Published 31 October 2013
Should I replace our Server or move to the Cloud?
Or should I just replace everything with what we already have but the latest model?
Many business owners face this decision sooner or later as to what to do with their IT when it looks like now is the time to upgrade or replace. Over the past 10 years or so, the decision has always been quite simple – buy the latest version of what you already have, pick a suitable time which is least inconvenient to perform the upgrade, press the button and away you go.
But if you are faced with this decision in 2012, 13 or early 14, it’s not so straightforward.
Today, there are so many options, and the decision you made ‘the last time’ was based on the fact there wasn’t any other choice, the choice was Hobson’s, and that was already made for you.
Let’s assume to following scenario, the one that most businesses have.
You run a business that communicates using email. You may have company mobile phones and some of them need to access their email using this technology. You may have one or two members of staff, including the business owners who access their email from home using either their home computer or a Tablet device such as an iPad.
Continuing the scenario you may have an accounts package such as Sage which you use for invoicing, stock control, purchasing etc. and maybe another package for Payroll.
Everyone uses general office software such as Microsoft Office for word processing, spread sheets and answering email, and the whole company needs internet access.
To add a couple of variables, we have a few staff who work part time, or so far away from the office it’s not always convenient to travel to work every day. Also, the scenario includes another office located somewhere else, it could either be across the road or in another town or country.
All this is typical, nothing out of the ordinary. It isn’t unusual to have diversity, and in particular with modern times, diversity is playing more of a larger part of the IT requirement.
So what do we do? What have we got? And what should we be upgrading to?
My guess is that the name Microsoft is embossed on just about every computer owned by the business, and probably the Server too. On this occasion I am going to assume you are running a product called Microsoft Small Business Server 2003, and despite the fact you have been using this product for a number of years, perhaps unknowingly, I am going to explain what it is and what it does.
For those unfamiliar with Small Business Server 2003 (SBS2003 or SBS from hereon), this product is a package of software suites designed to provide all services most businesses use. These services include file sharing, printer sharing, email, remote access as well as an intranet site where users can publish company related information. SBS is by name for the small business up to 75 users, and is a far cheaper way of purchasing the core elements (Windows Server, Exchange Server etc.) as standalone products, which are designed more for the medium/large business market.
The latest in the line of SBS is called Windows Small Business Server 2011, and is the last in the line as Microsoft strive to push the market towards perpetual licensing by way of their Office 365 products.
In the past, you simply bought the software, owned the rights to use it, and that was it. Your only on-going cost was basic maintenance which you usually sought from a local IT support company.
In 2013 / 2014 you are faced with a choice. Do you replace your existing SBS2003 installation with the latest version of 2011, now 2 years old and getting older, or do you consider other options? Now is the time to think your business strategy. How has your business evolved over the last few years? Have you introduced mobile phones and tablets which connect to email? Do you have more users working remotely or working from home? Are you working in multiple locations? Are you happy with your disaster recovery strategy assuming you have one? How much downtime as a result of IT system failure could you afford to tolerate?
If some of these questions relate to you, you may want to take a different strategy, steering away from the traditional boxed SBS product.
Referring to our scenario, users still need to share files, and because there is in use an accounting package; SAGE as in our example which is shared between two or more users, some sort of File Server is still required by the company. Unless the company is considering moving to a Web Based Accounts Package, we still need to share the accounts Data in real time otherwise data corruptions could occur in the event of even a temporary internet outage. The debate over data security with regard to internet based accounts package is outside the scope of this article, and will be covered by subsequent articles. But for now, our scenario is such that the business owner wants to keep his or her data held within the company.
So, fortunately Microsoft is still developing their standalone Server products now at version 2012.
So we could still purchase Server 2012, load it onto a piece of new Server hardware and away we go. Well at least with file and printer sharing.
