How a Server Works
A server is a computer designed to process requests and deliver data to another computer over the internet or a local network. A server’s hardware and operating system are especially designed to allow multiple people to connect to it and access its services. There are several different operating systems but the most prolific for small businesses is Microsoft Windows Server.
There have been several versions of Windows Server over the years, the latest being server 2019. As with previous versions it is designed to share services with multiple users and provide extensive administrative control of data storage, applications and corporate networks. Key features of Windows Server are Active Directory, which controls the management of user data, security and distributed resources, it also integrates with server manager, a utility to administer server roles and make configuration changes to local or remote machines. Windows Server can be deployed either on hardware in an organization’s own computer room, a data centre or on a cloud platform, such as Microsoft Azure.
There are lots of different server functions including; application servers, database servers, email servers and web servers, each one is specially configured to provide the best performance.
A business connects all of its client computers to the server, generally in a local area network, called a LAN. Desktop computers request services from the server, such as storing files or accessing database information. The server responds by returning the files or providing desktop access to the database. A local server is one that provides a service by running an application that is on the same machine as the client application and not shared with other client devices.
Who Should Use a Server?
If a business only has a few users, the cost justification for a server may at first seem prohibitive. Even for a small business, however, taking advantage of cloud server platforms will mean that you can have high levels of security for your users and information.
As your business grows then using servers to provide high levels of control and security becomes very important. The server doesn’t need to be on-premise, it could be a hosted server or more frequently a server in the cloud.
The business may use a Management Information System (MIS) or other special applications and these may require a server to run on. It may be that the business has special security restrictions that prevent information from being anywhere other than on a server. As a business starts to grow then consideration should be given to a specialist server.
Whether you know it or not you use a server all the time; every time you go to a website, use online banking or send an email. All these services will require a server to operate.
What is a Cloud Server?
A cloud server or cloud service is one that you access through the internet. It is typically delivered using multiple individual services. For example, you may use Microsoft Azure in addition to a web server that stores your website, a cloud backup service for your files and an email server for communication.
Office 365 comprises several cloud services including Exchange. Other cloud services include SharePoint and Skype for Business which are now delivered in a package called Microsoft Teams.
What is a Hosted Server?
A hosted server is typically regarded as a private server that is in a secure data centre. This server might hold your files, your MIS system or some other special application needed by your business.
You could say that it’s your computer room that’s not in your office. This is an interesting option for businesses that have a distributed workforce who all need to access the same information. If the business has area offices and mobile workers, considering hosted servers can offer great advantages.
Using hosted servers can play an integral part of your business continuity solution. Each of your area offices will need to have good internet access at all times, therefore consideration and investment in good internet connectivity is worthwhile.
What is an On-Premises Server?
An on-premise server is one which is just that, on-premise, in your office. If most of the workforce is based in one place, then this can be a cost-effective way to proceed for those special applications needed by the business.
One major consideration about having on-premise equipment is the effect on the business if access to the server is not possible. This may be because of a serious hardware failure, bad weather, power outage or some other serious event. The disruption to the business and subsequent cost could be substantial and for this reason, we suggest building in resilience and reliability wherever possible.
How Network Storage Works
Most businesses need to share information and so having the data stored on your local drive is not a good idea. It needs to be somewhere that is always on and accessible to only the users who should use it. Therefore, the server is the best place to keep it whether that is in the cloud, hosted or on-premise; in all cases security is paramount.
Another option is to use a network-attached storage device (NAS) or a Storage Area Network (SAN); the choice is mainly decided on the size of your organisation. SAN is a dedicated network storage device whereas a NAS is a single device. In either case, shared areas are set aside for users and applications which can be accessed from their client devices or applications.
What About Server Backup?
Wherever your applications, information and data are held they need to be protected and backed up. Therefore, if you are using a cloud service for your website or email you need to be sure that the information held here will be available to you should the provider’s systems fail. Similarly, the hosted server information will need to be backed up in the same way that an on-premise server would be.
