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A Field Guide to Servers

Learn what server hardware and software can do for your nonprofit.

A Field Guide to Servers
Elliot Harmon and Adam Chapman - February 23, 2012
When someone refers to a server, what are they talking about? Put most simply, a server is a piece of software or hardware that provides resources to one or more computers on a network. Learn about the types of servers and find out whether they can help your organization's technology infrastructure run more smoothly.

When someone refers to a server, what are they talking about? Put most simply, a server is a piece of software or hardware that provides resources to one or more computers on a network. The word "server" causes some confusion because it's used as a catch-all term for several distinct things. Server applications, like Microsoft Exchange or Lync Server, are commonly referred to as servers, but the operating systems that those applications run on (for example, Microsoft Windows Server or Small Business Server) and the physical computers that those operating systems are installed on are also called servers.

Your nonprofit's server needs will vary widely, depending on the size and type of your organization as well as what IT resources you have available. Knowing the needs of your nonprofit and how those needs can be better met with servers will help you invest your organization's time and money in an appropriate server solution. In this field guide, we'll look at a variety of types of servers and the functionalities they can offer an organization.

Before delving into the range of servers available, it's important to know how they fit in with other computers on a network. Computer networks are commonly divided into two main categories: peer-to-peer and client-server. A peer-to-peer network is one in which multiple computers are connected to each other for simple purposes, such as file or printer sharing, rather than relying on a server to share information. Peer-to-peer networks can be sufficient for small networks (fewer than 10 computers), but can quickly be overtaxed as the needs of an organization grow. In a client-server network, servers host applications and data for users' computers ("clients") to request. One server can host multiple server applications, but putting too much demand on a single computer can slow everything down to the point of rendering it unusable. Before deciding if a server can handle multiple roles, you should determine the demands of each server application individually by testing it in the environment in which you'll be using it.

Server Hardware

A server is a computer dedicated to providing information and other resources to other computers on a network. The size of a server can range from a large room full of processors to an ordinary desktop computer. When selecting your server, look at the system requirements of the server applications and server operating system you intend to install on it. For more information on selecting an appropriate computer to work as a server, consult TechSoup's Tech Beginner's Guide.

Server Operating Systems

Servers run specialized versions of operating systems. Microsoft, Apple, Linux, and others all have server versions of their operating systems. At first glance, server operating systems may look and act like their desktop counterparts, but they offer more advanced features, such as the ability to centrally manage logged-on users and machines. The server versions of Windows and Mac operating systems include some built-in server applications, such as file-sharing and print-sharing applications. Servers running on different operating systems can be configured to communicate with each other, but most server applications can only run on certain operating systems.

Windows Server 2012 is considered an industry standard by many IT professionals. Windows Server includes many built-in server applications and is built to work with Office and other popular Microsoft products. Small Business Server 2011 Essentials, intended for smaller organizations, combines the core functionalities of Windows Server with SharePoint Server and Exchange Server (both are discussed in a later section).

Mac OS X Server offers many of the same features as Windows Server and Small Business Server, but it's optimized for an office that uses Mac computers. Although computers running both Windows and Mac OS X can connect to a server running Mac OS X Server, certain features are available only to computers running Mac OS X.

Ubuntu is the most popular variant of the open-source operating system Linux. Ubuntu is popular both as a desktop OS and also as a server, thanks to its relative ease of use and built-in file and print server functions. Canonical, the commercial sponsor of Ubuntu, provides support contracts for servers.

Server Applications

File Servers and Print Servers

File servers and print servers are the most common types of servers. Due to the low demand placed on print servers, the same computer may serve as both the file and print server in smaller networks. Many server operating systems — including the operating systems listed above — already include file and print servers.

File servers allow multiple users in a network to share one or more hard drive. When your computer is connected to a file server, the shared drive can appear on your desktop just as an ordinary external hard drive would. Administrators can configure security features to allow only specified users to access or edit selected folders and files. File servers are also useful for manual backups, but dedicated backup servers, which we cover in a later section, are more reliable and can be configured to suit the needs of the organization.

Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010 is a specialized file server intended specifically for collaborative projects. SharePoint can track changes made to files by multiple users and store alternate versions of projects. Subversion, an open-source server application, is also intended for collaboration among multiple users. Both SharePoint and Subversion can interface with Windows Explorer, allowing users to make edits to shared files without leaving the familiar Windows environment.

