How to set up a server for a small or mid-sized business

Everything you need to know about how to set up a network and server for your small business. From installing windows to creating a server room in your office.

As your business grows and you take on more employees, the time will come where you need a server to keep your office network and business running efficiently. But with a seemingly endless array of choices and important decisions to be made, you might be wondering where to start. Luckily, setting up a server for a small or mid-sized business (SMB) doesn’t have to be difficult.

Considering your server is the backbone of your business or organization, your server security should be of utmost importance as a consideration in the long-term plan for both protection and efficient operations. For those who are unfamiliar, servers are normally used to host files, provide power for internet connectivity, and operate internal email systems. However, should you fail to maintain consistent antivirus updates, have the server compromised due to human error, or simply have a password that is far too weak, the heart of your business can be corrupted and stolen with ease.

In this guide, we’ll take you through everything you need to know including what a server is, deciding between hardware or the cloud, choosing the right operating system, and the best way to set it all up.

What is a server?

A server is simply a powerful computer used to serve up information and software to employees, customers, and other computers. For example, if you have five employees each working on a different computer, a server will allow them all to access the same software and documents – even if they are not all in the same building.  

By having data served from a central computer, rather than having multiple versions of the files stored locally on each machine, not only is access easier, but control is greater. So, access to certain information – such as personnel files or payroll data – can be blocked except for authorized employees.  

With a dedicated backup and recovery system, a server will also make it easier for you to keep your business information safe and give you easier ways to manage your network security.  Data security is always important for any business, but is even more so for small and mid-size businesses. A cybercrime study by Accenture, reported by Small Business Trends in May 2023, revealed that nearly 43% of cyberattacks are targeted at businesses of these sizes.  

Choosing a server for businesses

Once you have two or more computers in your business or need remote access to the company network, it’s time to invest in a server. Doing so will allow you and your employees to access software and files from anywhere and give you greater control over access rights to certain information, such as personnel files or payroll data. It will also give you the ability to protect your business information with a dedicated backup and recovery system, as well as allow for easier management of network security

Types of servers for businesses

When it comes to choosing a server for a small or mid-sized business, the key question is: what do you need the server to do? In essence, you want to allow your business room to grow, but not invest so heavily that you’re overpaying for resources you don’t need.

There are many different types of server and organizations will often use a separate server for each purpose. Most commonly, SMBs use servers for:

  • Secure email hosting
  • Website hosting
  • Document storage
  • Ecommerce hosting
  • Hosting line-of-business applications
  • Data backup and recovery.

Proxy servers are worth considering for businesses of any size. By routing web traffic and access through a proxy, your network’s IP addresses are protected from public view (the proxy IP address is shown instead). This anonymity offers your business an additional layer of security.

Hardware or the cloud – choosing the right server for SMBs

A crucial decision you will need to make is whether to have a physical server on-premises or opt for a cloud-based solution. There are pros and cons to each approach and what you decide ultimately comes down to the individual needs of your business.

Cloud servers

Cloud-based servers are well-suited to SMBs with limited space and IT resources. While not as fast or efficient as a dedicated server, businesses will likely find that a cloud-based server is ‘fast enough’ and the lower upfront costs make them an attractive option. Cloud hosting also benefits from redundant power supply and network connections, meaning that if there is a power outage or server issue, your network won’t experience any downtime.

On-premise servers

On the other hand, opting to build or buy a physical server comes with a higher upfront cost. But not paying recurring monthly fees may mean that it works out cheaper in the long run, especially as your business grows. You will also have greater control over how it is set up and integrated with your business cybersecurity solution. The downside is that you are responsible for the cost of replacement hardware and increased electricity for running and cooling the server 24/7.

Protecting your business servers

When utilizing a server within your operations, it is important to ensure it’s protected. Endpoint security is crucial when trying to keep your network safe from viruses, malware, or data breaches. Your server will hold confidential information about your business and its operations, but will also store your employees’ personal data. There are several steps you can take to keep your data secure: provide cybersecurity training for any necessary members of staff, use a server antivirus, track user activity, keep your server up-to-date.

Servers for businesses with Windows

Servers run specialized operating systems that are designed to be robust and able to support many users. The operating system you choose for your server is another important decision. If your business runs on the Microsoft ecosystem, you may already be familiar with Windows server offerings. 

In particular, Windows Server Essentials (formerly Windows Small Business Server) is widely used in SMBs with fewer than 25 users. Windows server operating systems are often popular with existing Windows users as they share much of the same code and look very similar to their non-server counterparts.

However, even if you are already running Windows on your PCs, you still have a choice of server operating systems. Other popular options for SMBs:

  • Linux Ubuntu Server
  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux
  • CentOS.

Choosing your operating system

If you have not yet chosen an operating system, consider the following factors:

  • Cost. Linux is open-source software and, as such, is often cheaper to run than Windows.
  • User-friendliness. Think about how easy the operating system is to install and run, especially if you don’t have dedicated IT staff. Windows is a popular choice for this reason as its interface is often familiar. Linux, on the other hand, presents a steeper learning curve.
  • Flexibility. Linux typically offers more flexibility and customization options than Windows, but bear in mind that you will need technical expertise to benefit from this.
  • Support. Microsoft is well-known for its high-quality customer support. As Linux is open-source, you may have to hunt around for support.

Setting up a server for an SMB

Whether you build or buy your server, unless you have a dedicated IT team, you’ll need to know how everything fits together. In this section, we’ll walk you through how to build a business server, get it all set up, and how to build the ideal server room.

