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Networks 101: An Introduction to Server Applications

Computer networks can range from a simple peer-to-peer network to a more complex client-server network. While a complicated network can generally perform more advanced functions, it requires more involved planning, particularly in regard to the server application.

By: Tom Jelen and Russ King

If you have a client-server network (see Networks 101: Client/Server Networks), you are probably using the server to share files and printers, and you may also be using it to host a Web site or email, both of which require a server application.

Servers are designed for nearly every purpose imaginable, from email to applications. Every application will have specific server requirements, typically designed to run on Windows NT or 2000, Novell Netware, or Linux. Many servers can run multiple applications to serve a variety of needs. As your network grows, you will find uses for a variety of specialized server applications.

The following is just a brief introduction to the most common types of server applications.

File and Print Servers

File and print servers are typically combined on one server and perform as part of the network operating system. File and printer servers manage the storage of data and the various printers on the network. These servers regulate and monitor access to these resources.

A few popular file and print servers include:

Note that while Windows 2000 and XP operating systems have built-in file and print-server functionality, the server version of the OS gives you increased security as well as the ability to expand your network. Also, if your network consists of machines running on different platforms, you might want to investigate Samba, a free, open-source software solution that allows users to share files among computers running Windows, Unix, and Mac.

Groupware and Mail Servers

Groupware servers commonly incorporate different tools for helping users collaborate, including email; managing calendars and contacts; group meeting scheduling; and other operations. When used to manage email, groupware servers manage both local (within your network) and global (Internet-wide) electronic messaging.

There are many examples of groupware servers, but some of the popular ones include:

In addition to the options listed above, many Linux OS distributions — including the aforementioned Ubuntu — have built-in groupware functionality.

List Servers

While many groupware servers offer the capability to serve an email listserv or mass email distribution, there are some servers that handle these tasks exclusively.

Here are a few to look at:

Also, a number of free Web-based services — including Google Groups, Yahoo Groups, and NPOGroups — will allow your organization to set up a mass email distribution list free of charge.

Fax Servers

Fax servers manage fax traffic in and out of the network, allowing multiple users to send and receive faxes without a fax machine.

Most of the popular groupware servers have fax servers that you can buy and integrate into your system, so look there first. One interesting note is that Microsoft Small Business Server (basically their BackOffice software for fewer than 30 users) includes a fax server. Qualifying nonprofits can purchase Microsoft Small Business Server from TechSoup Stock for a $68 administration fee.

Some other examples of standalone fax servers are:

Web Servers

Web servers allow Internet users to attach to your server to view and maintain Web pages. Web browsers such as Netscape and Internet Explorer request documents from the Web server using standard protocols, and the Web server retrieves the requested documents and forwards them on to the browsers. Web servers support a variety of technologies including CGI scripts, Active Server Pages, and secure connections to extend the power beyond the basic HTML code.

The two most popular Web servers are:

Database Servers or Database Management Systems (DBMS)

Though not exactly a server, DBMS systems allow multiple users to access the same database at the same time. While this functionality is typically built into database software (ex. Microsoft Access allows concurrent connections to its databases), a larger database or a database with many users may need a dedicated DBMS to serve all the requests. Examples of commercial and free DBMSs include:

Terminal Servers or Communication Server

Generally, a terminal server refers to a piece of hardware that allows devices to be attached to the network without a need for network cards. PCs, "dumb" terminals supporting just a mouse and monitor, or printers can all be attached via standard ports, and can then be managed by the network administrator.

Microsoft Terminal Server — included in Windows 2000 operating systems (both client and Server versions) or later versions of Windows provides the graphical user interface of the Windows desktop to user terminals that don't have this capability themselves. The latter include the relatively low-cost Net PCs or "thin clients" that some organizations may purchase as alternatives to the autonomous and more expensive PC with its own operating system and applications.

Proxy Servers

Proxy servers act as intermediaries between your network users and the wide world of the Internet. Proxy servers perform a number of functions:

  • Masks your network users IP addresses
  • Strengthens security by only allowing certain requests to come through and by providing virus protection
  • Caches Web page data for a given period of time to allow for more rapid access

Examples of proxy servers include:

If your organization is running Windows 2000 Server or later, note that you probably will not need a dedicated proxy server, as Microsoft has included this functionality in the server platform.

This article is intended only as an introduction to common server applications. With the amount of time and money thrown at the Internet, many types of servers are springing up to fill every conceivable need. Whether you need to start up an email list, or provide access to talk radio 24 hours a day, there is a server for you. For a detailed examination of the various types and competitors in each of these markets, we recommend visiting the holy grail of server information: the ServerWatch Web site.

Editor's note:

This article was originally published on September 15, 2000, but was updated on April 9, 2007 by Kevin Lo, a technology analyst for TechSoup.

About the Authors:

Tom Jelen is Director of Web and Knowledge Strategy at American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)

Russ King has over 10 years of computer and network management, installation, troubleshooting and support experience.