TechSoup.org The place for nonprofits, charities, and libraries

Do You Need A Server?

Here are some factors to consider when assessing your organization's needs

Do You Need a Server? 
Kevin Lo - February 05, 2012
Servers form an important function in any network. Learn more about them, and some key ways they can help build a better network and computing infrastructure. Find out if you are ready to move from a peer-to-peer network to a server-client one, and what to look for to best fit the needs at your organization.

The term "server" can mean many things. It can refer to the hardware itself, the operating system that runs on it, or a piece of software that provides a specific service, such as email delivery or website hosting. Often, a server is a high-performance computer that uses specialized software or operating systems to store data and centralize resources across an office. If your organization is growing in terms of staff, constituents, or funding, it might be time to upgrade to a server-based or "client-server" system to help unify and manage the information technology in your office.

In most cases, the biggest impetus for getting a server is an increase in the number of staff and workstations that regularly use your network. If you anticipate growing to more than seven FTE (full-time equivalents) at an office, each using a computer, you might want to consider a server to better manage your workforce and the data they produce. Having a server-based network will enable you to better manage the additional data you collect and report in your grants. As you approach 10 employees and workstations, the benefits of a server become more pronounced.

The following five key points are some benefits to having a client-server system:

1. Easier User and Workstation Management

A server can help you manage the users on a network. All server operating systems — like Windows and Linux — offer "directory services" which allow you to create user accounts of different privilege and access roles. These network user accounts give you more control over the network resources your users can access. For example, you can assign one user or a group of users access to a human resources folder, but exclude others from opening it. Likewise, you may want to give your financial manager and her part-time assistant — and only them — access to a printer for cutting checks. Having a server can make this kind of network administration a reality.

Aside from users, server-based systems allow workstations to be managed centrally, without the need for individual administration. For example, the free Windows Server Update Services tool allows you to distribute Microsoft software updates to workstations in your network, selectively control which updates groups of computers get, and monitor the status of updates on workstations. Similar tools are available for antivirus and other security software.

2. Improved File-Sharing and Data Storage

Likewise, with more staff comes more data generated and collected, and the greater need to share files and resources. A server facilitates sharing. One staff can save files on a server and other staff can look at the file and work on it. A server is also designed to help share other resources, such as databases and printers. In addition, servers are also designed with efficient storage and retrieval of data. They come equipped to store a lot of data, and allow you to add additional storage capacity when you need it.

3. A Better Backup System

As data and workstations become more centrally managed, the backup of data will likewise become less haphazard. Consolidating your data to a server allows you to target your backup processes to key folders at a central location. You will also be able to take advantage of more powerful, server-based backup software which offer additional backup and restore features, even for files located on individual workstations. As you move to a more sophisticated information management, you would need server-level backup software to effectively prepare for data loss and recovery.

4. Improved Networked Application Performance

Servers are designed to accommodate a number of users simultaneously. To boost performance, they are equipped to handle more memory and processing power than a regular desktop computer. If sharing files or a database from another staff's computer in a peer-to-peer setup is affecting your productivity, it's time to upgrade to a server-based system.

5. Ability to Run More Powerful Applications

Many applications, such as fundraising databases, constituent relationship management, collaborative project tracking, even email, require servers to operate. Like a lot of information technology, server-based applications are gravitating toward an Internet-based delivery model. However, you may still want to host some applications on your own server if you need complete control on the availability and security of your data. Some applications may also require a highly customized setup that would not be available unless set up on premise.

More Options

If your organization needs only some of the above benefits, or won't have the resources to properly manage a client-server environment, you still have other options available.

Cloud Applications

Many server-like applications can be accessed over the Internet — or over the cloud — using fixed-line or mobile broadband access. There are backup, email, and donor management applications available in the cloud. Instead of managing the applications yourself, they are managed by the companies that provide these services. The trade-off with this type of solution is some loss of control over your data and ability to access them; your data resides in servers that you don't manage, and if there were any downtime you would not have access to those services or data. Performance will also be an issue if you are in an area where you don't have reliable, broadband Internet access. At the same time, this reduced administrative burden can be quite the blessing for the less-resourced nonprofit. After weighing the costs of supporting your own server-based application, it may still be more economical for you to use your own server than using a cloud solution

Network-Attached Storage

Network-attached storage (NAS) devices allow you to add hard drive-based storage to your network without having to install and maintain a full-blown server, and is available at a fraction of the cost. In a small compact package, NAS devices also offer many server-like functionality — like database hosting, backup space, or printer sharing — with an easy to manage web-based interface. If you are technically inclined, you can also use an old PC outfitted with a dedicated NAS OS like FreeNAS. On the other hand, you will not be able to install any additional applications beyond the ones that came with the device.

Remote Access

Virtual private networking (VPN) allows authorized remote users access to your organization's internal network resources — such as the files on a NAS or the shared printers — while keeping unauthorized users out. This is especially useful for organizations with a central office who have workers that travel quite a bit or for organizations with satellite offices that need to connect to resources within the headquarter office (such as a database or stored files). In the past, this was only possible with a special server or with expensive and complex routing equipment. Now, most broadband router hardware offer VPN capabilities.

Expanding Your Capacity As You Grow

As your organization grows, there are more server options available to provide the capacity to share, manage, and access your information. If you have the expertise and resources, a Windows or Linux server offers a versatile platform to provide an array of services to your nonprofit office, including file storage, print sharing, and email.

If you need just need more data storage or printer sharing, dedicated, easier-to-manage devices like NAS make it simpler to provide these services without the need for dedicated and high level expertise. Couple these with hosted services and you can offer many of the functions a traditional office server offers without adding the complexities of that often come with it.

Image: Servers, Shutterstock