When it comes to shopping for servers, very small businesses often act like the kid in the proverbial candy store.
That’s because the shiny goodies behind the Windexed glass have been tested, marketed and bundled with small businesses in mind. The problem is the VSB, unlike her older, more established SMB brothers and sisters, only has the equivalent of a week’s worth of leaf-raking allowance to spend, which isn’t nearly enough for the yummy rack of blade servers she’s been pining for.
So can the VSB leave the server-candy store feeling fulfilled? Absolutely. With a little planning and lots of virtualization, the VSB should have no problem satisfying her storage, sharing, and remote access needs.
Make a list of what you need
As a first step in the server acquisition process, all companies are advised to go through the following set of introspective questions: does your company need a server for file sharing? For email? For remote access? For data backup? And then based on their answers, a checklist of server characteristics is generated.
Very small businesses are unique animals. They often operate out of shared-space, closet-like and home offices under razor thin margins, where even a few thousand dollars’ loss can lead to closure. With this reality in mind, the VSB should still follow the above step, but with two important additions. At the very top of their server list, even above “file-sharing capable,” the VSB must put: “inexpensive” and “small.”
Rack and blade servers are probably not realistic choices for a VSB, but NAS and tower servers, thanks to virtualization and the cloud, will more than adequately fill their needs.
What’s in the (small) box?
For VSBs seeking data storage, file sharing or even an email server, Network-attached storage from companies like QNAP and Synology is the cheapest, fit-under-your-desk solution on the market. With NAS, there’s no elaborate cooling system or special server room required. It should be a VSB’s first consideration, even before a simple storage solution like an external hard drive.
Why? Disk failures. A NAS’s RAID arrangement makes it much more resilient than an external hard drive. And because it’s often as simple as an external hard drive to configure and manage, there’s little downside to NAS. VSBs won’t even need to attach a NAS to a monitor or keyboard; the unit can simply be plugged in and set-up over a network using a browser.
This plug-and-play capability is NAS’s most attractive feature, especially for IT-lite VSBs that have to ask the neighbor’s son who “loves that ‘mining craft’ game” to come over whenever their computers crash.
Many NAS units are music and video streaming app compatible, and thanks to the growing popularity of NAS in the consumer market, more diverse applications are on the way. That being said, VSBs should not expect a NAS unit to run their business software (yet anyway). But that’s okay. As we’ll discuss later, cloud services can easily fill in this service gap.
Towers and hybrids
The tower is the next-server-up in terms of power, but because of its increased complexity it is a better fit for VSBs with dedicated IT.
Tower of power
It’s easy to mistake a tower server for just another computer; they look very much alike. More often than not a VSB’s first tower is an older PC (or Mac) repurposed for server duties. (Though VSBs looking for brand-new purpose-built towers should check out Dell and Lenovo’s offerings.)
And while a tower requires more space and resources (monitor, keyboard, mouse, and sometimes cooling) than a NAS, as far as “true” servers go, it is the least expensive and intrusive option. If a VSB can fit a computer, they can fit a tower server.
A single tower server won’t need any more cooling than a fan, but a team of towers will require an external, and often costly, cooling system. Luckily most VSBs only need one or two towers, as virtualization allows them to increase the versatility of their hardware.
Bang for the buck
Servers need to be lean, mean, application running machines and virtualization is the “performance enhancement” VSBs should use to get them there.
Email hosting, CRM, intranet: virtualization allows multiple business applications to run on one server. It’s absolutely essential for the cost conscious VSB, which would otherwise be stuck in the expensive hardware-heavy paradigm of one server for one application.
Fortunately, many server operating systems, like Microsoft’s Windows Server 2012 R2 support virtualization. Since such an operating system is needed to run a server anyway, VSBs are basically getting multiple “free” virtual machines for every one physical server purchased.
The hybrid debate
VSBs have to weigh the flexibility of cloud solutions with the recurring cost that often accompanies them. Using Office 365 or Dropbox Business will certainly solve a VSB’s file sharing, remote access and data storage needs, but the one time cost of a server and desktop licenses may be cheaper.
There’s no disputing that good technology must be able to grow with a business. However, should scalability be a VSB’s top concern? After all, most businesses fail early on in their tenure, and those that do survive rarely grow to enterprise level. It is indeed more economical to scale with the cloud, but if a very small business stays very small (or even just grows to small), then hardware may be the most cost-effective strategy.
The VSB has to decide based on its individual needs. Cloud applications are great service gap fillers in a NAS-based backup strategy. And the cloud cannot be ignored in a tower strategy either, at the very least for the redundancy it provides a VSB. Saving files in the cloud and on-site hardware protects the VSB from both online interruption and offline disasters.
Free cloud apps with perhaps limited scalability, like Google Drive, are also great solutions for the small-user base VSB.
Finally, what about racks and blades? When it comes to the VSB, anything that sounds like a torture device should be left on the “Maybe One Day” list. It’s the tower servers of the world that will get the very small business big.