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In a small business, the standard peer-to-peer networking model used in homes and very small offices eventually becomes insufficient. Eventually user demands—such as access to shared storage drives and printers—increases beyond what a router and endpoints can do. So, how do you know when you should introduce a server into your small office network? If any of the following scenarios sound familiar to you, it is time to think about deploying dedicated server hardware on premises.

But first, what is a dedicated server by definition?

When you introduce a dedicated server to a network setup, computers will communicate with the server instead of directly with each other. A dedicated server accepts and fulfills the requests of client computers on the network. What do we mean by requests? Requests can be access to a specific file or application, instructions to the printer, or access to the Internet. Servers “serve” client computers data that users request. A dedicated server has hardware designed precisely for this functionality, so performance tends to improve and becomes more reliable.

You Need a Dedicated Server When…

Managing e-mail for an increasing number of people. Many small businesses start out using free cloud-hosted e-mail services. For example, Microsoft Office 365 Business Premium works great for keeping a small workforce connected and in sync with their messaging. You can scale up the ranks in Office 365 to Enterprise licensing and always have adequate user inboxes. It works, but as your business grows you will want a dedicated Exchange server because it adds very useful manageability features.

Tasks like enabling a remote archive require an on-premises Exchange server is one example. After a business grows past a handful of seats, Microsoft recommends a hybrid set up where businesses use Office 365 in tandem with their own server. Should you migrate e-mail entirely in-house, an Exchange server eliminates your reliance on Web-based e-mail clients, and allows you to easily add in-boxes as your office expands. You can say goodbye to imposed e-mail file size and capacity limits and set your own.

Multiple users need to access the same data. Even small businesses need a centralized data storage location. Cloud hosting is wonderful as well, but after a certain point, cloud hosting costs can get unwieldy if you’re not mindful of pricing and SLAs. Cloud storage comes with its risks, and if Internet goes down locally it disrupts your access to cloud data.

When a business is very small, network attached storage devices suffice for file sharing. After growing past a dozen seats, a business is ready for a real domain controller–hardware that runs Windows Server software, Active Directory, and file and print services. Things that make managing user permissions a whole lot easier for your business. An entry-level domain controller doesn’t need enterprise specifications, but it should be able to scale up when you need it. You want to have DIMM slots to add server memory, and PCIe x 16 slot to add a RAID controller. You won’t get that with a NAS.

You Start to Use Applications that Require a Secure Database. A database stores information that can be accessed and updated by programs. For instance, if you have multiple POS stations or employee time clocks, the database houses the files containing information about inventory, order history, and punch-in times. Planning on implementing QuickBooks? A database stores your essential information securely, limiting access. Storing important data on an unsecure storage solution like a USB drive introduces risk into your systems.

Managing shared resources across the workspace. Some examples of shared resources include printers, optical disc drives, and applications. Servers can take over the print sharing duties of a router and also allow for the use of older unsupported printers. In a peer-to-peer network, one common problem with sharing a connected resource is drive mapping. Storage drives are assigned letters when connected, such as C: for the primary hard drive, D:, E:, and etc. for additional drives. While a drive connected to one computer can be shared with the network, it may have a different drive letter for the other computers. A server can assign a drive letter shared by every client computer.

Centralized control over network security management. In a peer-to-peer network configuration, installing security software on every machine offers excellent protection. In an environment of 10+ seats, going to every computer and running an installer takes up quite a bit of time. A single Windows Server security application makes network-wide security management much easier. From a single machine, you can run virus scans, manage spam filters, and install programs across the network.

One computer to do the job of multiple systems. A server can assume the functions of some devices, such as the router, the NAS device, backup storage drive, and firewall. With a server, you can virtualize the functions of multiple devices to run simultaneously on the same machine. Some server tasks barely tax the hardware so running multiple physical systems can be a waste of space and energy when a single server can suffice.

If you experience the scenarios above, consider a dedicated server. For a first server, consider a tower system as they can pack plenty of hardware into a compact form factor. Once you outgrow the needs of a single tower, you may want to invest in rackmount server hardware and it allows for increased expansion.

Additional Resources:

Is your SMB still utilizing a peer-to-peer network? If so, let us know in the comments why you haven’t yet introduced a server into your network.

Do I Need a Dedicated Server? 6 Reasons You Do - HardBoiled
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Do I Need a Dedicated Server? 6 Reasons You Do - HardBoiled
Not sure if you need a dedicated server? We have a list of scenarios that would be better addressed by introducing server hardware into the network.
Wallace Chu

Author Wallace Chu

A self-professed tech hipster that loves computers and music. Uses an iPhone ironically.

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