Q: 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
A: When it comes to making decisions about your business network, asking 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 work station 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 to take 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.
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 running very slowly, you would likely benefit from a dedicated server.
In most small businesses with peer-to-peer networks, all of the mission-critical data the company relies on are scattered across many computers. This makes your backup strategy very complicated. Usually, the system has many points of failure (mainly humans!) not to mention security issues because you can’t easily control who sees what files. A dedicated server gives you the opportunity to solve those problems.
In the same scenario, if the computer that you use every day also is 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 the number of users who 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 it’s time for a server, but generally once you get past three to four 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 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 www.datadoctors.com/downtime for anyone who 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 heard a slick sales presentation. Check with other business owners, especially those in the same industry as you, to learn from their mistakes when they installed their first server. Business networking groups, chamber events or just getting know the other businesses around you are great ways to get info from sources that has no stake in your decision.
Once you feel you have a good handle on what you want to accomplish 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.