19.03.2009

A Field Guide to Servers

Written on: 
December 9, 2008
Written by: 
Elliot Harmon and Adam Chapman

When someone refers to a server, what are they talking about? Put most simply, a server is a piece of software or hardware that provides resources to one or more computers on a network. The word “server” causes some confusion because it’s used as a catch-all term for several distinct things. Server applications, like Microsoft Exchange or Office Communications Server, are referred to in common parlance as servers, but the operating systems that those applications run on (for example, Microsoft Windows Server 2008 or Small Business Server 2008) and the physical computers that those operating systems are installed on are also called servers.

Your nonprofit’s server needs will vary widely, depending on the size and type of your organization as well as what IT resources you have available. Knowing the needs of your nonprofit and how those needs can be better met with servers, you can feel confident in investing your organization’s time and money in an appropriate server solution.

In this field guide, we’ll take a look at a wide range of servers to establish what some of the most common ones do and some examples so that you can see what fits your needs.

Before delving into the range of servers available, it’s important to know how they fit in with other computers on a network. Computer networks are commonly divided into two main categories: peer-to-peer and client-server. A peer-to-peer network is one of multiple computers connected to each other for simple purposes, such as file or printer sharing, rather than relying on a server to share information. Peer-to-peer networks can be sufficient for small networks (fewer than ten computers), but can quickly be overtaxed as the needs of an organization grow. In a client-server network, servers host applications and data for users’ computers (“clients”) to request. One server can host multiple server applications, but putting too much demand on a single computer can slow everything down to the point of rendering it unusable. Before deciding if a server can handle multiple roles, it’s necessary to determine the demands of each server application individually by testing it in the environment in which it will be used.

Server Hardware

A server is a computer dedicated to providing information and other resources to other computers on a network. The size of a server can range from a large room full of processors to an ordinary desktop computer. When selecting your server, look at the system requirements of the server applications and server operating system you intend to install on it. For more information on selecting an appropriate computer to work as a server, consult TechSoup’s Tech Beginner's Guide.

Server Operating Systems

Servers run specialized versions of operating systems. Microsoft, Apple, Linux and others all have server versions of their operating systems. At first glance, server operating systems may look and act like their desktop counterparts, but they offer more advanced features, such as the ability to centrally manage logged-on users and machines. The server versions of Windows and Mac operating systems include some built-in server applications, such as file-sharing and print-sharing applications. Servers running on different operating systems can be configured to communicate with each other, but most server applications can only run on certain operating systems.

Windows Server 2008 is considered an industry standard by many IT professionals. Windows Server includes many built-in server applications and is built to work with Office and other popular Microsoft products. Small Business Server 2008, intended for smaller organizations, combines the core functionalities of Windows Server with SharePoint Server and Exchange Server (both are discussed in a later section).

Mac OS X Server offers many of the same features as Windows Server and Small Business Server, but is optimized for an office that uses Mac computers. Although computers running both Windows and Mac OS X can connect to a server running Mac OS X Server, certain features are available only to computers running Mac OS X.

Ubuntu is the most popular variant of Linux for desktop computers, but it’s also appealing as a server operating system because of its ease of use, performance and security (that it’s free doesn’t hurt, either). Canonical is the commercial sponsor of Ubuntu and provides support for servers starting at $750 a year. Ubuntu is also appropriate for organizations of any size and has a broad support structure from the open-source community that continually upgrades it. It also includes built-in file and print server functions. For more information on open-source alternatives to proprietary servers, check out the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative’s guide to free and open-source software and the TechSoup article Six Steps to Adopting Open-Source Software at Your Org.

NetWare (also known as Novell Open Enterprise Server) was developed in 1983. Although Windows Server and Small Business Server have gained a considerable market share, many IT professionals still prefer NetWare, praising its customizability, scalability and built-in network management functionality.

Server Applications


File Servers and Print Servers

File servers and print servers are the most common types of servers, and due to the low demand placed on print servers, the same computer may serve as both the file and print server in smaller networks. Many server operating systems — including the operating systems listed previously — already include file and print servers.

