Essential guide to network servers

Network servers

A network server is a powerful computer used to store files and run programs centrally. A dedicated server can help to improve file management and security and make it easier for employees to collaborate.

Choosing the right server for your needs is essential. You will need expert help to set up the server, make sure it is secure and regularly maintain it and update its software.

Using a server

Types of system

Server hardware

Server software

Security

Upgrading

1. Using a server

A server is used to store files and run centralised applications, such as your customer database.

In the past, a server was essential. However, most businesses use cloud computing services instead.

A network server can have many roles

You can use a network server to:

  • store and share your files;
  • share a single internet connection between all your devices;
  • manage incoming and outgoing email;
  • allow staff to access files when out and about through a virtual private network (VPN);
  • centralise printing, so the server manages print jobs and lets you share printers;
  • run networked applications and software;
  • host an intranet (a kind of private website holding important information about your business).

Businesses with many computers may need to spread the load across several servers

  • Virtualisation can help you do more with a single server (see Types of system).

Some applications may dramatically slow your network if you run them on your server

They may require a separate server, used just for them. Such applications can include:

  • large shared databases;
  • in-house software development environments;
  • complex internal email systems.

Using the cloud as a server

You can use cloud computing services (sometimes called hosted applications or Software as a Service [SaaS]) to perform many jobs that have traditionally required a server.

Cloud computing services are well suited to small or new companies with little IT expertise in-house. They are simple to set-up, cheap to operate and most come with 24/7 support if you experience problems with the service. Some businesses use a mix of server and cloud-based services.

With cloud computing, your data is held on a server located outside your business

  • To access files and services, you log in through a web browser.
  • Individual cloud computing services can help you with specific tasks, like backing up data or accounting.
  • You can also purchase 'cloud servers' that perform all the functions of an in-house network server.

Cloud computing offers several key advantages over buying a server

  • You pay monthly, allowing you to spread the cost. Overall, the total annual cost is broadly the same.
  • Your cloud provider manages the administration of the server, takes backups and provides technical support.
  • Cloud servers are highly flexible. You can add or remove users instantly, and you aren't usually tied into a long contract.
  • Updates can take place without disrupting internal operations. Most major updates are performed outside of normal business hours, on weekends or during the night.
  • Cloud servers support remote working enabling users to login from anywhere and on virtually any device.

Consider carefully before signing up to cloud services

  • Make sure your cloud supplier is trustworthy, as you'll be relying on them to take good care of your data.
  • You need an internet connection to use cloud services, so make sure yours is fast and reliable.
  • Check what level of support you get. Are you confident your cloud provider will be there to help?
  • Learn where your data is stored. You have responsibilities under GDPR to ensure that it’s safe and secure.

2. Types of system

Most network servers are high-performance PCs

  • They are specially designed to be used as servers.
  • Hardware is standard, so you can purchase servers, components and add-ons from different suppliers.
  • They are designed to run server software packages.
  • Windows servers remain among the most popular in business, but Apple’s macOS operating system has networking capabilities built-in for businesses that run fleets of Apple Macs.
  • You can run a mix of Windows and macOS devices on a Windows network.

'Thin client' systems

  • With a thin client system, your company PCs are replaced by terminals that are connected to a central server.
  • All data processing is done on the server, and all data is stored centrally.
  • Thin clients are very secure, because data cannot be copied to individual terminals.

Server virtualisation can let you do more things with a single server

  • Virtualisation uses special software to split a single physical server into several 'virtual servers'.
  • Each virtual server functions as an entirely separate server.
  • Virtualisation lets you run several complex applications at once, without them interfering with each other.
  • Virtualisation enables you to use all the power and potential of a server.

There are some general rules to consider when purchasing a new server

  • Your server will be a key piece of hardware in your business, so pick the best you can afford.
  • Always look at the complete package, including warranties and support, as well as future potential.
  • Budget for extras. For example, you may want an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) and a backup facility.
  • Setting up a server is complicated. Seek help from an expert or a reliable IT supplier.

3. Server hardware

Your server will be on all day, every day. This means the hardware needs to be very reliable. The key components are the processor, RAM (random access memory), power supply and hard disk. Servers are available in both freestanding and rackmount forms.

Choose a network server with a powerful processor

  • Look for at least a dual core 3GHz processor. If you have lots of users (up to 30) or run demanding applications, you can opt for one or more quad core processors.
  • The processor is not the only thing that determines server performance. The other hardware elements are crucial too.

Ensure you have enough RAM available

  • You will be able to access files faster with more RAM.
  • Do not buy a server with less than 8GB of RAM. 16GB or more is advisable.
  • You will need more RAM if you run a database or any applications on your network server.
  • RAM can be upgraded and replaced at a later date, but it’s cheaper to buy the best you can at the start.

