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What is a Network Server?

By J. Stanley
Updated May 16, 2024
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A network server is a computer that provides various shared resources to workstations and other servers on a computer network. The shared resources can include disk space, hardware access, and e-mail services. It’s usually the case that almost any computer can be a “network server.” What separates a server from a workstation is not the hardware, but rather the function performed by the computer. In general, a workstation is any computer used by an individual person to perform a specific job or list of personal goals, while a server is a computer that provides users with access to shared software or hardware resources. It’s often the case that this sharing happens over the Internet, but not always. So long as all of the machines are connected or “networked” with each other in some capacity the server will be able to function.

Main Goals

The basic idea behind any computer network is simplification: simplification of data, of communication, and of information on a broad scale. Most networks are able to accommodate a number of different devices. Computers tend to be the most common, but tablets, smart phones, and even some other devices like televisions and Internet-based radio receivers can be attached to each other with the proper hardware. The network has to originate somewhere, though, and the data that both facilitates and supports the interconnectivity has to be physically located in some specific locale. In most instances this is the network server.

Core Components

It’s often possible to buy dedicated servers, which are small machines whose entire purpose is interconnectivity and routing. Almost any device can be programmed to work this way, though. That said, it’s important to note that servers are usually built with more powerful components than individual workstations, at least in the beginning. For example, a server will usually have more random access memory (RAM) installed than a standard desktop computer will, and it will also likely use a more robust operating system (OS). While this may increase the price of the server relative to a single workstation, the overall cost can be significantly lower to an organization when efficiency gains are factored in.

Data Management

In addition to the shared services servers provide, they may also help simplify the management tasks for network and systems administrators. By centrally locating these services on a single hard drive rather than on each workstation, configuration changes and security updates usually only have to be applied to the network server once — which can save a lot of energy, particularly in organizations with hundreds of employees running numerous linked devices. Network administrators can save themselves a lot of trouble by installing updates for things like printer software and virus security patches just once, then letting the server automatically impart those changes to all connected machines.

Role in Information Simplification

File servers provide a centrally-located pool of disk space for network users to store and share various documents. These servers help organizations maintain single versions of files across departments and can simplify administration. When all the data is stored in one location, administrators need only backup files from one computer, which can often save both time and headaches should things fail to load properly or update inconsistently across employee platforms.

Other Services Performed

Single servers are usually programmed to play various roles depending on the needs of the organization. Linked print and e-mail functions are some of the most common, and also some of the most valuable. Print servers allow organizations to share a single printer, preventing the need for each individual workstation to have its own printer. Mail servers provides e-mail services to computers on the network, and also usually provide for storage and tracking of messages that have been both sent and received.

File servers frequently also act as domain name service (DNS) servers, which relates to web hosting and the establishment of a unique Internet domain. Authentication servers are also somewhat common. These give networks a centrally located database for storing account and password information, thereby allowing users to logon at any computer, tablet, or linked phone on the network.

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Discussion Comments

By summertime — On Nov 11, 2010

I think the single most misunderstood and under appreciated computer network server is that of the domain network server. These domain name servers are what allow us to use a simple domain name in our browsers to find a website. If we did not have these kinds of domain servers then we would be stuck in the problem of entering massive ip address numbers to connect to the server we are trying to get information from.

These domain name servers are basically big indexing services that provide a number based ip address in exchange for a domain name. Most people use these everyday without even realizing it. Even if you are not a fan of using computers and don't know how to surf the internet, you use domain servers in your everyday functions. If you go to the store and use a type of credit or debit card to make a transaction then the electronic terminal that is used will often connect to your bank's servers to verify that you have the means to make the transaction. Often these server connections to your bank will use a domain name in addition to specific IP addresses.

By youbiKan — On Nov 11, 2010

As a computer technician I have been responsible for the network server configuration in a variety of circumstances and situations. I can tell you that it is vital to the proper function of a network to have the server that is providing services operate properly. When there is a server failure, it often can mean that the entire network is not able to operate properly. This is a major issue if the functions of the network mean your business is not able to continue making money.

Many people disregard the importance of network servers because they never actually understand how the operation of the server helps them complete the task they are charged with.

May I make the suggestion that you always appreciate the hard work that your local computer tech provides for you.

By MrPolitic99 — On Nov 11, 2010

@fitness234 is right about the use of e-mail servers and how people really don't understand the effort and incredible technology that stand behind the networks that we use everyday.

Another example of this would be the network print server. These devices are what allow a whole network group to share the services of an output printer. Only when we have that print server fail do we realize just how valuable it can be. If you are at work and the completion of a job requires the printing of physical papers, you can be left out in the rain if the network server fails to connect your computer to the printer.

Often these types of network print servers are included as software in the operating systems of servers as well as desktop computers. For instance. A Microsoft Windows XP network server has the built incapability to share a printer over a network. While it may not seem like a server, your computer running an operating system like Windows XP means that you have the capability of serving that printer to the rest of the computers connected to yours via a local or wide area network.

Some of these network print servers are not even an actual computer but rather a small device that connects via a wired ethernet connection or through a wireless access point and have a Universal Serial Bus connection port that the printer can plug into. This is a great solution for anyone seeking to hook up a printer on their network where a computer is not available or perhaps you do not want to have a computer running full time to just act as a print server.

By fitness234 — On Nov 11, 2010

There are so many network server types that help us everyday but I think one that is undervalued is the e-mail servers that help us communicate with friends and loved ones on a daily basis. When we hit that send button, I don't think that it occurs to most of us just how we are able to shoot that digital text over to our buddies. If you also include and attachment, the process becomes much more complicated but even more useful.

From the personal and professional application that e-mail has, the e-mail network server stands behind us all. These servers of course have a dark side as well if you are not careful. While many legitimate businesses operate legal and helpful e-mail servers, there are also malicious organizations and individuals out there that will use e-mail servers as a means to spread spam advertisements and harmful viruses.

It is important to always trust the sender of an e-mail that contains attachments that have the potential to carry a virus. Even if the sender is a friend, it is possible that their computer is infecting all of the files that they are sending to people without them noticing. This is one of the most dangerous ways that malicious viruses and other spyware applications are spread around the internet.

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