Servers give businesses a competitive edge

Such computers give employees easy access to common applications, shared folders and information necessary to keep ahead of competitors.

There comes a time in the life of a small business when accessing files created by colleagues becomes a problem. That usually happens when headcount increases to the extent that it gets to be tiresome to create and maintain shared folders that let one worker access another's hard disk over the LAN.

That's when you'll start to contemplate buying a server--a computer that stores all of the data for your business and connects to your network so everyone can access the files and information it contains.

Servers are a great place to run applications that everyone in your business uses. An obvious example of such an application is an email server like Microsoft Exchange, which when it runs on a server, provides your whole team with access to email and is a single store of all your email data.

Another application that works well on a server is a database.

Before buying a server, the first decision to make is whether you really need a one. That's because servers are made from more or less the same components as PCs, which means a PC can in theory do the same job as a server. Servers, however, tend to be more robust than PCs and are designed with stronger and longer-lasting components so that they can run non-stop. Server power supplies, for example, are longer-lasting than their cousins used in PCs.

Dedicated servers may also include extras like a spare network card so that if one fails, the server does not drop off your LAN. Many are even designed to survive one-off events like mild earthquakes.

Servers will also include more slots for hard disks, to give you more storage. Most will offer extra slots for RAM, and can use the fastest RAM around--a useful feature because more memory means your server will be able to handle many simultaneous connections with ease.

If you are a very small office and can do without that kind of reliability, then a newish PC packed full of RAM and a recent processor may do the job of a server. Very small offices could also consider a small network attached storage (NAS) device as a central storage, if central storage is all that's needed.

But the clincher for your decision to buy a dedicated server--one that runs a dedicated server operating system like Windows Small Business Server--is that it gives your business plenty of flexibility and power.

A server can allow you to access your files remotely, includes management facilities well beyond those in a PC or NAS, offers basic security tools like anti-tampering locks and will grow with your business better than competing solutions.

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