Cloud server services use highly resilient systems in first-class computer data centres with good backup processes. Privately hosted servers are also housed in data centres but backup is typically the responsibility of the customer who will need to be sure that the data and applications are backed up properly. Of course, on-premise systems will need to be backed up regularly and in all cases, the restore process will need to be tested routinely.
One point to remember about backups is that it is only as good as the restore capability which should be tested from time to time. If you lose a file that you last used last week can you recover it? What about that year-end accounts backup that you saved back in April that you now can’t find? Where is that backup and can it be restored?
Businesses can make use of hybrid backup solutions, where several copies of important information are made and stored at different locations. A locally situated NAS is a good option for speed of recovery whilst a cloud server ensures that data is also stored off-site. Using the hybrid approach, a business can balance backup and retention requirements to suit its needs.
How Server Redundancy Works
Redundancy can take many forms, servers can be built with dual power supplies, have fault-tolerant discs (RAID) and be of sufficiently high quality that failure is rare. However, failures do occur and usually at the worst possible time!
In some cases, a replica server can be deployed where all information and systems are synchronised to a second identical server. In the event of the first server failing the second can be deployed very quickly. The replicated server can be located at a different business location or on a hosted server platform.
Rebuilding a server from scratch can take many days resulting in significant productivity loss and so a cost analysis should be made in this regard.
Server & Storage FAQs
Why Should a Server Room be Cold?
The server shouldn’t be cold, but it shouldn’t be hot either, the general recommendations suggest that you should not go below 10°C or above 28°C. Although this seems a wide range, these are the extremes and it is far more common to keep the ambient temperature around 20-21°C. It is more important that the air temperature remains constant because heat cycling of equipment can cause early failure.
Servers and the associated network and communications equipment, as well as the UPS keeping the power running each produce heat. The harder this equipment works, the more power it uses and therefore the more heat it produces. This is why air-conditioning is needed in computer rooms.
Why Does a Server Stop Responding?
If a server is not responding it normally means something has gone wrong. There are a lot of processes which need to be working properly inside a server for it to respond properly. Most of these are self-maintaining and will restart. But, sometimes things go wrong.
If the server cannot deliver the service you’re expecting then you should normally see an error message. This important piece of information will help the service engineer diagnose the problem.
If a server stops responding it may be necessary to restart some services or in the worst case, the whole server. Of course, it may be that the server is overloaded and running very slowly and not able to deliver the information you need in a timely manner.
Why is my Server Slow?
There are a lot of reasons why a server could stop responding here are just a few.
Excess load from users; servers only have a limited capacity and if everyone demands everything all at once there could be a bottleneck. Generally, we can expect an average load throughout the day but sometimes there are peaks of activity which can give the users the impression that the server has stopped responding.
There could be high network load not related to the server and this could also give the impression that the server is not responding.
Sometimes the server will run slowly when it has been underspecified for the number of users connected or the demands placed on it by increased workload over time. In either case, it may be possible to upgrade the server with memory being the first option. Disk speed can also play a big part and it may be that the disc RAID hardware needs to be improved. Some servers have the capacity to add a second processor which of course will substantially improve the service performance.
In most cases, the manufacturer of servers will continue to support them and provide hardware upgrades for at least five years. If your server is running slowly your ICT support provider will be able to advise you.
Cloud vs Hosted vs On-Premise Server?
Which was best for me? Well, it could be a mixture of all of them, use cloud servers for your email (Office365) and web services for your accounts; hosted services for your MIS system and an on-premise server to run your active directory and security policy.
Having said that, every business is different and so are the requirements.
The great advantage of having all your services hosted or in the cloud means that you can easily implement a highly resilient system that can meet your disaster recovery and business continuity requirements. It also means that there is no capital outlay for equipment.
On-premise equipment can mean lower costs in the long-term, but ongoing support and maintenance can add up. Often, it’s about balance and of course, budget will play a big factor. Using an experienced IT solutions provider is always a good idea in choosing a server solution.