Server basics

A server centrally manages resources that are used by multiple users in a network.It's much more powerful than a desktop PC, and it serves a very different purpose.

Servers are usually dedicated, meaning that they perform no other tasks besides their server tasks. Servers can be used to store files, manage print queues, host the entire company's email, as well as a bunch of other specialized tasks depending on your needs.

Using a server is advantageous because one person's computer doesn't need to be bogged down by people repeatedly accessing their hard drive. Also, storing the most important data on one server makes regular data backup that much easier.

Desktop vs. server

Although you may be tempted to use a regular desktop PC as a server, this is never a good idea. While the two may look the same, they're quite different animals.

So what's the difference? And what's ideal?

Speed

A server uses a faster processor - sometimes even more than one -- than your average desktop computer. These days, most servers are equipped with at least a Pentium III chip -- a Pentium III Xeon is preferable.

Even if you start off with just one processor, keep your company's growth in mind. If you expect any increase in staff, make sure the server has an additional slot to pop another processor in when the need arises. Currently, servers can old anywhere from 2-8 processors.

Also, you want to get the most cache for your cash. The less cache your processor has, the harder it has to work to maintain optimum speed. Having at least 512k will ensure that you're getting the best performance you can.

Memory

Servers have mega-amounts of RAM, and then room for some more. Starting off with 256 megabytes is perfectly reasonable. But make sure you have room to grow -- you may want space for as much as a few gigabytes of RAM ultimately.

Hard drive

Unlike a regular computer, a server's hard drive will be accessed constantly, so it's got to be top of the line. And you r disk space should be planned well based on what applications you'll be running. For the best, look for no less than 9 GB and a 10,000 rpm (revolutions per minute) access speed.

And it can't hurt to go higher -- for many firms, purchasing servers with as many as 18 GB of hard drive space is becoming routine.

Hard drives should also be hot-swappable, meaning they can be removed while the computer is still running so there's no downtime.

Power and cooling

Normal desktop power supply isn't designed to handle the multiple hard drives typically found in a server. Plus, more hard drives means more activity within the server. And that can get hot.

Servers also typically have a more powerful cooling system.. Unlike most desktops, servers also have software that monitors how cool the machine is kept.

Redundancy

Servers provide the best insurance when they're redundant -- not only with power but with storage. While connecting a backup drive is essential to providing you with an end-of-day data backup, it's best to set your computers up in what's known as a RAID array to afford you real-time protection throughout the day.

The most standard of these is a RAID 5 system, which means the data is spanned over all the disks in the array. The advantage of this system is that if one drive fails, you lose no data (although the disk should be replaced immediately, because failure of another drive would cause loss of data).

Growth considerations

Determining how many and what size servers you need depends completely on the task(s) that it will be asked to perform, and how complex those tasks are. Factors such as the amount of RAM, disk space, number of users, and number of processors the tasks will require will affect the size server you need.

While it can be fine for one server to handle multiple tasks for a small office, you may need to split these tasks among multiple servers as the load increases. If you're expecting to add more employees, computers or Net traffic over the next two or three years, choose a scaleable machine can easily handle additional hard disks, memory or processors.

There are some basic rules of thumb for designing your server, which usually depend on the software you're using. Check the software vendors' web sites for the latest specifications.

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