Servers are the high powered computers built for advanced workloads and modern processing that enables all types of industries. Read on to learn about server functionality.

Servers are high-powered machines responsible for managing critical organization operations like databases, emails, applications, and shared files. As a significant development in the evolution of computers, servers represent advancements in consolidated technology and central processing unit (CPU) capacity. 

Personal computers like laptops and workstations offer a stack of capabilities for individuals relative to 20 years ago—but today’s physical, virtual, and cloud servers come equipped with advanced load balancing, fault tolerance, and scalability needed to manage modern business networks.

This article looks at the definition of servers, the types by purposes and form factors, and how servers became the backbone of IT operations for enterprise organizations.

What is a Server?

A server is a type of computer on a network that manages shared and privileged resources and often plays dedicated roles and executes processing for a specific IT function for an organization. While a single computer can run several small processes simultaneously, servers are highly specialized computers responsible for managing particular resources for a network or IT environment.

While traditional servers are most visible as the physical appliances buzzing in rows of a data center, advancements in technology mean IT professionals can create virtual server instances with a hypervisor or pay for cloud server capabilities.

Read more: What is a Server? | Complete Guide to Understanding Servers

Are Servers Just Desktop Computers?

Many people mistakenly believe servers are the same as a typical desktop computer, but simply running a server operating system on a desktop computer isn’t a replacement for real server hardware. A server deployed from a desktop computer could work for the average home, but most businesses will find that a ready-made, dedicated server is a better choice. 

A server is engineered to manage, store, send, and process data around the clock. Modern servers offer far more performance, redundancy, and security features than a standard desktop computer, making them critical to developing IT infrastructure.

Types of Servers

Though several technical specifications distinguish servers, generally, these high-powered machines can be broken down by functionality or their dedicated role(s) for an organization and by form factor.

By Server Functionality

Different types of servers play one or multiple jobs, from serving email and multimedia content to protecting internal networks and hosting web applications. The most common types of functionality include servers for shared network files, databases, proxy security, email, and server backups.

ServerWatch Types of Servers

By Form Factor

Blade ServersRack ServersTower Servers
Blade servers offer the densest build with a circuit board enclosure that requires minimal cabling and maintenance.Rack servers are mountable and less dense but ideal for SMB to enterprise organizations that can manage ongoing maintenance.Tower servers are a vertical, standalone enclosure and least dense with low maintenance and ideal for smaller organizations and teams.
Learn about the top enterprise servers with Top Rack Servers of 2022.
The Dell EMC PowerEdge family of blade, tower, and rack servers. Server.
The Dell EMC PowerEdge family of blade, tower, and rack servers.

What to Consider When Buying a Server

Server Hardware

The Cisco UCS C-Series rack servers. Server.
The Cisco UCS C-Series rack servers.

One of the best choices for a small business is a dedicated server built from the ground up as a file server to provide features and expansion options that a desktop computer lacks. Established organizations are better off obtaining one of the many available commercial servers offering the latest features and infrastructure investment.

Before investing in hardware, buyers need to consider many things, including the server operating system, applications, energy consumption, storage, processing power, form factor, memory (RAM), and more.

The top global server hardware vendors include Cisco, Dell, Fujitsu, HPE, Huawei, IBM, Inspur, and Oracle.

Server Processors

Central processing units have long been the core processors in computers and servers responsible for receiving end-user instructions and executing routine tasks and increasingly advanced workloads like machine learning. Modern servers use traditional CPUs as well as graphics processing units (GPUs), field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA), and application-specific integrated circuits (ASIC).

The server processing industry, also known as semiconductors, is made up of vendors like AMD, GlobalFoundries, HPE, Intel, Motorola, NVIDIA, and Qualcomm.

Intel Xeon 3rd Gen SP for servers. Server.
Intel Xeon SP
AMD Ryzen Pro processor. Server.
AMD Ryzen
Also read: Server Optimization | Increasing Server Speed & Performance

Server Software

Server hardware requires embedded or additional software for administrators to manage and maintain operations adequately. Depending on the machine’s dedicated functionality, organizations can find a multitude of software options oriented for file, cloud, database application, and web servers.

Server operating systems are the underlying software providing administrators with a command-line interface or GUI display for managing users, devices, security, and patching for a client network. Popular commercial and open source operating systems include:

FAQ for Servers

What is a Web Server?

Web servers are computers that deliver (or serve up) web pages. Every web server has an IP address and possibly a domain name, and many web servers connect to application and database servers for offering web-based digital resources.

What is a Proxy Server?

Proxy servers sit in between a client application, such as a web browser and a real server. Proxy servers have two primary purposes: improving performance and request filtering, which offers an added security layer.

What is a Dedicated Server?

Dedicated servers are network servers playing a specific role for their host organization. Examples of dedicated servers include machines dedicated to load balancing, communications, and printing.

Read more: Why and When to Upgrade Servers

What is an Application Server?

An application server is a program that handles all application operations between users and an organization’s back-end business applications or databases. Application servers can manage complex transaction-based software programs.

What is a Mail Server?

A mail server, or email server, is the hardware or software responsible for establishing, securing, and maintaining email communications for an organization. Mail servers ensure inbound and outbound email traffic for routine and large data transfers protects sensitive data.

What is a Cloud Server?

Cloud servers are services made available to customers on-demand via the internet. Rather than being provided by a single or virtual server, cloud server hosting services come by multiple connected servers that comprise a cloud.

What is a Virtual Server?

Virtualization can make one server act like many, with a server hosting many virtual machines, each working independently as server instances. Many servers can act as one cluster, increasing an organization’s ability to deploy high-performance computing. Containers take that further by creating an encapsulated application with its operating environment.

The History of Servers

An early "data center" at Columbia University in 1965. Server.
An early “data center” at Columbia University in 1965.

Specialized computers like servers started alongside the beginning of modern computing with the engineering and use of colossal mainframes. With the introduction of personal computers in the 1970s and 1980s, a growing number of enterprise organizations deployed the more compact and accessible machines, now seen in data centers for almost four decades.

Also read: Client-Server Model | A Guide to Client-Server Architecture

Modern Processing Performance

Advancements in processing power, like the latest GPUs, offer even stronger performance for organizations in a smaller physical footprint. Organization teams of all sizes can assess and obtain needed processing or IT capabilities through today’s home, enterprise, and data center server options. 

Data centers face cooling requirements, extensive noise, and reliable power to keep rows of dedicated and multi-use servers running for one or multiple organizations.

Deploying Cloud and Virtual Servers

With the introduction of cloud computing, organizations can now avoid paying for, managing, and maintaining on-premises or remote data centers and build needed infrastructure through a cloud service provider.

Similarly, virtualization and containerization ensure organizations make the most of existing hardware and are essential to modern software development and deployment. Any home-user can virtualize their hardware with open source solutions, but enterprise virtualization software can offer added scalability, security, patching, and support for Kubernetes.​​

A look inside a modern IBM Cloud Data Center servicing cloud data for global clients. Server.
A look inside a modern IBM Cloud Data Center servicing cloud data for global clients.

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Sam Ingalls
Sam Ingalls
Sam Ingalls is an award-winning writer and researcher covering enterprise technology, cybersecurity, data centers, and IT trends, for eSecurity Planet, TechRepublic, ServerWatch, Webopedia, and Channel Insider.
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