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In a small business environment, is it still necessary to have a central server?

Speaking for my own company (a small charity with about 12 employees) we use our server (Windows Server 2003) for the following:

  • Email via Microsoft Exchange
  • Central storage
  • Acting as a print server
  • User authentication / Active Directory

There are significant costs associated with running a server like this:

  • Electricity, first for the server itself then for the air conditioning required (this thing pumps out a lot of heat)
  • Noise (of which there is a lot)
  • IT support bills (both Windows Server and Exchange are pretty complicated, and there are many ways they can go wrong)

I've found ways to replace many of these functions with cheaper (better?) alternatives:

  • Google Apps / GMail is a clear win for us: we have so many spam related problems it's not even funny, and Outlook is dog slow on our aging computers
  • You can buy networked storage devices with built in print servers, such as the Netgear ReadyNAS™ RND4210 that would allow us to store/share all of our documents, and allow us to access printers over the network

The only thing that I can't figure out how to do away with is the authentication side of things - it seems to me that if we got rid of our server, you'd essentially have a bunch of independent PCs that had no shared pool of user accounts / no central administrator. Is that right? Does that matter? Am I missing any other good reasons to keep a central server?

Does anybody know of any good, cost-effective ways of achieving the same end but without the expensive central server?

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wonder if there are any linux server appliances that will let you run Samba as an AD server. sounds like that's all your missing. – Nick Kavadias Jun 18 '10 at 13:30
Or a cheap Windows Server Foundation running on some silent consumer-level mini-ITX box with two simple 2,5" drives (or SSD) mirrored and backed up to "the cloud"... – Oskar Duveborn Jun 18 '10 at 15:22
Backed up to the cloud? Heck, back it up to a couple firewire drives that are rotated to a vault or the manager's home offsite...faster :-) – Bart Silverstrim Jun 18 '10 at 16:10

We keep a server in our office for the reasons you stated, primarily for centralized authentication and managing access to shared resources (storage, printers, etc.). We used to run Exchange as well and moved our e-mail to another mail system for the same reasons you stated as well (Exchange was just a pain to manage for such a small group of users). As for the other concerns with electricity and noise, I would recommend downgrading your server. If the one server is generating sufficient heat and noise as to require its own A/C unit, then it's time to get something smaller and quieter. DELL produces some decent low-end tower servers which are very quiet and do not pump out a lot of heat which are made for use in offices and will run Windows Server for a small workgroup without any trouble.

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Talk to your favorite sales rep & tell them your priorities. Quiet, low heat, single server environment. There are a lot more options these days for lower power consumption, quiet fans, etc. – Kara Marfia Jun 18 '10 at 13:22
I'd be tempted to get a lower end PC and run Linux on it, use SAMBA for authentication, but there's a steep learning curve if you're unfamiliar with non-Windows systems. You might be able to use OS X Server on a Mac Mini that was just announced for something simpler. What are you using for the authentication? People using different systems, or the same workstation? Is it to limit access to particular systems or to shares? You could set up a SAMBA server to protect shares at that level. – Bart Silverstrim Jun 18 '10 at 13:51
Whatever you do, if you still have a smaller server for local file access in the office, make sure you have a good backup system in place, regardless of your choice of reconfiguration. – Bart Silverstrim Jun 18 '10 at 13:52
Don't go for the solution looking solely at money, or you're setting yourself up for more costs in training, time, and repairs when things go wrong. Look for solutions that match problems to solve, and keep an eye on backup solutions and redundancy (if availability is important). For a 12 person business, you probably shouldn't need a server sucking huge electric bills or making a ton of noise. You can have a fine setup with a few commodity, quiet systems. – Bart Silverstrim Jun 18 '10 at 13:57

Just because you have a server doesn't mean it has to be some expensive, powerful beast of a machine. You can just as easily use a workstation or common desktop for the Domain, file and print sharing. However you do need to consider backups as they are one of the things often lost if you drop down to some type of NAS/print server.

Also I completely agree that running exchange yourself for a small business is probably an unnecesary complication. GMail is OK to a point, but if you do need more functionality you can get online managed exchange services.

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@EK good point on the managed Exchange services, but I would be very careful about which machines are made your DC's as their failure will result in lots of pain! – tegbains Jun 18 '10 at 17:05

Back 3 years ago, when we moved everything to the cloud in our school, it became apparent that a small company does not need a server. We have a bunch of computers and the only thing they need to share is a printer.

The fact is that MS sold us the idea that one needs a server, and it may have been true in the past before the cloud was a winner. Today we run our docs and email services on Google for free. If our school burns, we can go and work next door or next city without losing one bite of information.

Next January we are launching a new school. The question of the server is out once more in the planning.

It's cheaper to administrate a bunch of user accounts in multiple PCs than to administrate a server, not forgetting the expertise requiered and the multiple issues associated with running one.

I give all this advice, coming from an MS "expert" with a long tradition of managing server environments in extremely complex networks. Now that I look at our network from a business perspective, running a server in an SMB environment is totally overkill.

Save yourselves the money.

The main teaching here is that one needs to grow and adapt. We will happy to run our new network with no servers attached.

Diego Bronstein Partner at Wizard Colombia

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I shudder to think what managing any significant number of Windows desktops would be like w/o Active Directory. Maybe you're using non-Windows desktops, or maybe you are using Windows and just don't care about preserving the user's individual settings, coordinating updates centrally, managing the user environment centrally, etc. I think that a lot of businesses, small and large, have concerns about "owning" their data, too. As a school, that might be less of an issue, but propriety over data is definitely a concern businesses have. – Evan Anderson Oct 16 '12 at 22:46

Most modern printers could easily be equipped with a network interface, without the need for a printserver. However, you need to individually install the printer on each PC, which is a little more difficult to administrate.

As for your concern regarding the active directory, there must be hosting companies that offers VPS / virtual machine instances with only VPN access. If you just have a medium-level firewall that can hold a VPN-tunnel up then you would be good to go.

We have an inhouse vritualization server that runs a few development machines, aswell as an instance of server 2008 R2 for our AD. This approach should be easily leveregable with outsourcing.

I however doesn't have any suggestions on hosting companies. Whats your location? Country wise?

This was the first one I found that seems to offer a "private network" feature:

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You need to be very careful virtulising domain controllers, its not recommended, especially if it is your main one – JamesRyan Jun 18 '10 at 14:07
microsoft has a best practice assigned to virted dc's they work fine now! – tony roth Jun 18 '10 at 14:12
I'm in the UK, in London. – andygeers Jun 18 '10 at 14:18
You can use individual printer drivers on PC's, but centralizing print management can in some cases be easier for auditing, permissions, flexibility (ex: replace printer, change it on the central server, all shared systems get new printer settings without intervention). I'd not want to have domain controllers via VPN just because your authentication reliability relies on the whims of your ISP and VPN implementation along with average AD issues. – Bart Silverstrim Jun 18 '10 at 15:27
Since domain-credentials are cached on the workstation, a missing AD isn't "the end of the world". I haven't noticed any issues with virtualized AD, and I run daily backups of the complete machine. I still vote for it :) – jishi Jun 18 '10 at 15:36

You can go to any number of service providers who offer "Hosted Exchange" for a monthly fee per mail box. You can keep the familiarity without the hassle of administration. Then just buy an inexpensive Work Group server from Dell for File and Print serving. You could probably get away with spending under $1000 (including licensing).

My question is, how old is your server to be running that load and hot??

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Assuming you licensed Windows Server 2003 as either Full Packaged Product or Volume License you could just move it to a new desktop machine w/ mirrored SATA drives and continue using it. Personally, I like having a Windows Server machine with Windows desktops for even small numbers of client computers.

Samba can do domain authentication, but there are no open source alternatives that will give you the convenience and simplicty of managing PCs with Group Policy. There also isn't an offering that does what WSUS does in the open source world.

To my mind you're trading one set of problems for another: You're going to increase your PC support costs by doing away with the server computer (though with a network that small, I'd argue that your IT provider doesn't know what they're doing if IT support costs are an issue anyway-- that's a small network and should cost well under $2,000.00 / yr in support expense).

If you don't like what Exchange is doing for you jettison it. Personally, I like it, but it sounds like your IT provider isn't doing a good job of supporting it if, in an network that small, it requires any amount of attention at all.

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Samba4 can facilitate Group Policy. Though you're right about WSUS. – Philip Oct 16 '12 at 15:36
@PhilipWhite: In 2010, when I wrote that, Samba4 was not at all ready for production use. It's in a "release candidate" state now, but I'd still have a lot of wariness about using it in a production network that had mission-critical uptime concerns. – Evan Anderson Oct 16 '12 at 22:41
wow, I didn't look at the date of your comment. I thought this was a recent thread. I agree about being wary... I am still discovering issues with it. – Philip Oct 17 '12 at 2:09

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