Do you need a home server?
It’s tempting to think of a server as a small tool in a large IT network, handling web requests or managing databases. However, servers can also be deployed in domestic situations, where they are commonly known as home servers. Almost any computer can be used as a server, and it isn’t just people with bandwidth-hungry websites or local area networks who may benefit from installing a server.
At its simplest, a home server acts as a gateway between a standalone computer and the internet. This has a number of advantages, the most prominent being increased security. Many servers exist primarily as a firewall between web traffic and client devices like laptops or tablets. All the server needs is a basic OS – typically Linux or Unix – to avoid unnecessary resource-draining programs that can’t be removed from Windows and iOS. The server is unlikely to require peripherals or a monitor, while graphics and sound cards are also superfluous. A late 1990s’ PC with 128MB of RAM and a 300MHz processor will be perfectly capable of performing most server-related duties for a standalone PC or Mac.
While an old desktop computer can easily be transformed into a server, it’s also possible to purchase a dedicated server machine. This will contain a chain of high-speed storage devices known as RAID (an acronym for the rather unflatteringly titled Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks), which ensures that the system remains operational even if one of the disks fails or is corrupted. By stripping out all those unnecessary programs and files found on desktop PCs, a dedicated server will be able to process data more quickly while remaining more robust. For example, backup power supplies can maintain service even if the main power source fails.
Domestic servers can also be used to host websites, which represents a cheaper alternative to paid hosting since most of the necessary software is open source. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that the server’s security will only be as good as that individual’s technical knowledge. There will be very little scope for handling high demand, which can often happen very suddenly, for instance, traffic levels may spike if the website’s entrepreneurial owner is interviewed on TV. Few things create an air of unprofessionalism quite like a “This page cannot be displayed” message, which will rapidly send visitors off to competitor sites.
Another potential use for a server running alongside an individual computer involves databases. A machine with one purpose will be able to focus all its resources on that task, which is advantageous considering how memory-intensive some modern databases have become. Rapid interrogation and accurate reporting is particularly important for e-commerce websites, where the low-cost addition of a server can free up resources on other devices. It should also be noted that a server is effectively a private cloud network, enabling people to share media files or documents on multiple devices without having to copy or upload them onto the internet.
So is a server a must-have item for home-based workers and entrepreneurs? Not necessarily. Modern computers are equipped with sufficient RAM to comfortably handle multitasking, and a high-end antivirus package can help to minimise the risk of malicious interference from hackers and viruses. Servers are relatively straightforward to install, but they will demand more technical knowledge than many people possess. It is also inadvisable to ring your broadband provider with a fault or complaint if your computer is hidden behind a server. Cloud computing can offer the same file-sharing facilities as a domestic server, and web hosting companies provide inexpensive web management in highly secure regional servers. Nonetheless, a server can still deliver real value to individuals, as well as to companies.
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