If your business has grown enough that you have established a need for your own server, congratulations are certainly in order! The question is – where to start? What class of server best suits your needs, and how much should you spend?
Ideally, you will want a server that you won’t outgrow too quickly. If new growth is imminent, or even on the horizon, you might also want to consider a cloud server. In the end, whether or not you have an IT consultant on staff, this article should serve as a handy guide to help outline current small business server options so that you can find your perfect match.
What is a small business server and why do I need one?
A server is an essential piece of IT hardware used to store data, power software, manage printers and CMS, and help your workforce collaborate. It is also the central hub from which you access all of your data. Chances are, you have been taking advantage of ‘free’ or low cost server space up until now, possibly through your ISP or through one of the many virtual servers out there, like Dropbox, Google Drive or Microsoft’s OneDrive, but if one of these servers were to suffer a catastrophic loss, you would have little recourse. Local storage can fill up quickly, taking up an inordinate amount of room on office hard drives or external discs, and depending on where it is stored, it may not be terribly easy to access across the workforce. As your business grows, the ease of sharing information becomes more important, and much more complicated if you are sharing it all from one centralized computer. Logistics aside, this ‘free’ space is nothing if not limited, and it will eventually run out. For security, ease of management and to effect a positive impact to the bottom line, investing in a server for your small business may be exactly what you need.
Some advantages to owning your own small business server:
- Robust data backup and recovery features
- Manage your own business domain
- Extensive archiving of email and communications
- Employees have easy access to business files, no matter where they are
- Excellent overall value compared to external solutions
- An easy way to support your small business growth
How Much Server do I Need?
Your server should support all of your memory and storage needs. Calculating just how much storage and processing power is adequate can potentially be quite daunting. Since your server will be responsible for carrying out several functions, you will need to allot space for three main components:
Processing power will dictate the speed at which your files are accessed and delivered. These are measured in ‘cores’. A multi-core system is basically a number of CPU’s that have been chained together. This is separate from the clock speed, which is measured in GHz. When adding processors to this chain, you will want to make sure you are using ones with the same specifications. Fortunately, most processors made in 2016 are easily expandable, if not completely future-proof, eliminating the need to make one massive purchase at the outset and allowing you to expand at your own rate.
You will find the range of servers available are defined by their number of cores and clock speed (GHz). In a nutshell, there are pros and cons to each type. Servers with more cores and lower clock speed increases application performance overall, with the ability to run more apps simultaneously without seeing drops in performance. Servers with fewer cores and higher clock speed are a lower cost option, but may not be as powerful in their support of multi-threaded apps. Once you have determined what your server will be running, the choice should be fairly clear.
What server will best support my small business?
Most of the big-name computer brands have server platforms dedicated to small business. Dell, HP, Microsoft, IBM, Fujitsu, Lenovo and Oracle are the brand leaders in this category. Within this category, there are two main types of server: Network Attached Storage (NAS) servers and Application Servers. An NAS is generally more cost effective and simple enough to set up that you likely don’t need an IT specialist to do the installation. An NAS server provides access to your company files and folders, and shares other network resources such as printers. Choosing an NAS would be recommended if you have, say, twenty-five employees or less, and are just looking to share files on the network.
An application server is a more robust machine that features its own operating system and a broader range of features. Application servers are ideal for those running several different types of software apps as well as providing the same network sharing features as an NAS. For larger companies (twenty-five employees or more) who need to run several different types of applications for use by multiple users, an application server provides more advanced features such as VPN access and automatic backup.
Ultimately, it’s a determination you will have to make. Here’s a quick comparison:
Network Attached Storage (NAS) Servers:
- Cost effective
- Easy to use and install
- Higher end models available with more software options
- No licensing restrictions
- Proprietary operating system
- Limited to software that is available for the particular OS
- Install any operating system you want, Linux or Windows
- Can run virtual servers simultaneously on one piece of hardware
- More features, better integration
- Much more expensive
- Not simple enough for the average person to navigate
- Licensing restrictions on some brands limits number of users
Once you have identified what your specific needs are, the decision on what type of server to buy should be relatively clear.
Virtualization: your business in the cloud
Cloud computing is arguably the biggest revolution in IT since mobile. It has had a major impact on small businesses in particular, allowing access to a powerful range of options previously only available to large corporations. The ability to scale up seamlessly in order to accommodate business growth is a compelling feature, and represents huge savings in several areas: hardware, maintenance and real estate. No more climate-controlled server rooms, no more IT technicians at the extreme high end of the pay scale, and no more equipment to purchase, maintain or upgrade. Better yet, if you suddenly see a spike in your business growth, you can add virtual servers with the click of a mouse. This is ultimately the direction that most small-to-medium businesses are heading, following in the footsteps of tech-savvy multinationals.
