What is a server? What does a server do? Do I even need one?

by Wally Moore

on June 27, 2019

in IT Support

These are very good questions!

In our opinion, an even more important question than, “What is a server, and what does a server do?” is, “How do you know if your business even needs one?”

“Do I need a server?”

Here at DTS InfoTech, business owners ask us, “Do I need a server?” Need is also a very good question. It’s a legitimate question for several reasons. Maybe their business needs new software, and some software is not cloud-based, and therefore, a server is required? They don’t know.

Some people will tell you to get a server once you have five computers or more

Is the answer that simple? Are there other ways to know when you need a server? If you’re thinking that just taking a head count of employees doesn’t seem like the best way to know when a server is needed, you’re right; it’s not.

So, it’s not that cut and dry? Nope, not anymore!

It much more nuanced than that, like:

  • What type of software do you need for your business?
  • Is some or most of your computing done in the cloud?
  • How does your business use technology?
  • Are you interested in using newer technology to stay competitive in your industry?
  • What about future business growth? It isn’t just about employee headcount.

Surely there must be other considerations that are just important

Here too, these questions involving a server are all very good questions.

This article will answer the first two questions for you. What is a server? What does a server do?

The third question about “How do you know if your business even needs one?” can only be answered by you.

You will make a good decision for your business based upon your education regarding servers

Full disclosure

To begin with, an IT Services company makes money selling, installing, and maintaining a server for you. You must know this going in. It’s one of the ways IT Service companies make money, which is perfectly fine.

So then, your first task is to find an IT Services company that will focus on resolving problems for you, without regard to how much money they’re going to make providing them.

We believe there are many companies like this for you to interview. They are professional and reputable, and they will tell you the truth, regardless of whether there is money to be made for themselves, or not.

First things first, make sure you’re dealing with an IT Services company that will treat you right.

Another way to say it is they will treat you as they would treat themselves

But before we answer, “What is a server?” let’s talk about the way most small businesses operate that do NOT use a server. History and experience can teach you, and it will set the stage for your answer.

A long time ago, in a place far away, it all began with Peer-to-Peer networking.

Peer-to-Peer networking? Oh, boy, now this is exciting!

Don’t let the techy term make you anxious! It’s super easy to understand.

Peer-to-Peer means small businesses that do NOT use a server, they use their regular desktop computers to get their jobs done. If files are needed to be shared, the users access each others’ systems. Its been working for a long time. Since you’re reading this article chances are pretty good, you’re already a Peer-to-Peer networker yourself, but you don’t know it.

In a peer-to-peer network, each computer has the capability of serving every other computer. If one user needs a file on someone else’s machine, they can just access it directly. Easy huh?

Like many other people back in the early days of computers and networking, peer-to-peer networking is how I came of age using computers in an office environment.

What is it? In a peer-to-peer network, each desktop computer relies on each of the other desktop computers to provide and share information and services.

There is no true server in this type of network

You’ll find this type of network in small offices or a home office. Again, this is perfectly acceptable. In some businesses, it’s all that is needed, or ever will be needed.

Okay, enough networking history

What is a server?

One definition from Merriam-Webster is, “One that serves food or drinks.” Notice the emphasis is on serves.

Merriam-Webster also states, “a computer in a network that is used to provide services (such as access to files or shared peripherals or the routing of e-mail) to other computers in the network.”

The first thing to know about a server (this is important) is that it will serve your entire company. Hence the very practical and non-technical name of the server.

But what does a server do?

It may be easier to list what a server doesn’t do because they do almost everything.

A server provides several important critical functions for a business.

Let’s describe a handful of these functions or tasks if you prefer. There are many, many more. If you’re interested in this topic, entire books are available on what a server can do.

One of the most important roles of the server in the network is the security it provides to protect your business.

So, let’s begin with Network Security

  • Using a server, you can create individual user accounts and group those accounts for easy management
  • Using a server, you can assign user rights to specific sets of data stored on the network
  • User rights prevent unauthorized users - inside the business and outside the business - from accessing materials they shouldn't be viewing, e.g., the people on the sales floor don't need access to employee records. HR or company owners should only have access to that specific data
  • The server allows file access from all workstations

Access to files saves a ton of time and effort company-wide. You don’t have to copy files to a disk and take it back to your computer, but you could if you wanted too.

Plus, if a user's workstation fails, that user/employee can go to another workstation and continue working on the same files.

Also, users can store their private documents within their assigned folder on the server. The benefit of this is minimally three-fold.

  1. Private data, stored in a user's folder, is only accessible to that user. That’s called security.
  2. Since all of your employee's data is on the server, data is backed up nightly (more often if you wish) with the rest of the network data. That’s called security.
  3. Data is never EVER lost due to a crashed workstation, or Ransomware attack---assuming you also have good backups. Yep! That’s called security.

A server provides security (serving up security if you will), and this is a big deal

How about reliability?

If you’re going to protect your business with increased security, at the same time, while you’re at it, you might as well increase the reliability of your business to serve your customers! It logical and makes sense.

Reliability! Another service provided by your hard-working server

Availability, like 24x7 and 365

Servers are designed with internally-redundant systems, and built to run at all times, 24x7, 365, without a day off, or any health benefits and even in the event of some internal hardware failures.

