Computer Networks

It's a buyer's market for small-business servers. Here's how to untangle all the options

The first time Daniel Hunt went looking for a server for his company's computer network, he ended up buying a home computer instead. Back in 1995 the CEO of Asphalt Specialties, an $8-million construction company in the Denver area, purchased a $2,300 Pentium computer designed for home use. Nonetheless, Hunt says, the machine did a fine job as a server for the three-computer network in his office. In the traditional server market, Hunt had found few satisfying choices that he could afford. "So many of them came with all this junk, such as speakers, that we didn't need," he explains.

Times have changed. Today business owners like Hunt have more options, as major computer makers are aggressively targeting the small-business-server market. According to projections by Sherwood Research, a technology-research firm based in Wellesley, Mass., small-business-server shipments will double this year. While the big vendors rush to fill the growing niche, small companies should benefit as prices drop and ease of use increases. But although servers are getting cheaper and less complicated, they're still not exactly plug-and-play systems. Figuring out how much memory you need and what kind of technical support you should expect can be downright confusing. Before you purchase your next server, it pays to review some basics:

How do I know if I need a server? As soon as you decide to set up a computer network, you'll have to determine whether you want a peer-to-peer or client/server network. In a peer-to-peer network, computers are linked together without a central repository for applications; computers communicate with one another to share files. In a client/server network, servers function as the "nerve center," where shared applications, such as databases and E-mail programs, usually reside. Clients, or personal computers, "talk" to the server when they need to use applications. Keeping those programs on a server helps free up the clients' memory and disk space.

For companies with limited computer needs, peer-to-peer networks are a realistic option. But many experts agree that once a company's network must support 10 or more users, the cost-effectiveness of peer-to-peer networks starts to taper; at that point, access to applications can become frustratingly slow. Even companies with only 4 or 5 users may need to abandon peer-to-peer setups, says Steven Lee of Random Access Data Systems, a computer consulting firm in Needham, Mass., especially if they're all sharing a large database, for example.

What's the first step when purchasing a server? Once you decide to buy a server, it's probably a good idea to forget about the hardware temporarily and first think about the applications. "The important thing is to figure out what the heck you want to do with the machine and what kind of software you'll need," Lee explains. Sit down with the PC users in your company and discuss their software and communications needs. The list you assemble will help you decide how powerful a server to buy.

What should I know about technical support? While the differences in hardware will be small from vendor to vendor, technical support may vary widely. Any vendor should offer 24-hour phone support, seven days a week. Some vendors charge for tech support and some don't; in either case, be sure to find out if there's a toll-free number. Your server is the heart of your company's network -- if it's down, you're down -- so make sure the vendor offers overnight replacement of parts. Many vendors now offer remote diagnostics, so they can diagnose a problem by dialing into your system right away, rather than sending someone to your site.