Server Fault is a question and answer site for system and network administrators. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

OK. I am a volunteer SysAdmin at a non-profit charity run by all volunteers. I just came on board and I am almost completely at a loss. I'll give a list of what I have going on hardware and software wise. This system has not been designed, but patch-worked together over the last 15 years or so. I am fishing for a set of solutions that are:

  1. Minimal to no investment
  2. Easy to maintain cause we're all volunteers (I will be around to support a LOT until everything is stable, but eventually, there will be someone else.)
  3. Secure. We deal with personal information (SSN, account numbers, health information, etc)

There are 12 towers in the main office. All are running various versions of XP. 4 of them are wired to the network with a 5 port switch. The rest are on wireless USB dongles. I have 2 Brother printers that are shared, and a wireless HP officejet for color printing. There is a HP All in One up front with the receptionist for faxing, but it is local to her machine.

In our closet (no joke) is another 5 port switch, a Rosewell N (not sure why, everything else is G) router, and our "Network Drive" (A WD Walmart special), along with the trap door to the crawlspace, water heater, and some cleaning supplies.

Almost all of the computers in the office are running Pent 4s with no more that 1GB of RAM. Some are running 512MB.

We are opening a retail shop, projected opening: October 2010. There will be one computer in there, running Quickbooks POS basic with a register set up. I'd like to be able to tap into whatever network we have via VPN to upload EOD reports and such.

So that's the basic set up now. It doesn't work, mainly because of user issues. There are no assigned users, no logins, no passwords, to ANYTHING. Everyone stores things everywhere, local and network, and I've got duplicate data everywhere.

Ideally, I want some kind of box I can administer roaming profiles out of. I am attracted to Samba with an LDAP service, but open source is a big nervous point when it comes to training someone later down the road, so I'd like to stick to a Microsoft box. (blech) I have access to Techsoup, so I can get most software pretty cheap, but server software is still expensive. On top of all this, I am developing IT policy, disaster recovery, backup protocols, and training. My system needs to be streamlined, with users only allowed to save to the network, not locally. There is a ton of crap on the local machines (Registry cleaners, driver downloads, etc) that I want to nuke and reinstall so all the machines look the same. But I can't cause there's stuff stored in every nook and cranny!!

So my question is this. What would you do in my situation?? Unacceptable answers include running away, quitting, and crying. LOL I just don't know where my plan of attack should be. If I had expendable funds I wouldn't be having this issue. I could just throw money at it. This involves some creative problem solving! Any answer would be appreciated.


locked by HopelessN00b Jan 25 '15 at 5:36

This question exists because it has historical significance, but it is not considered a good, on-topic question for this site, so please do not use it as evidence that you can ask similar questions here. This question and its answers are frozen and cannot be changed. More info: help center.

closed as off-topic by HopelessN00b Jan 25 '15 at 5:36

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Give us some clue as to how much money you can spend. – GregD Aug 5 '10 at 4:30
There is no budget for me. There really isn't any money at all earmarked for this. Our operating budget per year is less than 200k, but everything that isn't used to keep the lights on is out the door for services. I might be able to get money set aside for me next year, but I can imagine it to be less than $1000. I need to start looking for grants specifically for technology for our NPO. – fixittech Aug 5 '10 at 16:00

Your situation seems like a tough one. It's also (as a whole) too broad for this format. This site is more about finite questions and answers and I hope you return here for help with those more specific issues.

That said, I still think that there's a core question here that can be answered in a general way that fits the format and may be useful to you and to others who may happen upon your post.

The approach I would take is big-to-small. Get the infrastructure in order. Organize and correct the networking, servers and central storage. Also make things physically neat and tidy. Inventory your systems, determine what must-haves that you need. Solicit donations of hardware, software and cash. Shop on eBay and Salvation Army stores that sell computer equipment (if you're in the US - there may be thrift shops that sell computer stuff elsewhere, too). It sounds like memory upgrades may be high on the list. There's no reason that P4s can't be fine for office work running XP at least as long as it's still supported for security patches.

As you're working, communicate what you're doing to the staff and solicit from them issues that they need solved, ideas they may have, etc. This will help them be involved and to see that their cooperation will benefit them. Be careful not to step on toes.

As you progress, you'll be able to do training along the way. And as you do this you can begin to clean up the habits and procedures of the users and the organization. You'll also be able to clean up the individual PCs and move local storage onto the network.

