I do consulting work for small businesses with multiple computers. Some of them don’t have servers. An owner may start the business with one or two computers. One of the user’s computers becomes a defacto server, with Quickbooks, a CRM program like ACT, and maybe a line-of business (LOB) database application. It’s also used as a workstation for email, internet, document creation and database access.

As the business grows, they add more users and computers. At some point they’re told by a consultant or vendor that they need a server. They ask why, and the vendor says something like “When you have five or more computers, you need a server” and when they ask how much will it cost, they’re told “Five thousand dollars installed”, and they say “That’s a lot of money. We’ll pass.” Later on, I show up on the scene to deal with whatever pressing problems need immediate attention, and that is where the cost issues of running a computer network with out a server come to the fore pretty quickly.

I will use a case study as an illustration. This client is a small law firm with six computers. One of the users has a PC that he uses for normal desktop needs. In addition, his computer acts as the office server, hosting a Quickbooks database, a real estate closing application, and two other databases, all of which are accessed over the network by the other computers in the office. His computer was several years old and needed to be replaced, as it was becoming slow and unreliable. Normally, replacing an old PC with a new one is a straigthforward process, especially when working with a Windows Active Directory server network. The files saved on the old computer are backed up, the new PC is joined to the network, programs are installed, and the backed up files are restored. The user is backup and running in a couple of hours. In this case, because the computer was acting as a server, things were much more complicated and time-consuming. Besides the usual desktop set up, all the LOB databases had to be backed and re-installed with the help of the LOB vendor’s support. Network drive-mappings had to be redone on each computer in the office to re-connect with the databases. File shares had to be re-configured and tested. The list goes on. What is normally a two hour job became an 8 hour plus job. Besides the cost of my time, the entire office is down for the day while this desktop/server gets replaced. That’s a worst-case example. A more common occurrence is removing malware. Since the computer/server in question is used daily as a workstation accessing the internet, occasionally adware/Trojans have to be removed after the user inadvertently downloads something malicious. It may take 15 minutes or two hours or more to remove the offending code. The computer will have to be re-booted or taken off-line during this time, which shuts down others in the office from getting work done.

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Yes, a server is a significant upfront investment. In the long run it will more than pay for itself by reducing downtime, increasing security, and boosting productivity. If you are currently using a desktop computer as a server in your office and you need to replace it, now is a good time to think about upgrading to a stand-alone server.

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