A Simple Plan for Small Business Networks

It's a great time to set up a small business. The Web gives even the littlest operation enormous reach, while vendors now sell small-business technology that delivers unbelievable bang for the buck.

At the same time, to get the most from all this new tech, you need more technology smarts than ever before. Many small businesses just starting out can't afford a full-time IT person, instead relying on consultants and a full-timer pulling double-duty. Therein lies peril, especially in the initial phases when technology choices may have all kinds of downstream implications. When things go wrong (and oh Lord, they do), those early decisions may make the difference between quick recovery and a devastating blow to your business. Here's a quick guide to making careful investments up front.

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1. Virtualize
In nearly all SMBs, server virtualization can handle nearly all server resources. If you find that you need the full horsepower of a modern dual-CPU quad-core server for a single task, you're either doing something wrong, or you're not an SMB, regardless of the number of employees. The choice of hypervisor is dependent on budget, but if at all possible, stay away from OS-based virtualization like VMware Server and Hyper-V. Spend the money for a solid solution and forgo the high-end features. It'll be worth it in the long run.

2. Buy only the Microsoft products you actually need
If the business is small enough, Microsoft Small Business Server might just do the trick, but if you intend on growing in any relevant capacity, it won't last for long. If it's too confining, buy licenses for two Domain Controllers (they're virtual, after all) and an Exchange license. If you can, buy licenses for an older version of Microsoft Office -- it's probably more than you need anyway. Alternatively, OpenOffice might be just the ticket.

3. Invest in a software PBX and SIP trunks
Whether open source or commercial, Asterisk-based PBXes can save plenty of money. SIP or IAX-based phones are cheap and feature-rich, and the PBX itself can be run as a VM, depending on the hypervisor in use. If you forgo landlines and get a SIP trunk, you don't have to pay $50 per month or more for each business line, and you don't have to worry about outgoing line use. Fax-to-e-mail gateways are functional, and if you need a physical fax machine, they can be adapted to use analog adapters. Don't try a VM PBX with landlines, however -- get a physical server to run the PBX and use ATA linecards.

4. Storage is cheap
No matter what a salesman tells you, storage is cheap. You don't need Fibre Channel, and you probably don't even need iSCSI. Most SMB-aimed storage devices like the Synology DS509+ pack more than enough features, reliability, capacity, and horsepower into a small, cheap box than you'll use for a while. You shouldn't throw all your eggs in the cheapest basket, but you don't need a $25,000 storage unit, either.

5. Buy the best reasonable backup solution you can
No, you don't need the dual-drive robot, but you do need a solid, high-capacity tape drive and a bunch of tapes. SMBs tend to live or die based on the availability of data, and if you're operating with a small or non-existent IT department, these tapes can be the only thing between a functioning company and oblivion. I'd advocate disk-to-disk backups here, except that SMBs should be taking tapes to an offsite location (home) weekly, or even daily. If you're particularly diligent, buy a few 1TB external USB drives and run monthly backups to those, too.

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