Preparing to buy your first server is a rite of passage for any organisation, however big or small. It comes with a realisation that if you want to keep doing what you have been doing and develop further, you have to take stock of where you are, think about where you want to be and seek advice about how to get there.

No organisation, whether it is a start-up, a well-established small business, a third sector or public sector organisation, can operate forever on the collection of laptops, desktops, work stations, smartphones that typifies the modern work environment. Nor can it permanently run on an ad-hoc collection of client-based consumer software and commercial programmes, alongside cloud-based software and services chosen by individual team members. At some point, cost, efficiency, security, regulation and customer service require a more structured approach.

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When organisations realise this, buying a server can seem a quick fix to many problems. However, the old adage, buy in haste, repent at leisure, holds true. So careful planning is needed to ensure you get the systems you need.

Do it right and you lay the foundations for a technology policy for your organisation that can meet your short-term needs, ensure your systems can scale and flex in the long term and give you access to a steady stream of technical innovation that can keep you competitive in a fast-changing world.

Make hasty decisions and you will, at best, not get full value from the investment you make.

Choosing the right server

Leaders of small businesses and organisations face a bewildering choice when considering technology purchases. Most are not technology experts and simply want technology to do a job for them. Unfortunately, IT sales staff still, too often, talk about the specifications of the product they are trying to sell, rather than the business problems the potential purchaser is trying to solve in the here and now, and their longer-term plans.

For those looking to buy their first physical server or acquire a cloud-based server solution, the approach must be quite different.

Don’t start with the technology, start with your business; where you are, where you want to be, what resources you have now and what you can count on in the months and years to come. Once you have done that you can ask informed questions and get informed advice about your options.

A good first step is a basic technology audit – what hardware and software do you currently use? Ask everyone in the organisation to make a comprehensive list. The results may be hair-raising, revealing business-critical data scattered among many applications and platforms some of which you knew nothing about. A short, sharp technology rationalisation programme at this point can not only save money and enhance security and efficiency, but also lay the basis for a successful server acquisition programme.

Next, compile a list of the applications and services the new server will run. The list is likely to include some of the following:

  • Email management
  • Mobile device support
  • File and printer sharing
  • Backup and restore
  • Consolidated Internet connectivity
  • Internal Web site development
  • Remote access monitoring

In addition to these basic business functions you may have generic core business applications and databases, such as accounts packages and customer relations systems (CRM) that are running on premises and which can be shared more flexibly from a server. Your organisation is also likely to have a number of highly business-specific applications that you may also want to run from a server.

Next, calculate the number of people that will use the server at any given time, the computing power they consume and when. Think about the peaks and troughs of your regular business cycles and what you will need in the future, as well as the present.

At this point you can start researching the server requirements for each application and then what kind of server best supports your business needs. There is a lot to consider, and a lot of technical terms can be banded about. You will need to think about the number of processors and clock speed, the amount of RAM installed, hard drive type, size and RAID configuration, your network and telecoms infrastructure, reliability of Internet access, operating systems and server location.

It is also imperative to consider at this point how easily your applications can scale and how much downtime your organisation can handle.

If your applications scale easily, then it is a simple matter to add more servers as you grow. If you are looking at deploying a server because your applications do not scale well across multiple machines, then that will affect your server strategy.

The same is true with downtime. The cloud offers protection against hardware failures – though you can be vulnerable to telecoms and network outages. If you deploy a dedicated server, there is the potential for a single point of failure, so you must decide whether you can accept potential downtime and what your back-up and recovery strategy will be.

The calculations can appear complex. Careful preparation is essential, but so is getting external advice.

Choosing the right server is not just about buying raw power or simply a matter of price. There is no point having highly specified server when your network bandwidth throttles access to your applications and data. There is no point paying for the processor with the fastest clock speed, when a slower processor, with more processor cores might run your applications faster. Equally, there is no point paying for a cloud server or cloud services if your access to the public Internet slows those applications to a crawl.

Deciding the specification you require is a balancing act and vendors such as Dell have numerous tools to help you make the correct choices.

Cloud, hosted or on premises?

Deciding whether to buy physical servers or rent cloud-based server services can also be complex.

The first and most basic questions to answer are, do you want direct control of the hardware and do you have dedicated secure space in your office to house a physical server? If the answer is no, then a hosted or cloud server is your only option.

Cloud offers many advantages, in particular, scalability, and access to innovation and the fast-moving technologies that underpin the digital revolution. However, the promise of cheap monthly bills for cloud services can soon outstrip the cost of on premises deployment. In addition, many organisations have business critical applications and data that they simply cannot move from their existing offices.

Organisations that either want or require a physical server can choose between tower, rack and blade servers, depending on the size of the organisation and the load they plan to run.

Tower servers, usually the first systems an organisation installs. They look like large desktop machines or workstations and are usually appropriate for organisations of up to 15 users. Rack servers are a step up but are usually housed in discrete server room or server cabinet. Rack systems combine several standard sized servers that work together, with their own onboard power supplies, processors, memory and input/output ports on a rack. These systems are more easily expandable than tower systems but need more a more controlled environment to operate effectively.

Blade servers, usually found in larger organisations, require more infrastructure. In blade servers the I/O ports and power supplies are stripped out from the servers and mounted on a chassis that is able to hold more server units in a smaller space than traditional rack servers, allowing a greater concentration of computing power as well as saving on power and component costs.

Virtualisation technology can significantly enhance all these types of servers. It allows an organisation to deploy a number of ‘virtual machines’ - different applications and different operating systems - on a single server. Crucially, it also allows organisations to control the compute resources available to each application.

Dell has a number of business-ready server virtualisation configurations aimed at small and medium sized organisations, each promising significantly enhanced IT efficiency and simplified management. It also offers management technology that can help you combine physical on premises servers with virtual servers in the cloud – to help you manage varying workloads and move them to the most cost effective and efficient computing environment, depending on demand.

Making the right investment

Ensuring your basic business systems operate efficiently, your data is secure and accessible, your websites, email, communications systems, and collaboration tools all work efficiently and meet the demands of customers and staff are the table stakes for any organisation. They should be your primary focus when deciding on your first server acquisition.

Careful planning for that acquisition is an excellent way to lay the foundations of a technology strategy that can give your organisation a cost effective, efficient and scalable platform for the future. Vendors such as Dell can turn your detailed preparatory work into clear sets of choices - offering you highly optimised packages for standard business systems and detailed advice on the best machines for the applications that make your organisation unique.

Do your preparation and engage with a partner that has the tools to help you evaluate your requirements and the technology options to deliver immediate value for money and a long-term road map to meet your future needs. Dell Small Business Technology Advisors are a great place to start when buying your first server. Making that move is a mark of organisational maturity and a big step forward – saving you time and money and leaving you free to focus on your key priority – driving forward your organisation so it reaches its full potential.

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