I spend much of my life consulting for smallish businesses which, although they’re not miserly with their money, have more reason than the big corporates to be careful with their expenditure. One of my clients recently decided that he needed to upgrade his database server, which led to a bit of lateral thinking on both our parts.

The client has a FileMaker server running his company database. It’s been running for some years on an ageing Mac G4 running Mac OS 9, but these days it’s really not up to the job. So we did some tests on an old PC server that I keep in the lab for testing, and decided that the way to go was to move FileMaker to a spanking new Windows box.

Being a call centre, the client already has a big, multi-thousand-quid HP ProLiant server handling things like call recording. Although this server has RAIDed hard disks, though, it’s not really much more resilient than the average desktop PC – despite costing several grand, there’s no redundant PSU, for instance. Why, then, should we spend thousands of pounds on a server that doesn’t really offer more than a normal PC?

We decided that that the main thing we needed was disk redundancy – RAID 1 or 5, in short. We thought of running up a Windows machine with software RAID, but decided against it (even if you can make it boot from a software-RAIDed volume, neither of us was particularly happy about the concept). Plan B, though, was more promising: get a PC with a pair of hard disks and whack in an IDE RAID card.

A quick shufti on Dell’s website led us to plan C. Plan C was identical to its predecessor except that we’d spotted a mid-range desktop that came with two S-ATA hard disks – so we dumped the idea of IDE RAID in favour of S-ATA. Five minutes on Inmac’s Web site presented us with a S-ATA RAID card for about 35 quid: perfect.

When the kit was delivered, we were reminded of the standard Windows installer problem. That is, the XP installer insists that you use a floppy (ie not a CD) containing the RAID card driver, but the PC itself didn’t have a floppy drive. A quick scoot to the shop was called for. Once we’d got the driver installed, though, everything was sweetness and light, and it was just a case of waiting for XP to install, then waiting for the service packs and updates to install, then bunging a copy of FileMaker on the machine. Oh, and renaming all the databases so they have a .FP5 extension (the Windows version of FileMaker, unlike the Mac version, requires the file extension so FileMaker Server knows what’s a database and what isn’t).

The new server goes like a train, and the call centre is a much happier place to be (with a much faster company database). Not only this, but it’s more manageable than the old Mac version, and the client has all the benefits of a RAID 1 disk setup with none of the cost of a “proper” server. The things you don’t get with this setup (such as hot-plug disks) are acceptable downsides, and the whole thing cost not much more than 700 quid. In reality, though, the cost was in fact less than £700; the client needed a new desktop computer, so we recycled the old Mac G4 to become a desktop machine – a saving of something like 500 quid on the Mac Mini (plus keyboard and monitor). So for a net price of £200 or so, the client has a RAID-based server and a new desktop. All for the sake of thinking a little bit laterally and realising that a server is really just a big PC, and the line between the two can move depending on your needs.