A guide to buying a server

This may be the age of cloud computing – when more businesses are shifting to Internet-based services for many operational tasks – but make no mistake, on-premise servers are still an integral part of a small business network.

Servers can help to streamline a network, especially an expanding one. A peer-to-peer network may be fine for a home or small business with maybe three or four computers connected to one another, each sharing files and perhaps a few devices like a printer, a wireless router, or a NAS box. When a network starts to grow, either in number of users or in the amount of data that's kept on it, a server can help a business stay organised and efficient. But there are a wide variety of servers available, all of them highly configurable.

First, you need to understand what servers are good at. Servers can be used to house files and manage printers. Better yet, they can manage which users on a network can access which resources. They can serve as machines handling a company's website, email, databases, remote access and other tasks.

Servers can range from simple and inexpensive tower PCs to sophisticated boxes designed to handle heavy workloads and provide disaster recovery with backup, data redundancy and fault tolerance. Sifting through the vast number of options in the server market need not be a headache, if you have a good understanding of what your business needs are, how scalable you need a server to be, and how critical it is to have that server stay operational in the event of a disaster.

Here is a breakdown of key considerations to bear in mind when shopping for a server for your small business.

Price

Of course, your budget is going to have a lot to do with which server you select. Small business servers typically range from £500 to £5,000 – the exact pricing depends on the configuration of a server. If a business has simple server needs, for example, requiring only a file and printer server with backup capability, remote access, and some limited disaster recovery capabilities, then a lower-end server would be fine. Bear in mind, however, that cheaper servers are often not as scalable as they usually have one drive (two at most) – limiting total storage capacity and fault tolerance capabilities. They are also not designed for heavy workloads.

Just as with desktops, higher priced server configurations give you higher-end options like multiple drives, more memory and a faster processor. If you have a lot of data processing going on in a business – users accessing billing systems or databases – you're going to want to look into the highest-end system you can afford and avoid any sacrifices on the performance front, especially if the server will be running mission-critical applications.

Day-to-day operations

Understanding your company's day-to-day needs is crucial. Does your company need to run a database on the server? Will employees need remote access? Perhaps the server will handle email – if so, bear in mind the number of user accounts that will access the server. Remember, a specific server – for example, Lenovo’s ThinkServer – can come in different configurations for different business purposes. Light server needs would be served just fine by a lower priced ThinkServer model with just the basic options in terms of CPU, memory and drives, while businesses that have highly trafficked websites, many database transactions, or any other resource intensive workloads would be better served by a machine with some serious hardware upgrades above and beyond the vanilla model.

Scalability

Have five or fewer employees in your business currently? A server that might suit that small number of users will not be as efficient in supporting twice as many. If you expect to add users and data, especially large data like images, video, or database records, opt for a server with scalability. This means maximum storage capacity, support for multiple drives (drives that can be added as a business scales), room for expansion inside the chassis (for memory upgrades and cards) and a capable processor.

Data redundancy/fault tolerance

Some businesses cannot afford any interruption in productivity due to server problems and downtime. Or, maybe complete data loss would mean complete ruin for a business. Others may have more forgiving data requirements. Data redundancy and fault tolerance are ways to keep data intact and servers functioning in the event of a disaster such as disk drive failure. Fault tolerance and data redundancy are achieved through a server technology known as RAID.

Lower end business servers are usually capable of performing basic RAID: RAID level 0 for disk striping which aids only in terms of slightly boosting the performance of a server – it does not provide fault tolerance. RAID level 1 does provide fault tolerance through mirroring – copying data from either one logical volume on a single drive to another; or from one physical drive to another.

Higher-end servers can perform more complex levels of RAID such as RAID 5 and 10 – best for organisations that need a high level of fault tolerance without too much of a hit on performance. For more detailed information on RAID check out our article which explains all the different RAID levels.

Space

Many smaller businesses don't have dedicated server closets. Be cognisant of what space you have available and the dimensions of the server you are interested in, as well as the form factor. You cannot run a server designed to fit inside a server rack on top of a desk and expect it to run optimally. Air flow and temperature considerations need to be taken into account as well. Even a tower desktop server – which is usually a bigger version of a desktop machine – works best in a well-ventilated and temperature regulated room. Consider, too, that servers can be quite noisy when you're picking one out. If it has to live in a workspace, you'll want a quieter one.

IT expertise

The matter of whether you have IT staff on hand or not can also influence your server choice. Many servers have remote administration and power-on capabilities – perfect if you have the occasional remote IT support call. If you are going to tackle it alone without much help from a vendor, an easy to administer server like the Apple Mac mini would be a good choice.