We covered "What exactly is a computer?” in a previous blog, but this article demystifies the parts of the computer, as well as servers and virtualization.
Everything is a Computer: Computer & Server
The purpose of a computer: If you own a smartphone, you carry more computing power in your pocket than was used to get the first man on the moon. Computing technology has become so advanced that we now computerize almost everything. Think of all the “smart” devices now available on the market: smartphones, smartwatches, smart TVs, smart fridges, and more. All these devices are computerized to some extent, meaning that many of the concepts discussed in this article also apply to them. If the arc of technological process over the last 20 years proves anything, it is that.
Demystifying the Computer
It’s no secret that computers can be found almost everywhere in the modern world. In fact, you are using a computer just by reading this article. But how much do you really know about what a computer is made of? Have you ever asked yourself how your devices work?
Display and Input Devices
Display and input devices are the computer components that average users interact with the most, making it the perfect place to start our journey. On a typical computer, this category includes the computer monitor (screen), keyboard, and mouse. However, other types of display and input devices – such as microphones and dictation software – do exist.
Input devices are normally chosen based on preference; for example, some users prefer wireless keyboards and mice for their portability, or seek a specific feature to differentiate their choice of device (e.g., ergonomic keyboard vs. standard keyboard, trackball mouse vs. trackpad mouse). Even features which may appear to be objectively better can have downsides; for example, a higher-resolution monitor screen will typically make everything on your screen appear smaller. It’s all about personal preference and getting the right set of equipment that works for you.
CPU / Processor
The Central Processing Unit (CPU) or processor is the “brain” of the computer, and is responsible for performing the computation required to complete the tasks you set for it (e.g., launching your web browser, opening a document, sharing this article (hint), etc.). CPUs are made up of multiple “cores” and “threads”; a core is the physical part of the processor that does the computation while a thread is the number of things the processor can do at the same time. For example, your computer might have a “quad core” processor with “hyper-threading”, that means the processor is effectively four processors that can each do two things at the same time. The main advantage of having more cores/threads is that the computer will generally complete tasks faster.
Memory / RAM
Random access memory (RAM), often simply referred to as memory, stores the information your computer is actively using so that it can be accessed quickly. Think of it as a kind of bookmark that your computer can quickly reference when it opens applications; the more memory you have, the more reference points are available. As you use different applications, your computer will rapidly switch back and forth between bookmarks, like you might do in a large reference book. The main advantage of having more memory in your computer is that you can have more windows or programs open at the same time without slowing down your computer.
Storage is the system component which houses files and other data, usually in the form of a hard disk drive (HDD) or solid-state drive (SSD). Think of it as a permanent encyclopedia of everything that your computer knows but isn’t thinking about. The more storage you have, the more files and programs you can install on your computer. However, smaller, faster storage systems such as SSDs are preferred in many situations as it allows the operating system and programs to open faster than larger, slower HHDs.
Demystifying the server
Servers: Computers, but Bigger
The purpose of a computer server: You have probably heard the term “server” used before in relation to your company’s IT system, but you may not know exactly what it means. Think of a server as a mega-powered computer with all the components described above in greater numbers and with magnified capacity. Servers are equipped with specific programs and hardware that enable them to offer services to other computers on its network (i.e., run an application, control authentication onto the network, store and access shared files, etc.). Many server systems are structured to be redundant, meaning that the server can continue working normally even if one or more of its components fail.
Servers are a critical piece of most organizations’ IT infrastructure because they enable the network to “serve” more people or programs at one time and consolidate workloads; (for example, one server can provide access to all printers and files on a network. Most companies keep their servers tucked away out of sight in a closet, or even off-premises in a hosted datacenter – but more on that later.
Virtualization: Servers that Run Servers
Virtualized server infrastructure consolidates multiple server tasks and workloads into a single piece of hardware; think of it as a single physical server that runs multiple virtual servers at one time. This allows businesses to exponentially multiply the number of tasks that can be completed at once while taking up much less space and incurring much lower power and cooling costs. Virtualized infrastructure also strengthens the redundancy of the server system, making it easier to replicate server workloads to other virtualized servers. Most modern server infrastructure now includes some degree of virtualization, allowing tasks which once required an entire room full of infrastructure to be performed using a single or small number of devices.
One of the most common types of servers is the authentication, authorization, and accounting (AAA) server. Just like it sounds, this server is responsible for defining who has access to the group of computers connected to the server (known as a “domain”) and confirming their identity, commonly through password authentication. Ultimately this allows people to move between computers with more ease than if there was no centralized system in place.
For a AAA server to do its job, a central system to manage the computers and other devices within a domain is required. Most small to mid-sized businesses today use Microsoft Windows Active Directory to accomplish this. With Active Directory, the AAA server is assigned a role as the “domain controller,” which provides several tools to help restrict access to important resources and automate computer configuration through the use of “group policies”. This system generally requires minimal resources to run and makes it significantly easier to manage large groups of computers.
Just as servers allow organizations to centralize workloads and authentication, they can also centralize file storage. File servers are commonly used for this purpose, and securely store and deliver files to any computer connected to the network. This allows employees to work collaboratively on documents while ensuring that the documents are backed up regularly. Sensitive information, such as human resources or financial documents can also be restricted to specific groups or departments even when the actual files reside on the same server as everyone else’s documents. A variety of specialized network storage servers are offered on the market, including network-attached storage (NAS), which are purpose-built to serve files.
Another common task for servers is to act as a highly efficient and purpose-built database containing a structured set of data that is easy to query. Generally, you’ll use a database to store the data used by a specific application, as an inventory or billing system. Medical records, accounting, and email systems often rely on some form of server database to function, even if the users do not directly interface with the database system. Database systems generally require large quantities of memory and fast storage to operate efficiently, especially in environments with many users. Microsoft Structured Query Language (SQL) is perhaps the most common programming language used to retrieve information from databases.
Learn More About The Purpose of Computer Technology
The computer and the server aren’t the only areas to demystify. If you’re interested in exploring other components of computer technology, read Demystifying the Computer Part II: Purpose of Network and Cloud to learn more! Get in touch with Dataprise for comprehensive business IT consulting services.