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Kutay Tanir

When a small business first starts up, there's a good chance everything it needs resides on the founder's PC. Customer lists might be in word processor documents or spreadsheets, and assets are probably scarce enough to be tracked on paper.

But as the business grows and additional staff and computers are added, especially if they're laptops, the number and criticality of files on various PCs gets to the point where it's too risky to keep them where they are. And when any given laptop is out of the office, so are important pieces of the business.

So, all you need to do is put a desktop PC on your network and share its files, right?

Maybe not. If you have more than four or five employees in need of shared resources, peer-to-peer file sharing is likely neither practical nor safe for those critical files. It may be time to bring a server into the mix.

A server is a computer that's designed to sit on a network and provide centralized services such as file sharing and e-mail. It is not necessarily super-powerful, nor does it need some of the niceties we expect on personal computers, such as high-end graphics. It is designed to be stable and robust, since it always needs to be available, and it must be secure to protect critical business data.

How do you know whether your business needs a server?

Geoff Kereluik, VP of commercial sales for HP Canada, says one clue is if you get to the point where communication needs among employees are no longer being met. For example, if customer orders are being kept in a spreadsheet, and you have enough customers that it becomes unmanageable and things start falling through the cracks, it's time to plug those cracks with technology.

Independent analyst Carmi Levy agrees. "The more interaction required between you and your employees, the more critical a centralized server becomes," he says. "If employees in a smaller business don't get the answers they need, and fast, they're out of the game much more quickly than larger organizations."

Data protection and integrity are also issues, Mr. Kereluik says. "Servers get backed up, and laptops rarely do."

Other signs to watch for, according to Mr. Levy, include:

• Inability of more than one user to simultaneously work on common data files.

• High degree of sharing via e-mail or other sneakernet-type services.

• Growing amount of time spent looking for data and related files.

• Difficulty for remote workers to share content as richly or as quickly as the in-office staff.

• Versioning issues resulting from different employees working on common files in an inconsistent manner.

Installing a server does not have to involve a lot of expensive infrastructure and staff. "You don't need the latest and greatest," Mr. Kereluik points out. "You need affordability."

But at the same time, you need hardware that's designed to be robust and reliable enough to perform the function, not just an old PC stuffed under someone's desk.

And one size does not fit all. "The ultimate solution for any given small business largely revolves around business needs, budget and access to skills," Mr. Levy says.

There are plenty of choices.

For those with staffers who have IT skills, or who have the willingness to hire someone with those skills, a server installed in your office may be the right option, but it comes with a price. Not only do you need an appropriate home for the hardware - a secure area with good power and reasonable climate control - you need the knowledge and staff to manage the server, back it up, and otherwise look after its care and feeding.

This option provides maximum control over your data, but it needs people as well as infrastructure.

For control without the staff overhead, a capable computer services organization - perhaps the value-added reseller (VAR) from whom you acquire the hardware - can manage the in-house server for you. But Mr. Levy cautions there are pluses and minuses to this approach that should be considered.

"While working with a third party in this way requires careful contract management and communication processes to ensure the original framework vision is met, it allows smaller shops to move into server-based infrastructure sooner than might otherwise be the case."

Next on the continuum, for companies that still want to own their own server but don't have the ability or desire to house or manage it, is a hosted solution. In this scenario, you own your server, but it actually lives in a third party's data centre, where power and air conditioning and other infrastructure are provided. Employees connect to it over a network link. In combination with the VAR or the staff of the hosting company, which manages the system, it offers the best of both worlds as long as the relationships are properly managed.

"Failure at this level could severely compromise the ongoing operations of the business," Mr. Levy warns.

Hosting companies may also rent hardware to their customers, allowing them to preserve their capital dollars for other priorities.

The newest option in the quest for economical server resources is the much-touted cloud. Cloud computing is the use of computing resources housed in a data centre somewhere on the Internet. Customers subscribe to cloud services such as storage and computing capacity, and can quickly expand as needed.

However, since it is still a relatively new model, service offerings must be carefully evaluated before signing on the dotted line to ensure all necessary components are included. For example, some cloud services put the responsibility for data backups on their customers.

"Cloud-based solutions could deliver all the collaborative advantages of the best server-based solutions, all without needing to worry about the server box at all," Mr. Levy says. But, he adds, "Unless both vendor and customer are on the same page, the intended results may either never be realized, or they'll be realized only after undue expense and contentious negotiation."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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