Servers are the brains and brawn of your business’s IT infrastructure, but if you don’t have an IT background, you may wonder what exactly a server is and why it’s so important. I’ll answer five basic questions about servers, including how to buy the right server and keep it healthy.
If you run a small to medium-sized business (SMB) and you work with an IT staffer or vendors, you probably hear the word “server” thrown around a lot. And certainly you’re aware they’re not cheap, whether you’ve purchased your own server(s), paid for cloud servers, or both.
To protect your investment — and to avoid unnecessary downtime — you don’t need to become an expert on servers. But knowing the answers to these five basic questions about servers for small to medium-sized businesses will help you make good decisions.
5 Basic Questions About Servers for Small to Medium-Sized Businesses:
1. What Is a Server?
Your “client device” — a PC, smartphone, tablet, etc. — requested this page. Chrome’s request was processed by a web server, which delivered this page back to Chrome, which is displaying the page for you now.
This is a highly simplified description of the process, of course. Many types of servers may have played a role in processing your request and sending you this page.
Here’s a video describing the basic client/server relationship. (Note that it’s several years old, so the machines involved look LARGE.)
2. What do Servers Do for Small to Medium-Sized Businesses?
The main reasons that most SMBs use servers is to:
For the most part, all these servers are running in the background, enabling the standard tools and applications you use day to day.
A word of caution: Having a central hub for your data and applications is critical, but it also means a hacker who succeeds in accessing your servers has the keys to your virtual kingdom. So, if you have servers, they should be monitored by experienced IT security professionals.
3. Which is Better, On-Site or Cloud Servers? (Spoiler: Maybe Both)
Depending on when you started your business, cloud servers may not have been available yet, or they may have been way too expensive for a business your size.
Today, many SMBs use at least some cloud-based services and software. The physical servers behind cloud services are housed in giant server farms all over the world, run by providers such as VMware, Citrix, and Microsoft.
What can you expect from cloud servers compared with in-house servers? Here are some key differences:
Your business may be able to cost-effectively offset the weaknesses of in-house services with the strengths of cloud solutions, and vice-versa.
Hybrid in-house/cloud models are evolving rapidly. It’s important not to lock your business into any long-term arrangements without consulting with IT experts you trust.
4. How Do I Choose the Best In-House Server for My Size of Business?
An excellent resource for information about choosing servers for small to medium-sized businesses is a TechGen partner, Velocity Tech Solutions in Roseville, Minnesota.
Velocity’s VP of Corporate Sales, Anne Tarantino, says SMB owners often make one or more of these two mistakes in choosing servers:
Some business owners ask for help in converting a basic computer into a server, which is certainly possible. But Anne says for most businesses that have grown beyond a handful of users, it’s a mistake.
Get a business-grade machine made specifically to handle multiple servers, with redundant hard drives and power supplies, Anne stresses.
“Yes, it costs more for redundancy, but if your system goes down because you don’t have it, you’re probably losing money every minute you’re down,” Anne says.
A good example is small manufacturing companies, most of which run on networked, computer-driven machines. “You don’t want your employees just standing around or being sent home,” she says.
She’s seen too many worst-case scenarios play out when SMBs overspend. “Companies have called us to remove equipment because they’ve gone out of business, in part because they couldn’t afford the servers they bought from somebody else. It’s really sad,” Anne says.
Anne suggests two solutions for getting more server power for your buck:
Once a server vendor has a complete picture of your business operation, they can recommend appropriate solutions to choose from. If you’re getting the hard-sell on a particular server right out of the gate, take a step back.
5. How do you Protect Your Investment in On-Site Servers?
Once you’ve made the decision to buy server hardware and software, here’s how to make sure you get the most from your investment:
Anne says to weigh the option of a maintenance contract for IT assets such as servers from a third-party provider after the OEM’s initial contract expires.
In an article Anne published on LinkedIn, she points out that some OEMs will pressure you to unnecessarily upgrade rather than repair hardware.
And when the OEM does send techs, often they’re third-party subcontractors — the very same people you could be buying a less expensive maintenance contract from.
If you have a managed IT services provider, that firm should be able to help you sort through the server maintenance contract options, and even coordinate repairs with warranty providers.
VisiCom Services, an IT services company in Rochester Hills, Michigan, published a good blog post in 2018 about how to maintain servers. A major culprit of server failures, according to the post, is dust:
Dust, and other similarly-sized contaminants, can easily make their way into your server’s components, where they build up and become an insulator. As a result, your equipment can become up to 30ºF warmer – and just like in human beings, a rise in internal temperature to this degree can be lethal.
We asked Pat Casey, VisiCom’s president for almost 25 years, what most small businesses whose servers crash because of dust do wrong.
“A lot of these machines are out in the open, on a dusty carpet or a bare floor,” Pat says. “But even if they’re in an enclosure, unless that enclosure is filtered for dust, you have the same problem.”
Pat recalls a client who had custom furniture made for servers, but the enclosure didn’t work because it wasn’t ventilated. The machines overheated.
The furniture makers had to retrofit the unit with exhaust fans. But the fans then overheated the small room where the furniture was, so they had to improve the airflow for the entire room. The moral: Heat is your enemy; airflow is your friend.
Heat is only one thing monitoring systems track, but be careful not to set up the system to generate alarms for every little thing that could possibly go wrong, Pat says.
Too many alarms that turn out to be nothing can train you to ignore all alarms — even the really serious ones, like overheating servers.
Servers Enable Growth
When I work with clients who are installing their first servers, it’s usually a company that’s beginning to really thrive and grow. This is a crucial point in a business’s life cycle — making good IT infrastructure decisions can have a major impact on their ongoing success or failure.
The capacity to store and move data and run more powerful software is often a key driver of productivity and good customer service. Servers do this for you, if you choose them wisely and take good care of them.