For more information on file servers and alternatives, see A Few Good Tools for Sharing Files with Distributed Groups.

Print servers are computers that handle print requests from users on the network, directing them to the appropriate printer. When a printer is networked, multiple users can print to it without being physically connected to it. Some newer printers can be plugged directly into a network without a print server to manage them, but virtually any printer can be networked by connecting it to a print server.

Backup Servers

Although it's easy to back up the data on any computer to an external hard drive, DVD-ROM, or online hosting service, it's a good policy to back up your organization's data with a centralized server application. With a backup server, backup can take place automatically throughout a network, and archived data can be readily available in an easy-to-access format in case of emergency. Using a backup server is also the best way to make sure employees and volunteers don't accidentally or intentionally remove data of legal or ethical importance.

Backup software on client computers schedules automatic backups of their data to backup servers when the client is on the internal network. If data is lost, an administrator can repair or replace that computer's hard drive and then use the backup server's copy to restore the computer's data.

Symantec Backup Exec — available through TechSoup for Windows Server — is a backup solution with minimal hardware and software requirements that can accommodate organizations of any size. You can use Backup Exec to back up Windows, Mac, and Linux computers and virtual machines that use VMware or Hyper-V. It can recover virtual machines, applications, databases, files, folders, and granular objects directly from backup storage.

Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager is a highly versatile, enterprise-level backup server. Data Protection Manager keeps backups of client files as well as specialized application data for other client and server applications.

Email and Communications Servers

Email servers collect email and other forms of communication and distribute them to the appropriate users. Many email servers can also manage calendars, contacts, tasks, notes, and more. Some email servers include web-based terminals, which enable users to check email and other services from any web browser. Communications servers, many of which can integrate with email servers, manage live communications like web conferencing, instant messaging (IM), and telephony. For more information on communications servers, see Unified Communications Options for Nonprofits.

Microsoft Exchange Server handles the electronic communications needs of many Windows-based offices, and is appropriate for organizations of any size. Exchange is considered the standard email server by many IT departments.

MailSite Fusion offers a feature set similar to that of Exchange. A free version of MailSite Fusion can support up to 20 users.

Microsoft Lync Server unifies and moderates real-time communication by a variety of methods. Lync Server facilitates IM, web conferencing, digital telephony, and more. Instant Messaging is an open-source IM server. Unlike Yahoo! or AIM messaging, Jabber messaging is facilitated by your own local, customizable server. Numerous client applications allow users to send and receive Jabber messages.

Database Servers

A database is an organized collection of data. Similar to a spreadsheet in the way entries are stored in tables, databases are much more versatile and powerful in their ability to analyze, sort, compile, and use data in other applications or websites. Storing high-end database information on a server rather than on a workstation offers many advantages. With a database server, multiple users can access or edit data more easily. Database servers can also automate the processes of collecting and publishing data.

Database servers can serve many purposes for medium and large nonprofits, including tracking donations or events and compiling information from multiple sources to measure a nonprofit's impact.

Database servers are highly useful, but it's best to talk to your IT department or hire a consultant or database administrator (DBA) when deciding which would be most appropriate for your organization.

Microsoft SQL Server 2012 and MySQL servers are used in organizations of all sizes, while Microsoft SQL Server 2012 Express Edition and Oracle Express Database are intended for small organizations. All of these products are built on the open-source Structured Query Language (SQL) framework. Microsoft SQL Server Express Edition, Oracle Express Database, and a version of MySQL are available for free.

Antivirus Servers

There are numerous antivirus server applications on the market. Some applications monitor the health of all of the servers and workstations on a network, while others monitor only the server.

Symantec Endpoint Protection provides network-wide protection from viruses and various other security threats, protecting against both known threats and new viruses ("zero-day attacks"). Endpoint Protection is available at TechSoup in two editions: the standard edition is intended for networks of 100 clients or more, while Small Business Edition is for 5 to 100 clients. Small Business Edition is also included in Symantec Protection Suite Small Business Edition, along with Symantec Mail Security for Microsoft Exchange and Symantec System Recovery Desktop Edition.

AVG, maker of a popular free antivirus application for desktops, also offers several antivirus server solutions. AVG Anti-Virus Network Edition offers comprehensive protection of workstations and file servers throughout a network, with optional additional protection of Exchange and SharePoint.

