A Buyer’s Guide to Small Business Servers

Wednesday Feb 5th 2014 by Joseph Moran

If you own a small business, you should almost certainly have a server. Here are some important things to consider before choosing one.

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. 

Small Business Server Storage Capacity and Redundancy

The primary purpose of any server—NAS or application—is to store, share, and protect files. That makes the amount of storage capacity and type of redundancy it offers major considerations. Any respectable small business server uses at least two hard drives configured via RAID (levels 1, 10, 5 to ensure against data loss. Many servers offer four drives, sometimes six, and some NAS vendors split the difference and offer five drives on certain models.

Obviously, the greater the number of drives a small business server supports, the more storage capacity will provide. SATA drives currently max out at 4 TB; so in a four-drive server, that translates into a maximum capacity of 16 TB. But it’s not quite that simple, because you don’t actually get to use it all that storage in a RAID setup. (In RAID 0 you do, but it’s a terrible choice for a server because it not only doesn’t provide any redundancy; it actually leaves your data more vulnerable than if it were on a single disk.)

When determining how much usable storage a server will yield, bear in mind that with RAID 1 you’ll lose 50 percent of the raw storage capacity, because the contents of each drive is mirrored to another identical drive. RAID 10 works much the same way, except that it mirrors pairs of drives rather than single ones.  Ergo, RAID 1 is the only option for two-drive servers, while RAID 10 is more appropriate for those with four drives.

RAID 5, which requires a minimum of three drives, uses 1/x of the total capacity (where x is the number of drives) to store its redundancy data across all drives. Therefore, RAID 5 costs you 33 percent of your total storage capacity with three drives (1/3) or 25 percent with four (1/4).

As you can see, RAID 5 provides more cost-effective data protection. But it also takes longer to recover from a drive failure, since the replacement drive must be rebuilt using data stored on the remaining drives (and during this process, server performance will suffer).

Most, but not all, servers support hot-plugging. In the event of a drive failure, hot-plugging lets you remove and replace drives without having to shut down the server first. This is important if you can’t afford even a few minutes of down time during the business day.

Determining how much storage your server will need can be a challenge, but a business that deals with videos and high resolution photos will naturally eat through storage a lot faster than one that deals primarily in smaller file types such as documents and spreadsheets. Note: always overestimate your storage needs to the extent that your budget permits. This allows for future growth.

As a general rule, a smaller number of larger drives, while more expensive, makes future expansion easier. In a four drive-capable server configured with RAID 5, for example, four 2 TB drives and three 3 TB drives give you same 6TB of usable storage, but the latter configuration gives you the option to add a fourth  3 TB drive later and easily bump your capacity up to 9 TB.

Small Business Server: Remote Access and Management

Just because you’ve chosen an on-premises server rather than hosting your files in the cloud doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice accessing your data from outside of the office. Just about any server will provide some form of remote access, but capabilities and user-friendliness can vary considerably. Unfortunately, comparing remote access features between servers isn’t quite as straightforward as comparing more concrete specs such as storage capacity, so pay extra attention to how a server handles remote access if it will be an important requirement for your small business.

One question to ask is whether a server requires an intermediary (run either by the equipment vendor or a third-party) to facilitate remote access. Such services can make remote access work through a firewall with little-to-no configuration effort, but they also leave you at the mercy of that service (if it’s down, so is access to your data). Also, is the service free or does it carry an additional monthly or annual charge?

Remote access to server files via a Web browser is the minimum standard, but clunky interfaces can often make this option less than ideal for working on the road (especially if you frequently work with multiple files, or create and edit files more often than simply reading them). Alternative remote access options can provide better integration with remote employees’ PCs or mobile devices.

One good example is the Personal Cloud feature (PDF link) found on LenovoEMC NAS devices (including the aforementioned px2-300d). Another is the Remote Web Access feature of Windows Server 2012 Essentials R2 (as found on the WD Sentinel DS6100, among others) which has a touch-optimized UI for access from smartphones and tablets and offers users not just remote access to files and folders, but remote control of PCs.

So there you have it. When considering adding a server to your small business, answer the following questions:

  1. Do I need this server to run applications, or just to store data?
  2. Does this server have ample and/or easily expandable storage capacity?
  3. Does this server make remote access to data simple or cumbersome?

Armed with the answers to these questions, you'll choose a server that will help your business as it grows for years to come.

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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