How to buy a server

Most small businesses with 10 or more employees will face the task of buying a computer server, or adding to their existing inventory. Servers are most commonly used as central file repositories where users can easily share documents, but they can do many other tasks as well–from print and mail serving to performing system-wide backups. Other key applications include hosting databases, running groupware (such as calendar programs and customer relationship management software), and serving a company Web site or intranet. For creative studios or departments, a server might hold large image, video, and music libraries.

The type of server you choose should reflect the number and type of applications you want to run on it, and the number of users (clients) it will have. Many common applications–such as print serving, sharing office documents like Word and Excel files, and running calendar programs–impose such light processing demands that a single low-cost server may be able to handle your entire company with ease. Other tasks, like hosting large databases or image libraries, require more processing horsepower along with big, fast hard disks and capacious network pipes to match.

Servers are basically specialized PCs, and they run the gamut of speeds and capacities just as desktop workstations do. Nevertheless, they are a breed apart, designed to be secure (to protect your valuable company data) and fault-tolerant (to be available continuously). Servers also offer remote-management tools, so that an IT person can log in from a desk or workstation and check usage, diagnose problems, and perform routine maintenance such as adding new users or changing passwords.

After determining the functions you need your server(s) to perform, and the number of users you will have, you’ll need to select a server operating system, such as Windows, Linux, or Mac, and choose the hardware to run it on. If you’re upgrading existing servers, you’ll probably want to stick with the same type, for easier migration. For new servers, you’re free to pick the combination of software and hardware that best meets your needs and budget. Don’t assume that because you have PCs, you are locked into Windows; both Linux and Mac servers can handle Windows clients with aplomb, and tend to be much cheaper overall.

Server operating systems
You can run a basic server using the built-in file and printer sharing features of plain old Windows XP or Vista, plus Remote Desktop for administration over your network. This may suffice if you don’t require hardened security or optimized performance. It is definitely the cheapest way to go for small-group needs because there is no additional cost per client, and it’s as easy to administer as your own PC. You can even repurpose an old PC as a workgroup server–as a simple image server for a graphics department, for example. Similarly, a basic Mac OS X machine can work as an economical file and print server for small mixed networks of Macs and PCs. Mac OS X does a better job of cross-platform support than Windows. But if you need to run PC application software on your server, such as a Microsoft Access database, you’ll have to stick with Windows.

If your business has more than a few employees, you should move up to a full-fledged server OS like Windows Small Business Server 2003 R2, which comes in Standard ($599) and Premium ($1299) editions. Both versions offer file, print, fax, and application sharing; firewall protection; Microsoft Exchange Server for company e-mail; and Windows SharePoint Services for creating a company intranet for document and information sharing. The Premium version adds MS SQL Server 2005 Workgroup Edition for database management, MS Office FrontPage 2003 for Web development, and MS Internet and Security Acceleration Server 2004 for Internet access security, monitoring, and management.

Both editions handle up to 75 client workstations or users. Five user licenses come with the server software, and additional licenses cost about $100 each. Licenses cost somewhat less when you buy them from a reseller along with new hardware. If you need several of the included services, they are far less expensive overall than the higher-end Windows Server 2003 R2, which prices technologies like the Exchange Server and SQL Server separately, but has advanced management features and options such as server clustering, load balancing among multiple servers, and identity management. If you expect your business to grow, Microsoft provides transition packs for migrating from Small Business Server to Windows Server.

Small Business Server has lesser system requirements, too, enabling you to save money on hardware. SBS can run on single-processor systems with as little as 512MB of RAM (though 1GB is recommended), whereas Windows Server can run on up to eight processors. But all versions of Microsoft’s servers will soon be updated to 2008, which adds integrated Vista support and many new features, such as virtualization technology (permitting server consolidation and lower costs) and SMB 2.0 (for faster file sharing and better security). The due date for Windows Server 2008, code-named Longhorn Server, has slipped several times; currently it’s slated for February 2008.