You can use the sensitivity of the data to sell the idea of keeping proper user accounts and passwords, central storage, proper backups and all the other things as a service to the organization's clients who deserve that kind of care.

Don't feel like you have to take everything on yourself. Recruit a savvy user to help. Recruit a friend or peer from outside the organization as a volunteer.

Be sure and come back here with focused, specific questions. We'll be glad to help.

+Cookie for you, some good points there ... – Prix Aug 5 '10 at 4:46
Some good points there. The best, and perhaps the most important, being to communicate with those using the system. +1 – John Gardeniers Aug 5 '10 at 5:09
Thank you so much for answering, and you better believe I'll be hanging around soaking up all the good ju-ju around here. ;-) Besides just looking for support (there doesn't seem to be a site for NP SysAdmins), my specific question is, given the hardware and minimal funds, what would be the best server solution for us? – fixittech Aug 5 '10 at 16:13
@fixittech: I think, given the restraints, you should give additional consideration to an open-source solution. – Dennis Williamson Aug 5 '10 at 18:28

Like you said, Microsoft products are still very expensive while open source not as much.

To maintain a samba network you dont need too much of a machine but you would still maybe need some memory upgrade for your server depending on how much daily usage it will get, etc.

Don't forget that it will hold most of the essential stuff you want and you said you are already familiar samba which makes it easier.

Having a linux as server will save you a lot of headache later compared to a windows server for example using squid, CBQ, iptables, cups(for the printers, would be even better if those were network printers), ofc there is more to it.

Dennis made a good point:

Don't feel like you have to take everything on yourself. Recruit a savvy user to help. Recruit a friend or peer from outside the organization as a volunteer.

I dont know how is you daily work with the others around you but Dennis made another good point which was:

Be careful not to step on toes.

While you're doing the organization of all the computers, centralizing data and such, some people may not like it as it will cut some of their access, etc... I would recommend you checking each person's computer usage programs, etc and perhaps making a discuss with everyone about it before taking actions and formating everything to fit the new network.


Ooo, that's a classic non-profit network you have on your hands. I've seen one or two, and that's par for the course. Having a dedicated tech-person there will do wonders for their organization, but it'll take real time to make systematic changes. The failure modes I've learned in tech-lite non-profits (this is far from an exhaustive list):

  • Computer-phobes. They know how they've always done things, and how they always will do things. They fear computers. They fear change, since it has always hurt in the past. These will be your highest maintenance users, and will not adhere to new policy without a LOT of reminding and retraining.
  • Data storage. You already know this one. Users will save everything everywhere. Most will just save it where-ever [ctrl]-[s] saves them, but others get organized and put it... wherever they want.
  • Power-users who aren't. These are users who are one step removed from someone who really is computer-savvy, and think it has rubbed off. Could be a child, close friend, or a spouse. These are the users who will promote IT folk remedies over your own ideas. They've probably been helping other people before you showed up, and will probably continue to do so until you've pulled sufficient rabbits out of your hat to impress people.
  • Change management. People will add/remove software on their systems and not bother to tell you. Software memes will percolate through the network and one day you'll find that they've all been running CCleaner for a month and you never knew.
  • Data paranoia. Some users have been handling sensitive information for ages, which is why it is only stored on their computer. Or a USB stick. They're actively afraid others will see it which is why they're protecting it.
  • Backup. This is the single hardest thing to impress on a disorganized peer-to-peer network like what you're seeing. Some users have had religion about this a while back and may be burning data to CD R/Ws or Jazz drives. The enlightened may have moved up to USB sticks. Others never, ever will take positive steps to preserve their data like that.
  • Shared logins. They'll swap passwords like whoa. If you have a domain some users won't bother doing the log-out/log-in procedure to use a new computer they'll just use it as whoever is logged in. Audit is really tough.

Solving these depends a lot on who you've got in the office. There isn't much help for computer-phobes, they're a hazard in any compassion-based non-profit. Power users who aren't will be a thorn in your side for a few months, but they can be co-opted. Once you have them on your side, and it goes faster if you teach them stuff along the way, can be a serious force for good.

Dealing with the data problem... it's probably best if you move everyone's My Documents to something on the network under your control. You'll still be retraining users for months after the change to not save it all over their C:\ drive or wherever they've been doing it. The paranoid will have to be convinced that their data really is eyes-only for the right people (and may still not trust you). It is very likely that the Executive Director will insist on keeping everything on their PC for 'safety', which you may just have to deal with.

