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Server solutions for small businesses

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While they are often experts in their fields, small business owners frequently do not have the time, or the technical expertise required to efficiently manage one of the most important aspects of their business – IT. As a result, they tend to ignore IT issues; until disaster strikes.

Small business servers may be the answer to assisting small business owners in streamlining their IT processes. We take a look at exactly what the latest small business servers have to offer.
If a business consists of 75 or fewer computers; if you have information that is important to your business which must be easily recovered if lost; if other people (such as your staff) need secure and confidential access to your business information; chances are you need a small business server.
A server holds a number of benefits for small businesses, including:
* Central point of truth: “Servers provide a central point of truth – where everyone has access to the information that they need,” says Sonja Durant, a small business IT specialist and MD of The IT Department. "But they also promote internal confidentiality as the server can be set up to distinguish between information intended for collaboration and sensitive information such as employment contracts, designs, etc. and restrict or allow access accordingly.”
* Up-to-date on updates: If you only have a peer to peer network, with no server, you can end up in a situation where you have different versions of data in different places, and you have no simple way of knowing which one is the latest version. With a server, all business information is stored in a central accessible location, ensuring that the latest versions of all documents and information are always available. The server also has the ability to revert to earlier versions of documents as well as tracking changes to documents in a multi-user environment.
* Improved internal communication via intranet: With a server, internal communication is boosted by setting up an intranet platform. This comprises an easy-to-use, browser-based platform for storing and sharing documents and templates such as training materials, or price lists. The intranet platform can also be used to communicate announcements, policies and procedures and general company information electronically.
* Step up external security: The server adds a firewall and increased security to protect your business from outside interference through trojans, viruses, phising attempts and other spyware. Centrally managed antivirus protection options exist to protect email, documents, and server, desktop and laptop computers. Server-based updates reduce bandwidth usage and ensure all devices are properly protected at all times.
* Effortless e-mail communication: Exchange servers handle company email and collaborative communication efficiently, and perform automated backups of emails sent and received.
* Built-in backups: With peer to peer networking you run the risk of people being careless about back ups. Everyone believes someone else will do it; the responsible people forget to do it; or people don’t have time to do it. Whatever the excuses may be, backups are sorely neglected. As a result, the risk of losing information is high and, regrettably, many businesses only realise the high price of not running regular backups after, disaster strikes. With a server, automated procedures run backups according to a schedule and notify you of failures. Some servers offer a 'built in' capacity to complete backups of all business information at once (including all business emails, and server configurations. This facilitates a speedy recovery time in the event of data loss.
* More mobile security: In an age where mobility is paramount in every business, security risks have increased tremendously. Laptops get stolen or broken and if the information is not stored safely on a server, it will be lost forever. Servers ensure that replacing a laptop and its data is as simple as connecting the new computer to the network.
* Rapid recovery promotes business continuity: A server enables you to restore the complete network environment within a few hours in the event of a total loss. Accidentally deleted files can be restored within minutes. This can be critical for the small business where a loss of business continuity can result in the demise of the business.
* Expand the virtual office: “Servers expand the virtual office by providing remote access to all the information you would have if you were in the office,” says Durant.
“With a server you are not restricted to synched information that you have downloaded, via cable, in the office from your hard drive; instead you are capable of securely accessing the company network including user computers, printers, the intranet, e-mails, contacts and information sourced from other departments. You can do all this in real time, on your mobile device without having to come into the office at all,” she explains.
Software which caters for increased mobility, such as Windows mobile platform, becomes a powerful tool when used in conjunction with a dedicated server transforming your cell phone into a laptop. Without the need to sync it to your hard drive via cable, you are constantly in touch with your office and can use all the applications that were on your laptop, from your phone.
Something you may want to consider when selecting a server is the cost and availability of support personnel. The more complex the server, the higher the cost and fewer support services you have to choose from. Stick to servers that are designed specifically for small businesses as the needs of small businesses are unique and different from those of large or even medium sized businesses.
When selecting a service provider, it is also advisable to go for one that specializes in small businesses. You want a service provider with a thorough understanding of your needs. Note the number of skilled resources available to offer support – you should have the option to switch your support service provider if you are unhappy with their service.
Small businesses often do not plan properly when installing their networks. Amongst other things, older versions of software left on some machines, or the integration of different types of software can lead to network problems.
“Small businesses should insist on a road map approach to the implementation of their servers in order to pre-empt and avoid these problems,” says Sonja, “It is vital to select a reliable and knowledgeable service provider to assist you with the process.”