Could a server help your small business?

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Could a server help your small business?

If you've ever wondered why you'd need a server, or how it could help you you’re your business this article is for you.

Running a small business is hard work. Even if you're a master at your chosen field there are a bunch of things you have to do to be successful. It's not enough to be a great florist, bake the best bread or provide the best advice. To be successful you need to also run a great business. And that means being a bookkeeper, HR manager, strategic planner and IT manager.

With your IT, there are many decisions to make. What sort of Internet connection do I need? How many printers do I need? How do I keep my data secure? What about backups? How do I share information between different staff members?

Many of those questions can be answered by a single word - server. A server is a computer that is set aside for a specific purpose - it's not used by an individual as their work system. It provides everyone on the business network with access to shared resources.

Why get a server?

  •  Having all your files in one place makes backups easier
  •  No need to have specific computers switched on or people logged in for shared information to be available
  •  Shared applications can be run from the server
  •  Servers can be cheap to run as they can combine the roles of several PCs
  •  A single server can potentially replace several PCs by using virtualisation

 

Servers come with a reputation for complexity. Being able to share files and printers, set up complex networking for services like DNS, DHCP and SMTP and keep everything patched and secure can become a full-time job take time that business owner-operators can scarcely afford. This is one reason cloud computing has grabbed a lot of attention – you don’t need your own server.

But the reality is that setting up a server for a small business need not be that complex. Computer vendors are making easier for small businesses to consider servers. Hardware costs have come down as a result of Moore's Law. Hardware manufacturers and software developers have simplified the set up process and operation of modern servers.

If you’re on the road to possibly owning a server, chances are you’ll be talking to someone to help you buy the right products and set it up for you. But to know what questions to ask, it's also important to do your homework so that you know what's possible.

Server vs Cloud

 

 

Every few years, technology goes through phases between doing everything yourself or outsourcing. Today, the most popular way of outsourcing is to use "the cloud".

Using cloud services essentially means that instead of running hardware or software at your own office, you access shared systems hosted by a third party. These might be storage areas on the Internet you can backup your files to, or programs that run on another company’s servers, that you access over the Internet.

The benefit of using the cloud is that it typically costs less. For example, one very powerful server could potentially be used by dozens of businesses. By sharing that server, each business only pays a portion of the total hardware and software cost. It’s cheaper than buying your own.

However, it's not all one-way traffic. Cloud services rely on Internet connections so if your connection goes down, it's possible that you'll lose access to your data. It's likely that you'll need to increase your Internet connection's capacity - for both speed and traffic allowances – which means the savings mightn’t be as big.

Putting important data in the cloud doesn't mean you give up the need to maintain backups of your data. While most cloud providers give undertakings that your data is backed up regularly, what if they suddenly go out of business? It's important to check carefully before committing to a cloud solution and to ensure that there are mechanisms available to you so that you can back your data up independently to the service provider.

That said, there's no reason why cloud services can't be a part of your small business's IT plan. A combination of local and cloud systems can be a great way to ensure your business has the right mix of systems. For example, you might run a local server for sharing files, printing and backing up computers, in combination with a cloud service for the accounting software.

The trick is to work out which services you need in-house, which can be handled in the cloud and how to ensure that all of your data is protected.

What can a server do for my business?

 

If you're running a small business you don't want to be bogged down in technical jargon. You want your IT to make life easier - not harder. Let's see how that can work.

Let's say you're a fruiter. Each day, you visit the markets to buy fresh produce that you sell over the next day or two. Sounds pretty straightforward doesn't it? In reality, life is a lot more complicated. That trip to the markets is likely happening early in the morning, before anyone is in the store and you've travelled to the market straight from home.

In the store, you've got a decent point of sale system that makes old cash registers look like they're steam driven. That point of sale system can not only take cash and tell you the right change but it can also talk to your inventory system. So, as produce is sold, you can keep track of what's left in the warehouse.

Your fruit shop is facing tough competition. The local supermarket might not have produce that's as good as your but their prices are cheaper. Your competitive edge is in having specific varieties of fruit and vegetables that they don't stock and in delivering superior service.

What's a server got to with all that?

 

For all of this to work, you need an inventory system that be accessed from several places by different people at once. The only way to do that effectively is to have the data in a central location.

A central server can ensure that while you're at the market, you can check stock levels. If you left before close of business the night before your trip to the markets, it's possible that a customer came in and bought a couple of cases of apples for a community event. That might leave you short. With the right software running on your server, you could get up-to-the-minute stock levels using a smartphone.

When a customer comes to the store, they might be after butternut pumpkins but there are none on the shelf. Rather than keep the customer waiting, you could use a terminal in the shop to check if there are any out the back and tell the customer straight away. Without that information stored centrally, you'd have to waste time looking around or asking other staff.

As products are being sold through the registers, you can see what's happening to stock levels in real time from a single place. As well as seeing what's running low, you can see what stock isn't selling as fast as you'd like. Because the point of sale system can talk to the inventory system you can relay messages subtly to the checkout staff letting them know so they can suggest more sales.

Given the dependence on your computer system for operations, it's critical that all of your important data is backed up. By having all the data in a central place on a server, the tasks of backing up and recovery are simplified.

When all your critical information is in one place, you can set up a backup system easily. All you need to do is have your data copied from one location to another. If the data were spread out on individual systems then you'd need a system that could back up data from several different locations.

If the worst happens and your computer system is irreparably damaged, getting things up and running again is simpler as all you'd need to do is restore your backups to a single server.

How much can a server save or make for my business?

 

Let's cut to the chase - a server won't do anything for your business on its own. But the right server with the right software can be a powerful enabler for your business. Let's head back to our fruit shop and see what we can do.

Small retailers are under threat by large shopping malls, powerful supermarket chains and web sites that make shopping around easy. Running your own server with the right software can help combat all those things by enabling the fruit shop to move from being just a bricks and mortar store to a modern, multi-fronted business.

The biggest advantages our fruit shop has are its relationships with customers, local community presence and straight from the market freshness. As a small business, it's nimble and able to get different products on the shelf faster than the supermarkets. With a server, it's possible to add new or different products to the inventory system quickly and then let your local customers know that you have something special available.

A customer relationship management system can help you with contacting regular customers by email or SMS so you can let them know of special deals or products.

Quantifying these things so you can make a complete business case is not easy. The problem is that the right server is an enabler of things you can't do without it. You can't run a centralised inventory system, customer relationship management or financial system without it. However, there are some things that you can consider.

1. Can you easily access your data when you're not in the office or store?

2. Is all your important business data backed up?

3. Are you really serving all of your potential customers?

4. Are you using automated systems that ensure that you don't make ordering mistakes?

5. Can your staff easily answer customer questions about whether products are in stock?

If your answer is "No" to any of these, it's time to look at a server.

What are my options?

Buying a server is not an easy task. However, there are a few easy things to remember. The three main specifications you need to pay attention to are storage, memory and processor speed. Storage is measured in terabytes or TBs.  We’d suggest that 2TBs is a good starting point for most small businesses, but make sure that whatever server you buy can be expanded.

Memory is measured in gigabytes or GBs. This can be a little trickier and is where servers and desktop computers can be separated. Most desktop computers are limited in how much memory they can hold - 16GB is a lot for desktop or laptop but a server probably needs at least twice that.

With the processor - get the fastest you can afford. It’s the hardest component to upgrade should your server be found wanting in future.

 

 Business scenario 1

A distributor of marketing goods with ten staff and a small warehouse/office.

Suggested Product

Dell PowerEdge T110 II Server

 

 

 Why

 

Dell ships its gear ready to go so the time from getting the product out of the box to having it on is short. Onsite warranty is great and the hardware can be upgraded as the business grows

 Price

 

$4300

Notes We’ve customised the default build to include Windows Server 2008, 16GB or memory and 1TB of storage. It includes a year of next day onsite service.

 

 Business scenario 2

A small consulting business with three people who provide professional services.

Suggested Product

HP ProLiant ML110 G7 Performance - Xeon E3-1240 3.3 GHz

 Why

 

It’s not the fastest server around but professional services businesses are likely to have modest software needs as they don’t need inventory systems. This server is about centralised, shared storage.

 Price

 

$2500

 Notes The main needs we’re satisfying are shared storage. For that, we’re recommending a solution with less memory but more hard drive space.  We’ve increased the storage to 1.5TB and included Microsoft’s Small Business Server software.

 

 Business scenario 3

A fruit shop with two cash registers and six staff. The business is planning to engage with customers online and wants to track stock levels when ordering food at markets.

Suggested Product

IBM System x3100 M4 Elite

 Why

 

IBM has been making systems for a long time. Our fruit shop has a tight budget but wants the comfort of a name brand.

 Price

 

$2000

 
 Notes This a great bargain but unless you’re happy to run Red Hat Linux, you’ll need to source a copy of Windows Server 2008 R2. The only extra we’ve added is a pair of 2TB drives. The rest of this one is stock standard.

 

 Business scenario 4

A gift store that is trying to expand with an online shopfront that complements the bricks and mortar store.

Suggested Product

Dell PowerEdge T110 II Server

 Why

 

We’ve suggested the Dell again but this time we’ve gone with a slower processor and less memory but with room to grow.

Price

 

$1610

 Notes

The aim is to keep costs down and flexibility up.

 

 Business scenario 5

A small chain of florists with a total of ten staff.

Suggested Product

Dell Power Edge T620

 Why

 

We’ve gone all-out here with fast CPU, 32GB of memory and 4TB of storage. That will support several terminal sessions and virtual servers. We’ve also added redundant power supplies. The storage is in two 2TB disks that can be configured for redundancy as well.

 Price

 

$11,700

 Notes Given the distributed nature of this business, we’re suggesting some increased processor power and memory as virtualisation is likely to come into play with the stores using terminal services to access central inventory and ordering systems.

 

 

 
Anthony Caruana is a small business operator with experience in enterprise IT management as well as a journalist. He works with businesses on realising their business needs through the smart application of technology.
 
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