Is it time for your business to have its own file server? Due to the cost of even the most basic server, which can be well into the thousands, it's wise before a purchase to consider whether you can do without one. It's possible, for instance, to configure an existing computer to double as a server—and small businesses often choose to utilize cloud computing services, which are more malleable in terms of customization and don't require an equipment purchase. Peer-to-peer services such as Dropbox and Google Docs can also allow employees to share files over a secure network for free.

However, owning an in-house server certainly has benefits. There's the security it can provide for your network, along with the ability to control all of your own data at any given time. Should you choose to host your own server, your office should also be prepared to provide a physically secure location for them, protecting them from potential harm due to overheating or physical theft. Additionally, you will need to appoint employees to manage server permissions. That is, a person or persons assigned to regulate the parties who can also access information on the server. While this usually comes in the form of an IT department at larger organizations, the job can also be handled at a smaller organization by someone with advanced technical knowledge.

Remember that your servers are the eyes and ears of your networking system, and sensitive information is at stake if breached. Study your options well, including alternative options such as cloud storage, and choose the method that best suits the needs and budget of your business. If it's time to buy, consider the following tips from John Engates, Chief Technology Officer of file-hosting company Rackspace, which is based in San Antonio, Texas.

1. Find a snug fit.
There are different types of servers for an assortment of needs, so evaluate the needs of your business accordingly. What do you want your server to do? If you only need to share basic files, you can configure a wireless hard drive to share files amongst employees in a small office. Most small businesses will only need server in the form of a network attached storage unit that connects to the Ethernet. Three examples are NetgearReadyNAS which ranges in price from a few hundred dollars into the thousands, the Drobo unit, which also ranges in price depending on the scale of the unit, and the Lenovo ThinkServer TS200v which is available from $349.

Consider renting.
"Generally speaking, most people are moving in the direction of moving away from buying physical servers and moving to the cloud," Engates says. "But if you have a very specific security requirement, maybe there's some mandate from a government organization and that data can't leave your office, that might be a reason to own a server." Many companies rent data storage space to clients for a monthly fee and offer maintenance services. Rackspace features dedicated and cloud hosting services and charges on a sliding scale that is contingent upon your exact needs as per a network evaluation.

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Anticipate future growth.
In general, understanding the process of purchasing a file server with enough ram and hard drive space is akin to the process of buying a regular PC. However, you need to take into account the amount of people that will be accessing your network. "If it's one or a handful, you can get away with a very small server. If it's a dozen or a hundred or whatever the number might be, you're going to have to think about a server with a little bit more processing power and more memory and maybe even more network capacity to be able to handle the traffic," says Engates. In addition, when accounting for the number of network users, also take hard drive space into consideration. "Hard drive space is usually pretty straightforward to understand for most people, but just sort of getting an idea of how much space you use today, how fast that data is growing in size, those are important considerations. You don't want to size it for today's needs—you want to size it for six months, a year, maybe even two years out," Engates says.

4. Make sure that your server can take the heat.
We're all aware of the loud sounds that a regular desktop can make when the internal fan is activated to prevent overheating. This often occurs with smaller servers, especially when there isn't a dedicated air-conditioned room inside the business to prevent this effect. Do some online research and speak with your customer service representative to ask specific questions about the likelihood (and the frequency) of overheating occurring. Engates explains that a server with an advanced feature set will be able to sense when it's overheating and shut itself down to prevent damage. A server from a no-name manufacturer will sometimes lack this heat-sensing protection mechanism.

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Pick a provider that specializes in small business servers.
Dell and Hewlitt-Packard offer great customer service support for local file servers. For best results, unless your staff is comprised of networking professionals, you should purchase your hardware from a renowned company that specializes in small business support and can issue a substantial service contract. This will ensure that you have access to round-the-clock customer support should something go wrong. However, this may be unnecessary if you already have a team of IT professionals onboard. "There are servers that are not branded. They are sort of generic no-name servers and can be a little less expensive at times. Obviously, you don't get the same service contract as you would from a name brand, but if you have a person helping you out with that, you may not need that service contract," says Engates.