Growing a business can be a difficult enough task at the best of times, without attempting to cut corners on vital IT solutions.While the benefits of server-based computing are generally well understood, it is true that some small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) owners still attempt to get by using simply basic email and free online services.Such enterprises may survive for a short while without their own IT backbone, but in an increasingly connected world, a sound technology base is a pre-requisite for the majority of organisations.In simple terms, businesses need to have control of their IT to function effectively. At the very least, they need to have full control of network data, a centralised communications infrastructure, backup facilities and shared file access.It no longer suffices to treat PCs in isolation, as individual computers with separate hard drives – especially with rival companies saving time and money with online collaboration.As Smallbiztechnology.com writer Ramon Ray commented, "every company, no matter how small, needs a server"."Using a server, instead of other means of sharing, will ensure you are operating your business and communicating as productively as possible," he stated.IT for start-ups: Buying a serverIf the latest sales figures are anything to go by, businesses do appear to be appreciating the benefits of server-based computing.Research conducted by Gartner indicated that worldwide shipments increased by 27.1 per cent during the second quarter of 2010, leading to a 14.3 per cent rise in revenue.In Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), server shipments surpassed 583,500 units in the second quarter of 2010, an increase of 18.4 per cent from the same period last year.Jeffrey Hewitt, research vice-president at the consultancy, noted that all geographies demonstrated improving market conditions during Q2, highlighting the importance of servers universally.Of course, how an SME goes about investing in server-based computing depends on the nature of their operations, as well as their IT requirements.For instance, large online companies often choose to invest in their own dedicated servers, helping to ensure maximum website uptime and an enhanced end user experience.Other firms, particularly those expecting less traffic to their website, may prefer to seek cloud services through a third-party host – subscribing for shared hosting services or a virtual private server.According to Ramon Ray, whichever type of server is selected, it is vital that it is fully maintained and updated, receives the latest operating system patches, and has a properly configured firewall.He noted that anti-virus and other software needs to be updated on a daily basis at the very least if companies are to make the most of their IT and avoid being exposed to external threats.Mr Ray also urged server users to ensure they have access to sufficient hard disk space, noting that if this is not the case, companies may end up with "a progressively unresponsive server".He added that a server's RAM is "very important" and firms can almost never have too much. "If you don't have enough memory access, your server's response time is going to be slow and become unstable," he commented.Server use within hybrid organisationsAs vendors continue to innovate, the number of options available to business IT users continues to increase – and this is particularly the case when cloud services are factored into the equation.For successful SMEs with an eye on expansion, the benefits of both in-house IT and hosted services may appear attractive. With employee agility hugely important for modern enterprises, an integrated approach to IT support may well be the way forward.Microsoft has recognised the demand for cross-premise functionality in the SME market, and is currently developing a new server solution which provides both on-premise file and print, security, backup, remote access and identity management services, and optional off-premise services such as software and application access.Upon launch in the new year, the Aurora Windows Small Business Server will allow hybrid organisations to enjoy the best of both worlds – both traditional office IT functions with cloud computing capabilities.This will not only enable them to make value-for-money hardware investments – those offering a low total cost of ownership and high return on investment – but also keep up to date with emerging software developments.Kevin Kean, general manager of Windows Home and Small Business Servers, commented that Aurora promises to be "a great platform for small businesses wanting to combine traditional and cloud computing".Users will gain access to enhanced back-up and restore functions, and all files hosted on the server will be viewable from a web browser.The role of servers in online collaborationThe ability to communicate in real time is all-important to the modern enterprise, and this means employees need the capacity to contact each other – and increasingly customers – instantaneously over a variety of platforms.Messaging servers play a crucial role in this process by handling the transfer of messages between two or more applications, storing them up until such a point as the delivery can be made.As the popularity of mobile working increases, and employees head off-premises, the value of this process is undoubtedly heightened.Wisegeek.com noted that Microsoft Exchange is "a typical example" of an effective messaging server, and one that is commonly used within the field of business communications."The middleware determines one message at a time if the message is to be routed locally or if it needs to be sent to another messaging server for delivery," the news provider explained."If the message belongs to a local recipient, the message is delivered to the local mailbox almost immediately. If the message belongs in a remote message store, the Exchange server will query other application servers in an environment, such as DNS, to locate the messaging server where the message belongs."Business employees use a messaging client, such as Microsoft Outlook or Windows Live Mail to send emails, while the server ensures messages arrive at their intended destination.According to Wisegeek.com, many businesses use Microsoft Exchange for messaging because it is "very reliable" and compatible with other Microsoft products used by businesses.ConclusionInvesting in a server ensures businesses, regardless of their size, operate their communications and wider IT functions as smoothly as possible.Various different types exist, and as Aurora demonstrates, innovation in this field is continuing at great pace. As technology advances, server capabilities will continue to increase.UK companies should recognise that servers are a critical component of their IT infrastructures, and certainly not an investment area which can be overlooked.Of course IT buyers are wise to consider a full range of IT support options, including cloud computing and hosted services – especially if they are reluctant to manage IT in-house.Such decisions should always reflect the individual nature of each organisation, and support its overall mission – which for the majority of firms at present is a return to growth.IT investment will be necessary to support this expansion, helping to support more productive ways of working and reducing business costs at every step.