So You Think You Want a Server?

By Morgan Killick

So you think you want a Server? But are you ready for one? This article discusses some of the most popular reasons for acquiring a Server, potential drawbacks, costs involved in purchasing, installation and support, and prerequisites for getting one.

What is a Server?

Strictly speaking, a Server is defined as 'a store of information'. However, what organisations and businesses typically have in mind when they talk about 'getting a Server' comprises of two discrete entities:

  • Server hardware (essentially a powerful computer of some kind) and the
  • Server operating system (a collection of programs installed from a disk that delivers a set of functionalities to your network).

It is crucial to recognise that - although they are sometimes bundled together - these are two separate issues, requiring separate decisions.

Server hardware, for example, can range in price from a few hundred pounds to several thousands. The major manufacturers are Dell, Fujitsu, HP, IBM and Apple/Mac. A typical price for a HP Server for a network of 10-20 PC's would be £1500. If you are thinking of using Apple/Mac a powerful G5 system would cost about the same. Backup devices would also be required for both.

Windows Vista Business, Windows XP Professional or Windows 2000 are the most suitable operating systems for a Windows Server environment.

Other solutions include OS/X Server for Mac or an Open Source alternative such as Ubuntu, which can be installed on your Dell/Fujitsu/HP/IBM hardware. Cost-wise, Open Source is usually free or a very modest price. Microsoft and Mac solutions cost in the £100's for charities, and costs vary according to the number of users.

Reasons for Having a Server

Before you even start to look at your budget, you need to be clear about what a Server can do for you and how you can benefit from it. Both you and your supplier will need to identify an appropriate solution based on an assessment of need. Some of the most common reasons for introducing a Server are listed below:

1. We want to store all of our files in a single place.

The most basic rationale for introducing a Server is to centralise file storage. Like having all of your documents in a large filing cabinet rather than in drawers on each desk, it makes sense to group things together. However, if this is your only reason for having a Server, there may be more cost effective solutions: for smaller networks, could a conventional computer be set aside for this task? Similarly, a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device could perform this role if there is no spare computer or where financial resources are limited.

Technically speaking, having a Server to store shared files is only a necessity when there are 10 or more Windows PC's on a network. Apple and Open Source desktop operating systems do not have this limitation.

2. We need levels of protection so that we can control which members of staff have access to our files.

This is considered to be the 'killer' argument for switching to a Server. Whilst desktop PC's of various kinds have more and more security features, these systems quickly become over-complicated. Server software on the other hand, is specifically designed to cope with these access rights or 'permissions'.

A Server operating system will require your staff to identify who they are before they can access their computers. This process - authentication - involves logging on to the Server with a user name and password, thereby granting you access to the files you are allowed to work with. Servers allow you to set up 'user groups' of staff to make these permissions easier to administer. You will need a clear plan of which groups have rights to which folders if your Server project is to succeed.

3. We want to centralise the management of our network including backups and antivirus precautions.

As your network of computers gets larger, it becomes more difficult to administer. Take antivirus for example - when you only have one or two computers, it is fairly easy to remember when to renew subscriptions and to check that updates and scans are being performed. But with 10 PC's or more, this task becomes onerous.

This same rationale applies to other aspects of your network too - backups, software updates and printers are classic examples. A Server can perform an important role in the monitoring, control and deployment of resources across your network. This is an essential, time-saving task that could occupy countless hours of staff time at the moment, or worse, may not even be done at all!

4. We want to share email/calendars/contacts.

This is a popular request amongst organisations that use the Outlook program. Outlook is often used as an email client but also includes calendar, contacts and tasks. Outlook can work more effectively as a 'team' oriented tool, where users can open each other's calendars and inboxes, create shared contact lists or tasks.

In order to do this, a Microsoft Exchange Server is essential. With Exchange, additional functionalities such as out-of-office Auto-replies and Outlook Web Access are also possible. Microsoft Exchange Server is Server software which is either bundled within Small Business Server or can be bought separately as an add-on to Windows Server. The costs of the product itself, as well as the specialised management, maintenance and backup it requires are high.

Perhaps a 'hosted' Exchange may be a better solution for you? Many ISP's now allow you to subscribe to Exchange mailboxes on a monthly basis without having to buy the Server at all.

5. We want to be able to control the software and settings that our users have access to.

This is a popular reason for acquiring a Server in an environment where the users 'experience' needs to be managed tightly, for example a 'public-access' training suite, or where users need to be able to log on to any computer on the network and get their personalised settings (known as 'roaming' profiles).

Because of the authentication process described above, there is a relationship of trust between the PC's and the Server. The Server is thus able to control the users' experience of their PC. For example it could force some software to be installed, deny access to the Hard Drive, or deliver only a single application.

These restrictions (collectively knows as Group Policies) form a powerful mechanism for regulating what particular people or computers can do.  Although not essential for configuring Policies (one could go around to each PC and do it manually), a Server dramatically improves the efficiency of administering and deploying them.

Disadvantages of Having a Server

Having a clear idea of why you might need a Server is crucial to the success of the project, but before you get the chequebook out and leap down to the Prerequisites, let's look at some of the disadvantages and drawbacks that you are bound to encounter within a Server environment.

1. Increased Costs

The most obvious point about running a Server-based network is the increased cost. Servers are much more expensive than PC's to acquire and you will need to get used to increased prices for Server-based software too.

Servers don't last forever and are typically redundant after 5 years for all but the most basic of functions. Windows and Mac Servers are licensed 'per user' so as you increase the number of staff, these companies will want their share too!

