When is it time for my business to get a Server?


I have been operating my small business on a handful of computers that all talk to each other, but several associates have mentioned that I should consider installing a server. How do I evaluate whether I really need a server or not?

- Garrett


This question was answered on July 20, 2007. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.

When it comes to making decisions about your business network, the “what do I need from my network” question will generally help to clarify whether you would benefit from installing a “dedicated” server Anything that “serves” files or other resources to others can be considered a server (file server, print server, fax server, etc.) but a dedicated server is dedicated to the specific task of serving users on the network In other words, if you have a computer that you use on your desk, but others can access certain files from your computer, then your computer is acting as a workstation and a file server This is known as a peer-to-peer network Moving from a peer-to-peer network to a dedicated server network should not be taken lightly nor should it be put off if there are compelling reasons for taking the plunge The most common reasons for installing a dedicated server include better security, consolidation of critical data, increased network performance, overall network/user management or the purchase of a new software package that requires one (for performance reasons) If you find that you are constantly scrambling to find a file that could be saved on any number of local desktop computers or you have constant issues with computers disconnecting from one another or your networked software applications (accounting, database, etc.) are beginning to run very slow, you would likely benefit greatly from a dedicated server In most small businesses that have peer-to-peer networks, all of the mission critical data that the company relies upon is scattered across many computers This makes your backup strategy very complicated and usually has many points of failure (mainly humans!) not to mention a bit of a security issue since you can’t easily control who sees what files A dedicated server gives you the opportunity to solve both of these problems In the same scenario, if the computer that you use every day is also hosting the accounting package for the rest of the network, the performance of the program to everyone else will suffer If you can identify performance issues or if you know that the number of users that will be using your primary programs is going to increase, a dedicated server may be just what the doctor ordered There is no “formula” per se that you can run to figure out whether its time for a server, but generally once you get past 3 to 4 concurrent users of any shared applications you should start the discovery process for adding a dedicated server Being proactive with your company’s technology can have a huge impact on productivity, but most small businesses are reactive and wait until they have a significant issue (or a network crash that exposes a weakness) to make a change Unless you have calculated what downtime costs you, it’s hard to see the actual cost in productivity when your network runs slow or shuts down (I’ve posted a simple calculator at http://www.datadoctors.com/services/business/downtime.cfm for anyone that wants to evaluate their own business.) In the evolution of a small business, installing a dedicated server can often serve as a platform for launching the business into a new growth phase or to get a growth spurt under control The most important thing to do when you are faced with this question is to not rush into the decision just because you got a slick sales presentation on how it will change your life Check with other business owners, especially those in the same industry as you, to learn from their mistakes about when they installed their first server Business networking groups, chamber events or getting know the other businesses around you are a great way to get info from a source that has no stake in your decision Once you feel like you have a good handle on what you want to accomplish (and don’t worry about all of the technology, just focus on the business processes that you want to improve) you can proceed to evaluating technology that will provide you with the solutions Never install technology for the sake of having it…make sure you know what business problem it is going to solve or don’t buy it.

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Posted by Ken of Data Doctors on July 20, 2007