Bizarrely for me, this is one of a few posts that have been vaguely business oriented, there isn’t an infrastructure rant coming today, however there is a family feud going on!
My brothers business is growing and he’s currently using a peer-to-peer network, as most small businesses start out – a few computers and shared printers, scanner, internet and shared drive. He’s in that in-betweeny space halfway between needing a server and not needing one at all. To get his business going, I sorted him out with hosted VoIP a couple of years ago and Google Apps for his domain – because he’s below the chargeable threshold this is all free.
Not that many would believe me when I say this, but neptotism isn’t forthcoming in my family, if you do something then you’ve probably got to justify things even more than you would for a un-related customer. So whilst expecting just to tell my brother what he wants, get him the price and just fire it in, he started wavering as to whether he needed a server or not. Quick to Google, I looked around for some good reasons as to why someone would want a Small Business Server (especially Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2011 Standard) and you know what, I couldn’t find anything snappy that I could send my brother to convince him.
Email Broadband Usage
He’s quite happy with his email, Google does it, never goes off and he doesn’t have to worry about it. He thought by running his own server this would be more intensive on his broadband. This isn’t particularly true and the advantage of having your own Microsoft Exchange server is that you get to use Outlook – you’re not fighting with an email client in a web browser that is “getting a new look” as Google Mail is. Remember all your emails are currently running over the broadband anyway and all of the time – every time you look and search for something, in real terms – Outlook stores your emails locally and would therefore be less intensive on your broadband.
Email Policy Compliance
Of course, there are other advantages too – you can add disclaimers to your emails, which if you’re in an industry like him you need for compliance, not to mention email archiving – he can’t really have his staff sending emails, deleting them and losing the paper trail. A Small Business Server will also give you access to group calendars and you can even set up calendars for rooms and equipment, so if you want to book a projector or conference room you can do at the same time as setting up your meeting.
Also remember that Outlook and Exchange is pretty much the defacto standard – when I receive emails from Google mail, I can tell… they’ve generally gone to heck and switched back to plain text and don’t look how the sender intended, this can compound in a back-and-forth email exchange between people.
He hit back with reliability, well yeah, I don’t think Unleashed IT would dare claim we could get the uptime for clients as Google can. First of all I don’t think our insurance could take it, but second of all our clients don’t have datacentres all around the world. However, that’s precisely the problem. Your data is sent globally, if you read the Data Protection Act carefully, you will see that export of personal data outside of the EU to non-approved areas is against the Act. Plus as PC Pro have written about a number of times, Google has been known for cutting Google Mail accounts for no apparent reason, leaving users with no access and struggling to get back. As a free email product your support is also next to nil if anything did go wrong – of course I’m not saying this about the paid products that Google do for SME’s (because we sell them) however you always do get what you pay for!
Most small companies with peer-to-peer networks don’t really have any passwords and probably operate with an old wireless router on the worst setting that can easily be cracked with your man in a van with a laptop and a pringles can. Again this is a no-no as far as the Data Protection Act is concerned; you lose that data and are found at fault a hefty fine will be on its way as the business has not taken reasonable steps to protect personal data. A server takes care of this problem, it will enforce password policies and allow you to even restrict documents internally to those who should and shouldn’t have it.
Encryption comes into play also if enabled to further protect data.
The server can also handle the internet connection sharing and offers modest firewall capabilities.
Small Business Server has the ‘Remote Web Workplace’ built into it, makes it a doddle to connect in remotely and pick up your files and emails through any web browser in the world, using your now very robust password. You can even open this up to temporary workers and hired hands (or family if you’re going to be nepotistic) to sit at home and work on your systems with your documents. If you also invest in a Remote Desktop Server (called a Terminal Server in old money) you can also make things a lot easier too.
So you’ve got a fancy new password, remote access enabled and everything else. The most basic thing you’re doing is file sharing, a NAS (Network Attached Storage) box can do this, indeed this is what I originally put in for mon frère. Unless you’re in the top of the line solutions, then you’ve got no snapshotting going on. So if you have a file open on your laptop as does your colleague in the opposite corner, you both hit save one before the other then one of you loses your work and even the original document is lost. With snapshotting or ‘Previous Versions’ as Windows Server calls it, you’ll be able to pick up the file in a point in time and figure out how to fix the problem that you and the person in the corner of the room have caused. You’ll also be amazed how much this seems to happen, especially with people who are in the same office…!
SharePoint Services / Intranet
One of the things, I didn’t even mention to my brother was the fact that Windows Small Business Server has a built in intranet product, past corporate types often go nuts at this expecting a multinational’s resources proudly put on an intranet so mainly you can flog your car to someone else in the same company on various bulletin boards. This isn’t the case for SharePoint Services, think of it more as a document repository, it stores much more about a document than normal Windows File Sharing, such has who edited it last, who’s currently working on it and even custom fields can be added and basic workflow rules, if someone edits a company policy document it can automatically be sent to your business partner to approve.