Web Servers

Whenever you try to reach a website through your browser, you're sending a request to a web server. A web server fills the request by sending the site back to your browser. Web servers are standard features in some server operating systems, but due to the cost of hardware and bandwidth, we don't recommend that you host public websites from your in-house servers. A larger organization that demands a lot of customization or advanced functionality from its website might consider buying or renting a dedicated server and keeping it at a web hosting company (called a co-location, or "co-lo"). But for most organizations, a third-party web hosting service is a more feasible choice.

Fax Servers

If your organization sends and receives a large number of faxes, a fax server could be a worthwhile investment. (To determine how much you spend on faxing, take into account how much a dedicated fax line costs per month, along with the cost of paper, ink, fax hardware, and maintenance.) Client computers fax documents without printing them by sending the documents to a fax server, which either uses a modem or the Internet (via a technology called Fax over IP, otherwise known as T.38, similar to Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP) to fax the document to a specified number. A fax server can also receive faxes the same way, and even deliver them to the appropriate user's email.

Windows Server and Small Business Server have fax server functionality built in. Standalone fax servers include Alt-N RelayFax and GFiFaxMaker. For simplicity and cost effectiveness, many small and medium-size organizations might prefer an online fax service (see the "Online Fax Services" section below).

Virtual Private Network (VPN) Servers

A VPN server creates an extension of an internal network over the Internet. After the VPN server is set up on the internal network, a client downloads and installs VPN software on his or her computer (either a laptop or a computer not in the office) and can then access the network by connecting to the VPN. Once the client is outside the office and connected to the Internet, the client enters in a network address (usually an IP, or numerical address), username, and password. This creates a secure "tunnel" over the Internet from the client computer to the internal network. Once the tunnel is established, the client computer becomes part of the internal network and can access all of the resources just as if the computer was physically on location. Most firewalls and routers come with built-in VPN capabilities.

Windows Server and Windows Small Business Server have VPN server functionality built in. It's recommended that you enable this feature if only a few people at a time will need to connect to your network from outside the office.

Microsoft Forefront Threat Management Gateway includes a more robust VPN system, including the ability to remotely connect branches. All organizations can make use of it, though smaller organizations probably won't use some of the more advanced features.

Alternatives to Traditional Servers

In recent years, many companies have begun offering alternatives to traditional server applications in the form of either cloud-based applications or hardware-only solutions. Although these solutions are less customizable than traditional in-house servers, their simplicity and affordability may make them right for you.

Cloud-Based Alternatives

Perhaps you've heard discussion recently of cloud computing. At its broadest, "cloud computing" can really mean any activity that you perform over the Internet. In popular parlance, it usually refers to functionality that companies and organizations traditionally manage in-house.

Nearly all of the types of software listed above have a cloud-based alternative. For example, some organizations now use web-based office suites like Microsoft Office Web Apps or Google Drive in lieu of a traditional file server. Web-based email services can alleviate the need for running your own email server. Cloud-based CRM databases are often easier to maintain than your own database server.

For information about how cloud-based tools can simplify your organization's technology infrastructure, see Cloud Basics for Nonprofits and Libraries. For more information on cloud-based CRM databases, see CRM in the Cloud: Right for Your Organization?

Online Fax Services are an affordable, easy-to-use alternative to fax servers. Users can send and receive faxes as email attachments or through a Web interface. Popular fax services include MyFax, eFax, and TrustFax.

Hardware-Only Solutions

If you only need a print server and have a smaller office, you don't need to host it on its own computer. Networking companies, such as Linksys, Netgear, and D-Link, all make standalone devices.

Apple's AirPort Extreme is a wireless router that can also serve as a simple file and print server. A Universal Serial Bus (USB) printer plugged into the router can serve all of the computers on a wireless network. When an external hard drive connects to the router, all users on the network can access the drive. A drive can be accessible to anyone who can access the network, or it can be protected by a second password.

Although we've described most of the basic types of servers in an office environment, there are many types of servers that we haven't covered. Before investing time and money in a server solution, be sure to evaluate how it will meet the needs of your organization and how it will fit into your IT environment. Remember, the cost of a server is more than its price tag or administrative fee. Installing a server and learning how to use it are usually large investments, but the reward of a more streamlined, powerful organizational infrastructure can be even greater.

Image: Server room, Shutterstock

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