Serving up small change

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Thursday February 26, 2004
The Guardian

More than 99% of UK businesses are small, with fewer than 50 employees, according to the Department of Trade and Industry's Small Business Service. It's a big market, and one that's becoming increasingly important to the IT industry.
Just like large enterprises, small businesses need to connect to their partners, and to deliver tools that help their employees work more flexibly and more efficiently. Putting together a software solution for a small business can be complex and expensive. Server software, mail solutions, and knowledge management tools can be complex to put together - as well as costing a fair bit in time and consultancy fees. You can spend ages looking for just the right tools for your business, or you can find a single box of software that contains most of what you need, which can later be expanded.

If you're looking for a single box, Microsoft has recently released a new version of its Small Business Server package. Based around various components of what Microsoft now calls the Windows Server System, Small Business Server 2003 packages a mix of tools and technologies into a single installer, while adding simpler management tools to help you run your server. Designed for businesses of up to 50 seats, Small Business Server 2003 contains most of the server tools needed by a small business.

The key to Small Business Server is its management tools and installation wizards. Installation is easy enough, but once you've installed the package, there's a checklist of tasks to work through before you can use the server. This is one of the more important features, as it forces you to think about what you're doing with your server, and how you intend to manage your users - and your server security.

When a single server is critical to the business's success, it is important to get things right first time, and Small Business Server's checklist is a useful tool. It's also a good idea to read all the documentation on the Small Business Server website before you start to install your system.

Once it has been installed, you can use Small Business Server's management consoles to finalise your set-up, and begin to manage your system. The standard management console allows you to manage the core applications, along with your network configuration. An additional tool, Server Management for Power Users, allows you to delegate common tasks to the more experienced users, delivering customised consoles that help reduce your administrative load. You can use Small Business Server to automate backups, and to quickly restore your server after a failure. Other tools handle alerts, and deliver usage reports. While these don't substitute for a full management solution, they're enough for most day-to-day system management needs.

There are two versions of Small Business server. The standard edition is priced at around £400, and gives you the Windows Server 2003 platform, an Exchange email server, the SharePoint team collaboration tool, a fax system, remote access tools and licenses for Outlook 2003. You'll need to add your own Office licences to get the most from it - as you can then use SharePoint as a document management system. If you need more features, you can purchase the more expensive premium edition, which adds Microsoft's Internet Security and Acceleration server, the SQL Server 2000 database, along with licenses for the FrontPage 2003 web page design tool. If you already have a hardware firewall, and aren't planning on building complex database applications, it's a good idea to just stick with the standard edition. For one thing, it saves more than £600.

Knowledge management is important in any size business, and Small Business Server comes with a basic intranet, using SharePoint Services. This is a team site, which gives you tools for sharing documents and for delivering information to your users. You can even use your server's built-in fax tools to route faxes directly into a SharePoint library. The same tools help your remote workers, as SharePoint and Exchange's Outlook Web Access are part of Small Business Server's Remote Web Workplace. This gives staff a single point of access to all their standard services - including remote access to their desktop PCs.

You don't need to be a small business to use Small Business Server. While IT consolidation means that servers tend to be held in central machine rooms, there's still a need for some form of branch office server. The premium edition of Small Business Server's mix of caching technologies and mail tools means that it is suitable for linking a small office to a corporate data centre, while minimising bandwidth on the corporate network. It is not difficult to justify the £1,000 per branch, especially if it allows you to remove expensive leased lines and replace them with a DSL solution.

Another option comes from the home of a popular Linux distribution. SuSE is marketing its Openexchange server as an alternative to Microsoft's Exchange solution, but it also includes a large selection of collaboration features. You don't need to change your email tool to use Openexchange, as it uses a WebDAV/ XML connection to connect to familiar Microsoft Outlook clients, as well as offering web access to mail and calendars through standard browsers. Openexchange also gives you "public folders", which can be used to hold information that needs to be shared throughout a business. It even supports instant messaging, as well as fax and SMS.

Openexchange is built on top of common open-source tools, including the Postfix mail server and the Open LDAP directory server. Other components include the Cyrus IMAP mail delivery system and Spam Assassin, a popular anti-spam tool. These help you collect and manage mail, as well as giving you tools for dealing with the perennial problem of spam. While you could download and configure any combination of these tools to build your own server, it's a lot easier to purchase SuSE's pre-configured package.

Small businesses are an important and growing market, and we'll see more applications and services targeted at them throughout the year. We're already seeing traditionally enterprise-focused companies such as Oracle offering solutions tailored for smaller organisations, while open source systems are starting to offer small businesses something more substantial than a web or mail server. Small businesses can also take advantage of online services, such as Salesforce.com or NetSuite's Oracle Small Business Suite.

With such a wide range of tools and services available, giving a small business a state-of-the-art IT solution has become easier.

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