A Buyer’s Guide to Small Business Servers

Many start-ups and small businesses store and share their business data across a handful of PCs. Although you can get by on this kind of ad-hoc system for a while, it’s inefficient, unwieldy, and unsecure. It’s a situation that only increases as a business grows.

The best way to maximize the availability and security of your business data is to consolidate it onto a server where you can centrally manage and protect. While buying a first server is more involved than buying a PC, a smartphone, or a tablet, it’s less intimidating if you keep some basic information in mind during the process.    

Here are some important things to consider when choosing a small business server.

Small Business Server Type: Network Attached Storage (NAS) or Application Server

The first choice you’ll have to make is between a NAS server and a more conventional application server. NAS servers, such as the LaCie 2big NAS, are specialized devices that provide shared access to files and folders, as well as other network resources such as printers. Application servers, such as HP’s MicroServer Gen8  share folders and printers too, but they use a full-fledged server operating system that can run myriad types of software and typically provides a broader repertoire of features.

A big advantage to NAS servers is that they’re relatively inexpensive. Another is that they’re usually simple enough that non-technical people can handle setup and management chores, such as configuring user/group accounts, shared folders, access permissions, etc. However, since NAS servers run proprietary operating systems (typically a compact and customized version of Linux), they won’t necessarily run the software your business needs.

Here’s a case in point. You can store company QuickBooks files on a NAS server and share them with multiple users. But if you want to operate the program in its multi-user mode (i.e. multiple people connected at the same time) you have to install QuickBooks Database Server Manager on the same system as the company files, and you can’t install QuickBooks on a NAS server.

This is not to say that NAS servers can’t run programs—many NAS vendors offer custom applications to extend the capabilities of their products, particularly on higher-end models. For example, LenovoEMC’s px2-300d doubles as an excellent platform for video surveillance. But by and large, your options are limited to what the vendor makes available.

If you choose an application server, you can install QuickBooks or any other application you want—as long as it’s available for the operating system (OS) you choose. Windows is naturally quite common, but so are various flavors of Linux. The presence of a full server OS tends to provide more sophisticated features and better integration with your other networked computers. For example, Windows Server Essentials 2012 R2 can automatically perform complete system backups of each PC on your network. Application servers also have the cost-saving benefit of being able to run virtual servers (multiple servers simultaneously on a single piece of hardware).

However, application servers almost always cost more than NAS servers (beefier hardware specs and the server OS software both push up the price tag), and they may not be quite simple enough for non-techies to manage. Also, particularly in the case of Windows, the small business-centric versions can impose seemingly arbitrary licensing limitations. Case in point: the aforementioned Windows Server Essentials 2012 R2 restricts the number of user accounts to 25; most NAS servers don’t have such restrictions. 

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