Fire up a Microsoft network without Microsoft

Non-Microsoft servers running Microsoft networks may be the small-business network appliances of the future

With the economy still shaky, it should come as no shock that IT budgets remain under stress. It's hard to justify buying new hardware and software licenses when we remain at risk for a double-dip recession. Plus, many companies are still happily running Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP, with no desire to move to newer releases, because there are few compelling reasons to do so.

That leaves many small IT shops in a quandary. If their server hardware needs a refresh, it would make sense to upgrade to Windows Server 2008 R2 at the same time, but the added expense may be prohibitive. And frankly, all they really need is file sharing, domain services, DNS, DHCP, and other fundaments of modern networked computing. They don't use half of what Windows Server 2008 R2 can offer, but they require more than Microsoft Small Business Server provides. Many just bite the bullet and upgrade, while many more grin and bear it, hoping the six-year-old DL360 G3 will keep on kicking for another year or so.

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A non-Microsoft upgrade

But some are turning to other solutions that provide Microsoft networking essentials without Microsoft, from such companies as Resara. A number of other products have been built by roping together open source solutions like Samba, BIND, and ISC DHCPD into a Linux distribution and including an installer and basic Web-based management tools. Resara has packaged all this together with a slick, fat management application that runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac systems and sells for $499.

Resara also provides its own hardware, so you can buy a preconfigured server for as little as $799 with 250GB of RAID1 storage, up to $1,999 with 6TB of storage, including unlimited tech support for a year. That covers Active Directory domain services, DNS, DHCP, file and printer sharing, Web file access, login scripts, mapped drives -- the whole shebang. The only thing it can't do is run Microsoft applications; for that you'll need Microsoft Windows Server.

Those numbers look very good to budget-starved small businesses, especially since no client access licenses are involved. You buy it once and add as many clients as you want. It's also attractive from the standpoint that these are turnkey solutions -- you spend, say, $999 and get 500GB of RAID1 storage on a small-form-factor server with the Resara suite pre-installed. There's very little to do other than configuring it for your network, and with the Resara box, that configuration is backed up to Resara servers, so recovering from a failure doesn't require a complete reconfiguration from scratch. Soon Resara will add local and remote automated backups, too.

The plug-and-go network

This turnkey approach is ideal for small businesses, most of which couldn't care less how their network and servers function, as long as they continue to function. If you ask me, a small-business server should be like the DVR provided by your cable company: a prebuilt, set-and-forget appliance.

The core infrastructure components that make networks function have been mature for some time now. There's no real reason that a small-business network should be as complex and top-heavy as some I've seen. There's no real reason that owners need to fear significant unexpected costs when something goes off the rails due to a poorly configured system.

Solutions like Resara's that offer the most important features, driven by a simple, centralized management interface -- and unlimited support alongside lower TCO -- are a step in the right direction. It may be that more and more servers for small-business Microsoft networks won't run Windows at all.

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