With the economic climate becoming increasingly hostile to small businesses, I’ve been giving a lot of thought (and research) into how small businesses can keep their IT costs low and maintain a smoothly-running IT infrastructure. Of course, the best way to discuss these topics is to dive into a specific example.

THE SCENARIO…

The scenario for this discussion is an accounting firm with 5-10 employees (I’m being particularly ambiguous, as this scenario involves a real client). Currently, they run Windows Small Business Server 2003. I’ll summarize their IT needs as (1) Exchange Server, (2) file serving, and (3) database software [to run their accounting software]. This client is coming up on a server hardware replacement cycle, which is desperately needed because their current server was from a local IT provider and is not under a support contract (I’m a Dell server+support contract fan).

MOVING EXCHANGE TO THE CLOUD…

My original thought had been to simply upgrade this client to from SBS2003 to Windows Small Business Server 2008. I’m a big fan of SBS2008. It’s a high-quality product and great for managing a small business IT environment. However, one product has made my love of SBS2008 waver a bit — Microsoft Online Services (MOS). We have been using MOS at Info et Cetera Consulting since it was in beta, and we feel that it’s a no-brainer for any business that truly RELIES on email and cannot live without downtime. It’s not that Exchange Server is a particularly "needy" piece of software; regardless of its package (SBS or stand-alone) Exchange is pretty easy going — set it up and odds are that it will run for the life of the server without incident. However, it’s the factors such as ISP outages, spam protection, and disaster continuity that really make MOS shine. If a business is going to rely on email as its primary means of communications, then they need to have more of a barrier to blackout than a squirrel chewing through a wire, or an ice storm causing a power outage. MOS is relatively cheap as well — $10/user/month with 5GB/user storage (5 license minimum). This makes it a no-brainer for <10 users, and in my opinion a strong option for <50 users. I’ve tried other hosted Exchange providers, and can attest that MOS is the only one worth considering.

SERVER OPTIONS…

So now that we’re sold on migrating the small accounting firm to Microsoft Online Services (we ARE sold, right?), we have to reexamine our assumption about upgrading to SBS2008. It’s not really an issue of cost; SBS2008 with an extra 5 client access licenses is not much differently priced than Window Server 2008 with an extra 5 client access licenses. But now there’s an extra twist; Microsoft just recently announced Windows Server 2008 Foundation — a low cost server option aimed right at this type of scenario. Foundation is cheaper than SBS2008 (it’s about half the cost of Server 2008 Standard), and best of all you don’t have to buy client access licenses (but again, you are limited on the total number of users). While we do lose out on some of the management aspects of SBS2008 (wizards, daily status reports, etc), we gain a big benefit — SIMPLICITY. A simpler IT infrastructure always ends up having a lower total cost of ownership.

But there is one more option worth considering — Windows Home Server. Some readers may be thinking "Did he just suggest a HOME product for a business?" To this, I answer "Windows Home Server rocks… Buy one for home and try it out!" The biggest feature that Windows Home Server brings to the picture is client backup. Getting back to our specific scenario about the accounting firm, their workstations (laptops) have A LOT of business software loaded onto them. They also have a lot of client files on their laptops. They’re pretty good about backing up their client files to the server (they know that it’s THEIR productivity that takes the hit if they lose a week worth of work), but what doesn’t always get backed up is their computer configuration. This means that if they install that screensaver their buddy sent them and it completely hoses their machine, they may have to spend a whole day getting software reinstalled. Worse yet, sometimes having to reinstall software on one machine will force them to upgrade the software version on EVERY machine (i.e. Can only install the latest version, but all networked computers have to run the same version). So having a product that seamlessly backs up each workstation at an image level can result in HUGE cost savings when hard drives go bad, malware strikes, etc. Best of all, Windows Home Server is CHEAP. After adding in a couple of extra drives, you’re still under $500 for a great little server that’s disaster-resistant and drop-dead easy to manage. At that price, why not? The only catch is that you’re limited to 10 users.

DECIDING ON AN APPROACH

So now the question is which path to take:
(a) Windows Server 2008 Foundation
(b) Windows Home Server
(c) Both

Just sticking with Windows Server 2008 Foundation is fine, but we’re not getting the added benefit of workstation backups. Yes, there is other software available to do this, but Windows Home Server is just so good at it.

If we ditch Windows Server and just go with WHS, we have the lingering issue of what to do with the domain. All of the workstations are currently connected to the domain, so if we just turn off the domain server, we leave the machines in a somewhat orphaned state. They’ll still work, of course, with cached credentials. However, when a different user wants to use a machine, now we’re introducing the issue of having to create a local user account for the other individual. That certainly is not ideal, and this suddenly does not sound in line with "keeping IT simple". If this were a "virgin" IT environment without much user-hardware-switching, I’d humor the idea of JUST doing WHS, but in this scenario the manageability of having domain-joined workstations offers a real benefit.

So what about a hybrid environment, where we move the domain over to an inexpensive server running Windows Server 2008 Foundation, and then add a Windows Home Server into the mix? We could let WHS handle workstation backup and simple file serving (it’s really good at this, as even an end-user can add storage to the drive array), and then let the Windows Server handle the domain and any database needs (i.e. SQL Server). The primary drawback is that users have to be added to both servers. Of course, the other question to consider is whether doing this approach appropriately manages the balance between simplicity and functionality. After all, WHS image level back-up is wonderful and convenient, but Windows Vista (Business or Premium editions) already has great built-in image-level backup functionality.

SUMMING IT UP…

In the end, I decided that the best way to "Keep IT Simple" was to move the client’s domain from SBS2003 to Windows Server 2008 Foundation + Microsoft Online Services, and let users do their own workstation backups using the image-level backup tool provided in Windows Vista. While the Home Server was a tempting add-in, I feared that I was introducing too much complexity. Had this been a new business without an preestablished server/domain, I would have gone with Windows Home Server, but in this case, I just couldn’t bring myself to kill a domain and then deal with the mess of workstations perpetually looking for a domain contro
ller.

Best wishes to all of the IT Pros out there… Keep that infrastructure simple and fight TCO bloat!