Your First Server — Finally

By Drew Robb | Posted January 05, 2005

Some small business networks bear a striking resemblance to Rube Goldberg's wacky drawings. His cartoons depicted elaborate and ridiculous devices to accomplish the most mundane tasks. Just as Goldberg's work satirized the use of technology to achieve maximum effort and minimal results, many small businesses may be doubling their workloads and tripling their costs by not admitting the need for — and then buying — a server.

For example, lots of small businesses still use e-mail addresses from AOL.com, Hotmail.com or Earthlink.net. You find the famous "sneakernet" where the network is actually an individual walking the office floppy down the hall to another employee. Lots of SMBs jam dozens of employees onto one broadband Internet connection using devices such as hubs and routers.

Sooner or later it hits you — these network "contraptions" cost you money by slowing down system performance and tying up man-hours. Even worse, you look unprofessional to current and potential clientele.

"The signs that you need to buy your first server are obvious," said Sabine Waterkamp, president of ACS LA Inc., a Burbank, Calif.-based company that specializes in providing IT services for businesses with five to 150 employees.

"Typically you'll see poor data security, valuable data getting lost or deleted and no efficient way to backup vital data," she said. "Other signs include communications dispersed across multiple PC's, desks, drawers and faxes; systems that can't talk to each other and too much photocopying going on."

The first step to buying your very first server is recognizing the need. Once you've done that, you need to understand the various types of servers available, what you want to do with yours and what applications you want to run. As you'll see below, servers perform a wide range of different functions.

Are You Being Served?
A File/Print Server helps employees share printers and files. This cuts the cost of ink cartridges significantly and lets you dedicate a higher-quality laser printer — that everyone can access — for important documents intended for customers and prospects. You can then route regular printing to an ink jet or other less-expensive printer.

In addition, you store all the company files on file server instead of individual desktops. This centrally located data makes backup easier, and it also simplifies finding files when you need them — no more going from desktop to desktop searching through a maze of folders to find a price quote or client presentation.

A Mail Server centralizes office e-mail. Instead of using a third party provider, or worse, having everyone on @hotmail.com addresses, you handle e-mail internally. The mail server acts like the post office: storing incoming e-mail for distribution to employees; relaying mail externally; removing electronic threats like viruses and spam before they get to the desktop; centralizing the sending/receiving of faxes; managing all your e-mail addresses; and simplifying the task of adding/subtracting e-mail accounts.

A mail server isn't right for all small businesses, however, and you should consider this option carefully. For most SMBs, it's often easier and cheaper to have an external provider host your e-mail needs.

"You need lots of storage for e-mail, and this can end up costing a small business a lot more than it bargained for," said Hamid Azar, principle of Azar PC, a Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based company that installs and maintains small-business networks in Southern California. "A hosting company can give you as many company specific e-mail addresses as you need — joe@mycompanyname.com, for example — and supply all the security and spam-blocking features you need."

Top Ten Reasons It's Time to Buy A Server
10. Staff submits purchase orders for new shoes because they
spend so much time walking the halls with floppy disks.
9. Worker compensation claims soar due to accidents related
to repeatedly bending down to insert floppies.
8. It's faster to print e-mail and transport it by hand to the other
side of the building than to wait for it to arrive via the Internet.
7. You receive so much spam that you don't even use e-mail to
communicate anymore.
6. A U.S. Postal Service sales rep convinced you that snail mail
may actually be quicker and more efficient than e-mail.
5. E-mail traffic to your AOL address increases to the point where your
customers think they are really doing business with America Online.
4. Staff line up each day to access the office database.
3. Security is so bad that you realize that your competitors know
more about your company than you do.
2. You issue a memo telling staff that the company's official
backup policy consists of trying really hard to remember
whatever information customers have verbally told you.
1. With one printer per PC, you realize that your ink bill for the past
year represents half of HP's annual profit.

An Application Server runs specific software programs. If your company uses accounting software or important business software, it really needs to be on a server. That way, all of the employees (or as many as is appropriate) in your organization can access it. By running the software on its own server, you ensure that performance remains high, and that it doesn't adversely impact productivity for you or your employees.

A Database Server hosts a database and allows multiple employees to access it simultaneously. Again, having a database on a server makes sure that the database performs at its best and won't bog down as more people sign on to use it.

A Web Server supports online access and e-commerce. It provides Internet access to your internal employees, and you can host your own Web site to make sure that your audience always has access.

While the average mid-sized company might have one of each (or more) of these different servers, small businesses are typically better off starting with a single, multi-tasking server — one that performs many of the above-mentioned tasks. The options in this category consist of Novell Small Business Suite, Linux, Apple Xserve or Microsoft Small Business Server 2003.

"I wouldn't recommend Linux as your first server, since it demands more technical know-how than most small businesses typically have," said Waterkamp. "Novell is quite good, but Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 contains most everything that you need."

Microsoft Small Business Server
Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003 (SBS) offers all of the above server functions and more in one box for up to 75 people. Microsoft has gone out of its way to make it very easy to use and to pack it full of useful functions.

For example, SBS makes it easy to use mobile technology at the office. Employees who use handhelds can simply place their device in a cradle at their desktop to synchronize the data in it with the company network. Mobile employees can access the system while sitting at home or while on the road.

SBS Standard Edition costs $599 and the Premium Edition sells for $1,499. Standard comes with Windows Server 2003, Exchange Server 2003 (mail server), Outlook and functions for document collaboration.

Premium gives you everything in Standard as well as a sturdier database (SQL Server 2000 technology) to run your more demanding line-of-business applications. Internet Security and Acceleration Server add heightened security and performance to the Internet experience, and FrontPage 2003 lets you create Web pages. When you add up the individual cost of each of the above items, it dwarfs the total price of either edition.

Caveat Emptor
Be warned, though, that SBS comes with a few added costs. Any machine (PC, printer, fax machine etc.) connected to the network that accesses the server must have its own client access license (CAL). The SBS purchase price includes five CALs. After that, it'll cost you just under $500 per five-CAL pack.

The most economical way to purchase SBS is preinstalled on original equipment manufacturer (OEM) hardware — available from Dell , HP, or Gateway, for example. These companies practically give away the hardware and even offer a big discount on the SBS pricing we listed above.

How Much IT is Enough IT?
Azar believes that many small businesses can purchase SBS and install it on their own. "If you have an IT guy, you can buy a server and SBS from anywhere and install it easily," he said.

If you go to the various sites that offer inexpensive servers/SBS packages and click on servers and small business, however, you may be put off by the complexity. It takes a knowledgeable IT professional to know what options you really do need, what you don't need and to order accordingly. These sites offer so many permutations, that it's hard to determine what's right for your company.

So if you don't have a smart IT guy, or if the one you have is likely to order the biggest, most expensive system regardless of need, it may be best to work through a systems integrator or consultant.

"Although SBS is simpler than ever, it's best to go to a systems integrator and ask them for an end-to-end quote that includes the hardware, software, installation, configuration and maintenance," said Waterkamp. "Have someone in your office who can take care of the simple maintenance tasks, and call on an external source when problems crop up."

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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