Backup. Getting everything onto central storage will go a long way. For those that insist on local documents, some of the online backup packages would be very well suited (assuming internet speeds allow). You may have to break out regulations regarding the handling of SSNs and HIPAA regulations to force changes. It won't make you popular, but it may get change done.

As for the storage device... this is exactly why Microsoft sells Small Business Server. If that's overkill, a single machine running Server 2008 can be a DC and the file-server, while giving you the benefit of group policy management. Also, it's easily comprehended by follow on sysadminly volunteers (even if they don't like it).

Linux alternatives have the down side of not having well understood configuration procedures, which does not foster a good plug-n-play SysAdmin environment. On the one hand, having Microsoft there means that the power-users-who-aren't may be tempted to play sysadmin when you're on vacation or otherwise not available and that could be a bad thing. On the other hand, having a Linux box there means that it takes a certain minimum level of familiarity to do anything and thus weed out the truly dangerous people.

I'd still stick with a Windows server.

Moving from the current free-wheeling environment where anyone can do anything to their machines to one where they're only allowed to save things to the server will be a major, major change. It will take months to ease them into it and there will be revolts. Your Executive level people will be the loudest in insisting on the ability to save locally. This kind of thing is best done when you have firm buy-in from the top of the organization, it isn't something you can push in on your own authority. Once you get that buy in, all it takes is a new Executive Director with different ideas about what people should be able to do to the computers to blow it all out of the water.

Oh, so many of those dot points bring back memories of doing tech support for a church. Terms like Exchange, VPN, Router and Modem were all completely interchangable (and all used for the same thing) by "Power Users"... Things like "I'm at home how do I get on the VPN?" would be answered by "Open Outlook" once I'd figured out what they really wanted... – Mark Henderson Aug 5 '10 at 5:34
Thankfully, I don't have any "Power Users" anymore. That I know of. I hope. I'm slowly cleaning up the mess (or untangling the mother of all Christmas lights as I like to think of it). I sneaker-netted myself around the office and took admin rights away from the existing logins. Thank you so much for the ideas. Just listening to everyone has made me stop, breathe, and rethink my plan of action. – fixittech Aug 5 '10 at 16:20

Having some clue as to how much you can spend would help tremendously in giving you a better answer.

Having said that, I can honestly say (I don't know why you said "blech" to MS), Active Directory and GPOs is hard to beat for centrally managing most everything in your environment.

A rough guess is that your primary expenses will be a new server (at least one), Windows Server 2008 R2 (perhaps in Hyper-V) and some switches and a firewall.

Edited to add: I'm also going to say this. Going from the current environment (unmanaged) to a managed environment won't be easy. Some of the changes will be freely accepted, most will not. While you can communicate the changes you want to make, if you're in charge of the computer systems and security of said systems, you can communicate the changes you've ALREADY made. Let me tell you that people will BAIL on you the minute your non-profit ends up "above the fold" because you failed to protect your most important assets (SSNs).

One of the first things that I would do is purchase a server and install aforementioned software on it (SBS might be a good fit). Get AD up and running with some basic GPOs in place governing logins and things like that. Then take each machine, one at a time, and go over them attempting to save off what you can. Reimage them with Windows XP and hand them back to each user at the same time taking away ADMIN rights to the local machine (and at the same time, giving them their domain credentials). You can simultaneously purchase and install some relatively cheap (Netgear) networking equipment and firewall (FVS318).

Some of the most valuable electronic assets you have is SSNs along with identifying info. It is crucial you seek out this type of data first and lock everyone out of it. Then have someone in charge sign for who needs access to the SSNs and let them have access to it.

The only reason I said blech to MS is because and purchases I make, I am going to have to raise funds for. I don't have money on hand and earmarked for me, which I should have made more clear. But after reading all the wonderful responses, I'm probably going to stick with a MS box set up with AD. It'll be easier to manage in the long run, after I'm gone. I just didn't want to hit my Director with a huge request for money, lol. – fixittech Aug 5 '10 at 16:30
I am very skeptical of the argument that MS servers are easier to manage, for anyone. A simple Linux server with samba for sharing files is easy to set up, run, make backups of and document. In such a small organization I don't see the need for central authentication either. Local (non-admin) logins and a simple "net use"-procedure should be fine. Access to shared directories can be setup with symlinks on the server. – Pontus Aug 14 '10 at 10:08

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.