Tools for small business

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For anyone planning to start a small business, getting the right technology solution – a low-cost, efficient and reliable IT system – can be tricky.

Traditionally, many small companies without in-house IT expertise have hired external consultants to guide them or cobble together an IT system using off-the-shelf hardware components and software.

More recently, web-based software suites such as Zoho, Google Docs and Spreadsheets, and online application providers like Salesforce.com have helped bridge the gap for companies without their own IT systems.

But many small and growing businesses still want to operate and control their own systems (and data), so I have been looking at one option designed specifically for small businesses: Microsoft’s Windows Small Business Server (SBS).

The basic building blocks of any IT system are the physical network and hardware including a server, a router, PCs and/or laptops, and at least one printer or multifunction device.

I chose to set up a small business network at home built around a Hewlett-Packard ProLiant ML350 G5 server with 4Gb of Ram and two disc drives, a handful of desktop and laptop machines running Windows XP and Vista, a Linksys Dual-Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router (WRT320N) and an HP Color LaserJet CP2025n printer (see box). To buy the equipment new would cost about $3,750 (€2,575, £2,250), excluding the PCs.

If I had been looking for the lowest cost option, I would have then configured the HP server to run Linux’s open source operating system. I decided instead to build the system around the SBS 2008, because of its extensive features, flexibility and easy integration with Windows-based PCs.

SBS is designed to be the software that sits at the centre of a small-business network providing access to the same core Microsoft applications like business e-mail, (Exchange Server), web-based collaboration tools (Office Live and SharePoint services) and security (ForeFront) that are available to big corporate customers.

SBS mainly succeeds in providing easy and integrated access to these applications. For example, it features a redesigned “admin console” that requires less IT skills than previous incarnations, improved monitoring and management capabilities and a much easier way to set up and configure a website.

Microsoft has attempted to address key small business concerns by building in anti-malware protection for e-mail, easily configured data storage and file sharing, and faster backup capabilities.

Because small businesses are increasingly reliant on mobile workforces, SBS also provides remote access and enables easier collaboration between colleagues.

Best of all, most of these features are easy to set up and manage through the admin console, which acts as a sort of hub for the system and helps enable tasks such as adding users, connecting to the internet and protecting against internet malware, including spam and viruses.

In addition, a new pricing structure means Windows SBS is not expensive. SBS 2008 Standard (there is also a premium edition) costs $1,089 and includes licences for five users or devices. Additional user licences cost $77 each.

According to Microsoft, most customers buy their small-business software pre-installed on a server or buy a system through a consultant or value-added reseller who helps to configure it.

But as I discovered, Microsoft has significantly improved the SBS installation process since I installed an earlier version 10 years ago. Provided you have some basic PC networking understanding, there is no reason not to do it yourself. My installation went smoothly and only took about two hours.

To install SBS on your own machine, you need a 64-bit processor, at least 4Gb of RAM, at least 60Gb free on the hard disc and a DVD drive.

Setting up SBS 2008 involves stepping through a series of configuration questions such as language and time zone. Most of the time, the installation routine makes sensible “default” suggestions and all you need to do is to click “OK” repeatedly. Once the network connections are established, a series of “Getting Started Tasks” takes you through the rest of the process.

The Internet Setup Task requires basic knowledge of your company web “domain” and registrar information, though if you do not already have a domain name, a wizard will connect you to a registrar and walk you through the process. Sensibly, the setup also guides users through the process of creating a backup on an external USB drive.

SBS is not perfect, but overall, SBS 2008 provides all the basic features that a small business needs to set up and manage a sophisticated IT system – and does it without allowing technology to get in the way.

Moreover, it is clear that the system’s designers have spent a lot of time trying to understand what small business users need and want.

paul.taylor@ft.com

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