Like the Energizer Bunny, a server will take a licking and keep on ticking. It’s true! We’ve seen it many times. That's one reason why many servers come with redundant power supplies, just in case you were wondering.

Power Supplies

Properly-designed servers have multiple power supplies. On systems with a single power supply if it dies, the server would instantly shut down - just like a desktop computer – potentially resulting in lost data, unproductive employees and the possible damage to your business reputation because you could not service a customer.

With a secondary power supply running in tandem, the loss of one of the power supplies doesn't affect normal system operations. As a result, that failed power supply goes unnoticed by the users and IT administrators are alerted to the failure. Most redundant power supplies can be “hot-swapped”, meaning the failed supply can be replaced without the server being taken offline.

Hard Drives

The same goes for a server's storage system, unlike an average desktop computer that uses a single hard drive. A server will often use multiple hard drives to prevent data loss or interruption in workflow due to the failure of a solitary hard disk.

With the redundant hard drive or power supply working, you still have the problem of replacing the failed hardware.

On a desktop, when any hardware fails, you need to shut the system down to repair it. But shutting down isn't acceptable for a server since whenever the server is down, your employees are unable to do their work and service your customers.

For these reasons, many servers come with hot-swappable hard drives.

Hot-swappable hard drives?

Cool name! Like the redundant power systems, hot-swappable hard drives allow you to replace faulty hardware ‘on-the-fly’ which means without shutting the server down, the failed hard drive is taken out, and the new one is plugged in and starts working automatically. Pretty nifty, we think.

Servers are very reliable

We should also mention data storage and shared resources.

With a network server, all of the users on the network can make use of all the resources a business has to offer, right from their desks. Talk about being efficient. Some of these resources (there are many others) include the following:

  • Centralized data storage
  • Printers and Fax servers
  • Line-of-business software
  • Access to Email and company calendars
  • Access to files

Servers perform an amazing number of tasks, and many of these tasks are scheduled to run after hours when your business is closed, and your employees are not working.

Another technology receiving a lot of attention these days is backing up your data

All businesses should back up their data regularly. Regularly means “daily backups at a minimum” and in some businesses, data backups run multiple times every day. All managed by the server.

By having all of your company and employee data stored in one location, backups are reliable and quick.

You'll never need to worry about data stored on a workstation as you do in a peer-to-peer network.

Make sure you have at least a daily backup, although you may need more depending on your business.

Without getting to technical, keep the following points in mind that servers will:

  • Control users/passwords across the entire network
  • Control access to data: users are allowed or prevented from accessing data
  • Provide an in-house back-end for running databases, such as QuickBooks or SQL-based Line of Business programs
  • Allow users to remotely access applications, such as using the company QuickBooks from their computer at home
  • Centralize management of devices, for example rolling out a new company copier/printer to all workstations in a single operation
  • Centralize important data for ease of backup

We should mention servers technically still do the following: but ALL of the items below can be used and managed in the cloud without the need for a server, so none are specifically a qualification for needing a server:

  • Anti-virus centralized management
  • File sharing (ex. A “public” drive with shared files, or an “Estimates” folder for the Estimating group users)
  • E-mail – Exchange was common on servers through 2011, but typically e-mail is now handled in the cloud—even the new servers we’re putting in no longer do the e-mail flow.

The companies we have serviced over the years would never go back to running their business without a server. Even businesses with fewer than ten employees. It’s hard to overstate the benefits of a server.

The information we have provided here only touches the surface of what a server can do for you, your business, and your customers.


So, do you need a server? I don’t know! And if you’ve only read this article you don’t know either!

But you know more now than you did, so you’re on your way to making a good decision for you.

If all that we’ve talked about regarding a server sounds good to you, and you think you need one, take the next step and call an IT Services company and ask them to help you.

Reputable, professional, IT Service companies will gladly answer all of your questions so you can make an informed decision that is best for you

Rather than just using a head count or software you want to deploy, there are numerous other reasons a business should consider before deploying a server. Why? Because many computing tasks are being outsourced to the cloud now.

The IT industry has changed radically over the years – it always does - and you need to find out what is available to your business, today, right now, in cloud technologies.

Because of cloud technology, purchasing a server is NOT always the best way to go for many small businesses. Using cloud technologies is like renting a server. But you should be the one who makes that decision for your company and not another company that has a vested interest in selling one to you.

So, do your due diligence and research all the technologies available to your business to see if a server is right for your business.

Return to - What are IT Services?

DTS InfoTech Can Help

DTS InfoTech is an expert in:

  • Designing servers
  • Installing servers
  • Maintaining servers
  • We use several of them every day here at DTS InfoTech
  • We’ve installed many of them over the years
  • We currently manage numerous servers for our customers

We love servers. They are phenomenal machines.

But, all that said, we advise our customers, “Do not buy a server when you don’t need one!”

Maybe this describes your business. Do you know?

If you don’t know – frankly most businesses don’t know - and would like more information, please give us a call, we’re always happy to chat, and the call is free!

Dedicated to your success,

Wally Moore

General Manager

https://www.dtsinfotech.com . . . secure computer networks that work