Minimise the risk of hard disk failure

  • The hard disk is the part of your server that is most likely to fail.
  • Ensure the hard disk is large enough for your needs. This figure is largely determined by the kind of files you use and what applications you run on the server. As a minimum, get 1TB.
  • Consider having several hard disk drives if you need extra capacity. You will probably want to invest in a RAID system, which is designed to tolerate a drive failure and keep on working (see Security).
  • Where possible, and if budget allows, opt for an SSD drive over the spinning disk variety, as these are faster and more reliable.

You may need some additional components

  • A 1GB network interface card should be included.
  • Ensure the server has space to add memory and hard disk drives. This makes it easier to upgrade in future.
  • An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) will supply power to your server in the event of a power cut.
  • A hardware firewall can protect your server from hackers and security threats.

The cost of your server will vary considerably depending on the specification

  • An entry-level server will cost at least £500. More powerful servers can cost thousands.

4. Server software

A typical network server may have several different kinds of software installed.

The two main network operating systems are Microsoft's Windows Server and Linux

  • Both Windows Server and Linux supply the features required on a general-purpose server.
  • The systems work with each other, so you can connect Windows PCs to a Linux server.
  • You can use both systems with a wide range of processors and hardware.
  • Apple’s macOS operating system has networking features built in, enabling you to effectively turn any Apple Mac computer into a server.

You may need additional software to monitor and control your network

  • Managing the network becomes more involved as your network grows.
  • Ensure any hardware you buy can communicate with the network management software you use.
  • Device management software provides you with full control over the varying devices that are likely to connect to your network.

You can use the server to install and manage software centrally

  • Once the software is installed and configured on your server, you can roll it out to individual devices in your company.
  • This makes it easier to keep all the software in your business up to date.
  • Buying software designed for network installation can be cheaper than buying individual copies.

Some software is supplied as client-server applications

  • For example, your customer relationship management (CRM) software may run centrally on the server.
  • When someone in your business wants to use it, their device (the client) sends a request to the server. The request is processed by the server and the client is sent an answer.
  • This kind of software can use a lot of server resources. It may require its own serve to operate effectively.

You may need additional software

For instance:

  • virtualisation software makes it easier to use your server for several different things;
  • intranet software enables you to host your intranet on the server;
  • mail server software lets your server take care of all incoming and outgoing email;
  • a collaboration package will let you create shared workspaces on the server;
  • security software is key to protect your data and systems.

5. Security

Servers usually hold a large amount of important company data, so can be a target for hackers or online criminals. Like any computer, servers can also experience software crashes or hardware problems.

There are many things you can do to minimise the risk of failure or disaster, and to make it easy to get back up and running after any incidents.

Protect your server with an uninterruptible power supply (UPS)

  • At the most basic level, a UPS is a battery that can keep the server running during a power cut.
  • Any UPS should be compatible with your network operating system and management software. This is so the UPS can shut down the network properly.
  • Your UPS must be powerful enough to deliver the energy your server needs for long enough for you to shut it down or link to an alternative power source.

Back up your data

  • Choose a convenient, fast backup device. You might use an online service, mirroring system (to copy information onto a second hard disk) or combination of the two (advisable).
  • Use backup software to automate the backup procedure. This allows you to run backups when the system is not being heavily used. Online backup services will do this automatically for you.
  • Backup new data every day and take a full copy of the entire hard disk every week.
  • Store a full copy of the system off site and test restoring from your backups at least every three months.

You can protect against hard disk failure

  • Use a RAID (redundant array of independent disks) system.
  • RAID spreads your data across several hard drives so it can be reconstructed even if one of the drives fails.
  • RAID should be used alongside a separate backup system.

Use security software to protect your server

  • A security package should include virus, ransomware and spyware protection, plus a software firewall.
  • Use a hardware firewall to provide an additional layer of protection.

Keep all server software up to date

  • This helps protect your server from cyber criminals who may seek to target vulnerabilities in the software.

Make sure your server is physically secure

  • Keep your server in a locked room with access restricted to essential personnel only.
  • Consider storing it off the ground floor to protect against flood damage.

6. Upgrading

A server should last for at least four or five years. Most are designed to be easily upgraded which can extend its lifespan.

You may need to upgrade your hardware

  • Adding more RAM will improve the speed at which your network server responds.
  • You can add additional hard drives if you require additional storage.

You may need to upgrade your software

  • Upgrading or changing network software may involve reconfiguring all computers connected to the server.
  • You may occasionally need to update your network operating system.

Upgrade your network server at a time when nobody else needs to access it

  • Make sure you have a complete backup before making changes, in case you need to start again.

Signpost

Expert quote

"If you already have a server but reliability is an issue and you don't want the headache, or don't have the IT skills to manage it yourself, don't panic. Many companies offer small businesses an entirely IT managed service for a flat monthly fee. They can deploy or re-deploy your network adding any extra elements required to make it more fit for purpose, including fault tolerance so a failure would not drastically impact the business." - James Passingham, Foehn

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