IT pros who manage small business networks have to come up with unique solutions, such as deciding whether Linux is a viable solution and determining which mail and collaboration software is the best investment. TechRepublic members share some advice.
Minimal budgets and smaller circles of IT expertise place constraints on small businesses when making technology purchasing and design decisions. One TechRepublic member, a fairly green administrator at a small company, recently appealed to other members, asking them for advice in upgrading his small business network.
The most hotly debated issues among the IT professionals who responded were whether Linux is a good fit for small businesses and what mail server software is best for a small network. TechRepublic members also provided a number of valuable upgrade tips on various topics, from backup solutions to RAID to Active Directory.
The original query from TechRepublic member webdrewjen explained that he has a small network powered by two servers:
- An aging Windows NT 4.0 server that runs file/print services and e-mail services (Microsoft Mail) and functions as the PDC
- A new Windows 2000 server that runs the company's ERP application and hosts engineering drawings
He was concerned that the NT server has five-year-old hard disks with no RAID, yet it hosts numerous mission-critical services. If it crashed, it could cripple productivity. The other problem he had was with Microsoft Mail. He had recently purchased the licenses to upgrade the desktop computers on his network to Windows XP and Office XP, only to discover that Outlook 2002 (the version included in Office XP) does not support Microsoft Mail.
As a result, webdrewjen was considering these upgrade options:
- Purchasing a new server with Windows 2000 and Exchange and moving all mail operations to that server
- Purchasing a new server with Linux, setting up a Linux mail server, and moving all mail operations to that server
- Reformatting and reconfiguring the NT4 server to include Exchange or another Windows mail server
He presented these options to TechRepublic members and sought their feedback.
Members responded with a variety of suggestions for engaging in this network upgrade and reconfiguration.
Chris The Computin' Goo-roo said, "I suggest keeping the PDC for network services, but wipe it and install [Windows 2000] with [Active Directory]. Let it master the network. Buy one more server for e-mail using Exchange 2000. Bring the ERP/file server into the directory."
Member gbowes focused on redundancy instead. "Your 'solution' must embody several fixes...not the least of which is that you have no BDC. Keep the [current NT server], but as a BDC. Install a new mid-level box running NT as the PDC….Put Exchange 5.5 (or higher) on the 'new' server as well as the old NT4 server. The [old server now] serves as backup. Install a tape drive in the new machine...and use SCSI hot-swap SCSI drives in the new PDC."
Other members provided some specific hardware recommendations. For instance, wgraves07 advised, "Buy a new server. I prefer Compaq (now HP) ML3** series for an office that small. You don't need to spend a lot of money—don't buy a dual processor box, and don't get anything more than 1 GB of RAM. Spend the money you have on larger hard drives configured in a RAID array."
Member tnetcenter didn't agree with all of those points. "Things to look at for [hardware]: upgrade paths and fault tolerance. If you can afford redundant power supplies and RAID go for it….You should consider buying a system that will support dual processors (but only get a single CPU). This gives you an easy [avenue for] performance improvement.
Tnetcenter added some additional advice about the upgrade process: "Don't try to do all the changes in a single weekend. Get the new server online and stable before you make any other changes. You never know what problems you will run into. Carefully consider how much time you think it will take and then double it."
Linux in small business networks
Since webdrewjen said that he was considering both a Linux and a Windows solution for his new server, it's not surprising that TechRepublic members responded with some divergent opinions on the issue of Linux in small business networks.
"Small shops of less than three IT people should stick to Microsoft….If you don't stick to [Microsoft], you have to find and pay a UNIX guru to help you," said Grant Nakatani, a technical services specialist.
Member keung_chik concurred. "If you establish a Linux mail server, you need an experienced admin to maintain the server."
However, other members recommended that webdrewjen should indeed consider Linux.
"I wouldn't rule out Linux servers," BrainstormOC said. "I am in a similar situation with my upgrade needs…and I've been checking into Linux as an alternative to the insanity of [Microsoft's] licensing schemes. I've set up a few test boxes (Red Hat 8.0 and 9.0)…and it seems they're making [Linux] a lot easier to administer than [it] used to be. I gave it a crack a couple of years ago and was stymied completely!"
Another member, thutchin, was also enthusiastic about the role of Linux in small networks and cited a number of benefits.