File servers allow multiple users in a network to share one or more hard drives. When your computer is connected to a file server, the shared drive can appear on your desktop as an ordinary external hard drive would. Administrators can configure security features to allow only specified users to access or edit selected folders and files. File servers are also useful for manual backups, but dedicated backup servers, which we cover in a later section, are more reliable and can be configured to suit the needs of the organization.

Microsoft SharePoint Server 2007 is a specialized file server intended specifically for collaborative projects. SharePoint can track changes made to files by multiple users and store alternate versions of projects. Subversion , an open-source server application, is also intended for collaboration among multiple users. Both SharePoint and Subversion can interface with Windows Explorer, allowing users to make edits to shared files without leaving the familiar Windows environment.

For more information on file servers and alternatives, see A Few Good Tools for Sharing Files with Distributed Groups .

Print servers are computers that handle print requests from users on the network, directing them to the appropriate printer. When a printer is networked, multiple users can print to it without being physically connected to it. Some high-end printers can be plugged directly into a network without a print server to manage them, but virtually any printer can be networked by connecting it to a print server.

Back-up Servers

Although it’s easy to locally back up the data on any computer to an external hard drive, DVD-ROM or online hosting service, centralizing backup in your organization with a server application is a good policy for organizations of any size. With a back-up server, backup can take place automatically throughout a network and backed-up data can be readily available in an easy-to-access format in case of emergency. Furthermore, using a back-up server is the best way to make sure employees and volunteers don’t accidentally or intentionally remove data of legal or ethical importance.

Back-up software on client computers schedules automatic backups of their data to back-up servers when the client is on the internal network. If unwanted data loss occurs on a computer, an administrator can repair or replace that computer’s hard drive and then use the back-up server’s copy to restore the computer’s data.

Symantec Backup Exec for Windows Server is a back-up solution with minimal hardware and software requirements that can accommodate organizations of any size. Backup Exec can be used to back up both clients and servers, and allows clients to recover files via an internal Web site without an administrator.

Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager is a highly versatile, enterprise-level back-up server. Data Protection Manager keeps backups of client files as well as specialized application data for other client and server applications.

RESTORE is a cross-platform, open-source back-up server application. Holonyx developed RESTORE and plans to provide commercial support for it; but for now, it’s supported by the open-source community. RESTORE supports both automatic and manual backups, and no client software needs to be installed for RESTORE to back up other computers. It is appropriate for organizations of all sizes.

Email and Communications Servers

Email servers collect email and other forms of communication and distribute them to the appropriate users. Many email servers can also manage calendars, contacts, tasks, notes and more. Some email servers include Web-based terminals, letting users check email and other services from any Web browser. Communications servers, many of which can integrate with email servers, manage live communications like Web conferencing, instant messaging (IM) and telephony.

Microsoft Exchange Server handles the electronic communications needs of many Windows-based offices, and is appropriate for organizations of any size. Exchange is considered the standard email server by most IT departments.  

MailSite Fusion offers a feature set similar to that of Exchange. A free version of MailSite Fusion can support up to 20 users.

Microsoft Office Communications Server unifies and moderates real-time communication by a variety of methods. Office Communications Server facilitates IM, Web conferencing, digital telephony and more.

Jabber Instant Messaging is an open-source IM server. Unlike Yahoo! or AIM messaging, Jabber messaging is facilitated by your own local, customizable server. Numerous client applications allow users to send and receive Jabber messages.

Database Servers

A database is an organized collection of data. Similar to a spreadsheet in the way entries are stored in tables, databases are much more versatile and powerful in their ability to analyze, sort, compile and use data in other applications or Web sites. Storing high-end database information on a server rather than on a workstation offers many advantages. Using a database server, multiple users can access or edit data more easily, and database servers can automate the processes of collecting and publishing data.

Database servers can serve many purposes for medium and large nonprofits, including tracking donations or events and compiling information from multiple sources to measure a nonprofit’s impact.

Database servers are highly useful, but it’s best to talk to your IT department or to hire a consultant or database administrator (DBA) when deciding which would be most appropriate for your organization.

