How to choose a server for your small business

So, your business has grown large enough that you need your first server. Congratulations! Acquiring a server is a big decision, so some trepidation is understandable. This guide will explain the basic principles of the technology, help you decide which class of server will best fit your needs, and give you some ballpark pricing, so you don’t overspend or acquire a product that’s insufficient for your needs.

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How does virtualisation make more efficient use of your IT resources? Servers are designed to accommodate peak - versus average - loads, so they’re underutilised most of the time. In fact, the typical server utilises only between 5-15% of its overall resources. Running several virtual machines on one physical server uses those resources more efficiently, boosting utilisation to between 60-80%. Instead of operating one physical server for email, one for database management, one for your intranet, and yet another for CRM, you can run all of those applications on several virtual machines running on the same physical hardware.

Virtualisation eliminates the need for additional physical servers, and the tech-support overhead, power, cooling, backup, physical space, and other requirements that go along with them. What’s more, you can deploy a new virtual server in a few minutes.

Now let's examine the various server options on today’s market, starting with the most basic.

Server options

Windows Home Server 2011

As you can tell by the product’s name, Microsoft’s Windows Home Server 2011 is aimed squarely at the consumer market. It’s designed for ease of use and has strong media-handling capabilities, including real-time transcoding and integration with Windows Media Center. But the operating system is built on the same code base as Microsoft’s very strong business-oriented server OS, Windows Server 2008 R2, and it could be good for your business if you don’t need to support more than 10 PC clients.

Windows Home Server machines are designed to operate "headless," meaning you don’t need a monitor, mouse, or keyboard to manage them. Instead you use the Remote Desktop Connection feature in Windows to connect to the server over your network. A server running Windows Home Server 2011 won't be capable of virtualisation, but it is a very inexpensive file-sharing and backup option, and it does support secure remote access. LaCie’s 5big Office is one good example of a Windows Home Server machine tailored for small business. It costs just $599 and includes a single 2TB drive, 2GB of RAM, and a gigabit ethernet interface. It offers four additional drive bays for expansion, and it supports RAID 0, 1, 5, and 5+spare.

Microsoft is expected to release Windows Server 8 between the third quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013 (you can download a beta version now). The company is building the new OS on the same code base as Windows 8, and the product places considerable emphasis on cloud computing and virtualisation. Microsoft has declined to say whether it will release a consumer version of Windows Server 8 or if Windows Home Server 2011 will be the end of the line for its consumer-oriented server OS strategy.

Network-attached storage

NAS is a simple and inexpensive server infrastructure; in that respect, it’s similar to Windows Home Server. But NAS can deliver plenty of bang for the buck to businesses with modest server requirements. A NAS arrangement can be as simple as plugging a USB hard drive into a USB-equipped router, but most small businesses will need something more robust. A high-end NAS can rival a full-blown server, including support for virtualisation.

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