Networking For Dummies
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One of the most basic questions that a network plan must answer is whether the network will have one or more dedicated servers or rely completely on peer-to-peer networking. If the only reason for purchasing your network is to share a printer and exchange an occasional file, you may not need a dedicated server computer. In that case, you can create a peer-to-peer network by using the computers that you already have. However, all but the smallest networks will benefit from having a separate, dedicated server computer.

network server ©Shutterstock/l i g h t p o e t
  • Using a dedicated server computer makes the network faster, easier to work with, and more reliable. Consider what happens, though, when the user of a server computer that doubles as a workstation decides to turn off the computer, not realizing that someone else is accessing files on his hard drive.
  • You don’t necessarily have to use your biggest and fastest computer as your server computer. There have been networks where the slowest computer on the network is the server. This advice is especially true when the server is mostly used to share a printer or to store a small number of shared files. So if you need to buy a computer for your network, consider promoting one of your older computers to be the server and using the new computer as a client.
Assuming that your network will require one or more dedicated servers, you should next consider what types of servers the network will need. In some cases, a single server computer can fill one or more of these roles. Whenever possible, limit each server computer to a single server function.

File servers

File servers provide centralized disk storage that can be conveniently shared by client computers on the network. The most common task of a file server is to store shared files and programs. For example, members of a small workgroup can use disk space on a file server to store their Microsoft Office documents.

File servers must ensure that two users don’t try to update the same file at the same time. The file servers do this by locking a file while a user updates the file so that other users can’t access the file until the first user finishes. For document files (for example, word processing or spreadsheet files), the whole file is locked. For database files, the lock can be applied just to the portion of the file that contains the record or records being updated.

Print servers

Sharing printers is one of the main reasons that many small networks exist. Although it isn’t necessary, a server computer can be dedicated for use as a print server, whose sole purpose is to collect information being sent to a shared printer by client computers and print it in an orderly fashion.
  • A single computer may double as both a file server and a print server, but performance is better if you use separate print and file server computers.
  • With inexpensive inkjet printers running about $100 each, just giving each user his or her own printer is tempting. However, you get what you pay for. Instead of buying $100 printers for 15 users, you may be better off buying one high-speed $1,500 laser printer and sharing it. The $1,500 laser printer will be much faster, will probably produce better-looking output, and will be less expensive to operate.

Web servers

A web server is a server computer that runs software that enables the computer to host an Internet website. The two most popular web server programs are Microsoft’s IIS (Internet Information Services) and Apache, an open source web server managed by the Apache Software Foundation.

Mail servers

A mail server is a server that handles the network’s email needs. It is configured with email server software, such as Microsoft Exchange Server. Exchange Server is designed to work with Microsoft Outlook, the email client software that comes with Microsoft Office.

Most mail servers actually do much more than just send and receive email. For example, here are some of the features that Exchange Server offers beyond simple email:

  • Collaboration features that simplify the management of collaborative projects.
  • Audio and video conferencing.
  • Chat rooms and instant messaging (IM) services.
  • Microsoft Exchange Forms Designer, which lets you develop customized forms for applications, such as vacation requests or purchase orders.

An increasingly popular alternative to setting up your own mail server is to subscribe to Microsoft’s Exchange Online service. With Exchange Online, Microsoft takes care of all the details of setting up and maintaining an Exchange server. Your Microsoft Outlook clients are configured to connect to the Exchange Online service through the Internet rather than a local Exchange server within your network.

Database servers

A database server is a server computer that runs database software, such as Microsoft’s SQL Server 2019. Database servers are usually used along with customized business applications, such as accounting or marketing systems.

Application servers

An application server is a server computer that runs a specific application. For example, you might use an accounting application that requires its own server. In that case, you’ll need to dedicate a server to the accounting application.

License servers

Some organizations use software that requires licenses that are distributed from a centralized license server. For example, engineering firms often use computer-aided design (CAD) software such as AutoCAD that requires a license server. In that case, you’ll need to set up a server to handle the licensing function.

About This Article

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Doug Lowe is the bestselling author of Networking For Dummies and Networking All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies. His 50+ books include more than 30 in the For Dummies series. He has demystified everything from Microsoft Office and memory management to client/server computing and creating web pages.

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