused hardware is resting idle.

Let’s say you had a server with a 16-core CPU and 64GB of RAM. You could configure it to run one and only one task. Or alternatively, you could split it up into 4 virtual servers, each with a 4-cores and 16GB of RAM. One virtual server running your back-up, another your hosting server and so forth. This smart distribution of resources ensures you’re making the most efficient use of your server.

Which server do I need?

The hardest part of choosing a server is knowing years ahead of time what you’ll be using it for. A server is not comparable to a smartphone’s annual upgrade cycle. There’s a hefty expenditure for the server unit itself, but you won’t be upgrading to a brand-new unit for at least a few years – 3-5 is recommended among server professionals. As such, you want a server that’s suitably configured for the needs of the business in the here-and-now and as it expands, not grossly over-investing in a server you don’t need.

When browsing the broad range of servers available at Ebuyer, bear in mind these questions to pick out what’s best for you:

• What is the server going to be used for?
• How much storage do you need?
• How much redundancy do you need?
• What applications and services are you going to run, are they hardware-intensive?
• How many employees need access?

For a small business, what’s the best operating system for a server?

As a server is comprised of enterprise-grade hardware that’s not commonly found on your average consumer’s PC, it requires a speciated, server-specific operating system to get the most out of it. You need an operating system to configure your server to perform numerous roles, and you’ve got a couple of options to choose from – a Windows-based operating system, or a Linux-based one.

For a small business, Windows Server may be a more agreeable choice as its interface closely resembles a bog-standard Windows environment you’ve grown accustomed to. It’s a go-to choice for those businesses picking up a server for the first time. Windows Server is offered up in three packages to best suit the needs of a business – Essentials, Standard and Datacentre.

As the name implies, Essentials contain all that’s needed to get a server up-and-running in a UI-driven environment and is ideal for a small business with up to 25 users and 50 devices. Standard and Datacentre doesn’t make too much sense for a small business – they’re targeted squarely at medium-sized businesses and cost considerably more, with extra features you probably won’t touch.

Conversely, a Linux-based operating system is like diving straight into the deep end. They’re largely operated on a command-line interface – inputting lines of text into a terminal. No clickable windows or handy tooltips to guide you along. Linux is often lauded as the end-goal for a server as it’s fast and free – reducing operational costs – but it requires a certain level of technical proficiency and readiness to go hands-on. It’s also delivered in numerous ‘distributions’, or flavours of Linux, such as: Ubuntu, Red Hat, Fedora and many, many more – further complicating the situation. As such, we wouldn’t recommend a Linux-based operating system for a small business’ server.

Can I integrate my business’ existing cloud services to a server?

If a cloud-based service is deeply engrained as part of your business’ workflow – for instance Microsoft 365 – and you don’t want to disturb it when you upgrade to a server, most server operating systems integrate smoothly with these services. Windows-based ones particularly, like Microsoft Server.

This means you can keep your business’ critical data on-site on your server while continuing to use Microsoft 365 alongside. If you need guidance on what’s the best way to integrate a server and a cloud-based service, then our solutions team is happy to advise.

Network attached storage

What server you need is heavily dependent on your use-case. If you’re after a server purely for amassing hundreds of terabytes’ worth of storage capacity for your sharing and back-up of data, you may not need a full-on server in the traditional sense.

A network attached storage (NAS) device is a specialised storage unit that’s increasingly common among small businesses. It can cope with huge volumes of data, but not much more. A NAS is ideal for back-up storage, but if you’re looking to process the data in any meaningful way, look elsewhere.

What is RAID?

Many small businesses are interested in picking up a server for shared access and back-up of their data using hard drives. To prevent loss of your business’ data if one of these drives were to fail, it’s worth considering a ‘redundant array of independent disks’ (RAID).

RAID is a feature commonly found on a server – a must-have for many. It’s a system for governing how data is saved over a number of drives for redundancy, rather than only one. There are several iterations of RAID; RAID 0, RAID 1 and so forth. Let’s quickly run through the most frequent ones in a server environment for data protection.

RAID 1 is the simplest form of RAID, mirroring a disk’s content from one to another. Should the original copy ‘Drive A’ fail, you’ve always got ‘Drive B’ as a back-up. This, as you can probably imagine, requires a lot of storage space. If you wanted to put 10TB’s worth of storage in a RAID 1, you’d need 20TB of total space. It’s the most straight-forward method – no striping or parity involved – but the least cost-effective.

RAID 5 is a compelling alternative for a server, as it offers up a cost-effective solution using a smarter and more resilient technique compared to a RAID 1. Rather than a straight mirror of the data, it’s striped over a minimum of three drives, creating a ‘parity block’ on each. Should one of these drives fail, the data can be re-built using the parity blocks on the remaining drives.

RAID 5 is highly regarded among server users as it enables the use of hot-swappable drives. Should a drive fail, not only is your business’ data protected, but it can be easily replaced and re-built, without powering down the server.

Choosing a server

Now you understand what a server is and how it’s beneficial for a small business, let’s take a look at the form-factors a server is available in – tower, rack-mounted and blade.

