Does My Small Business Really Need a Server?

I consulted with a small business last week. Their server had stopped powering on a few weeks ago. There were a few things they couldn’t do, but nothing that was causing a major impact to their business. This got me thinking: does your small business really need a server? With everything going to the cloud, what does a server really do for you?

Many businesses start out as a single user or maybe two and even if there are plans to grow the business, most often one doesn’t want to invest the capital in technology when there is no immediate need to do so. Let’s face it, when you’re one user, the benefits of a server do not outweigh the costs of purchasing and maintaining one.

However, there is a point where you’ve got a handful of computers to manage, different employees who should have selected access to files and maybe applications or databases. At this point, the benefits of a centralized server can be realized.

What does a server do?

In small businesses, it’s common to refer to that thing in the corner as a server without understanding what it really does. Servers can do many things. Sometimes one server will handle many different services and other times it is better to have separate servers for separate applications or uses.

A frequently used term is file and print server. In this case the server shares files and controls access to those folders and files through different shares and permissions. The same is true with printers. Instead of having to try and figure out which printer to access or how to install it, users can simply click add printer and the server presents them with a list of printers and the necessary drivers, without needing to wait for an administrator to install a printer for them.

Servers very frequently perform critical networking functions like DHCP (getting an IP address so your computer can talk to other computers and servers) and DNS (411 for turning memorable names into IP addresses). It is possible to setup VPN services to allow secure remote access to local resources.

Servers can be used to host a variety of applications, from financial programs like QuickBooks to communications programs like Exchange (email, calendars) or chat programs.

In most businesses with Windows based computers, Microsoft Active Directory will run on a server. At it’s most basic level, Active Directory (AD) creates a catalog of users, computers and other devices and services and presents this information when needed to users and computers. AD is what decides if you can login to a computer (the one you normally use or another one) and what access to give you.

Advanced features that you get with Active Directory include the ability to map network drives, set desktop backgrounds, screen savers, Internet favorites and install programs. There are a number of security features which provide tighter security and centralized management. Changing a security setting on one computer is one thing, but when you have multiple, keeping up with compliance requirements can be very burdensome. With the constant threat of malware and crypto-ware, it’s imperative to keep systems as locked down as possible.

One of the best practices to help prevent viruses and other malware is to keep systems up to date. Windows Server Update Services provides the ability to centrally manage the updates to be installed as well as audit the compliance level of those computers.

So, do I really need a server?

If you have more than a handful of computers, managing the user accounts and security is going to be problem some at some point. Inevitably a password will get changed and not documented and hours will be spent troubleshooting the problem or worse, the system will have to be restored from a backup or rebuilt and data will likely be lost. This could easily cost your business hundreds of dollars in billable support hours and also lost revenue depending on which computer it was.

Even if everything you use is in the cloud, there’s likely a business case for having some local file storage or shared applications. For example, QuickBooks, found in many businesses, can’t be used with Dropbox or Google Drive, at least not for multi-user access. And, don’t forget those updates. You’ll need some way to manage updates and you probably know that you can’t rely on a set and forget attitude that they will automatically install without you doing anything.

Compliance with industry requirements like PCI-DSS and HIPAA generally requires the ability to deploy and enforce policies across your network of computers. While it might be possible to change settings on each computer, the cost savings will likely pay for the investment in a basic server setup.

When we started out at In Motion, we didn’t have a server when it was just two of us, but before we hired a third employee, we invested in a server. Servers are going to be more expensive than a typical computer because they are built with redundancy across multiple areas, but they don’t have to bankrupt your company.

Every business is unique and has their own reasons why they may or may not need a server. Schedule some time to speak with your CIO to determine the best scenario for your organization. If you don’t have a CIO, you can get a free business consultation with a CIO experienced in providing solutions to businesses like yours.

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