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Small Business Servers - A Need For Change

Many small businesses don't have an IT department or anyone experienced enough to handle even basic IT tasks like backup, system restoration, patching or updates. In most cases, they rely on a local business partner (typically an IT consultant or local IT support company) to handle these tasks.

Whats needed is a new generation of 'small business servers' that deliver all of the essential IT & technology services for smaller businesses but without the usual costs or hassle.

Challenges in supporting micro and small business customers

To stay in business small businesses need help with basic IT chores, which are becoming more mission critical than ever as they grow more time consuming to deliver.

Just look at business continuity and disaster recovery in small businesses. A study by Gartner found that only one third of small businesses surveyed said they were prepared for a disaster within the next 12 months.

In other words two thirds of all small businesses are not prepared for a disaster or protected. The reason, in most cases, is that small businesses don't have the IT skills of solutions to perform common tasks like backing up critical data or developing a way to restore systems that crash or become damaged when a pipe breaks or there is a fire, flood or other disaster.

Small businesses also need help just backing up and restoring files when someone accidentally deletes them. Such deletions in small businesses are quite common.

Whilst everyone understands the need for data to be backed up, what many don't realise is how expensive and difficult it actually is with traditional solutions. In fact, the traditional approach to backing up data is a time consuming and resource intensive task. The normal procedure requires tapes to be rotated, in the right order and taken off site for secure storage.

Plug In, Switch on & Start Working

Security within smaller businesses is also an issue. Hackers today are after confidential information about businesses and their clients to commit fraud and identify theft. They employ increasingly sophisticated attacks that may use socially engineered phishing email messages. These spam messages are designed to fool even savvy computer users in to thinking they are from legitimate sources. An unsuspecting user might click on malicious executable file or URL link to a poisoned web site and automatically download malicious software.

In their pursuits hackers increasingly exploit new vulnerabilities in applications and Windows operating systems as a means of infecting computers. To battle this problem, software vendors issue frequent system updates and security patches that must be installed quickly to minimize exposure to each new threat.

In 2008, Microsoft alone issues 43 critical, 24 important and two moderate fixes, according to security experts. The previous year saw a similar amount, including 49 critical, 23 important and five moderate updates. Other application and browser vendors had numerous updates as well.

Again, many small businesses don't have the IT expertise to track all of these patches or the time to install them. Beyond security patches, there are typically many operating system updates that must also be applied. Such installations are often time consuming.

Unfortunately many of these fixes incur downtime, which no business likes. For example, in many situations, a business must first test a patch or upgrade to be sure it does not cause problems. If the test goes well, planning must take place to be sure the changes are made at a time that least inconveniences its workers. Again, many businesses are looking for help with these matters from their business partners. The challenge for the business partner is that all of these tasks (testing, planning, applying etc.) are all time and labour intensive.

Problems with traditional Small Business Server Solutions

Even the smallest business today requires certain basic capabilities. Workers need to share files and printers. Additionally, their data must be protected and their systems must be secure.

The burden on the business partner to provide these services typically requires the use of multiple solutions from different vendors. The mix often includes a server OS and file system from one vendor, backup software from another, and security products including firewall, anti-virus, anti-spyware and anti-spam software etc from even more vendors.

Managing such a mix can add to a business partner's workload. Each product must be managed with its own administrative system, and each must be updated on its own. There might also be conflicts when trying to get different vendors products to work together.

Additionally supporting such a mix of applications might introduce security issues. For example, if a firewall and anti-spam solution are not in sync with regard to the level of protection each affords, one might work in detriment of the other.

The end result when using multiple solutions is that the time investment per client grows as the complexity increases. It also increases the time investment a business partner must make in learning/training. Their staff must be knowledgeable about many discreet products in order to support their small business client's workers.

Compounding matters, the traditional choices have had their problems. Solutions designed specifically for smaller businesses often could not scale to support a business growth. For this reason, many of the solutions commonly used are not designed specifically for small businesses. But this only adds to the management burden placed on the business partner because they must customize or scale down these solutions to meet the needs of small businesses.

Additionally, such solutions are often bloated with features not needed in smaller businesses. For instance, directory services might be overkill for a company with fewer than twenty people. Yet, its administration is as time consuming for twenty as it is for one hundred or more.

Similarly, an enterprise solution might be so narrow focused that it lacks key features for small business, thus requiring a patch work of solutions to meet a business's basic needs. For instance, a firewall might need a third party anti-spam or anti-virus solution to provide more complete protection. In either case, trying to force fit an enterprise solution into a small business environment can add to the management workload.

What's needed: Desirable characteristics?

With these concerns in mind, there is obviously a need for an alternative to the enterprise patchwork solutions that are currently being cobbled together and used in small business today.

Any solution that addresses these pain points must be designed specifically for small businesses and the business partners who serve them. It must enable customers do email, create and share documents, centrally manage files, store and secure business data, control access to information, connect offices, employees and partners whilst protecting their network and systems from unwanted disruptions and intrusions.

It should be less complex so that it requires less IT support than traditional solutions. Additionally the solution should be Linux based. The reason: Linux is stable and reliable. This would simplify management and make solution subject to less downtime than some alternative solutions. Additionally being Linux based reduces many security problems, as far fewer attacks, generally speaking, are aimed at Linux than traditional operating systems.

Furthermore, most operating systems are packed with drivers, utilities and services that are seldom used. An ideal solution would only use the parts of the Linux Kernel that are needed to perform the desired functions. This would reduce potential vulnerabilities.

To simplify matters further, the solution should be very easy to deploy. For example, it should be offered as a simple plug and play solution in the form of an appliance. And the solution should support remote management to troubleshoot and correct small problems, as well as recover from a system crash.

A solution with these characteristics will save a business partner valuable time that would otherwise be needed to administer solutions at every client's site. This saves time and money. It allows a business provider to provide services in a more economically efficient manner to existing customers. And it frees up time to solicit and support new businesses.

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