It may not feel like it, but we are in a golden age of consumer and business-grade technology. The COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain shortages have dulled the age’s gleam just a touch but stay with me: even 10 years ago, installing a local web server in any small business would have been taxing, ridiculously expensive, and required not-a-small-amount of technical know-how. Servers and their mainframe grandfathers have long been reserved for NASA, IBM, or other important acronyms but that is no longer the case. There are more than a few reasons even non-tech-affiliated small businesses may want to at least consider setting up a basic server in their place of work. Before taking the plunge, be sure to ask yourself, as well as your staff, these essential questions:
What is a Server?
A server is a dedicated machine with the sole purpose of “serving” whatever request is asked of it by devices connected to the local network. Servers are, in essence, just computers specifically configured to complete a certain process. A server “serves,” in that, the server is the mechanism by which the requests you make to your computer are processed and the proper result is delivered to you. A good way to think about servers is through the “server, client” relationship. A device that requests things is a client and a device that stores and delivers things is a server.
A local web server, then, is a computer dedicated to completing either requests from machines on your local network or designated web-based requests from people outside your network interfacing with something you are hosting, for example, a website.
Confusingly, “server” can both refer to the physical computer used as a server as well sometimes the software that computer is designated to run. For the rest of this article, “server” will refer specifically to the hardware definition unless otherwise stated.
Why Would You Want One?
Communal Storage: The most straightforward benefit to maintaining a server is having local access to files communally. Think of Microsoft OneDrive: this function allows multiple devices to share and collaborate on files by using Microsoft’s cloud storage. It is, however, entirely possible for you to configure a server to function identically to OneDrive but simply serve machines on your local network. While cloud storage is incredibly reliable in the modern age, the technical reliability of cloud computing is often not the concern of dissenters: if you are handling very sensitive files, hosting them on a local server rather than the Microsoft cloud can lead to much stronger peace of mind being that no device except those on your local network can access them.
Host Your Website: Web Hosting companies like Amazon Web Hosting are incredibly robust cloud hosts and offer everything clients would need to get their website off the ground… but for a monthly or annual hosting fee. Using a virtual sandbox environment like Local by Flywheel, you can host your own WordPress website completely free. Or, if you want to host a static website, like a blog, consider using GitHub Pages, another free solution. Especially tech-savvy business owners may also want to try their hand at development environments like XAMPP which give you the tools to build your website from the ground up (once again, completely for free.)
Host an Email Server: If you are interested in using email addresses with your website in the address rather than “@gmail.com,” hosting your own email server is a straightforward solution to give you and your business a professional edge. A local email server is essentially a digital mailroom inside your server which receives incoming mail from external addresses and sends outgoing emails when prompted to do so. Hosting your own emails locally is also a security gain: the only way for a hacker to penetrate your inbox would be to penetrate your entire network rather than guess an email password.
Closed-Circuit Surveillance: Using a local server is a great way to view CCTV cameras remotely without Internet access. With programs like DVR Viewer, business owners can view their CCTV footage from any device, even off their network if configured to do so. Your local server is also a great place to store recorded CCTV footage for easy access if it should need to be pulled up.
Manage Your Own Ecommerce: Using open-source software like OpenCart, small business owners can host their own highly customizable ecommerce interface for completely free. Ecommerce software like OpenCart allows small business owners to maintain all digital sales completely in-house: I don’t have to explain to small business owners why this is both a time and money-saving miracle.
CRM, HR, and other Software: If your small business uses bulky software for integral processes across multiple devices, installing that software on a server can be a great way to free up space and power on your on-site machines. And even if your client devices (on-site work computers which interface with your server) aren’t connected to your server by ethernet, using software over the wireless network is generally quite reliable under most Internet providers.
What Are You Willing to Pay?
Build your budget for your server based on what you would like to use it for. If your server is simply for file access across multiple devices on your network, you may be able to snag a great device for less than $500. For the most basic server needs, a device like the Supermicro SuperServer e200-9B System or similar could meet your needs. But if you are interested in hosting your high-traffic website or ecommerce platform on a local server, this machine likely won’t suit your needs, as its processor clock speed maxes out at 2.4 GHz and only has one hard drive bay. If you want your server to host any multiple of the services listed above, you will likely need a machine exceeding $1,000. A good example of a quality, high-end server is the Lenovo ThinkStation P520 Workstation which has never cost less than $1,600.
Who Will Maintain it?
Maintaining a server is easier than ever but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. If your small business does not have a dedicated IT department or staff person, it may come down to you, the small business owner, to keep your server (and the essential processes it maintains) alive. If you are interested in genuinely learning the means to manage a server, there are plenty of online and in-person courses that can help boost your server knowledge. If you are genuinely considering any amount of web hosting, however, you may realize why there are so many full-time IT professionals in the business world.
So, Do You?
The price tag for local servers as well as the hefty work necessary to keep a machine live is enough to turn away many small business owners from buying their own local server. Instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars a decade ago, reliable machines now may only cost a tenth of that. And while learning to maintain a server once was actually akin to rocket science, the technology behind servers today has never been more user-friendly. Sit down with your staff and do a full technology audit of your workplace. Before choosing a server or even deciding to buy a server, determine every process the machine will be responsible for and how those processes are currently being done. Consider just as well how much labor it would take to transfer those existing processes to your server. Then, once your machine is live, do you have enough dedicated and educated staff to maintain your machine? Adding a local server to your small business has the potential to modernize and streamline your business but just make sure that streamlining isn’t a detriment to your existing structure; your server is supposed to make your life easier, not harder.