Tech Friday: Small Business Network

In a recent column  Jerry Pournelle talks about problems with the Microsoft Active Directory.  

Back in 1999 I set up the Chaosmanor domain with Active Directory on two machines running Windows 2000 Server. I knew at the time that I didn’t need that complex a network, but a number of my readers did. In those days networking was hard, Active Directory was new, and many of my associates were curious about how well it would work. At worst this was another of those silly things I do so you won’t have to.

Actually, it worked pretty well. Windows Server 2000 with Active Directory had some infuriating requirements, and it really wanted everything done precisely its way, but from 1999 until this year it served me well. When Windows Server 2003 came out I was tempted to upgrade to that, but there was never any powerful reason to do so, and as time passed it seemed less attractive. I had novels to write and other work to do. I was able to try several Linux-based on-line backup systems – Mirra was one of them – and those worked just fine. Of course machines were getting better, and my old servers were getting more obsolete each year.

Now he thinks that everything he knew about networking is wrong. In particular, like many of us, his experience carried over from older versions of Windows networking, which makes things a lot more complicated than they need to be these days. You can reads more about workgroups, domains and routers and alternatives to Windows networking in the column.

At Microdesign we are reevaluating our own network, that has a core server running Windows 2003 Small Business Server; i.e. relatively unchanged for the past five years. Nothing has really changed as far as our core requirements are concerned, except there are several of us working from different offices, and on occasion when traveling. We increasingly collaborate on projects with partners who are outside our company. Our requirements parallel many small businesses and non-profits with 2-50 computer users. Here are our “legacy” requirements:

  1. Common file sharing area where multiple users/machines can access the same document
  2. Absolute trustworthy security of those files
  3. eMail and calender – available from anywhere on multiple devices
  4. Shared printing, from multiple machines to single printers.
  5. Reliable backup 

Those modest requirements suggest a file and print server based in the office, connected permanently to the internet, with printers shared off of the file server, and some kind of backup scheme (tape or additional hard drive). The network diagram which fulfills these requirements is essentially unchanged from the 1990’s.

Even with a server-centric network our advice to clients has always been to use the facilities of an internet service provider for two applications; eMail and the outward-facing (public) web server for the organization.  We (still) recommend having eMail outside the organization to provide greater reliability, ubiquitous access via the web, and industrial-strength spam control. We recommend the organization’s public web site be hosted outside the organization to provide 99.99% uptime, and to take advantage of higher bandwidth typically provided by an hosted provider. 

So, what has changed? Two things; disk storage and broadband. Broadband, or rather cheap broadband, has made it possible to reconfigure things so that the cloud  can now substitute or supplement a file server. With individual personal computers routinely having disk drives of 250 gigabytes or larger, the original justification for “server as giant hard disk” is falling away. 
Along with hardware improvements, there are now a host of inexpensive applications available on the internet that can supplement or replace software that used to require a file server. Basecamp is one example that can be used for project management and shared file storage. 

A more modern interpretation of the legacy network diagram puts the cloud at the center of the network.

So, I’m wondering whether to replace my file server. The server is no longer the be-all end-all of my network. Like Jerry, I don’t need a domain login mechanism. I barely use my printers, and those are attached directly to the local network. The small business server’s eMail, and web hosting have always been done off-site. The server does offer SharePoint, which is a capable platform for Basecamp-like project management, but Basecamp is about $12.00 per month, and it took about five minutes to set up. And, now that we have been invaded by the Macintosh monster…there are more reasons to find, (or at least evaluate) a cross-platform solution for our application needs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s