What Makes a Server a Server Anyway?

So, you’ve decided that your business needs a server and now you’re wondering why you can’t run it on a Raspberry Pi or that old computer no one is using in accounting.

Not sure if you need a server for your small business? Read does my small business really need a server?

Bottom line, you might be able to run the software on that computer no one is using, but there are a few features you probably want to have in your server that the typical computer doesn’t have.

First and foremost, redundancy is key when it comes to servers. Second, servers are typically built with higher end components with a longer life expectancy than consumer or even business grade desktops. Third, servers should feature out of band management allowing remote access, management and monitoring. Fourth, servers may feature hardware that can be hot swapped.

Redundancy

A number of components should be redundant in servers. Hard drives should always be redundant in servers without exception. RAID is typically utilized so that if a single drive, or possibly more depending on the configuration, was to die, the server can keep running along without any interruption until the drive is replaced. As the redundancy has been diminished, it is imperative to replace the drive as soon as reasonably possible.

Frequently servers have redundant power supplies. Power supplies are often overlooked, but they do a lot of work and are susceptible to fluctuations in power and voltage spikes if the power is not properly conditioned. Redundant power supplies should be utilized so that any one source of power doesn’t cause the server to go offline. You might have going to two separate UPS systems or two separate sources of power.

In some configurations, fans, memory and other components may be redundant. While it is more likely for equipment with moving parts to fail, it’s always possible for other components to fail.

Higher Quality Components

Most equipment is rated with a mean time between failure (MTBF) which is calculated to be the age at which point 50% of those components will fail. Hardware which has been designed for servers generally has a longer MTBF which helps keep the server running. Cheaper components frequently have lower MTBF.

Desktops made for the consumer market typically only have a one year warranty. Business class desktops generally have a three year warranty. While the warranty is not the same as MTBF, you can bet the company has done the math to make sure equipment doesn’t fail during that warranty period.

Out of Band Management

If your computer gets turned off, it probably isn’t a big deal. When you come into the office, you simply turn it on again. However, if your server isn’t running, this can be a big problem when you’re paying employees who can’t access their email, applications, databases, computers, etc.

Servers should feature a remote access feature that provides basic level access even if the server is powered off. Say, for example, the power goes out in your office for an extended period (longer than your UPS was designed to keep systems running). Hopefully your server was shut down properly, but what if you didn’t set it up to turn back on automatically when the power comes back on? You’d have to go to the office and turn it on. That might not sound like a big deal, but after a long, hard week, do you really want to drive back to the office on a Friday night?

The management features on the server frequently provide advanced reporting, monitoring and access features so potential issues can be diagnosed and fixed before they impact your business. Out of band remote access may even allow remote technicians to fix problems preventing the server from booting to the operating system.

Hot Swap

If you need to replace the hard drive in your computer, it’s almost certain that you’re going to need to turn it off, take it apart and spend some time doing it. In most servers, you simply click a button to release the failed drive and insert a new drive. The system will start rebuilding the data and other than a minor slowdown (due to increased usage), users can keep accessing their applications without knowing the drive was replaced.

The same may be true for power supplies, fans and other components. Servers are designed to keep running and supporting your employees.

Bottom Line

Servers are generally one of the most important pieces of equipment that keep employees working and productive. If your business would be impacted if the server was down, you should invest in equipment that is true server class and features redundancy for critical and most likely to fail systems, high quality components, out of band management features and the ability to hot swap parts when they fail.

Finally, it is worth noting that many manufacturers are always trying to win the race to the bottom to make the cheapest equipment possible and frequently they will skimp on some of these features. The cheapest entry-level servers will not have many of these features and should generally be avoided if your business relies on your IT infrastructure for operations.

We should also note that there are many ways IT equipment, including servers, can be setup. We can’t comment on how your server is setup and you should never assume that best practices have been followed. Finally, while redundancy is important for servers, redundancy alone will not protect your data or your business operations in all cases. All businesses should have a documented business continuity plan that is checked, tested and updated on a regular basis.

If you aren’t sure if you have the right hardware for your business, schedule a free evaluation today.