A network server is a powerful computer connected to your business network.
Network servers have many functions and can form an important part of your computer network.
They are usually used for shared file storage, email management and to run centralised applications, such as your customer database.
Most functions traditionally performed by servers can now be carried out through cloud computing. However, the cloud is yet to completely negate the need for on-site servers, and a combination of the two technologies is sometimes used in certain industries.
Is the cloud killing network servers?
Cloud computing services are now used by many businesses and often replace the need entirely for an in-house network server.
With cloud computing, your data is held on a server located outside your business. To access files and services, you log in over the internet via a web browser.
Individual cloud computing services can help you with specific tasks, like backups or accounting. You can also purchase 'cloud servers' that perform all the functions of an in-house network server.
There are two big differences between using cloud services and having your own in-house server:
- Ownership. When you buy a network server for your business, you own it. That server is located on your premises and that's where your data stays. With cloud computing, you pay (usually monthly) to use a service.
- Flexibility. Cloud services are very flexible, allowing you to add or remove capacity almost instantly. When you run your own server, you have complete control, but you might have to buy extra equipment as your business grows.
Although the cloud is a great option for businesses of all sizes (particularly where the workforce is distributed), there are downsides; you can't do anything without an internet connection and it's vital you trust your cloud provider. This is why businesses sometimes blend both in-house server infrastructure and cloud services.
For instance, cloud backup is an excellent way to hold safe data backups in a separate location. You might also use a cloud accounting service because it's modern and kept up-to-date as tax rules change. But at the same time, you might prefer to keep key customer data on a local server, where you have complete control over it.
In any case, it's wise to seek advice from a reliable IT supplier when considering a server or choosing cloud services.
Do you need an office server?
If your business is faced with issues in any of the following areas, it may be appropriate for you to start using an in-house server:
- Sharing information privately. Your network server can run centralised software (like your customer database) or be used to create a company intranet (a kind of private website just for your business). If you work with particularly sensitive data, keeping it in-house might be advisable.
- Storing files centrally. Instead of saving files on individual computers, you can store them securely on your office server.
- Controlling user access and data security. A network server makes it easy for you to give different people access to different files, programs or data and do so in a highly-controlled, secure manner.
- Keeping software updated. With a server, it's easier to roll out new software or make changes to every device on your company network.
- Managing security risks. It's easy to back up files to a central location. And by routing internet access via the server, you can block suspect websites.
If your business has more than ten computers, the benefits of a server may well outweigh the costs. Smaller companies can see a good return on their investment too, but the benefits may be less immediate.
There are some alternatives to a full-blown network server. If you just need somewhere central to store files then a network attached storage (NAS) device* or service such as Dropbox could do the job.
*a NAS device is a hard drive with a network connection. You simply plug it into your existing business network in order to save and retrieve files.
Choosing your network server
Once you've established that you need a network server, there are some key considerations when choosing the right one:
- How many people will use it? A low capacity server may be suitable for up to ten people, but the more users you have, the more processing power, memory and storage you will need.
- What will you use it for? Some tasks, like saving files centrally, put a relatively low load on the server. Others, such as manipulating a large customer database, demand more.
- What devices will need access to the server? Besides desktop computers and laptops, will smartphones and tablets need access to server assets? Will employees bring in their own devices and expect to be able to connect them?
- What are your growth plans? A server is a big purchase and needs to last a while. Five years is typical, so make sure your server is adequate for the long term.
Servers are based on the same technology as most desktop computers. However, they have special features to help them cope with multiple users and heavy loads without failing. There are a few key features to consider:
- A powerful processor. The processor (or CPU) is the engine that drives your server. Look for a CPU with four or eight cores ? these effectively deliver four or eight CPUs in one, making the server better at doing several things at once.
- Lots of memory. The memory (or RAM) of an office server helps it handle lots of requests from different users at once. You will need at least 16 gigabytes (GB).
- A fast, reliable hard disk. This is where you'll store important business information. Make sure it's big - at least 1,000GB (also referred to as '1TB'), and an SDD, if budget allows. Servers often have several hard drives so they can access data faster and reduce disruption if one fails.
The majority of network servers are high-performance PCs, designed specifically to be used as servers. Some come in standard PC cases but many are designed to be mounted on a rack and stored in a server cabinet (see image above).
Your network server software
It's vital to consider the software you'll be running on your server. Just like a standard computer, every network server needs an operating system.
There are a number of choices for your business. Many companies choose Microsoft Windows Server, because it's based on the same Microsoft Windows platform as their other computers.
Your server software may end up costing more than the physical server it runs on with the addition of user licences, so take time to research your options.
What is a virtual server?
As computer hardware has become more powerful, a technology called virtualisation has redefined the way businesses implement servers.
Server virtualisation makes your server more efficient by dividing it into several 'virtual' servers. Each one functions like a separate server which means you can use your server to perform more tasks at once without purchasing additional hardware.
Nigel Green, a Dell product manager, explains, "Servers have become more powerful, to the point where using a server for a single function is very inefficient. Typically, a company might only be utilising around 15% of a server's total capacity. There's no other area of business where you'd leave 85% of a resource unused!
"Virtualisation allows you to take a single server and slice it into several virtual servers. Each virtual server can be used for a different function, so instead of having four servers each running at 15% capacity, you can have one running at 60%."
How do virtual servers work?
"You have to install some virtualisation software on your server. This allows you to create and configure virtual servers. Popular virtualisation software includes VMWare and Microsoft Windows Server.
"Virtualisation will also let you spread the load of apps across two or more physical servers. This improves reliability, because if one server fails, the others can pick up the slack.
"Setting up virtual servers can be quite involved, so most businesses will want to seek advice from their IT supplier before diving in."
What are the main benefits of virtual servers?
"We recently did some research into virtualisation and three benefits stood head and shoulders above the rest.
"The first was that virtual servers are more efficient. You can do the same functions with fewer servers, so your upfront and ongoing costs - like electricity and maintenance - are both reduced.
"But many of the companies we spoke to also said virtualisation is better in the event of IT problems, because it makes for faster and cheaper backup and recovery. And they said routine maintenance is easier too."
When should a business consider virtual servers?
"A good time is when your server hardware or software needs updating anyway. For instance, many companies build their IT up in an ad-hoc manner. They might start with an email system, then add a customer relationship management system and some accounting software.
"Once they get to the stage where one of those systems needs updating, that's when they start introducing virtualisation in phases.
"However, if a significant proportion of a company's IT is due for renewal at the same time, they might take more of a big bang approach and migrate everything at once. It really depends on your company's particular circumstances. Getting expert advice is really important."
What's the best way to get started with virtual servers?
"The first thing is to understand how you're using your IT systems at the moment. You can put software on your current servers and measure how they're used.
"Over time, you can build up a good picture of what's happening. How much work are they doing? How much data is being moved around?
"That assessment is key. It's a scientific evaluation of how your software is being used that enables you to see how much power and storage each of your applications needs, and whether they're suitable for virtualisation.
"Once you have that information, your IT supplier or company IT staff can start considering the benefits of different virtual server setups."
Network server costs
A simple server can cost £500-£700, but is only likely to provide basic services to a small network of around five computers. You need more power to support extra computers, run large databases and handle a large volume of email.
High-capacity servers start from around £3,000.