Image: iStockphoto/Ralwel

In this day and age, it’s pretty easy to write off even the concept of the small business server. After all, a great many companies have opted to go the cloud route. With offerings like Google Workspace making it easier and easier for small businesses to shrug off the data center altogether.

Or so one might think.

There are still plenty of small businesses out there that require a bit of in-house infrastructure. When you need the likes of DNS, DHCP, user management, LDAP, Samba, Active Directory, printer management, and even connections to various cloud resources, where do you turn? You could turn to Univention Corporate Server (UCS), a Debian-based Linux distribution that makes it quite easy to deploy these (and more) services for your small business.

Is this particular flavor of Linux worthy of filling your company needs? Let’s take a look and see what it can do and why you should consider it.

But first…

SEE: MSP best practices: Server deployment checklist (TechRepublic Premium)

The cost of Univention Corporate Server

The first thing you should know is that there is a free Core edition. That edition drops support and consulting, and places limits on software maintenance and updates, functionality, and product liability and rights.

Beyond the free edition there are three tiers:

  1. UCS Base Subscription: $382/year gets you support (for installation and partial AD domain support), unlimited software maintenance and updates, product liability and rights, and project consulting via a Univention partner.
  2. UCS Standard Subscription: $1,590/year gets you support for all documented features, unlimited software maintenance and updates, unlimited functions, product liability and rights, and project consulting and support.
  3. UCS Premium Subscription: $2,250/year gets you support for all documented features, unlimited software maintenance and updates, unlimited functions, product liability and rights, and project consulting and support.

As you can see, the Standard and Premium subscriptions offer the same features, so I’m not 100% certain as to the difference. For more information, visit the Univention Prices and Subscription page.

What Univention Corporate Server offers

The UCS feature list can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Identity and Access Management

  • Windows and Linux integration

  • Standard IT services

  • IT Infrastructure Management

  • USC Management System

Some of these categories will obviously be more useful to certain businesses. However, each category offers something for every business. For example, within Identity and Access Management you have:

  • Login and Authentication

  • User self-service

  • USC Portal

Any small business that requires these services would do quite well with the UCS. The user login and authentication services can be used for system and applications, so it’s pretty flexible. With the user self-service portal, your IT staff doesn’t have to spend time helping users change or reset their passwords. That alone makes UCS a win-win.

The next category, Windows and Linux integration includes:

  • Samba

  • Active Directory Connection

  • Active Directory Takeover

  • Univention Domain Join Assistant

The above services make it possible for you to either join your UCS server to an existing Active Directory domain or create your own. Add to that the ability to create file and print sharing services, and this handy platform is looking even more appealing to small businesses.

In the Standard IT Services category, you have:

  • Printer services

  • File and Document services

  • Mail and Groupware

The Infrastructure Management category is exactly what it sounds like. Within this feature you can handle:

  • IP and Network administration

  • Monitor your network and servers (by way of Nagios)

  • USC Dashboard for a quick overview of the server

  • Virtualization management

The final category (UCS Management system) offers the following:

  • Univention Management Console

  • Domain Management

  • Admin Diary

  • Software management and network installation

Of course, a list of features only goes so far. How does UCS perform?

How to log in to UCS

You might be asking yourself, “Why do we need to know how to log in to the server?” I know, right? Pretty basic stuff. However, there is some confusion there. Upon successful installation, there’ll be two different admin accounts, which are root and administrator. Both of those users share the same password (that you created during installation). However, if you log in as root (which might be your inclination, especially if you’re an old-school Linux user like me), you’ll find UCS incredibly limited in what it can do. In fact, you’ll start to wonder if there’s anything you can actually do.

In order to actually work with UCS, point your browser to https://SERVER_IP (where SERVER_IP is the IP address of the hosting server) and log in with administrator as the username and the password you created during installation.

This will land you on the UCS main page (Figure A).

Figure A

The UCS main window offers shortcuts to all the features.

Using UCS

Once you’ve logged in, you’ll find UCS usage incredibly user friendly. Click on the menu button (three horizontal lines in the upper-left of each card) to reveal the options you can manage for each category. It’s pretty obvious that Univention has designed the interface with mobile devices in mind. To that, the interface succeeds to perfection. As you can see, the UCS interface works very well within the Android Chrome browser (Figure B).

Figure B

The UCS interface on Android.

In fact, the interface is so well designed, there’s no need for a mobile app.

Click through any of the categories and you’ll see everything you can manage. For example, click Domain to reveal how much power you have at your fingertips (Figure C).

Figure C

The Domain category gives you access to a number of features.

The Domain category highlights how easily you can manage your UCS server and it’s features. For example, click on Domain and then Shares to see how quickly you can create a shared directory for the domain (Figure D).

Figure D

Creating a directory share is actually quite easy with UCS.

Of course, when creating a directory share, you’d first want to create a group and add users to said group. Fortunately, UCS makes this easy as well.

In fact, just about everything you do with UCS is incredibly simple. From within the App Center, you can extend the feature set of UCS with a few quick clicks (Figure E).

Figure E

Installing new software for your UCS platform is easy from within the App Center.

In less than an hour you can have a small business server up and running with just about every service and feature your company needs. You can even add an instance of Nextcloud to your rollout, to extend your platform into the cloud.

Is Univention Corporate Server right for you? That depends. Are you more interested in migrating to the cloud and having a third party handle your infrastructure needs? If so, UCS is probably not the right match. However, if you’re looking for a one-stop small business solution that can handle nearly everything you throw at it, Univention Corporate Server would be a great addition to your data center.

It’s robust, extendable, scalable, and user friendly. What more would you want from a small business server?

Download a version of UCS today and deploy a test instance to see if this platform can fulfill those needs that were once served by Windows Small Business Server.