Choosing the right server for your business

The server has transformed how small businesses operate, and with falling costs and improving efficiency, there has never been a better time to start using a server in your business – but which one should you choose?

With a number of server 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 virtualisation make your server 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 server type. Ask yourself these five questions:

  • Are you buying a server for file sharing?
  • Will your server be predominantly used for email?
  • Does your workforce need to connect to the server remotely?
  • Is your server going to be used for data backup?
  • How much space do you have available to accommodate a server?
  • Answering these questions will give you a clear idea of the kind of server features your business needs. Often, a server can be used to manage multiple workloads such as file sharing and data backup. It’s a good practice though to create a list that prioritises your needs for a server. This gives you a clear roadmap to follow, which will result in your business choosing the right server for its main requirements.

Business platforms

Moving to a server for the first time can bring efficiency rewards if the right choice is made. Thomas Jeffs, the founder of Lucidica – a technology partner for small business, with over 500 SME business clients within the London area – says: “We tend to push clients more to NAS (mini-servers) and in particular QNAP and Synology NAS drives. This affords onsite file storage that can be synchronised with ‘cloud’ drives while still being cost effective.

“Beyond NAS drives, Dell still offer great value full blown servers for the clients who need onsite servers. Ultimately though if you ‘need’ an onsite server then you need to spend £2,000+ on hardware. A ‘cheap server’ is something that will cost your business a whole lot more than the initial price tag.”

Concerns over security when hosting sensitive information in the cloud have bolstered the onsite server market to a degree, but as concerns dissolve, small businesses in particular are looking at their costs and asking whether they need a new onsite server at all, or see greater benefit in developing a hybrid approach.

“Many SMEs are utilising Office 365 to host their mail and SharePoint data,” says Scott Rundle, senior consultant at Riverbank IT, the Oxford-based managed services provider. “This is by far the most popular hybrid solution that SMEs adopt. Many medium-sized businesses are also utilising the cloud to host resource hungry applications. The cost of running these virtual servers would be too much for clients to host by normal means without significant investment in their existing hardware.”

Building your new server resources then means planning carefully and ensuring your server meets your primary needs. There is pressure to choose one type of server, as the hybrid approach often results in a better server platform for your business.

In the Cloud

Cloud-based services have of course had a huge impact on how small businesses in particular manage their data. When the time comes to buy a new server, for many businesses this is seamless and invisible, as they simply expand their cloud-based server capacity.

“The cloud has definitely changed the attitude SMEs have to server technology,” commented Roger Keenan, MD of London data centre City Lifeline. “The modern business has various requirements such as file and network security, securing reliability, centralising data storage and virus management, which can be met by the implementation of the cloud.

“For businesses in London, space for servers is expensive, as is the security needed to protect them. The cloud therefore opens up opportunities to save in terms of budget, something small businesses will be highly interested in doing.”

Lucidica’s Thomas Jeffs also stated: “At Lucidica we’re now deploying servers to less than 25% of companies we used to deploy to. Within Accelerator, a London-based incubator which supports startups providing office space, mentorship, training, a community of likeminded entrepreneurs and introductions to investors, we have decreased the number of servers within the onsite comms room by 75%. Without doubt every new client we meet mentions ‘cloud’ servers/storage for their future IT and where they want to move.”

And the seamless expansion that virtualisation offers has been fully embraced by the small business community, as Alexander Vierschrodt, head of commercial management server at 1&1 Internet explained to TechRadar Pro: “Most SMEs do not spend much time thinking about virtualisation itself anymore. On-premise hardware virtualisation makes a costly proposition as most servers are oversized to be used for one task only. Virtualisation helped to optimise resource usage by splitting one physical piece of hardware into many virtual servers.

“In the cloud, this does not matter anymore as these considerations are not necessary because SMEs can seamlessly scale resources, ordering the exact amount of computing power and storage space that is needed for the task at hand.”

When you consider that the cost of buying a licence to host Microsoft email on your own server is more expensive than hosting this email service in the cloud, small businesses have an easy choice if they are looking for a new email server.

Riverbank IT’s Scott Rundle concluded: “Virtualisation is a big part of IT these days. Microsoft allows you to utilise two Virtual Servers for every copy of Windows Server 2012 R2, which allows you to take advantage of server virtualisation in a big way.

“Due to this licence feature it is rare for us to provide a client with just one physical server running multiple roles. It is far more beneficial for us and the client to run in virtualisation as it becomes easier to backup, migrate and restore when running in a virtual layer.”

There is little doubt that the cloud and virtual servers are in the future of every small business, as the economic and efficiency cases for their use is overwhelming. Taking the time to understand how this server option can be managed is essential to ensure the power it offers is fully realised by your business.

Make your choice

When it comes to finally making your choice, make sure you follow these steps to ensure your business buys the right server…

Match the server to your primary need

If you want to improve how your business uses email, a dedicated email server is a good idea. Or if your business needs to manage large amounts of shared documents, a file-sharing server would be the ideal option.

Buy an affordable server

Always set a budget for your new server and stick to it. The server market has a number of vendors all vying for your business. Always shop around, as there can be some great deals to be had.

Choose best of breed

Once you have decided which type of server is best for your business needs, look for vendors who are leaders in that particular server type. This will ensure you always buy a server from a reputable source and one that is fully supported.

Buy the right operating system

As with your business desktop PCs, choosing the right operating system is vital to ensure applications are stable. Similarly, servers need an operating system that is robust to manage the many thousands of requests for data they could have to handle over a typical session.

Build in expansion and redundancy

Your business doesn’t want to be replacing its server in the short-term, so a level of expansion is highly recommended. This will usually mean using hard drives that can be upgraded as your server requires more memory. Using a RAID configuration will also ensure that any hard drives that fail don’t lose any of your precious business data.

Support and maintenance

If your business doesn’t have onsite IT support, this will have to be outsourced. The vendor you buy your server from may also offer maintenance as a package deal. Look very closely at the service level agreement you will be asked to sign to ensure it meets all your needs.

Choose the right cloud service providers

Often, small businesses will leverage the massive benefits that cloud-based servers can offer. Treat these services as if you had the server at your premises. Take some time to perform due diligence on the vendors you have on your shortlist. Talk to their other clients, and look at the service levels you can expect before signing up for their services. Look closely at security if you intend to store sensitive information on your cloud-based servers.

Match virtualisation to your needs

The ability to divide up a single server to behave like multiple servers is now a highly popular method of creating new servers using existing hardware. The virtual server behaves as if it was a physical server but uses software known as a hypervisor to create the new server. Care should be taken to ensure the underlying hardware of processor and storage can cope with the additional virtual servers.

Conclusion

A wholesale move to the cloud may be a step too far at the moment, but simply adding to an existing server sprawl isn’t an option either. Being smart about purchasing server capacity means understanding how your business fundamentally uses data. When you understand this aspect of your enterprise, choosing the right server is a much clearer and less risky endeavour.

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