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Are You Being Served?

To serve, or not to serve . . .

OK, ditch the literary references.

"Should I have server?"

That's the $10,000 question.  Servers are wonderful things - powerful, capable, expensive.  Expensive to buy; expensive to configure; expensive to back up; expensive to maintain; surrounded by expensive power, environmental and network infrastructure.

There was a time when having a server, or a set of servers, was essential.  Large businesses had servers.  Small businesses had standalone computers.  The two didn't intersect.  Servers were so central to businesses that they had to be flawless - continuously available,  backing up while running, allowing hardware device replacement with no down time (hot swapping) and on and on.  A whole support industry grew up to support these complicated, powerful systems. 

The premise is/was: "You need to have a server, and therefore the server needs to have all these continuous availability features".

For most small businesses ("small" as defined by InterConnected Technologies: fewer than 20 computer users) the answer really is "No, you don't."  Yes, there are unique circumstances that dictate the presence of a server in a small business - usually an application requirement.  Usually NOT a functional requirement.

Why is that?  Well, simply put, the things servers offer, which are so essential to all businesses these days, and which only servers can provide to a business with, say, 500 users, are now available in other ways from other places.  

Why is that?  Well, simply put, the world has, in the lingo of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, moved on.  Things have changed.  Things that give enterprise power to non-enterprise users.

What things?  Well, to use the buzzword of today:  "The Cloud."

Those of us old enough to remember the 70's clearly (no jokes here) will remember the concept of a Service Bureau.  They were companies that offered computer services to other companies that didn't really want to run their own fancy data centers.  The Cloud is really just a reincarnation of that in the internet age.  The key difference is that anyone, anywhere can take advantage of cloud-based services easily and usually at remarkably low costs. 

Here's the logic chain that leads so many small businesses astray:

  1. You need a server.
  2. Since you need a server, the server has to be well configured, with all the bells and whistles to make it work flawlessly.
  3. Since you have a server that can do all sorts of things, you should use it to do those things.

The problem with that logic is the problem with so much otherwise-unflawed logic:  the premise is wrong.  If you reject the premise, the whole chain of logic becomes invalid.  It's not that the things servers can do aren't valuable to a small business; it's that there are other ways of obtaining that value that cost far less to acquire, implement and maintain than a traditional server. 

So it is for most small businesses.  With today's technology, most - dare I say the majority - of small businesses do not need a server, and so do not need the expense associated with buying, installing, configuring, running and maintaining a server. 

So, down to brass tacks:

Servers are single points of failure.  Keeping things moving smoothly requires the elimination of single points of failure, and/or bulletproofing those that remain such that the risk of failure is greatly reduced.  That's why servers are expensive - that bulletproofing.  If you don't need the server, you don't need the bulletproofing.

The functions provided to large business by servers are, in part, (going from the most practical to the most esoteric):

File services

Nearly everyone is familiar with the concept of using files that are on another computer.  Large businesses use file servers because it's easier overall to manage things when all the files used by hundreds of users are on a server.  With the advent of several file storage mechanisms, small business have numerous less expensive options to provide the same thing.

Backup services

This is really just a subset of File Services.  Backing things up from a server is easy to control, easy to maintain, easy to monitor.  It's also expensive.  Hardware and software to perform server backups cost well in excess of $1000 per server.  With the advent of more advanced client computer backup tools and services, centralized backup is largely no longer necessary for small businesses.

Print services

Servers can make it easy to have a collection of printers that are accessible/installable for everyone on a network.  With the ubiquity of network attached printers, these printer services are largely no longer necessary for small businesses. 

Exchange services

This is one of the biggest traps into which small businesses fall.  "Since you have this server, let's run Exchange on it.  It doesn't cost anything more, and you'll get business-class email".  The problem again is the premise.  It does cost more to provide the service well.  The server, environmentals, power and networking requirements to provide reliable email service go far beyond what most commercial office space can accommodate/provide.  With the advent of hosted Microsoft Exchange service, small (and many large) businesses are seeing the advantages of not having to provide a commercial class data center to run their own email services reliably.

SQL Server

Time was if you wanted to have an SQL database you had to run your own SQL server.  Those times are long past, as almost every web hosting company offers inexpensive SQL database services, and many if not most major application service providers who require SQL services offer entirely hosted services that include both application and SQL database services.

Domain authentication services

"Since you need a server, you should have all the computers authenticate through the domain controller."  Again, the premise is incorrect.  Even if you do need a server, whether domain authentication is required depends completely on what users need to do with their computers and the server.  

DNS services

This is the service that translates www.ibm.com to which it really is.  It's also the service that translates the names of other servers and computers in the local network into their addresses.  One only needs this to be done on a server if one has other servers in the local network.

DHCP services

This is the service that assigns local addresses to machines on a local network.  This service can be provided (and in the 'old days' always was provided) by a server.  Even the lowest retail grade router these days can do an adequate job of this.  The more sophisticated commercial routers of today can do this flawlessly.


Running all these things on a server used to be the only game in town.   They represented the only way to get certain things done, and became central points of failure that affected dozens, hundreds or thousands of users.  They evolved into the robust, capable, expensive hardware and software entities they currently are based on that risk, and requirement.  For small businesses, there are almost always other, more modern, more efficient, cheaper, and often more capable ways of accomplishing things formerly done only by servers.  The benefits of servers almost always only apply when there are economies of scale.  Managing a business of 500, or 5000, or 200,000 employees without servers providing some part of that management would be unthinkable, unmanageable, unwieldy - just plain wrong.  For now.  The technology continues to evolve.  One clear example of this is Microsoft Exchange.  While it is true that hosted Microsoft Exchange (and, to a lesser extent, the newer but less capable Google Apps) provides enterprise-class service to non-enterprise users, it's not limited to just the little guys.  United Airlines, an entity fully capable of implementing whatever technology it wishes, recently outsourced 50,000 Exchange mailboxes to a hosted provider.  This trend will continue, as outsourced, specialized services become more and more powerful and capable.  Right now, though, they are plenty powerful and capable of providing excellent value, greater simplicity and enterprise-class service for small businesses, without the attendant enterprise-class costs.

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