IT Support

Does My Business Need A Server?

As your business continues to grow you will, at some point, need to think about deploying a servers or servers in order to improve your business’s computing efficiency ad security, and reduce administrative overhead. Find out what servers do, how they can improve your IT operations and whether the time is right for you to deploying servers on your business network.

Peer-to-Peer vs. Client-Server Networks

Many small businesses networks start off life as a peer-to-peer network, or workgroup. In a workgroup, all computers are peers and no computer has control over another. While this can be an effective and relatively cheap model for business networks with a small number of computers, it can quickly become difficult to manage when the size of the network grows beyond a handful of computers.

A client-server network provides the benefit of centralised management of user and computer accounts, security, applications and computer and network configuration. This model can provide real benefits to your business in terms of security, flexibility, scalability and administrative overhead but, for a small business, can be relatively expensive to deploy and requires a higher level of expertise to manage than a peer-to-peer network.

Peer-to-peer networks

Peer-to-peer network

A peer-to-peer network or workgroup of computer

A peer-to-peer network is a collection of client computers that communicate with each other on a local computer network.Each computer has a set of user accounts. To log on to any computer in the workgroup, you must have an account on that computer.

Configuration and security is managed on a client-by-client basis and data is stored on the local client; what data is shared, how it is shared and who has access to it is generally at the discretion of the user. Since most peers are personal computer, their resources may not be available consistently.

A workgroup is not protected by a password. Resource sharing can be cumbersome and unreliable and the dispersed nature of the resource leaves you prone to irretrievable data loss.Peer-to-peer networks may be adequate if you have less than five or six computers on your network, but are increasingly difficult to manage beyond that.

Client-server networks

Client-server network

A client-server network model

The client-server model is an approach that assigns the role of server to one or more devices on the network. Resources, such as data, email and printers, are centralised on the server/s and the clients make contact with the server in order to utilise these resources. Users on the network can make use of various network resources right from the desk, increasing efficiency. User account management, security and network and client configuration is also centralised on the server/s, greatly reducing the administration overhead and complexity of securing and managing your office systems.

Servers are generally build on a more robust hardware platform than personal computers and include redundant systems that allow the server to continue to operate normally even when a hardware failure does occur, minimising the chances of valuable data loss and the impact on your business due to lost productivity.

Benefits of a Server

Security and availability

Because both user accounts and resources are centralised on the server, the organisation has a great deal of control over which users have access to which resources. Various levels of resource accessibility can be assigned on either a user-by-user basis or to a user group. For example, the finance group may be give ‘write’ permissions to a shared folder on the server called ‘Annual Report’, the directors group may be assigned ‘read only’ access to the same folder while the rest of the organisation are denied access to the folder completely; or the marketing department can be given permission to print to that nice, but very expensive, glossy colour printer while the warehouse group is restricted to using the more cost effective black and white printer only.

Reliability and productivity

Servers are general built to a higher hardware specification than personal computers and usually include redundancy systems (e.g. secondary power supply units and  redundant hard disk). Servers, therefore, offer not only better performance than client computers, but they are also often able to continue to operate normally even in the event of a hardware failure. Redundant hard disks also greatly reduce the risk of data lost due to disk failure. Servers are usually left running permanently so that users always have access to all their resource requirements. Having a properly specified server installed can greatly mitigate the chances of downtime and data loss; it can also improve workflow and productivity through improved performance and resource availability.

Flexibility and scalability

Network user and computer accounts are stored on the server.This means that any user can potentially log on from any client and gain access to all their assigned resources. This model gives your organisation a great deal of flexibility: whether  a user is moving to another workstation at the other end of the office, or connecting to your office network from a laptop in a hotel room on the other side of the planet, they will use the same credentials and have access to exactly the same resources as they would if signing on to their office workstation.

Because each user has a single account on the network, they only need to know one set of logon credentials in order to access all of their network resources – email, shared files, printers etc. This is known as the single sign on model.

Client-server networks are a lot more scalable than peer-to-peer networks. Adding new computers and users to your network as your business grows is as simple as creating new account on the server. Server based policy assignment means that computers can be automatically configure they way you want them when connected to the network, and new users can be up and running running in a very short space of time.

Centralised backup and business continuity

Losing some or all of your stored data can have a devastating effect on a business. All businesses should perform regular data backs but in a peer-to-peer network, with data dispersed across many client computers, this can be a burdensome task. Centralising all of your important data on a server makes this task a lot easier because backups only have to be performed from a single location. With a good data backup plan  you can recover from a disaster with relatively little data loss or interruption to your business activities

Viruses and malware

Viruses and Malware are one of the biggest threats to the security and integrity of network. Individually maintaining ant-virus software on a handful of computers may be manageable, but beyond that it becomes an increasing burden. Implementing an enterprise wide anti-virus system that is centrally managed from your server greatly mitigates the risks associated with miss-configured or out of date anti-virus software on client computers.

Choosing the Right Server

Hardware

Although server based IT infrastructure can complex and expensive, it needn’t be so. So, how do you know what you need and how much to spend? If you are reading this as a small business trying to decide whether to implement a server or not, then you probably don’t need a lot to start with.

Most businesses will start off with a single server runs a directory services used for authentication of users and computers on the network. The server will also function as a file and print server, managing access to and sharing data and network attached printers. The server may also host various other services, such as accounting systems, internal web sites and enterprise email systems.