But what about email? You have two options here. You could purchase the standalone Exchange product now at version 2013, and you would be up and running as you were before, but on the latest versions, but you would also be paying much more for this solution than you would have been if you had bought (if you still could) the latest version of SBS. Although SBS2011 is still available for now, it is being discontinued as of the 31st December 2013, so this leaves little to no time if you are reading this article as of 31st October 2013. So this option isn’t really available, and is not an option we would advise as paid experts providing ‘best advice’. This doesn’t of course rule out the fact that we have loved SBS and shall miss it, particularly the troubleshooting, yeah right!
So how do we handle our email? How about the Cloud! Unlike your accounting function, or your confidential data, there are no real concerns as to why you wouldn’t want your email handled by the Cloud, as email is technically delivered via the Internet, it exists at some point there anyway. Normally SBS or Exchange Server is delivered its email from Mail Servers which are located either in other company premises or are what they call POP3 Servers; in essence Cloud Based Mail Servers.
If you are a fan of accessing your email on your phone, or linking your Mailbox to your iPhone, Blackberry or Samsung mobile phone, to name just a few, then you are effectively turning your Mail Server sitting in your office, into a Cloud Server. The term Cloud is quite misleading to most because it infers that these Servers are sitting in a heavenly body open to access via everyone, when in fact they are just physical (or virtual) Servers sitting in a rack enclosure (like perhaps your own) in hundreds if not thousands of Data Centres around the world. These Cloud based Servers are also running a similar version of the Exchange Server email software you have been using yourself, it’s just the Cloud based version.
What are the advantages of using the Cloud for email? Quite a few compared to the disadvantages. Once you have set up your email accounts and configured your Outlook, mobile phones, tablets etc. to access these accounts, you’re done. Like before, as long as you have an internet connection you receive new email. You still have access to your old or existing email with or without an internet connection, there is no difference, and your existing system would still be no better off without an internet connection with regard to new email. This is always the case. However, the cloud wins because your cloud based email system will always receive your email even if your office burnt down and destroyed all your IT, because the cloud is up and running99.99% of the time.
If your existing system was down, your email would be stuck in the queue at the sending server’s location, and after some time; usually anything from an hour to 48 hours, would be bounced back to the sender and a message undeliverable. You would then have to wait until you were back up and running at either your present location, or an alternative location, and wait for up to 48 hours for the DNS changes to be applied before you could receive your email, and as far as your old email goes? Well, that’s all stored on your Exchange Server which is now amidst a pile of ashes along with your workstations which would have held a cached copy of your existing email.
Having your email in the cloud, and being faced with the scenario of total loss of infrastructure, it would simply mean accessing another computer and opening a web browser where you would find your latest email waiting for you. No lost orders, no lost opportunities and no loss of face.
Recovering a SBS Server from a backup, assuming there was one and it was a reliable backup, would involve extensive work. Firstly, a new Server would have to be purchased; 3-4 days lead time, the software would have to be loaded onto it, 2 days with updates, and the email mailboxes restored and reconnected to the users. In the meantime, no new email would be received until your system was back up and running.
The cost to the business would be whatever you value your business loss at per day plus an additional £15 – £20K for the new equipment, licenses and time to rebuild your system.
Going back to our files and how we store and manage them adds another solution if we adopt the cloud. We already know that accounts packages rely on real time data, and we know that we can’t utilise the cloud for handling these delicate files, but we can synchronise the Servers data with Cloud Storage to not only handle our backups, but to make available files for remote users to access. Furthermore, if we configure our recently bought Server into a Virtual Host and create some Virtual Servers and Virtual Desktops, we can create access to remote users to perform accounting functions whilst still working on the Data held within the company, which wouldn’t be prone to data damage if the internet went down momentarily, because we are using a virtual desktop, and not an open data connection via the internet. Also this method would enhance the performance for remote users which would be usually poor as a result of slow internet connections.
Cost comparison – the bottom line
The Cloud is priced in such a way as to be cheaper than buying everything yourself and being responsible from there on. The advantages just stack up the value element. The initial cost is another advantage as you pay for your mailboxes as you use them. With buying Exchange Server, you are buying upfront and over time recovering your investment, and at some point you will be buying it again caught in the endless cycle. With the Cloud, you have software assurance, and will always be on the latest platform.