5 things to know before buying a server If you run a small business, this isn't news to you: Most small businesses are strapped for cash. In growing the business, anything but an absolute necessity often gets pushed to the bottom of the list. But some purchases can actually help save time and money. Such is the case of a specialized computer and software solution called a server. A server makes file sharing easier, security tighter and backups easier. It's an investment that pays off well over time. If you have aspirations of growing your business, you will want to invest in one. But before you do so, consider these five points. 1. Do your homework on when you need one. Ask a tech consultant when to buy a server and you might hear, "As soon as you have two computers." If only it were that simple. I knew I needed a server to manage my network — it was becoming too difficult to share information. At the time, I was using a peer-to-peer network. Each computer communicated with the others through a hub. That was fine for sharing an Internet connection and transferring files. But productivity came to a squelching halt when more than one person needed access to the same file. It got very old very quickly asking someone down the hall to close our database so that I could update it. A server is designed to allow many users access at one time without any decrease in performance. It made a big difference for me. How do you know it's time to purchase a server? Evaluate your setup. Are there snags in your workflow? Do two or more people use the same database? Would operations slow down or stop, even for a small amount of time, if one computer were to crash? Do you or your employees need access to e-mail and files on the road? 2. Learn how to maximize the advantages of having a server. There are two huge advantages to integrating a server into your network — faster workflow and tighter security. By centralizing databases and files, it's easier to manage exchange and share information between workstations. As an example to illustrate this, let's look at an insurance company with three claims adjusters. Without a server, each adjuster would be responsible for specific claims. Adjuster 1 would handle last names beginning with A-I; adjuster 2, J-Q; and adjuster 3, R-Z. That's inefficient if adjuster 2 is bogged down with claims, and adjusters 1 and 3 have light workloads. And when adjuster 2 goes on vacation, 1 and 3 will have to run to adjuster 2's desk constantly to look up information. A server and shared database eliminates all of this. Any of the three adjusters would be able to assist any client. Also: The server can be the primary backup point. Instead of burning data files on disks, you can quickly move them across the network. You can host your e-mail. That allows you to have your own domain and unique e-mail addresses. An e-mail address of firstname.lastname@example.org is more professional than email@example.com. Also, most e-mail software allows you to maintain network-wide address books, mailing lists and calendars. You gain more control over all that annoying spam. An employee who opens an infected attachment could easily infect all of your computers. But when hosting your own e-mail, you can filter it so that the good stuff comes in and most of the bad stays out. You gain a higher level of security. By requiring computer users to log in and authenticate on a domain, the server dictates who has access to what. You can deploy new software applications more easily through a network. You also can standardize your applications and versions, and make better use of the software you have. 3. Recognize the costs involved. All these advantages come at a price. Purchasing a server (the word refers to both hardware and software) is an investment, but not an inexpensive one. An entry-level server computer costs $300 to $1,000. That gets you one processor and minimum memory. Entry-level servers should be fine for most organizations with 10 or fewer employees. Businesses with more employees should consider a general purpose server. Those start at $1,000 and can go as high as $10,000. Unlike desktop PCs, most servers do not come with an operating system... This allows up to five users to log in and access the server. If you have more employees, you'll need more licenses. You'll probably need a consultant, too, if you don't have a network administrator. Installation and troubleshooting can be complex. Once you're up and running, though, you may be able to manage the server in-house. Windows Small Business Server 2003 is relatively easy. Someone within your company with computer knowledge and interest should be able to handle day-to-day operations. In addition, classes are offered around the country. 4. Get the right software. A desktop PC can act as a server with the proper software. However, this usually isn't a good solution. Most servers are built for reliability. They're workhorses, designed to run 24 hours a day. They don't have cases that light up and $500 video cards. You won't be using them to play games and DVDs. They generally offer redundancy — hard drives, power supplies and fans. If something fails, it can often be replaced without taking the server down. For example, most have multiple hard drives in a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) configuration. This allows you to store the same information on different hard drives. If one hard drive fails, another continues to run. Large corporations have dedicated servers. Individual servers perform a single action — Web hosting, e-mail, database management, and so on. This would be overkill for many small companies. Most server operating systems have a small-business version, which allows a single server to perform many functions. For example, Windows Small Business Server 2003 Premium Edition acts as a printer, file, e-mail, Web and relational database server. There are other server operating systems as well — Linux, Macintosh, and Novell, for instance. When I built my new Web site, my consultant insisted on Linux. That's open-source software — it's low-cost or free, but there's not much technical support. If my Web server went down, I would have to call a consultant, schedule a visit, troubleshoot the problem and fix it. Meanwhile, my e-store and advertising would be down. No thanks. I stayed with Microsoft. I have been running Windows NT on my servers for years with few problems. When I've had a problem, I've picked up the phone and gotten a solution from Microsoft. I am planning to upgrade to Windows Server 2003, the Microsoft server operating system for larger networks. 5. Learn networking basics, and stay involved in the implementation. Even if you are completely clueless about networks and servers, force yourself to learn. I once hired a young man to take care of my network and servers for me. The network started crashing and Internet access was spotty on good days. One day, I found him sleeping in the server room. His head was resting on a pile of books on hacking. Realizing I didn't know any of the administrative passwords, I asked him to show me everything he had been doing. Then I showed him the door. Let this be a lesson to all. Even if your eyes glaze over when you hear words like net congestion, learn your networking basics (for free, you can download this guide to networking basics for small businesses). You don't have to understand the inner workings of everything. But you must know enough to ask pertinent questions. If you answered yes to any of these questions, it's time to talk to a consultant, IT partner or value-added reseller. They will evaluate your current and future needs and make implementation recommendations.