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Servers are everywhere these days. They can help you manage files and printers, host a mail server, better secure your company network, and generally do more for you than a desktop can. However, knowing that you need a server and actually getting the right one are two different things. This how-to guide will help you understand what a server is, how to decide if you need one, and how to go about finding the right server to meet your needs.


How is a server different from a desktop?

The answer to this key question is more straightforward than you might imagine. A server is a system specifically designed to hold, manage, send, and process data. The technology behind servers:

  • Makes them more reliable than desktop systems
  • Helps them process data faster and more efficiently
  • Can be extended to support data backup and security
  • Reduces data bottlenecks so information flows more freely and quickly
  • Is designed to scale as your needs scale

In short, a server is much more than a supercharged desktop system, and can’t be replaced by one. Desktop systems are optimized to run user-friendly operating systems, desktop applications, and facilitate other "desktop" tasks. Even if a desktop boasts the same processor speed, memory, and hard disk space as a server, they aren’t the same because the technologies behind them are engineered for different usage.


Do you need a server?

While there is no single litmus test that you can use to determine if you need a server, some general guidelines do 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 can provide a central location for your important files, shared applications, and other resources you regularly use, like project documents and 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 processes, shares, or otherwise manages data, you’ll need a server.


The right server for you

The questions of how a server differs from a desktop and when a server is the right hardware solution are easy to answer. But the answers to the remaining questions - how much server you need to buy, what kind of configuration you need, and of course, how much it will all cost you in the end - are based entirely on what you plan to use the server for. One of the significant benefits of servers is that you can customize their configurations to meet your very specific needs, so you can concentrate your money in those areas where you need it most.

It probably won’t surprise you to find out that a server typically costs more than a desktop, but then again, a server is designed to do more than a desktop. It might, however, surprise you to find out a solid entry-level server doesn’t cost that much more than a high-end desktop, and may fit more comfortably into your technology budget than you might have imagined.
Many file/print and Web servers (two of the most common uses for servers in small and medium businesses) come well equipped for a reasonable price.

The most important thing you can do to ensure that your server meets your needs and fits your budget is to devote a bit of time and energy to assessing those needs. Until you have a good understanding of exactly what you want to use your server for, you run the risk of not buying enough server power, or spending too much of your valuable budget on features you simply don’t need. A little planning in the beginning can make for significant savings and proper equipment sizing in the end.
Planning to meet your server needs is an assessment activity that requires a bit of investigation on your part. Ultimately, you are trying to answer a number of "how much" and "what kind" questions:

  • How many employees do you have?
  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • What kind of software do you need for the number of people you have?
  • How fast does the server need to process data (i.e., processor speed)?
  • How many processors do you need? Some solutions require two or more.
  • How much memory (RAM) do you need?
  • How much hard disk space does data require, now and in the future?
  • What kind of hard disk controller (SATA, SCSI, or SAS) do you need?
  • Do you want a rack mount server or a tower?
  • How many network interface cards do you need?
  • Do you plan to attach additional backup and storage drives (tape or optical, for example) to your system?
  • What level of RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) do you want to support?
  • What kind of server management tools do you need?
  • Do you want help getting your server set up?
  • What level of maintenance and support do you need?

The good news is that even if you don’t know where to begin to start answering these particular questions, the analysis you do of how you want your database, Web server, file server, or other system to function will actually lead to the answers. Once you have a good idea what you are looking for in a solution our specially trained technical sales team can advise you on the right server specifications for you.


The data

How much data you have now and how much you’ll generate over the life of the server will directly dictate how much storage space your server should offer. While defining exactly how much data you have, or how much you will have, for that matter, is much like shooting a moving target, there are ways to calculate some approximate numbers based on past history.

For example, if you plan to build a file server to hold documents currently scattered among many different desktop systems, add up the amount of space they take up and divide that by how long it took you to create them (in months, preferably). You’ll have a good idea of how much storage space you need immediately, and you can calculate the average amount of data you create per month. Multiply that average by 24 or 36 months, and you’ll have a good idea of how much storage space you’ll need on your server in two or three years.


Users and performance

Finally, you need to have a good idea of how many people will be working with your solution and how well it needs to operate for them. Both of these factors affect the processor and memory requirements of your server. If your file and print servers will only have eight or 10 users, you won’t need as much power. However, if it will have to support 50 to100 users your power needs will be more significant.

If you are building an intranet or a Web site, you need to have a rough estimate of how many people will visit the site per day. In addition, if you are building a database solution, how many people will be accessing the database at once?

Also, don’t just think about how many users your system needs to support when you launch it. As with data, consider how many users you expect to support in six months, a year, or two years. You want to be sure that your server is ready to support an increasing number of users.

To discuss your requirements in more detail and find the best fit solution for your needs, call our specialist Small Business Team 0870 160 8366

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