Building a business server

Servers typically come in three different forms – rackmount, tower, and blade. A tower server looks similar to a home PC but contains server components that are more robust than a consumer computer, allowing them to run 24/7 without interruption. Rackmount and blade servers are installed onto a chassis making them highly expandable and good options for saving space, though both are more expensive than tower systems.

Every server contains specific hardware that determines its resource capacity, in particular, CPU (central processing unit) size, hard disk storage, and RAM (random access memory). You may also wish to incorporate backup hardware components such as hot-swappable drive bays and a redundant power supply, as well as ECC (error correcting code) firmware that detects and corrects errors on the fly to reduce downtime.

The exact specifications of your server will depend on what you need it to do. For example, looking at some common uses:

  • A server providing database services would prioritize disk space and a hard drive capable of fast write speeds, as well as support for RAID to provide reliability. (RAID, or  redundant array of independent disks, means data is held redundantly in multiple disk drives so that if one fails it is preserved.)
  • A file or email server would benefit from multiple hot-swappable drive bays but the CPU is not too important.
  • A web hosting server (which works together with a database server) would have higher RAM requirements and would benefit from hardware redundancy.

How to set up a server for a business

While the exact process of setting up a server for an SMB will vary based on your chosen hardware and operating system, there are some common steps you will need to follow.

  1. Prepare. Before you begin, document your network. Record the names of users, IP address, hostname of each computer, serial numbers, and locations. Check both the hardware specifications and software requirements of your server. You may find that you need to upgrade the operating systems of computers on the network in order to connect them to the server. You will also need to gather any items you need for the installation such as an ethernet cable and external hard drive.
  2. Install your server. If your server came with an operating system preinstalled, you can connect it to the network and begin configuration. If not, insert the installation media (DVD, USB, virtual media) and follow the instructions to set up your particular operating system.
  3. Configure your server. As soon as possible after installation, set the server backup (you may need an external hard drive), set up remote access to the server, and set sharing options. Set the server as a domain controller to allow all computers in the network to join the new centralized environment and to allow the server to authenticate user credentials. 
  4. Complete the setup. Add a local admin account to each PC or Mac and connect them to the server. Set up printers and connect them to the print server. Organize and upload the data and applications you wish to have on the new server, for example, your accounting software. 

Building a server room

Depending on how much space you have and your hardware choices, setting up a dedicated room to house your server is a worthwhile investment. Besides isolating noisy servers away from employees, you can ensure that everything is properly organized and set up to function optimally. When building your server room, consider the following points:

Room characteristics

Ideally, use a room with no windows and the capacity to install cooling equipment and backup power. Select a space that is big enough that you can reach the front and back of each server rack and, if possible, gives your server space to grow as your business grows.

Invest in the right equipment

While it might be tempting to use a desk or shelf to store your server, the benefits of investing in a rackmount far outweigh the costs. Racks keep your equipment secure, organized, and make it easy to rearrange server units.

You will also need a cooling system to ensure that high temperatures don’t damage your hardware. Consider installing an A/C unit that can be left on continuously, or better still, two units on separate circuit breakers to allow for a redundant supply.

Ensure security

Even for a smaller office server setup, you will need at least a lock and key to protect your expensive equipment and valuable data from theft or tampering. If your budget allows, consider installing a security camera.

A backup power supply is also highly recommended to keep your network and business running without disruption. It is good practice to install an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) to protect against power surges or outages.

Keep it organized

Cable management is an important, but often overlooked, aspect of setting up a business server. Although it requires a little extra work, an RJ45 patch panel can be used to terminate Ethernet cable runs and can provide up to 24 ports. Cable ties are also an effective and inexpensive way to keep cables organized and out of the way.

Lastly, make sure that everything is properly labeled and well-documented. It is also a good idea to document important procedures or instructions relating to your hardware and have this clearly visible near the relevant equipment.

How to set up a business network

If you are investing in a server, it makes sense to consider your whole office network at the same time. This will ensure that it meets your current needs and lays the foundation for your business to expand into the future.

Essentially, a network is a group of interconnected devices, often made up of computers, printers, scanners, and network drives. Creating a network is more efficient as it gives employees centralized access to files and data. 

Choosing what's right for you

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to setting up a business network. Instead, think about the specific requirements of your business, such as:

  • The size of your office
  • Number and type of devices your business uses
  • What applications your business runs
  • What files employees need to share
  • How you will protect your network
  • Your future expansion plans.

A key consideration when setting up your network is whether to go wired or wireless. While a wireless setup gives you more flexibility in terms of your office layout and design, an Ethernet connection (wired) is generally more reliable, faster, and less expensive. Because of this, some businesses opt to install both a wired and wireless network.

Setting up your network

To create a network, you will need to connect the following components:

  • Server. Every network should have at least one server.
  • Switches. A switch is a component that connects the devices on your network and allows them to communicate. You will have the choice of managed and unmanaged switches, but SMBs often opt for an unmanaged switch.
  • Routers. A router connects different networks together, such as connecting your office network to the internet or creating an intranet.
  • Cables. Whether you opt for a wired or wireless network, you will still need cables. The common choices are copper or fiber optic - fiber optic is more durable and provides faster data speeds.

Get business server antivirus protection

Whichever way you decide to set up your network, it will likely contain valuable data and business information so an important consideration is how you will adequately protect it. Cyberthreats evolve every day and SMBs are often an easy target for cybercriminals. A simple way to protect your business is by installing a comprehensive cybersecurity package that includes server antivirus protection. Avast also offers Antivirus for Linux servers, helping you protect your organization no matter what server you use.

Updated on March 14, 2024 with new updates and information

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