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Making sense of servers, Part 1

Jul 10, 20034 mins

* What to do when you outgrow your peer-to-peer network

You may not realize you need a dedicated file server. But that’s only because you haven’t been paying attention to recent marketing messages. Get ready to duck as new dedicated server operating systems come rolling out from Microsoft and Novell, as well as server appliances from Toshiba and EmergeCore.

Intel kicked things off in late May with its “Real Server” campaign, aimed at small businesses and their solution providers.  Intel wants to convince you a PC is a great personal computer, but a lousy server. So instead, you should buy a dual-processor computer equipped with Intel Xeon processors.  At the very least, this self-serving pitch begs us to examine the role of servers in small businesses. Note the timing: Intel’s campaign comes just in time for the early summer release of the final beta version of Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003. The final version is expected in the fall, slightly ahead of Novell’s NetWare 6.5 Small Business Suite, expected to arrive in December.

With all this in mind, this week we’ll discuss when it makes sense to move up from a peer-to-peer network to your first dedicated server. And next, we’ll explore when it makes sense to upgrade your dedicated server(s) from a desktop PC platform to a BeefyPC (my new term for stronger server hardware still in a recognizable PC form).

Windows 95 and up provide tools that allow peer-to-peer sharing within small workgroups. Some or all PCs share their hard disk and personal printers so others can access them. Problems? Plenty. Performance drops on your PC when another user accesses your files or printer; file access to other PCs has little or no security controls; when a user turns off his PC he also turns off file access; and there’s no centralized back-up location, making lost files tough to restore.

There’s no clear break point forcing you to move from a peer-to-peer network to a dedicated server at “x” number of users. It’s time when performance, control, security and back-up problems start to worry you, whether you have two PCs or 22.

First, in my never-ending quest to save money and time, let me detail two stopgap measures. You can either dedicate a PC in your peer-to-peer network to become the pseudo-file server or move to a server appliance, a device that bundles server software and specialized hardware into one easily deployed package.

You can configure a dedicated (no user) PC in a peer-to-peer network as the only computer sharing its hard drive and printer. This alleviates the performance drain on the other PCs and gives you a single place to back up all shared files. You can even use an older PC no one wants, saving more money.

However, this plan doesn’t gain you security or reliability. There’s no easy way to keep users away from files they shouldn’t see (like accounting and payroll), and two users can’t read and write to the same file, such as in a database, without more sophisticated file access controls. The same goes for a network-attached storage device. It provides some functions of a “real” file server, but doesn’t have a “real” network operating system.

For more on server appliances, check out my review this week of a new product from EmergeCore (see editorial link below), the IT-100. For $1,395, less than the price of Microsoft or NetWare small business server software, you get hardware and software and 20G bytes of disk space. A Web server, e-mail server and firewall come standard, among some other features.

An internal Web server for shared calendars provides excellent value for many small companies. A local e-mail server can send and retrieve all messages from your ISP and keep internal e-mail traffic in the office. Why send an attached PowerPoint file to your ISP, clogging your Internet connection, when it just needs to go to the next office?

Also, Toshiba just last week shipped a new version of its dedicated small business server, the Magnia SG30, which costs $1,499. The hardware/software combo includes an 8-port switch, 802.11b access point, two PC Card slots, VPN and a backup utility. In addition, there’s the option to have any of dozens of small business vertical applications preloaded and some interesting features for home users. Stay tuned for a review.

The bottom line? If file security (locking people out of some files) and shared file access (database files) is important, you need a dedicated file server running a network operating system.

Next time: When to consider a BeefyPC, rather than a desktop PC, as a file server.