How to Buy a Server

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.

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