Servers do need regular checking, updating and monitoring. It is likely that you will need to undertake changes in users, permissions, email addresses and this may require some detailed IT knowledge. Moreover, if Servers go wrong, they will be very costly to fix.

Whilst manufacturers often offer reasonably priced hardware warranties, they will wash their hands of any problem with the Software (even if caused by the hardware problem) and as ad hoc IT support will quickly add-up, many organisations choose to form some kind of contract with their Server suppliers/installers. This makes sense as the company that installed your system should be in a good position to be able to maintain it. Expect to pay a significant amount - perhaps even more than you paid for the installation - for a comprehensive support contract.

2. Single point of failure

In centralising your files and software in the manner described above, you cannot avoid creating a single point of failure in your network. If someone steals or loses the key to your shiny new 'central filing cabinet' your work will suffer tremendously.

Whilst a significant percentage of the cost of acquiring a Server goes towards ameliorating the risks of failure, the possibility of significant 'down-time' is always there. A regularly monitored backup system, RAID array and an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) should be considered as a bare minimum, but even then outages of various kinds can and do happen.

3. Transition

The process of transition from a non-Server network to a Server-based one can be troublesome and is certain to involve disruption to computer users as well as changes in the way they work. This is especially the case with a Windows based Server, as the relationship between PC's and Servers in a Windows environment revolves around a user account which will be different from the one you currently use.

At minimum this entails moving desktop settings as well as files, favourites and possibly email to the new account and may even involve reinstalling or reconfiguring printers, antivirus software and other programs too. When planning for a new Server then, it is important to itemise the features and software you will need to have in this new environment.

The disruption caused to your staff and other users is best minimised by keeping them informed on how things may change. This can be quite time consuming and needs someone within your organisation with some IT knowledge to handle it successfully.

4. Quality of support

Isolating the cause of a given issue is one of the most difficult aspects of ICT support. When a member of staff cannot get email for example, are they doing something wrong? Is there something wrong with their PC? Is there a network problem? Is it a problem with the Server? Perhaps the ISP is at fault? Or even the hosting company?

Adding a Server to your network adds layers of complexity and is certain to confuse these issues. It is vital then that you have access to good quality, comprehensive and knowledgeable ICT support. The supplier should be capable of diagnosing and resolving issues at any of these levels to avoid the nightmare of 'buck-passing' between different companies. Such support can be expensive and fraught with grey areas where responsibility is unclear. Make sure you read the contract!

Prerequisites

Often, introducing a Server reveals a host of other issues that need to be rectified first. Before you start consulting suppliers then, have a look at the following checklist and be prepared to account for any changes as part of your Server budgeting:

Networked computers:

Your computers need to be networked to join the Server. Networking cabling (CAT5 or CAT6) should be in place and a spare network point available in a suitable location for the Server. Wireless networking (WiFi) is not recommended for Server environments.

Fast Internet Connection with Router/Firewall:

Broadband (preferably with a fixed IP address) is essential both for Server updates and remote maintenance. Similarly, the internet connection needs to be protected by a suitable router/firewall.

Physical space:

Servers are usually larger than PC's and generate more noise and heat. A clean, dust-free environment is essential for the location of your Server too. You will need to have some room (with power sockets!) set aside in a suitable location. Do bear in mind though that you may have to get to the Server to change backup media so don't plan to put it too far out of the way!

Up-to-date operating system & hardware:

In a Windows environment, a Server will be quite picky about which operating systems it will deal with. Windows 2000 or Windows XP Pro are at the time of writing the best operating systems for a Server environment. Others may work to some degree, but do not expect the same level of control or functionality.

Hardware should be of a reasonable specification - PC's bought in the last 3 years should be fine. In cases where these specifications are not met, upgrades may be possible although the price of PC's is relatively low these days and it is always going to be cheaper in labour terms to join a new PC to a Server rather than an old one.

Budget:

Really depends on what functions you want the Server for, as well as your level of preparedness for the Server in terms of the items above. Assuming that no upgrades, cabling or preparation work in the Server room is needed, a typical price for a Server project for a 10 PC organisation is around £5K, with maintenance fees on top. For each extra PC a useful guideline is 2-3 hours of your suppliers' time. This is not necessarily because it will take 3 hours on every computer, but this gives a benchmark of how complex the job is likely to be.

Implementation Plan:

Using the information above, as well as the template in this article on planning for a network  you should be able to draw up a plan that identifies why you want the Server and how you would like it to be configured. The Server specifications should be discussed with a supplier, not drawn up from the internet.

In addition to this elementary planning, you will need a schedule of users, usernames and passwords as well as the permissions they will need. Finally, a clear idea of any data transfer or software installations that need to be implemented will help your supplier meet project aims and budgets.

Forge a relationship with a supplier:

Random searches through the Yellow Pages or Google are not the best places to find a company you can build a relationship with. Asking around amongst work colleagues or consulting the ICT Hub Suppliers Directory may be better avenues to explore.

They key to success is building trust, understanding what level of service is being provided, and checking out references and staff professional qualifications and experience.  Here is a good template for a tender document for this kind of project.

Conclusion

'Getting a Server' is likely to involve a big change in your ICT system. In many cases it will be the first time that you will need to rely on external IT suppliers, so be sure that you chose a company that can provide advice and consultancy that you trust.

The key to success is to map out your requirements and be clear to yourself and  your users about the benefits you expect from it as well as the disruption involved in the transition period. Be sure too that you have planned for predictable risks like power failure and viruses and you have a properly managed backup system in your tender. Expect costs to be high but do question your suppliers to be sure that the proposed solution is appropriate for need.

Copyright © 2006 Morgan Killick

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


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