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.

Are you open-minded about open-source?

Linux Penguin Mascot TuxMost of us pay dearly to run the software that’s installed on our computers, usually some version of Windows along with Microsoft Office, accounting software like QuickBooks or Peachtree, and an antivirus program like Symantec or McAfee. Many products require annual renewals or maintenance contracts; others release upgrades regularly, making it a challenge to keep pace with the latest versions.

While keeping licenses paid up is expensive, it can be even worse if you don’t, with civil and criminal penalties (including jail time!) that far outweigh the price of the licenses themselves. Disgruntled employees are a common source of leads, earning tens of thousands—even hundreds of thousands—in rewards for reporting software piracy.

These factors are driving many businesses to explore the world of open source software, where licensing costs are nonexistent. Entire cities, like Houston, TX, are making the switch; likewise, the government of Brazil abandoned Microsoft completely in favor of open source software.

How can free software be any good?

Open-source software is distributed under a special (free) license that allows anyone access to study and change the source code. This allows the software to evolve naturally, based on the needs of users world-wide; also, as bugs arise, programmers contribute solutions. The pace of development can be remarkably fast. New updates are generally batched together into releases, with some sort of peer review or decision-making process to ensure that the software remains stable.

Many programmers philosophically believe all software should be free, while others believe that open-source development produces a higher quality product than commercial development. Either way, the result is a wide assortment of excellent software tools that we can all put to use.