This week, we take a look at the server. When is the time to get one? What does it actually do for you, and can you manage without one?

Some Boring Definitions

A normal business computer network is built on the "client / server" model. A client is a desktop PC, Laptop or Mac, or possibly another device like a tablet or smartphone. The server is the piece of kit that brings everything together as you will see here. Without a server in place, it's called a "peer-to-peer" network, meaning the client PCs are all talking to each other, rather than a central server.

A peer-to-peer network doesn't provide you with much in the way of security and resource sharing. After all, it's just a bunch of normal PCs connected to each other. As a small business owner, this might be acceptable to you, depending on what you are trying to get from your computer system. However, for the majority of businesses, once you get more than a 4 / 5 PCs, you will be in a position where the features and benefits of a proper server will help you run and manage your business more effectively, more securely and more efficiently.

A PC is not a Server

We often meet new potential clients, who say "there's the server, in the corner", and they point to a PC. Usually this PC is left on 24 hours a day and is used to share some documents from. This is not a server!

A normal PC is not built to run 24 hours a day and a PC will not offer any "redundancy" in its hardware. This means if one of the main components in the PC fails, like the power supply, the memory or the hard disk, you can't access anything, and you may have lost all of your data. A server uses multiple disk drives, multiple memory chips, and often multiple power supplies to provide redundancy, meaning that if a disk fails, the server carries on working. If you consider that the failure rate of a disk drive in a computer is 100% (meaning all hard drives will fail at some point), then it is really not a good idea to keep all of your valuable business data on a normal PC.

A real server is built to manage and process your data 24 hours a day, the whole year round, without interruption. For this reason, they need to be a lot more reliable that a PC. So they are built from better quality components, and are usually a much higher specification that a PC. They will also include redundant hardware, like multiple disk drives, dual power suppliers, dual processors, and they will have "hot-swap" components, meaning they can be removed and replaced while the machine is still running, so as not to disrupt your business. They are also built for the job of processing lots of data, so they tend to do a much better job of it that a normal PC.

The server hardware is not the only consideration. The software that you put on the server is what brings it to life. A normal desktop PC will have Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7 on it, whereas a proper server will run software like Microsoft Small Business Server. There are limitations and licensing restriction built into Windows desktop software to prevent you using it as a server, and specifically to prevent you sharing files to large numbers of people. 

What Does it Do Then?

Ok, so now you know why a server is different from a PC, let's look at what it can do for you. There are lots of reasons, so lets look at them one at a time...

  • File security   A server lets you create multiple user accounts. You can group your users together and assign rights to individual users or groups of users. These rights can determine who can access what on the server. For example, sales staff may not need access to accounts and personnel files. The server lets you prevent people accessing or editing files they should not have access to. You can also audit file usage, in other words the server will log who creates, edits and deletes your files.  You can also use the server to store your users' own personal documents, this means that is someones desktop computer fails, they can go to another machine and log in, and still be able to access all their files and settings. Even better, because the files are all stored centrally, you can backup all your users' documents from one place.
  • Increased reliability   Servers are built to run all the time, even if components have failed. So not only is there less chance of the hardware in the server failing, you have the comfort of knowing that your business can still run, and people can still work in the event of a hardware failure.
  • Centralised resources   A server will let you share other equipment on the network with all of your users. So storage devices, printers, fax machines, CD / DVD drives can all be shared for everyone to use.
  • Centralised email, contacts and calendars   A server will also allow you to centralise all of the information you use regularly, and particularly if you use Outlook and are reliant on email, a server can be a real game-changer. Without a server, you are probably getting your email via POP3. This is a clunky and old-fashioned way of accessing email. It's biggest problem is that is does not support sharing of data or synchronisation. This means that without a server or other form of centralised email, your emails are downloaded to your PC, and that's the end of the story. You cannot simultaneous access your email from your mobile phone or your tablet, and you can't get to them remotely. Your emails are all stored on your PC, and therefore cannot be backed up easily. A server will store all your emails centrally, meaning when you access your inbox from Outlook on your PC at work, or at home, or an any remote or mobile device, you always see the same information. You can also benefit from a shared email inbox, such as an enquiries or sales inbox, which can be shared and managed by multiple users. You can also share contacts lists and calendars between your users.
  • Centralised data storage   By keeping all your data in one place, you can back it up easily and quickly. With the latest versions of Window's Server software, you can also access the data from anywhere. If you're working from home, or need to access an important document or email with a client or on holiday, you can connect to your server remotely and get to all of your information.
  • Centralised backup   It's vital that you backup your business data regularly. A server will allow you to do this completely automatically. You can get your server to backup all of your documents, emails and calendars to a cloud-based backup system, or you can use a on-site backup device to store a copy of all of your data, which can be kept off-site or in a fireproof safe.
  • Virus and Spam Management   One of the greatest risks to a business is from viruses and malicious software. A server, when used with a suitable anti-virus system will allow you to manage the anti-virus software on all of your client machines, and will even report back to an appointed person, or a support company like Computercentric, when a virus is detected. We can then take immediate action to remove and prevent the spread of any virus on your network. Your server will also make sure all machines are using an up-to-date anti-virus system, and can take action if a machine is not being updated.
  • Software updates   We're all used to seeing Windows and Office performing updates. They will download and install updates from Microsoft regularly. These updates are vital to maintain the security  of your machines, and resolve any problems or compatibility issues that have been identified. With a server in place, your server will download the updates for you, and distribute them to all the computers on your network. It will even tell us if any computers are falling behind with their updates for any reason, so we can resolve any problems before they affect your business.

When do I need a server?

So now you understand the benefits of having a server, you have to decide when is the time to get one! There is no hard and fast rule that applies to all businesses here.  It really depends on your business needs, and how many people and computers you need to manage. As an IT Support company, we support small "one-man bands" with a single server and a single PC, this is because the business owner gets real value and time and efficiency savings by running his or her business on a server platform. We also work with small businesses with around 5 staff that have yet to invest in a server solution, because there is less need for it in their business. As a very general rule, I would say if you have more that 3 or 4 desktops or laptops in your business, then you will see benefits from installing a server.

These benefits show themselves internally as massive time savings and efficiency measures due to the improved access to data and the ability to share information with multiple people and multiple devices. From a customer's point of view, a server can help you respond more quickly and effectively to customers, delivering a better service and improving your customer retention.

If you are not running a server in your business, I hope I have gone some way to help you understand what a server could do to help you. I have only scratched the surface of what a proper business network can do for your business. Other benefits like remote VPN access, intranet sites and database systems can further leverage your server investment to put your business ahead of the competition, and save you time and money.

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