The overall way to select the best small business server is to consider the following: business needs, storage requirements, redundancy, any work-from-home needs, regulations, and future growth. Once these items are thought out, then picking a vendor and looking at costs make sense. But first, what server is needed is really a function of what the business needs.
Business requirements should drive what server is chosen. Simply picking a “good” server typically leads to either wasted funds or an inability to do key functions. As an example, a business that needs very little in terms of a “server” like file sharing and a locally hosted application could get by with any moderately powered desktop even without a true server operating system. Conversely, a business that needs virtual desktops, requires staff to work from home just like they’re at the office, and locally hosts complicated, multi-server applications, could easily purchase one or several servers, and would consider server virtualization. Next, we’ll look at some specific considerations.
First, review what programs your business currently uses, or plans to use over the next 5 years. Then consult with the software vendor to see what the recommended specifications are - this would be a good minimum point when looking at server hardware requirements. If programs that are used scale or can use more resources as staff increases, also look at future staffing plans. For instance, if staff doubles during the next 5 years, make sure the server hardware would support the additional users. Next, we’ll consider what user experience you want your staff to have.
Another often overlooked item is regulations. If your business operates in a sector that has regulations in place like healthcare or finance, ensure that your server and the technologies that are being planned will meet these requirements. As an example, HIPPA requires that users can be disabled and locked out of computer equipment if needed. This can be hard to do without a system in place for this, like Active Directory. When in doubt, thoroughly research these regulations and follow up with the regulatory agency or a vendor that specializes in reviewing businesses so that all key points can be met.
User experience can vary widely depending on if a business chooses to use Active Directory (AD) or not. With Active Directory, users can get a more standard experience if they swap machines often, possibly having their files, printers, and other settings move with them from computer to computer. In a Windows-only environment, or if a key business application relies on AD to function, this choice may still make sense. Many network administrators familiar with AD rely on Group Policy which would require Active Directory. Going with AD requires licenses of Windows Server, and requires the business to still plan how to handle mobile devices and non-Windows computers. Deciding to not use AD can free up a business to be able to use a non-Server operating system, possibly reducing deployment costs. However, not using AD can lead to additional support costs as the environment is typically less robust for the end-user.
Looking more at the physical server, a key point to consider is storage requirements. Review current storage needs, then project for growth over the next 5 years. As an example, a video production studio could need massive amounts of storage, and double this space every couple of years. A small business that only uses its server to run financial software may never have space concerns, even if using a workstation desktop as a server. When in doubt, double the current storage needs, as it’s always easier to have it and not need it, then spend a considerable amount of labor to add storage into a server later.
Choosing a server vendor is another key step. It’s always recommended to go with a major brand that has a good track record of warranty support. Choosing a good vendor to purchase from gives the business someone to reach out to if the product fails and can save time and money later. Related to the vendor is the server warranty - it’s always recommended to include at least a 3-year warranty, and better to go to 5 years if it’s at all expected that the server could be in use for that amount of time. Ensure the warranty covers what’s expected - for example, that the vendor covers parts and the labor to replace them, and in what required response time. Having a warranty that would require a business to send in the defective part, then wait weeks for a replacement part to be shipped back is rarely acceptable and shows where the details of the warranty truly matter. Upgrade this further if faster response times are needed (like a 4-hour parts warranty on a vital server).
Once a vendor is chosen, reviewing the items above should help with choosing from the many different options available. Servers such as “just” a powerful workstation to a multi-processor, multi-hard drive array are available, and prices vary widely between the two. Other key points to consider would be redundancy. It’s recommended that servers include 2 power supplies, if available - this allows for one power supply to fail, the server stays running, and can provide other benefits like the ability to unplug one if needed, without stopping key business applications.
At this point in the process, the server can be quoted. Depending on the features, this could be a sizeable amount of money. Remember that this is a multi-year investment, and especially if broken down into a monthly amount, should provide your business with a worthwhile benefit for the cost. If the value gained doesn't seem to justify the cost, check with other well-known vendors and get a quote for similar hardware. Review competing quotes very carefully as certain items can appear similar but have vastly different prices and performance capabilities. If multiple vendor quotes come back too high, review business needs again and make sure that the hardware being chosen isn’t too much for what’s truly needed.
After choosing a vendor and picking key hardware and software components, an often-overlooked point is the support. Consider the staff available and evaluate if there is the right amount of technical talent available. If not, review the warranty support and see if the vendor can assist with most issues like a part failure and if they also include other options like phone support. If these still seem insufficient, consider partnering with a local, well-reviewed vendor for technical support. Having a trustworthy technical support partner to call can mean the difference between panic and an issue resolved.
Additionally, whenever a business adds a server, it’s vital that they have a plan for downtime and data backups. Having a wonderfully new server that meets various business goals is great, but if it dies unexpectedly and all of that data is lost, it’s very harmful. Review with key business staff what to do if the server is offline for a period of time - start with an hour, then 1 day, then 1 week, and see what impact it would have. Then, based on the allowable outage window, make sure there is a recovery plan in place that would resolve the issue in the time required. For example, say a new server runs a business site taking customer payments and storing data on past payment history. Having this server down for a full day would be disruptive to customers, but really only those whose payments were due that day. Having it back up the following day could be sufficient, and the server warranty chosen should specify this resolution time. However, consider if the server failed in a manner such that the data was lost - customer payment history would be lost. It’s imperative that key data, wherever it is stored, is backed up and recoverable. Consider this cost when purchasing new hardware, and if possible, factor it into the capital expenditure as it’s just as essential as the server hardware itself.
There are many points that go into selecting a good small business server. Key items are business requirements, a reputable vendor, the right warranty, a support team, and backups. Following these steps should give businesses a well thought out plan for their next small business server.
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