Get Started With a Small-Business Server

Your small office probably relies on more than one computer to get work done. For managing tasks across all of your company's PCs, consider using a small-business server. Initially, shared storage space would be the main benefit of this central hub, and you'd have more backup options. And as your company's needs grow, you could use your server to design and test a Web site, host intranet services, and, potentially, host your own Internet presence.

Choosing a Server

The cheapest server requires only the kind of hardware you may already have in a closet--something as slow as a PC with a Pentium Pro can handle an Ubuntu Linux-based server. Windows Small Business Server 2008 is a step up from that; you might get by running it on a recent, unused PC, or you could buy a new server with it preinstalled.

Small Business Server 2008 is ideal for a few employees up to about a dozen or two. With 25 or more employees, you'll likely want to step up to Windows Essential Business Server 2008. PC companies that sell hardware-and-software systems usually assist in setting it up, but you'll probably need an on-site or consulting IT pro to keep it running.

Windows Home Server is suited to sharing media and making simple network backups. You might benefit from running it and Small Business Server on the same network, but its limited scope gives you no headroom to grow. Mac OS X Server works well for performing network tasks and administration for cross-platform companies, especially if your operation is mostly Mac-based; its glossy Apple style walks you through most of its services. If your organization primarily uses PCs, a Windows server will offer more automation and setup for Windows clients.

Using an Ubuntu Linux-Based Server

If you're already comfortable running a network, you might be ready for a simple server that uses Ubuntu Linux. The free operating system comes in server and desktop versions, each of which can run the same applications. The server version is preconfigured with networking tools, including Samba file sharing and OpenSSH, and its kernel is tuned to be more responsive to server tasks. Beginners could find its command-line interface daunting; thankfully, however, enabling the Ubuntu desktop graphical interface is easy.

The free Ubuntu download can get you started quickly: Just burn it to a CD and run the installer. Note, though, that you should understand a lot of networking basics before giving it a shot. Do you know the concepts behind manual IP addresses, router hardware, and file sharing permissions? Are you comfortable with hard-drive installations, RAM upgrades, and other hardware basics? Great! You should be able to figure out Ubuntu and configure the PC as you go along. If not, a for-pay, preinstalled server--and the support that usually accompanies it--might be better for your needs.

If you do choose Ubuntu, aside from the cost benefit of using a free OS, you'll enjoy complete control over the server, a capability that you wouldn't have with other servers. Ubuntu offers a deep level of customization, including a library of Linux applications. Windows Small Business Server, on the other hand, requires special plug-ins to function beyond Microsoft's options. Though the add-ons might meet your needs, that type of setup lacks the openness of Linux.

(To learn how to set up an Ubuntu server, read Set Up a Free Business Server With Ubuntu.)

Setting Up Windows Small Business Server 2008

Windows Small Business Server 2008 is a new, entry-level business server targeted at companies with a few dozen employees, and those without any on-site IT staff. Some bigger companies without an IT staff might manage with the software, but it supports a maximum of only 75 users. The server's wizard-heavy system asks plain-language questions about your needs and makes configurations based on your answers.

Think of Small Business Server as a preconfigured Windows Server installation; it includes nearly all of the same features, but you manage everything from a single console instead of having to install packages. I found the installation process easier than that involved in installing Ubuntu, but you'll still need some basic networking know-how to make everything come together.

Like other Microsoft products, Small Business Server comes in multiple editions, which can cause confusion. The Standard Edition should amply cover most small-business needs, and it even includes Exchange Server for calendars and e-mail. However, I recommend growing into hosting your own e-mail and Web services, if you manage those functions at all; without IT staff, I'd much rather pay another company for hosting. That said, Small Business Server connects to registrars to help you along if you have the dedicated bandwidth and the IT know-how.

The Premium Edition includes a second Windows Server license for installation on another PC or virtual machine, plus Microsoft SQL Server. An SQL server can help run network-based applications and could be useful for internal Web site development, testing, and other connected services. But again, your Web host likely provides SQL services too.

Small Business Server also follows the per-license pricing structure of other for-pay server OSs. The base packages include five licenses to be divided per user or per PC. Additional per-user licenses cost $77 for Standard Edition and $189 for Premium Edition. The costs cover licenses for all of the server products included in the respective editions; be sure to factor those extra costs into your decision.

A Look at Windows Essential Business Server 2008

The interface of Essential Business Server 2008 is designed for businesses with at least one full-time IT employee. Again, a single, main graphical console controls nearly everything, so even generalist techs can manage the network.

Essential Business Server is designed to be used on three (or more) different hardware servers to spread and isolate network functions. Unlike Small Business Server, it allows you to configure multiple domains and subdomains within a single company. Exchange, e-mail, and Web hosting features also make more sense here, if you have the IT staff to support them.

The software comes in base and premium configurations. The latter adds a stand-alone copy of Windows Server for another machine, plus SQL Server. Additional licenses beyond the first five cost $81 or $195 each for the two versions, respectively.

Buying Essential Business Server (or Small Business Server) bundled with new hardware might be your easiest option. Dell, HP, IBM, and others sell tower-size server hardware with your choice of operating system. (Rackmount gear can save space and allow for easier upgrades, but it's inconvenient unless you're converting all of your server hardware to that design.)

Essential Business Server caps you at 300 users or clients. But at that size, you'll likely have the IT infrastructure to ditch the preconfigured approach and customize a Windows Server setup from scratch.

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