Many small businesses start with one or two computers, a situation that often doesn’t require investment in any type of server. As a business grows to a handful of computers and beyond, however, so do its technological needs. Many of these needs can be addressed by the features of Mac OS X Server, which can seem like an immediate choice for small businesses that are Mac-based. With its support for Windows computers as well as its simple licensing model, Mac OS X Server is also well-suited for small businesses that use both Macs and Windows PCs.
However, making the leap from a peer-to-peer network of a few Macs (and possibly PCs) to a server-based environment relying on Mac OS X Server requires an investment of hardware, software, and knowledge. Even if you install the 10-client license version of Mac OX Server on a Mac mini (which for a small office can be plenty powerful), you’re looking at an investment of more than $1,100. There’s also the time it will take to become proficient in managing your server (or the cost of a consultant to do it for you).
The decision comes down to a serious evaluation of your business needs and what options there are to meet them. One of the advantages of Mac OS X Server is that, out of the box, it offers a very complete package of solutions that can perform for almost any small or medium-sized organization without much further investment. However, if you need only one or two of those solutions and you have a limited budget, you might want to consider some of the other options for specific needs.
The most common reason for a small business to invest in a server is to share files. Although Mac OS X includes file-sharing capabilities, they are somewhat limited. You cannot create specific share points other than the Shared folder on each computer (and in each user’s home folder) or create groups of users to make setting permissions easier. Also, when you have file sharing active across multiple computers in an office, you end up with users needing to log in to each computer using a separate account, and you might have difficulty locating specific files across computers.
There are several solutions for small businesses when it comes to file sharing. One is the basic file sharing included with Mac OS X. This can be extended with a tool called SharePoints to add more server-like capabilities, such as the ability to create custom share points and groups. You could create a defacto server using a single Mac OS X computer, with or without SharePoints (which would centralize where files are stored and reduce the number of accounts each user has to remember).
There is also a number of network attached storage (NAS) devices on the market designed for small businesses. These devices come in many variations, but all of them are basically a hard drive that attaches to your network. They include a basic operating system that enables you to format the hard drive and create share points and user accounts, to assign permissions and to perform other setup tasks (usually using a web-based interface). One downfall of some NAS devices is that they don’t offer much control over user access or permission, something you should check for when comparing devices.
While NAS and file sharing under Mac OS X are solutions, they are not perfect. They rarely offer the performance, logging, and advanced security features found in Mac OS X Server. Though they can be a solution for a new or very small company with a limited budget, you might find that you outgrow their effectiveness pretty quickly and that you might not save much money in the long run. As a result, make certain that you consider your company’s potential growth over the next one to two years before opting against Mac OS X Server.