"I would say that an eventual migration to Linux is an excellent idea….One of the nice things I have found about Linux is that it forces you to learn about how everything fits together (TCP/IP, e-mail, DNS, etc.).…Yes, there is a learning curve, but once you get past that, it's pretty easy to administer. As far as updating, you don't have to reboot the server unless you update the kernel. You may have to restart a service, but that takes a few seconds, and the users don't really notice. Basically, it minimizes downtime."
Mail server solutions
One of webdrewjen's main goals was to upgrade his network's mail services. TechRepublic members displayed no shortage of recommendations in that area.
"I would use the old server as the mail server," said wgraves07. "You don't need a powerful box to run e-mail. I have used old PCs on occasions where there was no money for a new box, and I've never had any complaints. For e-mail I like IA eMailServer from True North Software. It is cheap, and you can purchase a Web mail component. Exchange 5.5 is OK, but why spend the money on a product that is a security nightmare?"
Other members recommended additional alternatives. "I've just rolled out a new mail server to replace MSMail myself," said tech. "Our companies are similar in size. I chose Merak Mail Server; it's an awesome value, includes a Web client, and can even be used as an IMAP server as well as POP and SMTP. No need for additional client licenses; it includes an unlimited number of clients!"
Member dmaclachlan asked, "Have you considered using SUSE's new OpenExchange server? It supplies an [Microsoft] Exchange type mail server with a convenient Web-based front end that can be used both internally and across the Web, in addition to IMAP, POP3, and SMTP support for Outlook and other mail clients."
"I have a PC running MDaemon on Win2K Pro for my e-mail server," Eric Hart said. "Exchange is too big for a small company."
Dr.Dan agreed with this assessment. "I side with the majority here; Exchange is not the best choice for e-mail for an office of 50 people. I've used Ipswitch IMail, and it was solid and simple. Buy something simple."
Several other members recommended a more full-featured mail platform—Novell GroupWise, which has traditionally been one of Exchange's main competitors. However, since this product is just as robust and complicated as Exchange, they recommended it for other reasons.
Douglas Becker, a LAN administrator, said, "If you need a bulletproof e-mail solution, you need to skip Exchange. It is vulnerable to too many viruses and hackers. Look at Novell's GroupWise. It will run natively on a Windows server (no need for a NetWare server at all) and it is impervious to all the nasty little bugs that are out there (it doesn't use VB)."
Member ddrake also recommended the Novell product. "If you want your e-mail to be there and not have to constantly watch it, bring in GroupWise. I've run various versions [of GroupWise] for many years and not once have I had a virus."
Although several other members also recommended GroupWise, one pitched an alternative to mail server software altogether.
"Outsource your e-mail to an ISP," said jklein. "Let them worry about the server and the maintenance. What will you do with all that free time! Best thing I ever did. In the short run, it's cheaper, too. Three years of service is equal to the cost of a new server and OS. Plus I get spam filtering, Web site hosting, and Web access to e-mail."
TechRepublic member arodgerh added that an outsourced ISP solution also usually includes antivirus scanning of mail messages.
Another option for small businesses is an all-in-one server appliance, and numerous vendors now offer them. Member SLSB pointed out one.
"My company is looking at a product by Net Integration called the Mark server.…It is an inexpensive all-in-one solution for e-mail, file sharing, VPN, and other features. It is pretty easy to set up and maintain. It has a backup system designed into it. The [Linux-based] OS is actually written on the chips. What is stored on the hard drives is your e-mail and data. It may not be right for you, but if you want to check it out, you can go to www.net-itech.com/. Not trying to sell it...just a suggestion."
jatev focused on webdrewjen's concern for fault tolerance and backup/recovery, recommending a service that his company has used. "I would not install a tape backup system; instead, I would install fault tolerant drives, then use an online backup service provider to back up your mission critical data only. That is what we do at our drilling company. We spend about $40 a month on the service. We have been using www.trueevaulting.com for the last three years. But there are other service providers out there. We found that it is cheaper than tape when we calculate the labor involved in tape backups and offsite storage."
Along with the specific technical recommendations that were offered, a number of members came back to the bottom line: Many of these decisions will ultimately be affected by how much money webdrewjen has to work with in his IT budget. A small budget will allow only minimal changes, while an expanded budget will allow for the configuration of a more bulletproof group of servers.
In a discussion response in which he thanked TechRepublic members for all of their input, webdrewjen said he is not too concerned about being constrained by minimal cash resources.
"My budget shouldn't be so tight where I have to continue to rely on an old server. After all, how much is the downtime going to cost when one of the five-year-old hard drives fails?"