These types of services, for a small to medium sized business, are generally not very resource hungry so the performance specification of the server does not need to be very high, although it should include some redundant hardware (dual power supply units, redundant disk arrays, dual network ports etc.). It’s important to ensure that you get the server properly specified so get help from a technical expert if you aren’t sure what you need. A server in a similar price range to a high end PC will be adequate for most smaller businesses.

Operating systems

To get the most out of your server you will need a server operating system that includes all the functionality that we have discussed here. Although there are numerous such operating systems on the market, from the SME point of view, the choice is narrowed down to either a Microsoft Windows or a Linux server operating system.

There are several different distributions (Debian, Red Hat, openSuse etc.) of the Linux operating system, but they are all open-source software and generally available for free. Almost any service can be installed on a Linux system, again for free.

Windows operating systems are commercial products that come in various versions that differ from each other in functionality, scalability, hardware compatibility and price. While the enterprise level versions, designed for large networks, can get very expensive, the lower end versions are quite reasonable priced and are generally adequate for smaller businesses.

You should also take into account the set up costs when choosing your operating system. While Linux operating systems are free to obtain, it is fair to say that they are generally a bit more challenging to set up than Windows operating systems and Linux professionals are not as easy to find and, therefore, tend to be a little more expensive than their Windows counterparts.

Client operating systems also need to be taken into consideration when upgrading to the client-server model. Windows desktop operating systems are design to integrate seamlessly into a Windows network environment. Integrating Windows desktop operating systems into a Linux network, although perfectly achievable, is technically more complicated.

Some versions of Microsoft Windows desktop operating systems (generally the ‘home’ editions) are not able to connect to client-server networks and will have to be upgraded to ‘professional’ edition or higher.

Deployment and maintenance

Configuring and deploying a server and configuring client access is not a big challenge, but it does require a high level of knowledge and experience to get it right. If you don’t have the skills within your organisation to achieve this then you will need to bring in a skilled professional to do it for you. For a small company with, say, 5 to 10 users, installing and configuring the server and setting up the network and clients shouldn’t take more than a day or two. Expect some disruption to your workflow during the transition, but a good professional should take steps to minimise the disruption and may even be prepared to carry out the work outside of your normal business hours.

Provided the systems have been properly configured and deployed, ongoing maintenance should be relatively low cost and consists mainly of administrative tasks such as user account, resource and backup management. Many of these tasks don’t require a high level of technical skill and may, with a little training, be assigned to a member of your internal staff.

The Cloud is Changing Things

Cloud computing is the practice of using remote servers hosted on the Internet to store, manage, and process data, rather than a local server or a personal computer. A few years ago the choice was simple: either a peer-to-peer network; or a client server based network. The advent of cloud computing gives your business additional options and, potentially, a cost effective intermediate model between the two.

Cloud services, such as web-based email, data storage and sharing and online backups allow your business to take advantages of some server based functionality without the capital outlay required to install internal servers and services. While cloud-based services cannot, at this stage, completely replace the functionality of locally based network servers, they can be often be used to extend the life of your peer-to-peer network by partially centralising administration and security of your services.

Conclusion

So, does your business need a server? Unfortunately that is an impossible question to answer without a thorough analysis of your It assets and requirements. The decision is ultimately yours, but following are a few factors for you to consider in reaching it:

Administrative burden

How much time do you spend administering your IT systems? Peer-to-peer networks impose a  heavy administrative burden because client machines and user accounts needs to independently managed and secured. The client-server model allows user user and computer accounts to be grouped together and managed from a central location, improving the efficiency and relieving the burden of administration. If you have less than five users but expect to grow beyond that number at some point then you may also consider installing a server to establish your corporate workflow and prevent later disruption.

Data value

How valuable is the data that you store to your organisation? Because desktop computers are generally built on a a less robust and redundant hardware platform then servers, your risk of data loss is a lots greater. The data may also be distributed among several clients which increases the complexity of backing up the data properly and, therefore, the risk of recovering from data loss should it occur. Try to place a realistic value to your business on the data you keep and weight that against the cost of implementing a server.

Sensitivity of data

Do you keep highly sensitive data, perhaps confidential customer information or information about your business that you need to protect from competitors? Security and distribution of data stored on desktop computers is usual left to the individual user who may not have the required technical skills or knowledge to properly secure the data. By moving the data into a centralised location that is administered by technically competent people you will greatly improve the security of that data.

Workflow efficiency

How dependant is your organisation on information technology? If your users spend a significant portion of their day working on computer based systems then you could well benefit from the improved performance, availability and convenience of a client-server network. Centralisation of resources and single sign-on mean that users are able to access all of their resources right from their own desktop. Multiple users are easily able to work collaboratively on data stored in a single, centralised location.

Cost

Can you afford the initial capital outlay? For a smaller company requiring a single server, you can expect to pay in the region of £3000-£5000, including professional services, for server installation and client configuration. For most companies this is a worthwhile investment and they should see the returns in reduced administrative overhead and improved workflow efficiency, however, it may be beyond the budget of some businesses. If you think this initial outlay is too much for  your business to bear then consider cloud based services as am intermediate step.

Still Not Sure?

At Haslenet, we have all the expertise and experience required to provide your business with the best advice on how adapt your IT network and systems to accomodate the growing needs of your business. We provide local businesses with a free, no obligations network audit and consultation to discuss your IT needs and, based on this consultation, we will make recommendations for the IT hardware, software and services that you need to manage and grow your business. Contact us to find out more.

Posted in Network Infrastructure.

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