My partner runs a small accounting practice. The computer support guy has recently gone out of business, so I've been volunteered (!) to replace the aging company server.

I should say that my background is in C++ development, so I don't get much of a chance to do systems administration and I'm not too familiar with it all, although having said that, I've set up Linux in the past including SSH, DNS, Apache, iptables etc

The server is old (it has a Pentium 4 CPU) and very slow. It runs Windows Server 2003 with 2.5GB RAM. The client PC's have equally unimpressive specs and everything runs over 10/100Mbps Ethernet.

What I'd like to know is - if I move away from Windows Server 2003 and onto Windows 7 Professional (with a Linux VirtualBox host for DNS services), will I lose any services that I can't replace with Windows 7 / Linux?

The server currently handles the following tasks:

  1. Application Server (Sage)

  2. Storage (network accessible shares)

  3. Backup (of network accessible shares)

  4. Print Server

  5. DNS

  6. Microsoft Exchange

I've been toying with the idea of moving away from Microsoft Exchange, which should alleviate the need for running a Windows Server. In place of Microsoft Exchange, I was going to move them over to Google for Business.

With Windows Server out of the way, I'd like to install Linux on the server. This'll allow me to set up file sharing, DNS and a virtual host running Windows 7 Professional.

I need to run Windows 7 professional in order to host the Sage Accounts Production Advanced application set.

In terms of ease of use for administering Samba and DNS, which Linux distro (or web based config panel) should I consider?

I'll be out of the country next year and will need to provide support remotely. So I'd like to be able to VPN into the network as required. I've never installed any VPN software before, which (free?) products should I consider?

I'd like to setup a remote backup job. So I want to do incremental backups offsite. How can I do an incremental backup of an entire folder / share?

  • Almost every single Linux distro you can think of will be easier to remotely administrate than a Windows machine. You might want to edit that part of your question out and focus on the backup part. – gparent May 24 '12 at 15:41
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    You seem to like Linux, rather than making a business case for it. I'd highly recommend upgrading the server to something with a warranty, the HP MicroServers (658552-001) come with Windows SBS2011 and it's hard to go wrong for $800 (SBS can do all the Shares, DNS, Print, RDP, VPN stuff you need). If it's only a few people, I'd switch to Google or hosted Exchange for e-mail. "Cloud" backup solutions make sense at this size too; checkout Crashplan if you haven't already. – Chris S May 24 '12 at 15:45
  • I'm going for linux since I've already chosen the hardware and the cost of SBS2011 adds £1000 to the bill. I'd have a hard time convincing my partner that this is a worthwhile investment. – user122253 May 24 '12 at 18:23
  • Is there any reason that you need to run VirtualBox with a Linux guest for DNS services? Windows Server includes a DNS server, which should be sufficient for almost any need. – user83640 May 29 '12 at 6:03
  • the idea is to run windows 7, not windows server. – user122253 May 30 '12 at 13:50

You've got several questions here. I think it would be in your best interest to split this up into multiple questions...you'll get more focused answers.

In terms of ease of use for administering samba, DNS, which linux distro (or web based config panel) should I consider?

I think you should just learn to administer them from the command line. This means that the only access you need is ssh, which is easy to set up, and you have the ability to completely administer the system. From this perspective, all Linux distributions are going to be similar, because in the end they're all running the same applications (e.g., Samba and BIND (or dnsmasq)).

I am personally not a fan of web-based configuration panels, because invariably I find that I want to do something not supported by the web application.

I've never installed any VPN software before, which (free?) products should I consider?

OpenVPN is a very good free VPN product with support for Linux, Windows, and OS X (and Android, if you have a rooted phone).

I'd like to setup a remote backup job. So I want to do incremental backups offsite. How can I do an incremental backup of an entire folder / share?

There are lots and lots of options for backing up your files, and just about all of them support incremental/delta backups. Something like rsnapshot is easy to set up under Linux and maintains a backup history (so you can restore not just he latest version of a file but historical versions as well).

This presumes you have a backup destination available to you. There are also a number of online backup services with relatively affordable pricing that you may want to look at. A google search for "online backup service" will yield a number of useful results.

  • I've learned to configure services from text files & the command line in the past. I'm a great believer in user interfaces (configuring the basics shouldn't be so difficult IMHO - some config files you need to learn some pretty awful incantations for). That said though, I'll probably lean towards what I know. Thanks for the recommendations, they're a starting point. – user122253 May 24 '12 at 18:34

I know it is annoying to "not answer" answer questions, but this seems to call for it.

The impression I get from reading this is sounds like you are working from what you know how to implement to a solution, instead of a solution/business needs to how to implement it. The big picture here is that it sounds like you have been put in the position of the "accidental system administrator". For small businesses this is not uncommon, but if this is what the business has decided than I think it is best to design around this.

With the above in mind, I would think the implementation that follows would be:

  • Part time consulting to get things set up right form the start. If you are going to be managing this then you want a consultant that will be understanding that part of their job is to makes choice that fit with the accidental sysadmin model and will enjoy teaching you.
  • Software as a service. Cloud services such as Google apps and what Microsoft offers can sometimes be limiting, but for small businesses with limited system administration resources that will often provider better service to the end user.

If you want to use this as on opportunity to become a great system administrator then you might want to lean towards keeping things in house. I think that is okay in part, but never do it when it sacrifices the service you provider to your business, a.k.a your customer unless they are okay with the reasoning.

  • +1 for the idea of getting someone in to do the initial setup, but since cost must be kept to a bare minimum, I'll be doing it myself. – user122253 May 24 '12 at 18:29
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    @freefallr: Understood, IMO often that approach might be short sighted (in the long run it might cost more), but that is often not the call of the IT person :-P Cloud services (in particular for email) might be your best bet. – Kyle Brandt May 24 '12 at 19:01
  • Yeah, I'm convinced that email in the cloud is the way to go. Buying a new version of exchange and attempting to set it up and admin it is beyond the limits of my time! – user122253 May 24 '12 at 19:13
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    @freefallr: Sounds like you have the right idea with "time". Single admin in a small shop it often will come down to making things easy because of time constraints more than "skill" limitations. I love Linux and always will, but it is hard to beat the MS stack for simple small office features. Lots of things like VPN, fileshares, and Directory Services are very simple to set up. – Kyle Brandt May 24 '12 at 19:15

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