Do I Need a Server?

Written on: 
September 11, 2007
Written by: 
Henry Kumagai

Your small nonprofit organization is growing. You have more staff, more computers, more printers, and more documents to save. It might be time for a server to help unify and manage the information technology in your office.

The term "server" can mean many things. It can refer to the hardware itself, the operating system that runs on it, or a piece of software that provides a specific service, such as delivering email or a hosting a Web site. Often, a server is a high-performance computer that uses specialized software or operating systems to store data and centralize resources across an office.

Signs You May Need a Server

Now that you know what a server is, how do you know when you can benefit from one? There are several factors to consider when making that decision.

1. Number of Staff and Workstations

In most cases, the biggest impetus for getting a server is an increase in the number of staff and workstations that regularly use your network. While there is no magic number, if you have five folks in your office each using a computer, you might want to consider a server to better manage and consolidate your growing workload.

The case becomes more compelling as your numbers grow; as you approach 10 employees and workstations, the benefits of a server become even clearer.

2. File Sharing

As the number of staff grows, there's more need to share files and resources. A server facilitates sharing. One staff can save files on a server and other staff can look at the file and work on it. A server is also designed to help share other resources, such as databases and printers.

3. Data Storage

With an increase in staff usually comes an increase in the amount of data your organization saves. Servers are designed with storage in mind: not only do most come equipped to store a lot of data, they also allow you to add additional storage capacity should you need it down the road.

4. User Management

A server can help you manage the users on a network. All server operating systems ― like Windows 2003 and Linux ― offer directory services (like Windows Active Directory), which allow you to create user accounts.

These network user accounts give you more control over the network resources your users can access. For example, you can assign one user or a group of users access to a human resources folder, but exclude others from opening it. Likewise, you may want to give your financial manager and her part-time assistant ― and only them ― access to a printer for cutting checks. Having a server can make this kind of network administration a reality.

You can also utilize other server-based network management tools to centrally administer these workstations. For example, the free Windows Software Update Services tool allows you to distribute Microsoft software updates to workstations in your network, selectively control which updates groups of computers get, and monitor the status of updates on workstations. Similar tools are available for antivirus and other security software.

5. Backups

Without a server, your staff are forced to save their work on their own computers, leaving files and folders scattered across a number of machines. As the number of computers in your environment increases, backing up these files can become more time-consuming and difficult to manage.
Consolidating your data to a server allows you to target your backup processes to key folders at a central location. You can also take advantage of more powerful, server-based backup software (like Symantec Backup Exec or EMC Retrospect for Windows or Macintosh), which offer additional backup and restore features.

6. Performance

Servers are designed to accommodate a number of users simultaneously. To boost performance, they are equipped to handle more memory and processing power than a regular desktop computer. If sharing files or a database from another staff's computer in a peer-to-peer setup is dragging you down, it's time to consider a server.

7. Applications

Fundraising databases, constituent relationship management, collaborative project tracking, even email. These applications ― along with many others ― require servers to operate.
Like a lot of information technology, server-based applications are gravitating toward an Internet-based delivery model. However, under certain circumstances, you may want to host some applications on your own server.

Performance is an issue if you are in an area where you don't have reliable, broadband Internet access. You may just want more control over how these applications are configured. After weighing the costs of supporting your own server-based application, it might be more economical for you to use your own server than have a service provider host it for you.

Server Packages

There are server operating systems bundled with some of the most common applications that an office would use ― such as email, database, and group collaboration tools. These are specifically aimed at smaller to mid-sized offices and are designed to reduce the guesswork and provide a pre-determined suite of applications. While these packages do allow you to add on components later as your needs grow or change, there may be some limitations due to the bundled nature of the software.

Here are a couple examples of server packages:

1. Small Business Server 2003 Premium Edition R2

Includes Microsoft Windows Server, SharePoint, Exchange, SQL Server. Available for an administrative fee of $68 on TechSoup Stock.

2. NGO-in-a-Box

A Linux-based suite of free and open-source applications for nonprofits designed to be a full-featured package that is particularly aimed at international NGOs.

NGO-in-a-Box includes applications for servers and for desktop workstations. Packages come in various flavors, including BaseBox for general small- to medium-sized NPO use; Security Edition for those who work in the fields of human rights, anti-corruption, women's issues, independent media, and journalism; Audio/Video Edition for multimedia production; and Open Publishing Edition for content publishers.

Additional Options

Due to a growth in Internet software development and some repackaging of standard technologies, nonprofits — especially small, growing NPOs — have more options beyond traditional in-house servers.

Hosted Applications

As broadband Internet access becomes more commonplace in the United States, hosted applications are becoming an accessible, reliable alternative to traditional servers. Sometimes referred to as application service providers (ASPs), these Internet hosts provide the infrastructure for a variety of popular applications in the same way an in-house server might, plus additional administration and support. For example, you can sign up with a hosted Microsoft Exchange provider for group email and calendaring or Basecamp for collaborative project and task management. For backups, EVault and XDrive are two popular online options.

In fact, for road warriors and virtual NPOs with geographically scattered colleagues, ASPs may offer better access than an in-office server.

The trade-off with this type of solution is some loss of control over your data and destiny. Your data lives "out there" on the Web in the care of the ASP, which you are entrusting to make regular backups and take proper security measures to keep your data safe and available when you need it.

Network Attached Storage

If you simply need more shared, centralized storage space, network attached storage (NAS) allows you to add hard drive-based storage to your network without having to install and maintain a full-blown server, and is available at a fraction of the cost.

Some NAS devices (starting at around $150 for 250 GB) are very basic, with room for only one hard drive. For example, check out the Network Storage Link for USB 2.0 Disk Drives from Linksys. Others have slots for two or more drives, thus adding more capacity; redundancy for fault-tolerance (if one drive fails, the other drives can continue to provide data access); and higher performance. Buffalo Technologies makes higher-end NASes. These devices can also function as a backup solution.

Print Servers

Similarly, if you just need to share a printer among your network users, you can find inexpensive print servers (starting at around $50) that only handle the negotiation of printing duties among your staff computers. Not surprisingly, some NAS devices include a print server, since file- and printer-sharing are two essential services that many small offices need. For some basic print servers, check out Linksys or D-Link.

Remote Access

Virtual private networking allows authorized remote users access to your organization's internal network resources ― such as the files on a NAS or the shared printers ― while keeping unauthorized users out. This is especially useful for organizations with a central office who have workers that travel quite a bit or for NPOs with satellite offices that need to connect to resources within the headquarter office (such as a database or stored files). In the past, this was only possible with a special server or with expensive and complex routing equipment. Now, many broadband hardware routers from familiar names like Cisco, Linksys, and Netgear offer VPN capabilities. (To learn more about how you can use a VPN at your nonprofit, see TechSoup's article Introduction to Virtual Private Networking.)

Expanding Your Capacity as You Grow

As your organization grows, there are more server options available to provide the capacity to share, manage, and access your information. If you have the expertise, a Windows 2003 or other network operating system–based server offers a versatile platform to provide an array of services to your nonprofit office, including file storage, print sharing, and email.

If you need just need more data storage or printer sharing, dedicated, easier-to-manage devices make it simpler to provide these services. Couple these with hosted services and you can offer many of the functions a traditional office server offers without adding the complexities of that often come with it.