Server virtualization is not solely cloud-based, in the sense that it works with your existing servers to boost their efficiency: essentially, you would be dividing a single server to act like multiple servers. While a good intermediate step, it can be complex to manage and there needs to be enough physical storage in place to handle the virtualization. Bottlenecks in performance are not uncommon with poorly managed virtualized servers.
Cloud servers such as AWS (Amazon Web Server) offer attractive agility for small business, with the ability to scale at the speed of business. AWS, Google Cloud Platform and Rackspace are just a few of the cloud service providers that offer business server solutions, but each offer a deep platform that comes with many perks, not the least of which is cost efficiency, 24/7 monitoring and guaranteed uptime. Without the need for hardware, there is remarkably little upfront cost to get started, and the gains in productivity and ROI are as measurable as their risk mitigation. In fact, Amazon reports a remarkable 560% five-year ROI and a 64% reduction in total cost of ownership (TCO).
Recapping the Small Business Server discussion so far:
Let’s review a few points before we get into any specific hardware recommendations:
- Make sure you are buying the right server for your needs. If improving your email and messaging performance is a concern, having a dedicated email server might be the way to go. Make a list of your priorities before making any decisions. The better you understand your server needs, the closer you will get to meeting them, within your budget. Newegg suggests purchasing “a moderately powerful system with a server-grade processor … a middle-of-the-road system with a quad-core processor, at least 8 gigs of RAM and room for several storage devices.”
- Virtualization is a great option if you have outgrown your existing server, as it consolidates the workload of several servers into one or a small handful. You will likely need to have a strong IT presence to properly manage your virtualization, and you will definitely need plenty of memory to store your data.
- Cloud servers are an attractive possibility, especially for start-ups who are poised for exponential growth. You may not know where your business is headed, but the potential for stratospheric support is built-in, allowing you to spend your valuable time and money growing the business rather than managing your IT infrastructure.
Small Business Servers for 2016:
We’ve chosen a handful of servers that are highly rated in their category – this is nowhere near a complete list, but a good place to start.
The Netgear ReadyNAS 202 has a simple, web-based setup, and can support up to twelve terabytes of storage. While slightly limited, it has economy on its side at just over £200. Geared toward small office or consumer use, it’s a light server that will probably do fine for small workgroups of up to ten users.
For a more robust solution, c|net recommends the Synology DiskStation DS1513+, though its promise of high-performance comes with the caveat that it is not as user friendly as some other models. With a base price hovering around £650, you will still need to add your own hard drives at between £40 – £300 each, depending on capacity. With more features than your average NAS and massive storage capabilities, it might be the only server that you will ever need for your small business.
HP’s Proliant MicroServer Gen8 is an entry-level application server, certified for Windows operating systems as well as Linux, Red Hat, VMWare ESXi and open-source code. With virtualization capabilities and decent pricing at between £350 and £700, it presents an attractive way to launch your small business server-powered office into its next phase of growth.
Of the current cloud server providers dedicated to small businesses, most offer a range of services in addition to server hosting that could include support for web applications and full integration with your existing technology. Microsoft Azure provides a full infrastructure, but the cost is dear, starting at more than £10,000 per year for what PC Mag calls ‘average performance’. Amazon EC2, by comparison, offers a starting price at just £11 monthly, but this doesn’t come with the full suite of support that you might need if you’re not a tech whiz. Basically, you are renting virtual servers in the cloud, where you can build and host custom apps to deploy to your workforce or your clientele, scaling when the need arises. It’s not plug and play, but there is support available for additional fees, and a fully managed account definitely undercuts its competitors at £4850 per year. Rackspace Managed Cloud carries a price tag of just under £8000 per year, but by all accounts it’s a full web package that delivers. Its claim to fame is that it co-founded an open-sourced cloud platform with NASA, an organization that knows a thing or two about technology. Rackspace also provides support for all the top cloud server platforms with full flexibility to support your every move.
No matter where your company is in its growth cycle, if you have identified a need for a dedicated server, you have some thinking to do. In terms of budget, your core needs and company culture as well as where you envision yourself a few years down the road, all of these variables should play into your small business server buying decision.