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Server Buying Guide For Small Business
Once a small business has scaled beyond two or three personnel, likely it’s time to buy a server computer for the office. Depending on the context, the term “server” may refer to server hardware, software, or the functionality of either or both.
With a number of varieties to choose from, it can be a daunting task understanding your options and then making the right choice. Should you have an onsite server? Will a cloud-based server offer the best service for your business? And how can virtualization make your choice even more flexible?
All of the big name brands such as Dell, HP, IBM and Oracle have server platforms aimed at the small business user. It’s important to match the needs of your business to the right type. Ask yourself these five questions:
- Are you buying for file sharing?
- Will it be predominantly used for email?
- Does your workforce need to connect remotely?
- Is it going to be used for data backup?
- How much space do you have available to accommodate?
How does hardware determine function?
Certain hardware specifications lend themselves to various tasks. At the hardware level, a server shares much in common with a standard PC.
Server components differ in that they have extra features for 24/7 operation. For example, ECC server memory has error-correction firmware built into the controller is an extra protection against downtime. Additionally servers may have backup hardware components encased in the build—a redundant power supply, central processor, or hot-swappable drive bays—if one part faults out, backups step up and keep the data accessible for users.
What is the hardware doing?
Resources tie closely to three specific types of hardware: hard disk storage; CPU size—number of cores, and to a lesser extent, clock speed; and the capacity of on-board memory (RAM). A file server will have multiple bays for hard drives since it’s primarily used for storage. A database server that handles lots of user queries benefits from a large (12- or 16-core) CPU. Web servers and application servers have framework-specific requirements you might reference, usually the number of users querying or writing to the database affects how robust you should go with the hardware.
How to pick the right server for the job
- Sharing assets with file server, or network attached storage (NAS) appliance across a local network or as so-called private cloud storage. Look for: multiple hot-swap-able drive bays, configurable hardware/software RAID options; a low-power CPU should suffice.
- Providing authentication for a domain. Username, password, levels of access, and security settings resides in a designated computer or network switch. Called a domain controller (DC) in Windows, and used for managing Active Directory (AD). Look for: a virtualization-capable (any 64-bit CPU, 4 GB+ RAM)
- Providing database services to others. Applications and websites are built upon a database layer which is often stored on its own. Development and non-user specific tasks like data analysis, mining, archiving, and storage using Oracle, MySQL, MS Access, and similar applications utilizes this hardware. Look for: hard drives rated for fast writes; deploy an identical backup ‘slave’ as a read-only database.
- Hosting a website with a web server. Web servers use HTTP to present files that make up web pages presented to users browsing a website. These work in tandem with a database. This may occur within the same physical hardware, or by using two servers networked together. Look for: hardware redundancy especially if you host e-commerce. Increasing server RAM capacity benefits performance under load.
- Providing e-mail services. Messaging servers, like Microsoft Exchange, use specific protocols (SMTP, POP3, IMAP) to send and receive messages. Dedicating hardware to this task is recommend for optimal operation. Look for: similar specifications as a file server.
- Running shared software on an application server. Centralizing applications their native framework (Java, PHP, .NET, various flavors of .js) improves performance under heavy usage, makes updates easier, and reduces TCO for maintaining tools organizations use for productivity. Look for: enterprise-grade storage bays (SAS hard drives) and ECC RAM. Note that un-virtualized instances tend to work better for development.
Choosing form factor to fit your physical space
Available in several different physical form factors that can be classified into three umbrellas: tower, blade, and rackmount. The form factors are determined by the case; you’ll find the same components on the inside of comparable models.
Tower – A tower server resembles a regular desktop computers—except that they have server components inside. Same as their PC cousins, towers come in several different shapes. These make sense because they can offer plenty of processing power and don’t require you to purchase additional mounting hardware. The drawback of towers is that they take up more room than either rackmount or blade setups once you start adding more.
Rackmount –Rackmount servers need to be installed onto a rack chassis. A chassis, typically several feet high, can hold multiple servers on top of each other in slots. Consider rackmount units when you have several servers and want to consolidate them into a smaller space.
Blade – Similar to rackmount in that they require a chassis to be installed. Blades are even more space-efficient than rackmounts. However, properly cooling blades can be more challenging; consider these when your closet scales into a server room. They are an even bigger investment than rackmount servers.
When you use a computer in client/architecture, the operating system (OS) is designed specifically for making sure computing power is distributed appropriately to the endpoint machines on the domain. Configuring the OS is what enables a computer to act in various roles of deployment, as a mail server, file server, domain controller, web server, application server, and so forth.
Think of a OS as a more advanced and stable operating system than a desktop or mobile OS you would use on a client computer. A server OS supports more RAM, is more efficient with CPU power, and supports a greater number of network connections. They provide administrators a main interface for authenticating users, managing applications and file storage, and setting up permissions and other administrative processes across the domain.