Microsoft SQL Server 2008 and MySQL servers are used in organizations of all sizes, while Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Express Edition and Oracle Express Database are intended for small organizations. All of these products are built on the open-source Structured Query Language (SQL) framework; Microsoft SQL Server Express Edition, Oracle Express Database and a version of MySQL are available for free.

For more information on open-source database options, consult Open Source Database Technologies.

Antivirus Servers

There are numerous antivirus server applications on the market. Some applications monitor the health of all of the servers and workstations on a network, while others only monitor the server for viruses.

Symantec AntiVirus Corporate Edition monitors network traffic for viruses and other forms of malware, along with keeping the client computers that connect to it protected by sending out virus protection updates regularly for Windows, Netware and Linux computers. Appropriate for organizations of all sizes.

AVG, makers of a popular free antivirus application for desktops, also offer several antivirus server solutions. AVG Anti-Virus Network Edition offers comprehensive protection of workstations and file servers throughout a network, with optional additional protection of Exchange and SharePoint.

Web Servers

Whenever you try to reach a Web site through your browser, you’re sending a request to a Web server. A Web server fills the request by sending the site back to your browser. Web servers are standard features in some server operating systems, but due to the cost of hardware and bandwidth, it isn’t recommended that you host public Web sites from your in-house servers. A larger organization that demands a lot of customization or advanced functionality from its Web site might consider buying or renting a dedicated server and keeping it at a Web hosting company (called a co-location, or “co-lo”), but finding a third-party Web hosting service is a more feasible choice for most organizations. For more information on Web hosting, see A Few Good Web Hosting Providers, an in-depth article on different Web hosting providers and how to select the right one for your organization.

Proxy Servers

A proxy server takes a request for data (generally for a Web site, but in larger networks any kind of data could pass through a proxy server) from a client and acts as a go-between to the client and the server. Today, proxy servers are most commonly used as Web-site filters to block certain content, to cache frequently accessed Web sites for faster delivery, or to mask the client identity for privacy reasons. If your organization handles sensitive data (organizations that have operations in countries with hostile governments, or that handle information that could discredit corporations), a proxy server could be worth the investment.

Internet Security and Acceleration Server 2006 Standard Edition is a combination firewall and proxy server. ISA Server protects and secures networks from outside traffic.

Tor is an open-source, cross-platform proxy server that anonymizes Web traffic to protect users from having their browsing habits monitored from outside their networks. It’s appropriate for anyone who is concerned about their Web traffic being monitored for organizations of all sizes.

Squid is a popular proxy server for Linux and Unix systems. It’s intended more to deliver Internet content rapidly by caching often-requested data than to anonymize Internet traffic, and is appropriate for organizations of all sizes.

Dan’s Guardian is a useful, free application for organizations with content-filtering needs. Unlike most filters, which filter based on a list of “banned” Web sites, Dan’s Guardian analyzes the content of Web sites for characteristics an administrator wishes to filter.

Fax Servers

If your organization sends and receives a large amount of faxes, a fax server could be a worthwhile investment. (To determine how much you fax, take into account how much a dedicated fax line costs per month, along with the cost of paper, ink, fax hardware and maintenance.) Client computers fax documents without printing them by sending the documents to a fax server, which either uses a modem or the Internet (via a technology called Fax over IP, otherwise known as T.38, similar to Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP) to fax the document to a specified number. A fax server can also receive faxes the same way, and even deliver them to the appropriate user’s email.

Windows Server and Small Business Server have fax server functionality built in. Standalone fax servers include Alt-N RelayFax and GFiFaxMaker . For simplicity and cost effectiveness, many small and medium organizations might prefer an online fax service (see the “Online Fax Services” section).

Mailing List Servers

Various server applications are available for managing mailing lists. Mailing lists can serve as a one-way communication venue for an administrator to email announcements to many recipients at once, or a collaborative setting for many users to send email to each other at once. Administrators can set up mailing lists exclusively for internal users on an organization’s network or for users anywhere on the Internet.

Popular server applications for mailing list management include LISTSERV, Lyris, Arrow Mailing List Server and Mailman. In recent years, remote services for mailing list management and delivery have become increasingly common (see the “Web Applications” section).

