Technology and Business seem to have a rite of passage. When the business starts, a few computers are purchased and the firm makes sure they can access the internet. The assumption is to become a real business requires purchasing your own server. Everybody needs one, right? And thanks to Apple and Microsoft, they are so affordable!
There was a recent blog entry about the new Apple Mac Mini Server. This is a good little product, but I felt it was important to discuss the benefits, costs, and risks of owning such a device. If a server makes sense, I think it can be a great solution. Just don’t be seduced by the apparent “low cost deal” without considering other factors.
There are good reasons to own an in-house server:
- Apple’s Server product includes a simple Wiki and Blog engine for teams. Perhaps you have a team performing some research. Perhaps you need to develop a corporate knowledge base. The Wiki makes this simple. No programming required.
- It provides simple file sharing. Do you have a document you want to save so others can access it? Put it on the server. A Mac or PC can easily share files.
- iCalServer. This provides a shared calendar location for all employees. iCalServer has its quirks, but it has definitely improved in this version.
- The Mac Mini Server has two 500 GB hard drives inside. That would allow you to create a RAID-1 (mirror) to protect your data. This only prevents downtime in case one hard drive fails in the middle of your workday. It is not a substitute for a good backup strategy.
The challenge is that many will fail to consider these additional factors:
- Apple’s Server product (and Microsoft’s) include a built-in email server. Don’t use it. Just Say No! If you’ve got a technology consultant talking you into it, find another one. They are trying to make money on regular maintenance! Email is a very complex, always changing beast. Would you try to run your own telephone service?
- Now that you’ve saved all your data to your server’s disk, how are you going to protect it? What is your backup strategy? What is your off-site backup strategy? I’ve had clients experience office fires, theft, and employee stupidity. Data without an off-site backup plan will be gone someday. Factor that expense into your solution.
- Servers are computers that work many hours of the day. They never get turned off. The two most common failure points in any computer (Mac or PC) are the hard disks and the power supply. Many large servers have built-in dual power supplies because this is such a common issue. That is also why most servers utilize redundant disks (RAID-1). The Apple Mac Mini Server can handle the disk issue, but perhaps you should consider an additional extra Mac Mini power supply. Plan for the day something fails, because it will.
- On-Going Monitoring and support is another cost factor to running your own in-house server. Who will make sure that one of the disks hasn’t failed? Who will guarantee that the backups were successful? These are not complex tasks, it is just important to not assume everything is OK.
- The server itself may have some other hardware failure at a most inappropriate time. This is one of the primary reasons to never run your own email server. Email is too critical a communications medium to have any downtime.
There are many great solutions today that provide “Software as a Service” or SaaS. Some refer to this as “cloud-computing”. There are many factors in choosing a software partner. Several vendors have written guest columns for this site. Solutions exist for Practice Management, Calendaring, Email, Data Sharing, and Electronic Whiteboard. The list is endless. These may ultimately be more secure and cost effective solutions for your firm.
My example will be email (especially given that is my company’s area of expertise). There is a good reason that you would choose a SaaS solution. That company has (hopefully) invested a great deal in their technology environment to ensure your data will always be available and protected. Your business can leverage their investment.
I could elaborate on email for another twelve paragraphs, but as an example – to provide first-rate email service, a business should maintain:
- Multiple redundant systems to minimize downtime
- Multiple locations to protect your data
- Multiple connections to the Internet in case of carrier failure
- Easy mailbox recovery capabilities
- An option to have a Journal of all email sent/received by your company’s employees
- Junk-Mail protection that is constantly tuned to stop the latest bizarre attack by spammers.
- Adequate security to prevent the email system from being compromised.
Small businesses could never maintain all of the above requirements. It is simply not cost effective. Software as a Service makes sense for this scenario. Be sure to consider all factors before purchasing the latest $999 server for your business. Your firm’s data depends upon it.
Jack Miller is a National Account Executive for FastMail. FastMail has been providing email services for the past decade to hundreds of thousands of the world’s most demanding users. Jack has over 20 years of experience in the technology field. His career has spanned programming, consulting, and sales for companies such as Massachusetts General Hospital, Chase and Microsoft. Prior to his career at FastMail, Jack was Co-President of RedCase, a Macintosh consulting firm located in Tampa, Florida.