Feb 172012

In spite of my preference for cloud services as a convenient small business file sharing and collaboration solution, small business file servers are still extremely popular and the IT professionals like me first ask questions, then give a recommendation, and then let the customer, boss or friends make their decision, so here’s a recently picked “old school” small and affordable file server for a friend’s new small business office.

Server Software

Update: Added much cheaper Windows Home Server 2011 under option b, virtually as powerful as Small Business Server Essentials (for up to 10 vs. 25 users).

Operating system options:
a.) Microsoft Windows Small Business Server Essentials 2011 @ about $400 (we found the lowest price on Amazon.com) for up to 25 users, or
b.) Microsoft Windows Home Server 2011 @ $50 (also on Amazon.com) for up to 10 users – this one is a very sweet bargain and in spite of its name, very suitable for a small business.

Although one Microsoft online store chat rep named “Tom” either deceivingly or ignorantly stated there was no cheaper server solution than the twice as expensive SBS Standard edition (roughly about $1000, with only 5 user licenses, hardware not included), the Essentials edition is a great bargain at about half the price, perfect for small starting businesses who don’t want to seriously impair their funds if they are already using an out of the house (perhaps cloud?) email solution and don’t need robust SharePoint collaboration of bigger offices. Unlike with other versions and higher end servers, with this edition you don’t have to buy extra user licenses if you start hiring and growing above 5 seats – the server license allows for up to 25 users which is more than most small businesses will ever need (this applies to the Essentials edition ONLY).

Unlike the SBS Standard edition, both the SBS Essentials edition and Windows Home Server can perform backups of the desktop computers in the office, as these two were made under the assumption that there’s no IT staff in the house, which is the common denominator of most new small businesses. These two packages were made to be as simple as can be for new owners and non-technical or partially technical employees.

Small Business Server Hardware of Choice

Cheap and reliable small office serverHP Microserver @ about $450, with only those bells and whistles I believe my friend will really need:

– 2 GB RAM included + extra 2 for recommended 4 GB (geek comment: this puppy has the enterprise class ECC RAM, which means less or no crashes if some of it has a malfunction)

– 250 GB hard disk – server class HDDs are expensive and buying more can easily double the price. In this case it’s far more affordable to have a small one (yes, you heard me well) and use external USB units for extra storage and backup space.

– DVD drive, keyboard/mouse (must be included extra because it’s sold without),

– Management card which makes it easy to remotely administer the server from a computer if you leave it in the closet. Without this card you save about $80, but don’t forget that if your office has any VPN access, someone can connect to the server remotely and fix things or perform maintenance or OS patches installation instead of having to come to the office and look for the box in the closet.

This server is far from being fancy, but with very low loads that file sharing imposes on the processors it should be more than enough, with quiet operation and its energy footprint so much lower than an average server or even an old fashioned desktop computer, and the management card and ECC RAM that give you the taste and functionality of big enterprise environments.

Why do I choose HP servers? They are the market leader, I’ve used them for ages and they have a very low rate of failure compared to other manufacturers. I just trust them, or let me correct myself: I distrust them less than other manufacturers.

Accounting Software

There’s multiple options but the most basic QuickBooks Pro package (max 3 users) is priced as follows:
$184 for one user, $368 for two users, or $520 for three users, while QuickBooks Premier for one user is $320 (for differences between QuickBooks Pro and Premier see this site).

Backups and Storage

This is totally my take on it, but this is what I’d do if I were starting a small business:
@ $250 – Two high capacity portable external USB hard drives for backups (current good price for a great quality 1 TB portable USB hard disk is about $125 each). Instead of including more of the pricey hard drives in the server, I’d use the external ones, because they can serve both as an additional server storage and as an external media for disaster recovery. This requires discipline and routine to synchronize the drives and take one out at least once a week, depending on the frequency of changes of important files, but one of the two drives can always be at someone’s home or in a bag so the data is safe if there’s a disastrous event in the office, and the other can be connected to the server and used for current backups and even extra storage.

WiFi Router

Asus Black Diamond Wireless router @ $ 140 with two USB ports for network shared storage and printer. This can also be an alternative to the server hardware/software – with external USB drives it can become a cheap simple NAS (network attached storage) server (still password protected) but with no more than 5 concurrent users. This is an excellent router for WiFi and supplemental or fail-over network storage option.


UPDATE: Before ordering these, check their prices on Amazon.com, because currently you can order a HP Microserver with 4 GB RAM upgrade (for total of 6 GB) and with Windows Home Server 2011, all for about $440, which is the best price I’ve seen so far, about $400 less than the prices shown below.

So far, we gathered these items:

$450 (server hardware)
$400 (Small Business Server Essential software), or $50 (Windows Home Server 2011, still runs great in a small business office)
$520 (accounting software for three users, $184 if you need just one)
$250 (USB drives for storage and backups)
$140 (WiFi router)

This all together adds to about $1,760 for hardware and software ($1,424 if you need only one QuickBooks Pro license) (take off about $350, but don’t forget to add the cost for installation and setup, anti-virus, and technical support services, which can add hundreds more to your expenses, or thousands if you run out of luck. If the office is not wired you may also need to add several hundred per network node (wired connection in the wall) unless you want to go wireless only. That in combination with wireless cards for desktops can save a lot, but you need to properly secure the network (I recommend WPA 2 with AES encryption) so make sure your WiFi access is not open (without password) and also change the default admin password on the router. In addition, if you won’t use LibreOffice or Google Docs as I would, you may add extra cost for Microsoft Office licenses for each user (best price I found is currently on Amazon.com, where Microsoft Office Home & Business 2010 (download) for a single PC is about $155 and for 1 user 2 PCs is about $200).

This is just an example with affordable server pricing with solid low power consumption and quiet hardware that was current at the time of writing or updating this article. You should do your own pricing research and carefully select options that best suit your needs.

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  One Response to “Server of Choice for Small Office”

  1. Great info, thanks.

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