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.)