The difference between a server and a desktop computer

Dell server farmAren’t servers just souped-up desktop computers? Not exactly. If you are in charge of your company’s technology, you need to know what makes them different.

Server Software

Regular computers usually run some flavor of Windows, like XP or Vista. Macs of course run Mac software (OS X), and there are also open source desktop alternatives such as Linux.

Servers generally run more powerful operating systems that can handle networking, email, internet/intranet hosting, file sharing, databases, and more. Windows Server and Windows Small Business Server are quite popular in small and mid-size businesses. Mac offers OS X Server if you want to run your entire network on Macs.

Linux servers are also a popular choice. Because this is an open-source option, there are many different choices, referred to as distributions. Popular examples include Red Hat, Ubuntu, and SUSE. Some distros are better suited to handle server requirements while others are intended as a desktop operating system.

With Windows and Mac, there’s one more software component you’ll need: client access licenses (CALs) that allow computers on the network to connect to the server. In most cases you need one for each computer; they are usually sold in packs of 5, 10, and 25.

Server Hardware

The second major difference between computers and servers: better hardware. You’ll generally see better quality parts and more redundancy (duplication of hardware). The reason? If a desktop goes down, it impacts a single person. If a server goes down, it can easily impact dozens, even hundreds of people at once.

Better quality parts used to be something you could take for granted. However, if you purchase a no-name brand or even a really low-end name-brand, the quality difference will not be great. You often get what you pay for, and it’s difficult to do a true apples-to-apples comparison.

Redundancy is easier to check up on. RAID is a must even on a budget server–it stands for redundant array of inexpensive disks and keeps your server from crashing if a hard drive dies. More expensive servers add a wide variety of features from hot-swap removable drives to dual power sources. Multiple processors and plenty of memory (RAM) keep things running smoothly even for resource-hungry software applications.

You can select a tower case, just like a normal desktop computer, or a rack-mountable case. This is largely a question of convenience. If you have several servers, it is most efficient to mount them in a space-saving rack. If you have just one or two, it may not make much difference.

Vive la difference!

Now that you know the difference, you can shop smart, balancing price and reliability to get the server that best meets your needs.

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2 thoughts on “The difference between a server and a desktop computer

  1. A word about UNIX…

    It might also be worth noting the strictly “server” operating systems out there such as IBM’s AIX, HP’s HP-UX and Tru64, as well as Sun Microsystems’ Solaris. When a TRULY robust and mission critical server environment is required, the task is handed to one of these flavors of UNIX.

    Lets suffice to say that THE MOST CRITICAL computer systems in the world are running one of these commercial operating systems.

  2. There is another difference between a server and a workstation that deserves mention.

    In a workstation-only environment, each PC does all its own processing. Depending on the applications and workload, this can cause slow turnaround of information and results.

    In a true server-workstation environment, some processing tasks can be given to the server, which is in most cases faster and more capable than the workstation. In addition, when a database resides on the server, the workstation can pose a question, also known as a query, to the server, and let the server do the hard work. Often the server has the database on its hard drive, and so it has the fastest possible access to the data. By returning only the correct answer(s), there is much less network traffic than if the workstatation has to access, sort, and filter through the entire database using a network connection.

    If this sounds confusing, think of a simple example: Using a phone book to find a number vs. calling directory assistance. On one hand, you have to stop what you’re doing, find the right phone book, flip through the pages, and scan the right page for the result. When calling directory assistance, you merely state your request and their powerful server returns the answer to you instantly. The server does all the work and just gives you what you want.

    A properly designed network can increase speed and productivity by correctly balancing workloads between the server(s) and the workstations(s).

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