Server Buying Guide

Despite the dizzying array of options and choices, selecting a server for your small business can be straightforward. This guide will help you narrow the options and choose a solution that meets your business needs -- and price point, too.

Why bother buying a server at all? Several reasons. You may want to keep better track of your business-critical files, such as your customer lists and product descriptions. You also want to ensure that everyone in your company is working on the most current version of any particular shared file, rather than panic when the time comes to submit a proposal to a client and you can't find the latest draft. You want to centralize and automate backups of your files so you are better protected in case of data loss. Servers also can improve the security of your data and make it easier to remotely access information from home or on the road. Today's servers aren't much more costly or complex than a standard desktop.

One requirement of owning a server has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with people. Make sure someone on your staff has the primary responsibility for your server and takes care of it. This means adding new users for new employees, deleting the accounts of former employees, and making sure the server has adequate storage for your company's files. In a small firm, these tasks are not a full-time job description, but you do want to put one person in charge -- even if that person in turn delegates some of the responsibility to a contractor or consultant.

Getting Started

Your first decision is how a server will fit into your existing office network. Make sure you can bring the needed power and Ethernet cabling to wherever your server will be located. If you are new to networking or don't have a network running throughout your office, consider installing a new wireless network and purchasing one of the many available wireless gateway/router devices. These have several features combined: wired ports to connect you to the Internet and a wireless radio to connect you to laptops and desktops in the office. The Cisco Small Business Router range includes excellent units, and many others are available from Netgear, Buffalo, and Dlink that will set you back only $100 or so.

Decide what data and applications you want to share on your server. If all you want to do is share files, you have lots of choices, including network storage servers with simplified operating systems. If you want to provide shared access to applications, such as a networked accounting application, or host your own Web server, purchase a more capable model. Don't just consider your current needs, but look at where you expect your business to be in a year or two. Will you hire additional staff? Expand your products or service offerings? Acquire a new business or partner with some other company? Consider buying more capacity than you need today, or a server that is easily upgradable, so your server can grow with your business.

Plan for Storage

Estimate how much storage space you'll need for your server. Think about how many PCs you already have in your business, and whether you plan on adding additional PCs for new employees in the coming year. Figure on 200 GB for each employee as a starting point. Video or audio files can take up much more room than other kinds of data and tend to proliferate quickly. So triple this estimate for anyone who will be storing multimedia data.

Even the smallest hard drives have at least 300 GB capacity, so start with at least 1 TB of storage -- which is 1000 GB -- even if you don't need that much initially. If your business is growing quickly, take a look at servers that allow you to expand their internal storage capacity down the road, or allow you to add external drives.

Buy or Lease?

Consider whether you should lease or own your server. If a server costs less than $1,500, buy it outright. Purchase a maintenance contract that lasts at least three years, so if anything goes wrong, you can get it fixed quickly. If you need something more expensive, consider leasing for a three-year rental term. Lease from a managed services provider who specializes in small businesses and will provide maintenance and upgrades. A great resource to investigate service providers is the MSPAlliance.com, a national trade organization of such providers.

Choose Your Operating System

Your next choice is a big one: which operating system to run. If you choose a network storage server, then you can skip this step, because those devices run their own specialized operating system.

Most of the more sophisticated small business servers run either Microsoft Windows or Apple's Mac OS. Which is appropriate? While books have been written on this subject, the choice boils down to a few issues. Windows has more applications that can be shared on servers and is the most familiar and popular OS. Windows also has a wider variety of hardware options, most of which are less expensive than Mac equivalent.

However, MacOS is easier to setup, maintain, and secure, and it can share its files with Windows users easily. But it may not be as familiar to users.

If you feel comfortable with Windows, Microsoft offers several choices. Windows Home Server is simple to set up, and includes attractive features such as a built-in Web server and integrated backup software. Several vendors, such as HP StorageWorks , sell server hardware with Home Server pre-loaded, for about $500. However, Windows Home Server lacks robust security features and can't handle more than two or three users. This is not a good choice for a growing business.

Most businesses should consider one of two Windows Small Business Server 2011 configurations; Standard and Essentials. The Essentials version handles up to 25 users and requires minimal PC knowledge. It includes automated backup of PC computers on your network as well as its own storage. Essentials doesn't include the applications Standard edition comes with, such as Microsoft's Exchange email server and SharePoint portal and collaboration server.

The Standard edition can handle up to 75 users, but doesn't include the PC Backup that is found in Essentials. You can compare the two versions here. Microsoft offers a free 180-day trial period for the Standard edition (a license for one server and five PCs costs about $950, but it can be significantly less expensive if it's pre-installed on a new server). The company has also announced that the Essentials version will be available sometime before June.

Make a Backup Plan

Next, consider your backup options. Often, backup software comes with the server operating system. This is true of Windows SBS Essentials, as well as the Time Machine software for Macs. These are easy to set up and don't cost anything extra. In some cases, they can cover backups on your individual desktop computers too. If you need more protection, such as a continuous backup and disaster recovery that operates 24/7, then consider buying a specialized backup product. Companies such as StorageCraft offer good small-business server solutions starting around $1,000.

You may also want to take advantage of cloud-based backup services, which provide offsite storage of your data so it can be retrieved even if your office burns down, gets broken into, or washes away in a flood. SafeSync is one such solution that is worth looking at.

Ensure Security

Backup provides one level of protection, particularly against accidental data loss due to user error or equipment failure. At the same time, you must protect your business against more malicious threats -- whether from the Internet or the employee down the hall.

A server concentrates more data in one place, which makes a business server a bigger target than any one PC. On the other hand, if you manage it properly, a server improves the overall security of your business.

The location of the server is critical and should be considered before your purchase. Keep it physically secure and separate from the rest of your office, for example in a locked closet for which few people have the key. Physical security is a big issue for small businesses, where a rogue employee or a thief can literally walk off with all your business data if your server is left in the open. You don't need to build a data center with James Bond-level access controls -- a simple lock and key is fine. Nor do you need an elaborate setup with a raised floor and special cooling. However, you do want enough room to provide adequate ventilation and airflow.

In addition to physical security, you must protect your business network from online risks. Run firewall software that separates your internal office network from the Internet. Most servers and routers come with built-in firewall features. Servers should have anti-virus software installed as well. Other things to consider are protection from malicious software spread by USB thumb drives and the ability to automatically scan your server's hard drive to make sure it hasn't been infected or tampered with. The majority of small business owners who have not yet installed a server will be familiar with desktop only internet security software built for home users such as that from Norton, McAfee and Kaspersky -- most of these solutions will not install onto a server so you will need to lfind a new solution. You can simplify this task by using a security scanning and integrated protection service that is delivered over the Internet for businesses, such as Trend Micro's Worry-Free Business Security Services.

Conclusion

No matter what server you choose, ensure it fits your business needs, provides adequate storage and computing power, and gives you room to expand. If you purchase anything more than a basic network storage server, you also need to make someone responsible for managing user accounts. Finally, make sure you address both physical and network security. You can do it simply and inexpensively with a locked server closet, combined with appropriate security monitoring and management.

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