Virtual Private Network (VPN) Servers

A VPN server creates an extension of an internal network over the Internet. After the VPN server is set up on the internal network, a client downloads and installs VPN software on his or her computer (either a laptop or a computer not in the office) and can then access the network by connecting to the VPN. Once the client is outside the office and connected to the Internet, the client enters in a network address (usually an IP, or numerical address), username and password. This creates a secure “tunnel” over the Internet from the client computer to the internal network. Once the tunnel is established, the client computer is a part of the internal network and can access all of the resources just as if the computer was physically on location. Most firewalls and routers come with built-in VPN capabilities.

Windows 2003 has VPN server functionality built in. It’s recommended that you enable this feature if only a few people at a time will need to connect to your network from outside the office.

Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration Server 2006 (referenced in the “Proxy Servers” section) includes a more robust VPN system, including the ability to remotely connect branches. All organizations can make use of it, though smaller organizations probably won’t use some of the more advanced features.

For more in-depth information on VPN systems and options, see Introduction to Virtual Private Networking (VPN) .

Alternatives to Traditional Servers

In recent years, many companies have begun offering alternatives to traditional server applications in the form of either Web applications or hardware-only solutions. Although these solutions are less customizable than traditional in-house servers, their simplicity and affordability may make them right for you.

Web Applications

A Web application is a piece of software that is accessible online through a standard Web browser. Some new Web applications are simplifying the kinds of work and collaboration that previously would have required an in-house server. Using Web applications in place of traditional servers can also reduce an organization’s energy consumption as well as its tech budget. Many Web applications are free or inexpensive.

Google Apps is a suite of popular Google-branded Web applications, integrated and customized for use within an organization. Apps includes a version of Gmail that uses email addresses specific to your organization’s domain name. Google Calendars can be shared within the organization and accessed through Gmail, much in the same way that Exchange’s email and calendar functions can interface with each other.

Coworkers can use Google Talk for instant messaging. Google Talk is accessible either through Gmail or through any Jabber-compliant instant messaging client. Google Docs can serve as a shared repository for documents, spreadsheets and presentations.

Online Fax Services are an affordable, easy-to-use alternative to fax servers. Users can send and receive faxes as email attachments or through a Web interface. Popular fax services include MyFax, eFax and TrustFax.

Finally, numerous online mailing list services are available as alternatives to mailing list servers.

Convio offers holistic Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) services covering everything from fundraising to advocacy and email campaigns. Convio’s email services let you track the amount of interest generated by an email campaign and try different messages on test audiences.

Constant Contact is an email and survey mailing service to reach members of organizations.

NPOGroups is an email and hosting company that specifically serves nonprofits and similar organizations.

Popular group platforms, like Yahoo! Groups and Google Groups, can also be used to keep in touch with your members and constituents by email.

Hardware-Only Solutions

If you only need a print server and have a smaller office, you don’t need to host it on its own computer. Networking companies, such as Linksys, Netgear and D-Link, all make standalone devices. One well-reviewed model is the DP-300U, a standalone print server about the size of a paperback book that connects directly to a network and printer, and is configured by an internal Web site hosted on the device so the printer can be shared throughout the network. It’s cross-platform, so it can be used by most computers. The DP-300U is most appropriate for smaller offices that have simpler printing needs.

Apple’s AirPort Extreme is a wireless router that can also serve as a simple file and print server. A Universal Serial Bus (USB) printer plugged into the router can serve all of the computers on a wireless network. When an external hard drive connects to the router, all users on the network can access the drive. A drive can be accessible to anyone who can access the network, or it can be protected by a second password.

Although we’ve described most of the basic types of servers in an office environment, there are many types of servers that we haven’t covered. Before investing time and money in a server solution, be sure to evaluate how it will meet the needs of your organization and how it will fit into your IT environment. Remember, the cost of a server is more than its price tag or administrative fee. Installing a server and learning how to use it are usually large investments, but the reward of a more streamlined, powerful organizational infrastructure can be even greater.