Plugged In: Networks that work for small business budgets

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

After a spate of computer network annoyances, I rebuilt my law office’s Windows computer network a few months ago before mere annoyances became serious problems. That’s common sense for any information-dependent business, whether a law practice, hospital or newspaper.

The first step to any successful computer network upgrade is to identify the most appropriate network operating system. Most small businesses only require a simple, secure and affordable network system that provides shared file, printer and Internet access services, not a complex system that includes secondary services and requires a host of acolytes to keep the network running without digital tantrums.

That realization greatly simplified my decision. In the Windows-based networking world, only a few products meet those small business-friendly criteria. The most cost-effective is Windows Server 2012 Essentials R2. It’s a basic version of the more elaborate and well-regarded Windows Server 2012 network operating system, without the secondary features I was unlikely to use.

Essentials R2 is inexpensive — under $400 for 25 users, a real bargain compared to its full-featured cousin, which costs several times more per user. It’s relatively easy for an experienced end-user to install on new hardware if you’re reasonably familiar with computer networks. First, read the manual carefully, and then use automatic installation of the software as the first server on a new network.

With careful configuration, Windows Server 2012 is reasonably secure and reliable in operation, with no problems nor down time to date. It was up and running without the difficulties that usually accompany the first-time installation of an unfamiliar network operating system.

Once the operating system was chosen, I had to find the right hardware. Main system boards explicitly designed for network file servers tend to be expensive, with fewer features than comparably reliable, high-end, consumer-grade system boards.

After some investigation, I realized that the principal difference was that file server system boards typically include dual high-throughput CPU processing chips and require special error-correcting memory, expensive features possibly useful in high-demand situations but usually not needed by a four-person law office or other small business. Those specialized boards usually omitted the hardware needed to control a RAID disk array, which uses multiple redundant hard disks to improve performance and reduce the risk of data loss from hardware failure.

Buying the specialized file server main system board, its specialized memory and high-end CPU processors and a separate RAID disk controller would have doubled costs. So, I decided to first try the best available consumer-grade system board, memory and CPU processing chip. I reasoned that I could always later upgrade the new file server, if necessary, without taking a major loss and could reuse any replaced hardware to upgrade another computer.

I chose consumer-grade components that had proven highly reliable in prior use, a Gigabyte GA-990FXA-UD5, standard Crucial-brand DRAM memory and an AMD FX8350 8-core CPU processing chip. They’ve exceeded expectations to date.

Using the RAID disk controller hardware built into the Gigabyte board, I was able to easily combine four Western Digital, 2-yerabyte “Red” hard disks into a single 4-terabyte RAID disk array with very fast input-output. The newer “Red” model hard disks are inexpensive, fast, run coolly and are specifically designed for file server use. They’re optimum for a small-business file server.

Heat buildup degrades reliability. It’s a particularly significant concern when a lot of computing hardware is stuffed into a small case without sufficient airflow and cooling. To avoid any reliability problems caused by heat buildup, I used a very large full tower case that allowed good separation between every hard disk, with several large, quiet fans providing ample airflow. Large cases like these have become uncommon despite their usefulness in demanding network systems. I purchased a Thermaltake “EATX Full Tower CA-1B6-00F1WN-00” case along with the best 850-watt power supply I could find.

The system board’s built-in gigabit Ethernet network adapter, a Crucial solid-state disk to quickly boot the network operating system and some generic hardware, including a DVD drive, mouse, keyboard, battery backup and video card, completed the file server’s hardware. By keeping my network upgrade as simple as possible and choosing reliable, cost-effective components, I was able to complete the project for less than $1,500, including the network operating software and high-capacity battery backup. Purchasing appropriate antivirus software and other security and data backup hardware cost another $500 or so but they are necessary protection for any business computer system and its data.

My earlier comments about small businesses being overcharged for networking hardware and software were a bit off the mark. Yes, it’s easy to be overcharged, but with some care and research, you can upgrade your network inexpensively and reliably.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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