What is a “server” and why might I need one?

I get a lot of questions about “servers” and have discovered that most people have a misconception of them. There are actually a few answers to the “What is a server?” question. Techs will throw around the term “server” with some frequency and the problem is that it is used situationally. In some circumstances, it will refer to one thing; others, something somewhat different.

In a nutshell, any computer that is centrally located and serves as a repository for an office or similiar group, REGARDLESS of the OS, can be considered a server. Lizardwebs just finished setting up a local office with a “server”. Due to the high price tag of the Windows Server OS, and minimal functionality required for the small group, a standard Windows XP Pro setup was used to handle the duties of file/application server.  It’s primary duty is to sit in a corner and cough up files when requested by users in the location – and they didn’t need anything fancy!  Server on the cheap!

So what actually IS a server?

  1. The most common answer – A server is really nothing more than a computer operating system that specializes in sharing files / applications with OTHER computers.
    • The Server operating system in many cases is NOT far different than the one that you use on your desktop computer. It IS usually much more expensive though in the case of any Windows Server OSes. If you happen to be running Linux server, it’s available for free download in most cases!
    • There are a number of additional functions available on a server OS – things like Web servers, DNS servers, DHCP servers, email servers, terminal servers, SQL servers, file servers, applications servers are all just variations on the basic server model.
    • A server OS is really designed to be at the center of a group of computers. In a small business network, the server OS is what will usually handle office-wide security settings, logins, computer browsing and a number of other functions. It normally is a central location for sharing files or other data.
    • Generally, you will not USE a server OS on your “work” computer. This does get stretched a bit in the case of either systems admins or uber geeks. I do actually know people that, for whatever reason, like to use a server OS on their workstation. I have never quite approached that level of geekiness however.
  2. In it’s broadest sense, a server is any piece of software whose primary focus is to provide service to another unit referred to as a “client”.
    • There are server apps on many people’s computers.
    • Quickbooks for one uses a server application of sorts for it’s main database.
    • File Sharing applications are comprised of both server and client functions. When people are downloading from you, they are actually reaching a server on your computer. When you are downloading from others, you are using a client of THEIR server.
  3. Finally, a server also refers to a specific style of computer. And obviously, it will usually be RUNNING a server OS of some sort.
    • Many times, if someone sees a large tower case, people refer to it as a server. However, just because it HAS a large case, it doesn’t mean that it is actually a server. It might just be a big case.
    • In small business environments, a server is usually a fairly substantial looking computer that looks just like the one on your desk – on steroids. It will frequently have several hard drives inside and be RUNNING a server OS (Windows Server 2003, Windows Server 2008, even Windows Home Server)
    • In larger environments, servers are usually bolted into racks. These don’t look much like the server on your desk and usually are just a narrow faceplate that may have a power button and perhaps a CD/DVD drive showing. Other units have the hard drives showing where they can be swapped in or out quickly. Many times though, the drives are housed in another component such as a SAN or RAID array where multiple servers can access the drives.
    • More recently, blade servers have become very popular. These are stripped down versions of the rack-mount type server. These types of servers can be popped in and out of a rack usually on an as needed basis. This is referred to as “hot swapping”. The whole unit does NOT need to be shut down to add more processing power. Blade servers are common in commercial webhosting, clustered, or virtualized setups. Blade servers are going to normally only be found in commercial locations. These are NOT something the average consumer is going out to buy.

Hopefully, that clarifies SOME of the meanings of the term, “server”. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact Lizardwebs!

Author: Eric Erickson

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *