What is a network server? Network servers are computers that are used as the central repository for data and various programs, and are shared by many users within the network.
Users may have programs and files they retain on their own PCs or laptops. But certain files and programs are better hosted on one of the many network servers on the market. That enables other users to access them by connecting to that server via the network.
One advantage of this approach is that if a user loses his or her laptop, their most important files are stored on a network server. As a result, they are instantly available once the user obtains a new network client. Collaboration, too, is heightened by these machines. Multiple users can make changes to the same document. Additionally, network servers help to improve file management and security.
Purpose of a Server in a Network
Going back a decade or two, the term network server was commonplace. These servers were powerful enough to host multiple programs and a great many user files. In today's age of virtualization and incredibly powerful processors, though, the “network” part of the name is often dropped. It no longer requires a high-end server to perform these duties. Yet the function remains a vital one. The more common term that people use for the role of a network server is a file server.
“In some cases, what we used to call network servers have become network attached storage (NAS), or they have evolved into appliances of various kinds or even converged or hyperconverged infrastructure,” said Greg Schulz, an analyst at Server and StorageIO Group.
The packaging of a network server comes in various flavors, too. You can still buy a physical server that acts wholly as a network server. Alternatively, virtualized network servers can be loaded onto larger server that perform multiple duties. Container and cloud-based options are also available.
The Dell Poweredge r330 is a commonly used network server.
Network Server Roles and Types
As businesses get up and running, there is a point where it is no longer feasible to rely on email or local hard drives to store information. It becomes more convenient to have a centralized place to store files, as well as share devices like printers.
The role of a network server, then, is to provide users with a set of services and access to resources on the network. This includes:
- Network permissions and log-ins for authorized users.
- Access to/gateway to the Internet for a business or an organization.
- A centralized location to store files.
- Access to shared devices on the network like a printer or a scanner.
- A place to host a multi-user applications for the business such as email servers, Wikipedia or webpage-type applications, CRM or financial packages.
“Data usage and content is exploding and the need for a file server to host shared files is still a key consideration for those buying a server,” said Jonathan Seckler, Senior Director of Product Marketing at Dell EMC.
The HPE Proliant dl385 is often found in the network server lineup.
How to Create a Network Server
It is relatively easy to create a network server. Seckler said that networking can be accomplished very simply for a small business with a peer-to-peer work group. The server sits on the network as ‘just another’ device on the network and the workgroup owners can set up the sharing permissions for workgroup members.
However, once that has grown beyond a few users, it becomes necessary to take advantage of a server operating system to properly and efficiently manage the network. There are a number of online tutorials and videos on how to install a network using Microsoft Windows Server, for example. The process straightforward, as is setting up each network client.
Those with the IT experience can, of course, buy components, assemble their own boxes, set up their own networks, install the necessary software and then connect all the users. Those going the route of building their own server from scratch would still have to install server software such as Microsoft Windows Server.
Once done, it is a case of enabling file server and sharing, Active Directory, print, fax, email and any other functions required. Pretty much everything you need is included in the Windows Server package these days.
However, not everyone has the skills or wants to spend the time doing that. In any case, off-the-shelf options are typically cheap and contain all the necessary functionality. For those who don’t want to invest the time required to maintain a physical server, turnkey all-in-one solutions and appliances are available where somebody else handles service and support.
In a virtualized environment, Microsoft Hyper-V (or another virtualization tool such as VMware) would be deployed for virtual server hosting. For non-Windows environments, there are various Linux operating systems available such as Ubuntu, SUSE and Centos. Some users have enough know-how to download free versions of these OSes as well as any needed applications from the open source community. Others may prefer to buy a Linux package that comes with service and support to eliminate any issues with setup, configuration and integration.
For businesses that grow beyond a single server, users can leverage the management tools and capabilities built into enterprise hardware. Every tier 1 server manufacturer offers integrated management capabilities. These systems provide an easy-to-use management console for monitoring and managing of the servers on a network.
Improving Network Server Security
Like any other server, PC, laptop or device, network server security is critical Any system on a network, after all, can be targeted by hackers or online criminals. It goes without saying, therefore, that the standard safeguards should be in place. This includes:
- Access control and user policies
- Event monitoring
- Intrusion detection
- Threat intelligence
- Security Information and Event Management (SIEM)
- Acquiring server configuration software (e.g. device drivers, BIOS, OS, etc.) from a trusted source
Network Server Security Tips:
As with any other system, make sure all software is up to date with patches and fixes. It is vital to disable any functions that may not be needed in order to minimize the number of potential attack vectors.
Vendor recommendations on security, as well as industry best practices should also be followed concerning: what to turn on, turn off, or configure for availability or resiliency. It is a smart practice, too, to set up a secondary server for failover and high availability. Additionally, enable regular backup, snapshots, and point-in-time copies to local as well as remote and cloud storage.
“Businesses must have a strategy and tools in place to monitor and manage the security of the network, ensuring the necessary precautions with regard to viruses, malware, ransomware, or another malicious invasion,” said Seckler.
Another consideration for a growing business or organization is protecting against simple mistakes. Server software provides for multiple levels of access to the hardware and its underlying resources.
For this reason, you wouldn’t want to give everyone in the company administrative access to a server. Most users should only be able to store, review, and edit files on the server. A dedicated few would have the necessary permissions to add, change, remove users, add devices, or configure the server.