Tower server

For any small-sized business, a tower server is an ideal beginner’s choice for entering the world of servers. A tower server’s hardware specification can be just as powerful as a rack-mounted server.

The main reason you’d opt for a tower server over a rack-mounted server is their form-factor that’s near-identical to a desktop PC. A tower server’s familiar, free-standing shape means it can be freely deployed on top or underneath a desk, comfortably alongside your existing set-up.
You don’t have to clear room for and invest in a rack cabinet to house your rack-cabinet server, or acquaint yourself with all its intricacies. A tower server is a less daunting prospect. They’re approachable for a small-sized business and require hardly any pre-requisite knowledge to get up-and-running.

Acoustics is a positive in a tower server’s favour, as they’re notably quieter than a rack-mounted server’s obnoxiously loud fans. A rack-mounted server is categorised by height, and measured in ‘U’ units. They are deliberately designed to be wider than they are tall, for a space-saving form-factor that’s stackable in a rack cabinet.

This leaves hardly any room for cooling, so the only option is to use the tiniest fans spinning at a ludicrously high revolution-per-minute (RPM) in a struggle to displace all the hot air coming off the server’s hardware. It’s common to appoint a rack-mounted server in a room behind closed doors to off-load the noise, but a small-sized business may not have this luxury. You don’t want a rack-mounted server in the middle of an office.

Conversely, the desktop PC-like form-factor of a tower server means it uses conventional, standard-size case fans for quieter operation. Like any high-performance hardware, a tower server won’t be whisper-quiet, but it’s conceivable to have one deployed in an office or work-from-home environment.

The key takeaway of a tower server is they’re a cost-effective solution for a small business and easily the least complicated server form-factor. Compared to competing alternatives, a tower server is relatively compact, quiet and conveniently fits in any set-up.

A lone tower server is manageable and more than adequate for most small businesses. While the form-factor offers up ease of deployment, a tower server is commonly viewed as a shorter-term solution as they’re not as customisable and space-efficient as a rack-mounted server. You can’t stack a tower server quite like a rack-mounted server – nor is it recommended.
When several are involved, it becomes cumbersome and runs counter to the point of a server – to have a centralised location for your business’ data. If you’re an enterprising business that’s rapidly expanding and know you’ll need increased server capacity, investing in a rack-mounted set-up is a logical longer-term solution.

Rack-mounted server

A rack-mounted server has low-profile enclosure that’s suspended in a rack cabinet, which allows them to be stacked on one another.

This space-saving design is a major advantage of a rack-mounted server, condensing your server’s real estate. Their height is measured in ‘U’ units, where ‘1U’ rack-mounted server would equate to around 4.5CM – shorter than a can of Coke! Despite their short form-factor, a rack-mounted server can rival a tower server head-to-head in performance. There are taller rack-mounter servers – ‘2U’, ‘4U’ and so forth – further increasing their power.

In a rack cabinet, they can be piled up high for an immense amount of computing power in one spot. You can simply slot an additional rack-mounted server to your rack cabinet to supplement your business’ growth. A tower server is manoeuvrable, but it doesn’t scale up as nicely when you’re expanding. This also makes managing your business’ network infrastructure easier, as everything’s contained in a centralised location.

A rack cabinet can be heavily configured to perfectly suit the use-cases of a business. You could have a rack-mounted server dedicated to hosting your business’ website, another configured as a powerful application server – and more – all in one rack cabinet. A rack cabinet isn’t only for a rack-mounted server, either. A rack-mounted uninterruptable power supply (UPS), router, switch and more can be suspended in a rack cabinet to support and enhance your business’ networking set-up.

While a rack-mounter server can conserve space in the long run, you need a space to set it up in the first place. A tower server’s form-factor means it can be deployed in any environment, hassle-free. The same can’t be said of a rack-mounted server, their power comes with a trade-off. Their stubbier size means there’s no room for an adequate cooling solution and tiny, ear-deafeningly loud fans must take up the slack. Preferably, a rack-mounted server should be housed in its own air-conditioned room to prevent over-heating for optimal performance – and to save yourself from the noise.

Blade server

A blade server can shrink your infrastructure’s footprint even further, requiring less space than a rack-mounted server. These compact form-factor servers slot and connect to a larger, rack-mounted enclosure using a high-quality interface. For optimising space, a blade server – or ‘blades’ as they’re simply referenced as – are stacked side-by-side in a vertical orientation inside this enclosure. For instance, you could pack up to 16 blades in an 8U-sized enclosure for 50% greater density over a rack-mounted server.

Despite the sheer density of servers in one enclosure, it doesn’t devolve into an unorganised mess of cables. Since there’s no cables running from the blades themselves, only the enclosure. The enclosure can be used to administrate the blades as they’re directly connected to it making deployments agile. As so much power is squished into a small space, they’re loud, blisteringly hot and any semblance of efficiency goes straight out the window.

For a small business, however, you likely won’t concern yourself with blades, as they’re all about maximising power – frankly excessive for most business’ needs.

Ebuyer Solution Team

If you’re struggling to decide what’s best for your business, don’t hesitate to call our solutions team to find the server that’s right for you. Our accredited team of networking specialists are always on hand to help, just call on 01430 433671 or email [email protected] and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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