What’s a Small Business Server and Do I Really Need One?

Almost every startup business uses computers. And as your new business grows, adding laptops, PDAs and other communication or data devices is almost inevitable. Before you know it, you may reach a point where your computing infrastructure seems disorganized.

If that sounds familiar, it may be time for you to purchase a “server” – one machine that can “serve” the information needs of all of your computers from a central source, ensuring that all of your employees and all of your applications are working in sweet concert instead of haphazard isolation. For several hundred to a few thousand dollars, a server instantly provides many benefits that make the investment more than worthwhile.

“Most small businesses that don’t have an IT director on payroll typically wait way too long to invest in their first dedicated server,” says Joshua Feinberg, co-founder of Computer Consulting 101, a West Palm Beach, Fla., company that works with many small businesses. “This expense is a drop in the bucket compared with its value.”

Here’s how to make your decision about purchasing a server.

Recognize the signs that it’s time

Whether you know it or not, the minute you add a second computer to the original one you used to start a business, you’ve created a “peer-to-peer” computing environment in which separate machines perform many of the same computing functions in a decentralized

So what are the signs that you’ve begun outgrowing the peer-to-peer approach and need to take some action? You’ll notice you’re getting tired of the lack of data coordination among your employees and the huge inefficiencies that that implies. You’ll wish you could pull up that important file from your east coast-based office while you’re road-warrioring your way through sales calls in Phoenix. You’ll reel from the occasional disastrous loss of data that hasn’t been backed up and the frustrations of everyone on your team in trying to recover.

“It boils down to the pain points that a small business might be facing,” says Elyn Yao, group manager for Microsoft’s server group, in Redmond, Wash.

Understand what a server can do for you

A server is a single computer whose purpose is to be the master administrator and router of all of your company’s computing needs. Any type of software or data that benefits from coordination and protection is stored on - and dispensed by - the server to your other computers, which become networked together because they’re all tied into the server. Its operation requires specific server software, such as Microsoft’s Small Business Server 2003, often preloaded on our sponsor Dell’s PowerEdge servers, making “going live” with the server relatively turnkey.

Customer data can be updated by anyone on a computer linked to your company’s server, and when they access it, they can be sure it’s up to date. Your team can update and share Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, or Excel spreadsheets in the same way using a server. No matter where you are physically, your computer can communicate not only with the “home office”, but with individual employees through your server. To keep out threats and unwanted emails, you can apply anti-virus or anti-spam software via the server and it will clean and protect the data flowing to and from all of your computers.

And you can use your server as the company’s IT-security gateway, setting it to regulate various levels of access to your data and your computers for people both inside and outside the company. Some entrepreneurs even use their servers to host their websites; but if you’ve got a decent amount of traffic to your site, that’s probably something you want to contract out to a specialist.

Cost it out

You can actually purchase a low-end server for as little as several hundred dollars. But, typically, you can expect to pay from $2,000 to $5,000 for a server that will meet the needs of a startup with one to dozens of employees, including the server software needed to run the server.

If you really want to save time and maybe a few dollars, go for the servers with server software pre-installed.  They are far easier for you to set up since the software is already there, and you might even decide you don’t need to pay an IT professional to come in and help you install the server since it’s relatively turnkey.  At the very least, your IT professional won’t need to spend as much time getting your server up and running if the software is pre-installed, which could still mean cost savings for you.

Don’t be afraid to get help

When you’re making such a major decision about how to optimize the treatment and flow of information technology for your company, you can use some expert advice.

One place to look is “user groups” of people who are united by the fact that they largely rely on the hardware or software products of a single company, and sometimes by being in the same industry. Because their reason for being is to help people with IT decisions and problems, you’ll find user groups a great source of information on things like server purchases. A good internet search will lead you to these groups.

Your decision to buy a server also may lead you to consider hiring the services of an IT consultant or integrator. It’s probably a good idea to do so, even if you’ve gone with the pre-installed software option we mentioned.  These consultants – many of whom are used to working with small companies and startups – can assess your needs, sort through them and make a dependable recommendation about what server to buy. They can also convert your computers to the new system and, for reasonable regular fees, make sure that your new computing environment remains state-of-the-art. Lastly, they can provide ongoing assistance as your needs change or as questions and updates/upgrades are required.

Our Bottom Line

Stress on your computing infrastructure is usually a blessing that comes from growth. And to make sure nothing gets in the way of that growth, you’ll likely want to buy a server. It might be one of the best things you can do right now to streamline your operations and set the stage for future success.

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