Looking back over the last several years, several things have changed. One definite trend that has shown up over the last couple years has been that of smaller offices and businesses getting away from in-house servers.
I guess you can blame it on the “cloud.” Or at the very least, the fact that for many of the reasons people felt they needed a server, they are still better served by a “cloud” based service, or leasing one offsite.
What are the use cases? What are the pros and cons?
Most of my clients use servers for the following reasons:
- Email (often exchange)
- File sharing
- Shared printers.
- Custom, served applications (remote desktop or server-client programs like accounting or CRM applications)
- User and security management
Now, to be utterly honest, when you look at the cost differential over the years, even factoring in typically higher oversight and support costs for in-house servers, you will probably spend more for hosted or cloud based services after three years than you will on an in-house box, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad value. For one, many of the cloud-based services use standard formats that make it easy to get your data back out and migrate it elsewhere if needed, so lock-in is minimal. For two, though you may pay a few percent more, you usually have the option to quit at any time if flexibility is paramount. Last, unlike a typical small office somewhere relying on their DSL or cable provider, you can often get far more responsive and reliable connectivity to your services while out of the office than you do with an in-house server, without the added headaches of configuring firewalls or VPN’s.
Additionally, with in house servers, your data is absolutely yours, and always (unless stolen, you do keep a copy offsite somewhere, right?) available to you.
So let’s look at some substitutes for in-house servers.
If people are storing email in house, it’s almost certainly on an Exchange server. There’s a lot of good things I can say about the capabilities of Exchange, but given that 80% of what smaller companies use exchange for (email, shared calendars, delegation of email roles) can be handled by the free version of Google Apps, there’s not much reason to stick with Exchange just to have @whateveryourdomain.com in your email.
If you really, really need exchange, there are also hosted exchange providers like Intermedia who, among other things, provide full Blackberry integration and wireless sync.
All of these are free, or at a reasonable cost compared to licensing and maintaining an exchange store, and they’re accessible from anywhere, on any device.
If you don’t have absolutely huge amounts of data, It’s possible to lease some space online using shared Dropbox or Jungledisk “workgroup” accounts, and then share your files with your office no matter where you are. Both allow you to access your files from the web in an emergency, and Dropbox even has mobile apps for the Android and iPhone.
When it comes to backing up your data, Dropbox stores the last 30 days of changes to your files, while Jungledisk allows you to not only back up your shared files, but as many computers as you’re willing to cover by simply setting aside the space needed to cover your backup needs.
Speaking of backups, you also have Mozy, which allows you to create both local and remote backups of any computer or even server in your office, thus reducing the need for a server just for backups.
Networkable printers are relatively cheap, and most network capable printers can easily be detected and setup using some variant of zeroconfig (Bonjour for macs, and downloadable for Windows). Most smaller offices don’t change printer setups that often, don’t need to manage user access or permissions for said printers, and don’t change the network often enough to justify buying a server to set up printer sharing. They also don’t have enough of them to need a central directory to find them all.
In a lot of cases, server-client configurations are so network intensive that putting them on their own server is often a necessity anyway, and with VPN performance being totally unworkable, the best solution is often to bite the bullet and just run the program under terminal services for everyone. Again, this almost always requires a separate machine.
At that point, checking out a hosted application provider like Trapp Online for a small handful of users suddenly gets much more attractive. Where reliability and availability are absolutely paramount (accountants across a number of states, etc., and needing to maintain operations even with local disasters and hurricanes), the availability and high grade internet connections of the better hosted providers justifies the higher long-term price tag for even larger numbers of users.
This is where hosted service still fail. While most of them are very good about letting you control security and user access, spreading out your services across a number of providers complicates administration, application, and tracking of passwords.
But then, if you’ve got 50 or more users, you probably still have very good reasons to need your own in-house server, including the employee base to justify it and a better ability to handle the IT overhead. You also will likely need the fine-grained control that buying your own servers gives you – even if only making it far, far easier to maintain security and antivirus software.
Summing it All Up
For many smaller businesses, the advances of modern internet-based services, and the need for mobility and access to information even when not at the office make hosted or cloud solutions a great value when you consider the lower startup costs, and the gains in flexibility and power. It’s far from a universal fit, but keep it in mind.