NAS boxes aren’t known for their backup capabilities, however Windows Small Business Server has a reasonably good backup package included in it, you can simply set a daily, weekly, monthly job going and even use the old NAS box you’ve just replaced as a target for your backups.
Now a little about the hardware, I tend to recommend a Dell PowerEdge T420 (or R if you’re a rack mount fan – the 410 was the previous model). Your little NAS box has one power supply, one processor, one bit of memory and most of them have one disk. None of these components are easily replaceable and chances are you didn’t take out the three year hardware warranty when you bought it did you? A personal trait of mine if you see any of my servers is that they always have two power supplies. I got my very first IT contracting job by looking at a ‘server’ at a company a family friend had to find a self-build machine was in my young and mouthy opinion, not a server. I was told I didn’t know what I was talking about, belittled and when the power supply blew six months later and the company who built it had gone bust, I got called in to replace the whole of the company’s IT.
So just not to tempt fate, two power supplies tend to go in servers I spec as standard. You can always argue with me, but as I’ve built Unleashed on ‘Business Continuity as standard’ then I reserve the right to argue back! These also tend to be hot-swappable, so Mr Dell rocks up, quite often without Unleashed needing to be there to replace the broken supply, without you having any downtime. Same goes for hard drives, which are also another point of failure. I could bore you with technical details… but trust me the principle is the same.
Redundancy also mitigates to a large extent what my brother says about Google’s reliability.
I’m going to let you into a dark, dark secret of Microsoft Small Business Server. One so shocking that it’ll scare the living daylights out of our competitors and the whole world may even end. It is a Small Business Server because Microsoft decided to put a friendly wizard to make it manageable by the business owner who is slightly IT savvy. You do not need an IT company to do everything for you. Now to be completely fair, this can go horribly, horribly wrong, I’ve lost count on how many companies I’ve seen fiddle with their SBS’s and cause us time and effort to fix their tinkering. My advice would be to push your IT company for a full tutorial of adding users, doing basic management tasks, learn about it, know it. Then get the IT company to do it anyway, knowing if they annoy you too much then you can kick them out and at least for an interim do it yourself. But I didn’t tell you any of that.
See I told my brother all of that after he moaned that he’s low on my priority list… indeed he does. Paying customers always come first!
Updates and Patches
Anything more annoying than Microsoft’s Patch Tuesday? Don’t know what Patch Tuesday is? He’s not related to Patch Adams or even Patch-cord Adams for Futurama Fans. Once a Month or Week, I can never tell because I block out the pain so much, Microsoft releases security updates and other enhancements via Windows update, your computer tends to download them the following day and by Wednesday, servers and PC’s everywhere are rebooting for no reason just to irritate their owners.
Microsoft Small Business Server also includes as part of its nicey, nicey wizard interface Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), so the first advantage of this is – rather than each of your computers downloading 1GB over the internet and your broadband connection, it’ll only download it once to your server and store a copy there for distribution, but secondly you can control what and when gets released to your desktops. You can also set up rules to do this automatically.
I hear you say, so what I never bother with updates and patches! Well again the Data Protection Act and the Information Commissioner would also see that in the event of a data breach you have not taken sufficient precautions.
I set out to give you and my brother ten reasons why you should have a Small Business Server, I was actually worried because I didn’t think I could even think of them – but to be honest I could have probably come up with more. Yes these things aren’t cheap; they require commitment and a business case. My personal view is they are a key investment, if your business is making money, then it is something you should look at early doors (if you’re making money it’ll even reduce your corporation tax bill and also give you some benefit!). The sooner you get into the habit of using a server and having one while you grow, the less pain you’ll have later when you’re bursting at the seams trying to cope with an inadequate IT system. It’s much easier to get things right at the start.
Unleashed’s 10 Reasons why you should have a Small Business Server are summarised as follows:
- Emails consume less of the broadband connection by downloading locally and storing centrally
- Email policy compliance is easy– Exchange can be easily archived and disclaimers can be added
- There is a greater level of security with password policies
- Remote access to your files from home or by external parties is easier
- File sharing is enhanced over a peer-to-peer network with ‘snapshotting’ of data
- Better file sharing through SharePoint a.k.a. Intranet which can store more information about a document than just the document!
- Backups are easy with built-in backup software
- Server class hardware will give you redundancy that PC’s just don’t have
- This stuff is all manageable even by you (although you probably shouldn’t!)
- Updates and patches are controllable and only download once, again saving precious broadband allowance!
A main theme in this article is the Data Protection Act, Compliance with various professional regulators for different industries too. People often ignore their commitments as Data controllers as well as their commitments to their own professional bodies – until there is a problem, consumers at the moment do not spare the punches for data leaks nor do regulators – the Information Commissioner is gaining more and more teeth and should be ignored at your peril.