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I am not a system administrator by profession - I am a developer - but I am interested in learning more about the IT side of things. I have been asked to setup a network for my Dad's business that has the following requirements:

  • 2 locations (both have broadband internet with a max of 512kbps upload but can be upgraded to 1000kbps if required)
  • 6 or 7 users at one location and 2 or 3 users at the other location
  • No requirements for internal email
  • Need to share files between the two sites - mostly documents, access database files and proprietary data files for accounting software

Most existing PC's are Windows Vista Business. The current server is basically used as a file server and is a normal PC running Windows XP Professional.

My thoughts were:

  1. Two servers running Windows Server 2008 Standard Edition (one server at each site)
  2. Use DFS-R to synchronise the required folders between the two sites. Multiple users accessing the same file at the same time may be an issue.
  3. Reinstall the OS on all workstations to a reasonably consistent starting point (most hardware is identical)
  4. Each workstation has their own printer so printer sharing is not required but may be used in the future.

Since I am not a system administrator I am looking for recommendations or suggestions on how best to implement this server/network.

Edit

We have no existing Windows Server infrastructure but we are looking to replace the existing server (which is basically just a PC).

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6 Answers

I would honestly consider using Terminal Services for the smaller office. Depending on the accounting software's ability to effectively work over a WAN / VPN connection, you could easily saturate your internet connections. Before going this route, verify with accounting software vendor that they fully support the application in a TS environment.

I would set up (2) servers at the main location. One server running Active Directory and all things related, file storage, backup, etc. The second server would be used for a Terminal Server for the remote users. They would use this for accessing the accounting software, office files, internet browsing if you wish. At this point, you now have the option of having all users from both offices use terminal services or just the remote.

Make sure to set up a site to site VPN for security.

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+1 for Terminal Services because it conveniently sidesteps the data replication problem and reduces bandwidth usage. –  Nic Nov 11 '09 at 4:46
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If you meet the following requirements...

  • No existing Windows Server infrastructure
  • Dealing with small quantities of data
  • You aren't incredibly paranoid about data security

You might consider installing Dropbox on each of the workstations. It is designed for personal use, but it seems like it would be a good fit for your scenario. For data under 2GB, it's free. It's available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

The service automatically synchronizes the Dropbox folder on each workstation with only a few seconds lag, and provides graphical indicators about the upload/download progress.

Dropbox has been working great for at least a year now (in private beta) and many people have entrusted them with their data. Even so, you would be well-advised to keep separate backups of your Dropbox in case anything ever happens to the system.

I am not affiliated with Dropbox in any way, I'm just really enthusiastic about their offering.

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Dropbox definitely has potential. I'd have to check how much data we need to sync but I suspect it is over 2GB. The 50GB or 100GB are not that expensive anyway. –  Anthony Nov 11 '09 at 0:07
    
I am going to do some tests with Dropbox and see how it goes. I would probably use it to synchronise files between the two servers rather than every workstation. –  Anthony Nov 11 '09 at 2:27
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Using it just on the servers would probably work better. (Protip: recent beta versions of Dropbox support LAN sync, which helps reduce bandwidth usage for computers on the same network) –  Nic Nov 11 '09 at 4:33
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With Linux instead of Windows Server you could use DRBD + OCFS2 for filesystem replication, and OpenVPN for site-to-site VPN. Then throw Samba on top of the shared volume so the local systems can access the files.

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At the site that has the most users, I would set up a small rack with a Windows Server 2008 machine, and some combination of firewall/router/managed switch in front of the server.

On this server, I would configure Active Directory, and make it the domain controller. All users would have a domain account, with profiles/home directories stored on this server. It would also act as a file server for the required shared files.

This server would also be configured with a tape back up system, since it is the main data repository. I would make sure the backups included the users' home directories and profiles. This server could also run a centrally administered AV, as well as Windows Server Update Services.

In AD, i would configure the relevant organizational units (OUs) based on some common criteria, such as department. You can then assign permissions to shared folders based on these OUs.

For the client machines, if feasible, I would create a universal install image, and re-image all of the machines. Make sure that any company specific info is migrated to the file server. All of the users should receive a mandatory training that explains how to operate in a networked environment. Make sure they understand the issues with multiple logins & profiles & losing work, not storing stuff on their local drive, etc.

I would manage as much as possible centrally through group policy.

At the site with fewer people, I would initially see if it were feasible to connect the users to the network via VPN. This should allow them access to the file servers, etc. Only if this wasn't working for some reason would I add a second server at this location. If I did, I would make it a back up AD domain controller, replicating from the primary. I would replicate the directory structure from the PDC, and the users at this location would have their profiles & home directories stored here. They would still need to be backed up, etc. The main shared folders would still be on the main file server. You would also need some form of network front end firewall/router/managed switch at this location, too.

I'm sure I'm leaving something out, but this should be a good starting point.

BTW, one last point. Linux is great in a *nix environment. People like to trash Microsoft, and I don't agree with all that they do, but for the most part, their technology is designed to integrate well. If you aren't an experienced Linux admin, and have a mostly Windows environment, resist the trap of "Linux is free". It has it's place, but it's place is not as a Windows turn-key replacement. If you decide to replace Vista with Linux, however, that's a different story...

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This is a good list of best practices for setting up a new Windows Server domain. –  Nic Nov 11 '09 at 5:01
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All depend on your workload. If it's occasional updating and not too large, use Google Sites and just load the files onto the file cabinet or as attachments. Or other similar web based solution, like Basecamp. If you have frequent updates or very large files, then you can try setup a server like others have suggested.

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You might consider Sharepoint Services. Its included with Windows 2008 and can host your files though basicly a web portal. Its has a tight intergration with MS Office so you can open/save to the site right from Office.

Consider though a high speed co-location (or external hosting of it) since if it's in one office or the other the speeds might be unacceptable for the remote location.

It has the added perk of being accessable from anywhere outside of those offices as well if the need arises (ie working from home) without having to setup a VPN from home to the office. Just secure the site with an SSL cert.

You can test out a trial of it with a MS 2008 Download.

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