Every small business has growing pains. One of the most common is deciding whether to buy a server. After a while, it isn’t enough to invest only in the basics of laptops, wifi, computer memory, and external drives for backup. If you’ve asked yourself whether your small business needs a server, you’ve probably run into some sort of dilemma, be it with file storage, e-mail, or a backup solution. Spoiler alert: the answer is probably yes.

The First Question

We should first address the burning question: why not just go with the cloud for everything? Because failure is possible, even for large cloud services, and you don’t want your ability to do business to depend on someone else’s ability to stay in business or in service. Amazon’s cloud service has gone down twice – taking some high-profile clients with it for a few days ­– and that should give you pause.

The reality is that a hybrid approach ends up being the right one for most businesses, even small ones. Many IT consultants in the know say that if you need to rely on the cloud for accessibility, you should have agreements with more than one vendor for redundancy, so while it will cost somewhat less than a physical server, it will be a noticeable expense. An on-site server will offer you security, redundancy, control, and more possibilities for hosting your own email, database, and certain types of applications. You can then tailor your cloud service subscription to fit your needs.

 The Long View

Is your business at the size you want or do you hope to continue growing and adding employees? If the latter, you’ll want to buy a solution that will scale up. Dell makes quality servers that are appropriate for this customer. If the former, you might be able to get away with network-attached storage, or NAS, which can amount to just a box that connects to your router, is controlled remotely, and is accessible to everyone on the network. Its other advantage is that, with a little education, it can be run by someone without a lot of technical expertise. NAS is not really scalable and is best for just storage and backup, so it’s appropriate for only modest uses.

Go back to the dilemma that first led you to consider purchasing a server and let that be your starting point. Among the most common uses for “real” servers are hosting e-mail systems and databases, central file storage, and automated backup. If this sounds like you, you’ll likely be shopping for a tower server.

The Nitty Gritty: Terms

To get expansion capability, look for servers that offer upgradable hard drives. To ensure you have adequate backup, look for RAID, or redundant array of independent disks; you’ll encounter a lot of jargon around RAID, but the important thing to know is that your data and files will be safe in case of a hardware failure. From a major vendor like Dell, you’ll have a choice of server operating systems, Windows among them. You will also want virtualisation capability, so look for that option as well (common makers include VMWare and Citrix). In short, virtualisation allows you to create additional virtual servers on an existing physical setup, so you can expand its capacity if, for example, you purchase a new database or start using customer relationship management software.

Laptops or desktops, computer memory, a network: these were the first steps in building your infrastructure. Now take the next step. Even on a budget, an SME can give itself room to grow with the right server purchase.