If you don’t need the specific services made available by the Windows Server family, such as Exchange and SQL database support, consider buying a Linux server (or an Apple XServe if you run a cross-platform network). Many large equipment vendors–including IBM, HP, and Dell–offer Linux server software as an OEM alternative to Windows Server.

Some Linux servers are free and open-source, but we recommend buying a supported product aimed at small business, such as ClarkConnect Enterprise Edition, Novell’s new Open Workgroup Suite Small Business Edition (due in September), Oracle Enterprise Linux, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, or Xandros Server. With these products, the software tends to be inexpensive (ClarkConnect Enterprise costs just $85 per year for unlimited users), and you pay mostly for the level of tech support you need ($250 to $750 per year for ClarkConnect, for example, or $799 to $1998 for Xandros). All are designed to support networks of Windows clients, and all include services such as e-mail, group calendaring, backup, recovery, and file and print sharing.

The key drawback of using Linux servers in a Windows environment is that you can’t run Windows applications on them, so you’ll need to employ Linux equivalents, such as MySQL Community Server instead of MS SQL Server for database access, Scalix instead of Exchange for e-mail serving, and Samba instead of SMB for file sharing. But the payoff is a substantially lower cost of ownership. Apple’s Mac OS X Server, included with XServe hardware, is also UNIX-based and delivers unlimited client licenses for one price.

Finally, consider your IT personnel resources when choosing a server OS. Part-time system administrators may be more comfortable with the more common Windows environment than with Linux, though experienced users may find that Linux requires less work to administer. Before deploying a new system, take advantage of the administrator training that server vendors generally offer, and budget realistically for the amount of tech support you’ll need. For small business servers, software and support are the major expenses. Hardware is generally a small part of the total cost of ownership unless you’re running a Web server farm or high-def video editing shop with enormous storage needs.

Server Hardware
Once you know what application software and server OS you’ll be running, you’re ready to look at hardware. Most buyers select a server OS/hardware combination from a major vendor like Dell, HP, or IBM, or a package assembled by an IT consultant or reseller.

We highly recommend that you avail yourself of reseller expertise in translating your server needs into hardware specifications. Resellers can tailor systems to your exact circumstances and ensure that your server system grows with your business during the system’s expected life. Even if you don’t buy from a particular reseller, you can get good advice to take elsewhere. As a starting point, both your application software (a database or an e-mail server, for example) and your server OS will have recommended system requirements for a given number of users.

Specific considerations include number and type of processors (32- or 64-bit; Intel or AMD), amount of RAM, number of internal drive bays, and server design (tower or rack-mount). Intel’s Xeon and AMD’s Opteron processors are the standard for servers, and most servers come with at least two processors (each with dual or quad cores), which helps them handle multiple tasks and users efficiently. For storage servers, you’ll want options such as hardware RAID support and external expandability, too.

At one end of the scale, a simple file-and-print server for 25 users should run just fine on an inexpensive system employing one dual-core Xeon and 1GB or 2GB of RAM. Since this setup would be used to store critical files, we would recommend using a mirrored RAID array to provide protection against drive failure. Moving up, an e-mail-and-collaboration server for up to 75 users, running Windows Small Business Server 2003 with Exchange and Sharepoint, might employ two dual-core Xeon processors with up to 4GB of RAM. And for a heavily used CRM database serving 250 clients, you might select two or four dual-core Xeons with up to 16GB of RAM, running the full version of Windows Server 2003. At the high end, dividing the workload across multiple servers–a technique called clustering–becomes more efficient. Load-balancing software is used to manage them.

If you will be using multiple servers, consider purchasing rack-mount models for ease of access and clustering applications. Tower models generally provide more drive bays and options, and they can be a more flexible choice if you have only a couple of servers.

Finally, don’t neglect to investigate the warranty and support policies for your hardware and for the server OS. They will likely be of different lengths and from different vendors. For small businesses, which may rely on one or two servers for everything from handling e-mail to sharing documents and printers, downtime can be disastrous. Invest in same-day on-site service if possible, and guard against power outages by using an uninterruptible power supply.

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