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P1 Tech Help: What it means when they say "the server is down"

The sixth edition of the Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms defines Server as “a computer that provides services to another computer.” Servers may be used as File Servers, Print Servers, portals (allows you to connect to other servers) and many other uses, but for the purposes of this discussion I’ll focus on the Network Server. Think of the Network Server as the brains of the network, because without it, networks would not function properly.

I’m sure that at some point in your career — or more probably several times — you have experienced a “server outage.” The outage causes you to lose the connection with a database and denies you access to information stored on your Network Server.  An outage often also causes the spontaneous flight of various projectiles, like balled up sheets of paper and other objects commonly found on a desk.  I can't help you with that last part, but I hope this article helps you understand a little about your network server. 

A typical computer would simply not work as a server.  Your office computer or MCT computer is usually a desktop or laptop that can be purchased from an ordinary retail outlet. Your work computer (and it's Operating System, or OS) is typically a Windows-based system that was purchased from Dell, HP, Panasonic, Itronix or some other computer manufacturer, or more likely, one of their reseller partners like CDW. Servers, on the other hand, have functions above and beyond the normal computing (Dell and HP make servers too, but IBM and Sun are also major players in that space) and may receive several thousand simultaneous requests from MCTs the server may operate with a different OS than your work computer.

In addition, because the main function for a server is connectivity and storage, the processor and other components are more robust than the computer on which you do your work. Furthermore, the sheer volume of computing that happens at the network level generates heat well beyond the level you feel from your MCT or laptop. As we know, heat will prematurely damage a computer or other electronics.

Hard drive capacity is much larger than a desk top or laptop computer. In earlier articles I mentioned that thumb drives and hard drives can have from four to several hundred gigabytes of storage. New servers may have a capacity of a Terabyte or more. A Terabyte is equivalent to 1000 gigabytes. That’s a lot of data.

Because servers are usually larger than the typical computer they are of course, much more expensive.

A computer network may have one, two, or hundreds of computers in it. You may work in an agency or city that may have two or more separate networks within a single department. This type of set up is can be very sophisticated, so I will spare you the details. We all know it works when it should and everyone is happy.

By the time you first log into your work computer or MCT, your IT department will have given you permission to access the servers you need to do your job. In some cases your particular job function may require giving you access to several different networks on different servers. Even within a single server, separate file systems may be in place so you can store your own information in a secure area available only to you (and the network administrator) or have shared folders so your colleagues can access the information from their work computer.

The server is specifically designed to store data, enable access to that data, or allow other computers to access printers in certain areas within the network. As I mentioned before, servers can be a file server or a print server but this doesn’t necessarily mean that file and print servers are dedicated devices. Because print server and file server functions are relatively simple, those tasks may be done by the same hardware device in the “rack” while the real computing power is apportioned to running the databases and other higher functions happening on the server.

In major configurations, servers are stored in rooms that might be electronically protected. They may even have a dedicated emergency generator, or could be plugged into an “Uninterrupted Power Source” (or UPS) device that allows the server to function on a battery until an operator can turn it off properly. They are often screwed into a rack that may look much like a telephone booth (remember those?) to protect them from falling or being damaged.

Because heat kills electronics server computers operate better when cool. This is not to say they can’t function if somewhat warm, but extreme heat will kill a computer. In fact, heat is one of the biggest reasons computers die prematurely. Heat damages the memory (RAM) chip, the processor, and other components. This is why servers in major configurations are stored in air conditioned rooms. Some server rooms are kept so cold that you may actually need a jacket to work in there for prolonged periods of time.

There is much more going on in your network than meets the eye when you turn your work computer on. These machines are always working for us, and become practically invisible (out of sight, out of mind) in our day-to-day work world. Like the delivery of electricity to your home (for some people the analogy might as well be Satellite TV service), we really only “notice” these vital machines when they become unavailable.

When you hear that “the server is down,” try to remember there’s a heck of a lot going on out of view to get you back up and running, and that the problem is probably more complex than you might at first appreciate.

Stay safe.

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